Up in the air: an interview with Carrie Tiffany on Mateship with Birds

Picador, February 2012
9781742610764 (paperback, ebook)

A version of this article was published in The Big Issue No. 399

Carrie Tiffany’s debut novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was published in 2005 to high praise. Now, her second novel Mateship with Birds—a compelling and elegant meditation on family, desire and country life—confirms the author’s attraction to the past and the land.

There is a particular sense of place in the writing of Yorkshire-born, Melbourne-based Carrie Tiffany. She has set both her novels in Victorian country towns, in areas she visited through her work as an agricultural journalist.

‘I just get these kind of passions for particular country towns,’ Tiffany tells me. ‘With Everyman’s [which was set in the interwar period] I was doing some work in the Mallee [northwestern Victoria] and there was just something about Wycheproof. The train does actually run down the main street and the whole town stops if the train driver decides he wants to have lunch. He stops this huge grain train in the middle of the street, and goes to get a hamburger in the milkbar, and nobody can cross to the other side!’

With Mateship, set in the 1950s, Tiffany was doing some work around Cohuna, just south of the Murray River. There was ‘something about the place’, and she decided to write a story set there. Tiffany narrowed her setting down, mainly, to two adjoining properties: Harry’s dairy farm and the house of Betty and her two children. Michael, Betty’s eldest, is in the nascent stages of sexual awakening, and ‘Little Hazel’ is also learning some (welcome and unwelcome) facts about nature.

As part of her research, Tiffany spent time at the local museum looking at photographs of people on dairy farms and in town in the 1950s. ‘I was really taken by them. I would drive around a lot and sometimes just sit in my car on the side of the road next to a paddock full of dairy cows and look at them and think about them.’

Tiffany was also inspired by a poetic and unscientific old volume about birds she found in an op-shop, written by Alec Chisholm in 1922 (from which she also borrowed the book’s title). The unabashed delight of books like this, Tiffany thought, can ‘actually bring you closer in some ways to nature than scientific knowledge, which is only held by a few people anyway’.

The descriptions of the dairy farm and Harry milking his ‘girls’, with their unique personalities, are surprisingly beautiful. Harry imagines the cows as a troupe of dancers, and he their manager. From the book: ‘They are on some sort of vague world tour where they are much acclaimed for their talent and beauty. Harry is a dedicated but exasperated manager, worn down by attending to all of their feminine needs and foibles’. Harry treats animals and birds with interest, humour and affection.  He also writes about a family of kookaburras that live on his property. Regarding the symbolism of this kookaburra family in the narrative, Tiffany said: ‘I think I’m trying to say something in there about what the nature of a family might be and the different bonds and ways we come together.’

For much of the book, tension is created through Betty and Harry, who hold an obvious affection for one another. This tension is the book’s main narrative drive, and part of what makes its small world so compelling. The tension is heightened by other explorations of desire—emotional, burgeoning, even deviant—including a series of letters Harry writes to educate young Michael about the facts of life.

‘I hate books where you have two characters and something is happening between them and they get together, kiss, then the curtains close and in the next chapter it’s the next morning. I think that the way we are sexually says so much about us as people,’ Tiffany says. ‘It’s one of the really critical ways that we come together.’ Tiffany also believes desire is interesting when you’re writing about a rural area, as sex, she insists, ‘is just one of those parts of life which is perhaps more covered over in the city, even though everything seems terribly sexualised—it’s sexualised in a faux kind of way. We think that rural people are very conservative, but there’s something about the bonds within some of those rural communities that can stretch to encompass all kinds of desire.’

Indeed, Tiffany sees desire—the fear of its loss, the desire to be desired—as a driving force. ‘Desire is in all of us. It’s in the old men in Betty’s nursing home and it’s in children… I don’t think about writing about it, I don’t think I could not write about it.’

But the birds (in the novel, as in life) are oblivious to all this human tension. ‘There’s the land—and we’re land-lubbers and land-dwelling and we just live in this strata—but above that there’s all this other strata of the air, where there are all these other things happening… and we’re quite irrelevant. There’s something pretty fantastic about that.’

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.