Carmel Bird is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first collection of short stories appeared in 1976, and since then she has published novels, essays, anthologies and children's books.
In 2016 Carmel won the Patrick White Award (an annual award for an outstanding Australian writer with a substantial body of work) for her novel Family Skeleton. Three of her previous works were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award (The Bluebird Cafe in 1991, The White Garden in 1996 and Red Shoes in 1998).
Carmel taught fiction at a host of Victorian Universities, including Melbourne, Deakin, Latrobe, Monash, Swinburne and RMIT. She has also published three manuals on how to write - Dear Writer (1988), Writing the Story of Your Life (2007) and Dear Writer Revisited (2013).
- Carmel read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and the works of Charles Dickens as a child, and was encouraged to put on plays using his dialogue (for example, between Pip and Estella in Great Expectations).
- Carmel has an abiding love of poetry, although she does not write it. Her early influences include Alfred Tennyson and B. Yeats.
- Carmel acknowledges he debt to Charles Dickens. This contrasts to S. Patric, who in Season 1 discussed his inability to engage with Charles Dickens and his preference for and emersion in science fiction.
- George Crookshank illustrated editions of both Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm, both of which influenced Carmel as a child.
- Carmel quotes Oodgeroo Nunuccal, an Indigenous poet, when talking about the past, present and future in her writing.
- At the time of this interview, Carmel was reading Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir by Gail Godwin.
- Carmel taught Andy Griffiths (who opened Season 2 of The Garret) at university, and now enjoys his Treehouse series with her grandchildren.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today, writers who are at the peak of their powers. We’d love you to take a moment of your time to do a little bit of writing for us. Please post a short review of The Garret podcast on iTunes. It’s easy to do, and it really does help us.
In this episode, we talk to Carmel Bird. Carmel has been writing continuously for more than forty years. She is the 2016 Patrick White Award winner. This award recognises a writer’s entire body of work, and Carmel’s body of work is impressive by any measure. Ten novels, children’s books, and very highly acclaimed books about the craft of writing. It is my pleasure to welcome Carmel Bird to The Garret.
Carmel Bird: Thank you Nic, it is a pleasure to be here.
Nic: Let’s go way back to your early life in Tasmania. Let me ask you, when you were a child what were your favourite books, who were your favourite authors? What was your reading about?
Carmel: Well, my reading was mixed up with the fact that I was studying from the age of 6, which is when I was able to read properly. I was studying speech and drama with a marvellous woman called Mrs Marsden. And she lived in a fairy tale kind of house, and she was a fairy tale kind of woman. And we had our lessons, individual lessons, in a room called the Blue Room, and it was… I mean this all sounds made up…
Nic: It sounds like something in Hansel and Gretel, and you go through the forest and come to the a blue house…
Carmel: Well, she had this garden with ponds, and stuff.
Carmel: This is in Launceston Tasmania. And she got us to read Alice in Wonderland and learn it by heart.
Nic: Really? Wow.
Carmel: And so, I still know a lot of Alice in Wonderland.
Nic: I bet you do.
Carmel and Nic: [Laughter]
Carmel: And from that, one was expected to write little plays and perform them. And I also used a lot of – used, that’s not a very good word, is it? – but I worked with a lot of the novels of Charles Dickens. So, I would read Dickens, and then I would extract sections from it, like say the dialogue between Pip and Estella in Great Expectations.
Nic: At the age of 6.
Carmel: Well, we’re getting on to 7, 8, 9, 10, you know…
Nic: Still… amazing.
Carmel: And things like The Water Babies, and stuff like that. And so, I would write a little play, and I would perform one part and another kid would perform another part, and we would do it for long-suffering parents.
Nic: [Laughter] Yes.
Carmel: And we would also… See, there was no television, there was no entertainment, there was nothing. There were eisteddfods.
Nic: Right, yes.
Carmel: And we would enter these little performances in the Launceston Eisteddfod, and the Devonport Eisteddfod, and…
Nic: See, today they’d be making a reality TV show about that, wouldn’t they?
Carmel: Exactly, exactly. Yes, yes. But we had a great time, and our parent made the costumes, and our fathers made the scenery. And I can remember my father driving around with a great big mushroom that he’d made in the car.
Carmel: The caterpillar for the mushroom was a little toy that belonged to my brother, a little clockwork caterpillary thing, and I only very recently returned that caterpillar to my brother.
Nic: Really, is that right?
Carmel: I don’t know that he even remembered it, but I still had it. And I thought, well, I’d better send it home. So, I gave it back to him.
Nic: So, all of that has given you a really good grounding in stories and storytelling.
Nic: What and how stories work, probably without even knowing it, just that constant exposure to classic stories.
Carmel: Yes. Indeed. To the best classic stories, from which we had to extract the dramatic parts and make them into little plays.
Nic: Right. Wow.
Carmel: So, she was quite something, Mrs Marsden.
Nic: That is something. And as you grew older, your reading on your own, what sort of authors, what sort of genres, or books to your fancy?
Carmel: A lot of poetry. Tennyson. Yeats. And still Dickens. I was always very fond of Dickens, and I still am. He became very unfashionable for a time, but then people picked him up for the movies and things, and he became more fashionable. But I still don’t know whether they study him at university. Probably not.
Nic: Can I ask you a question, because we spoke recently to A. S. Patric, who won the Miles Franklin Award, and he mentioned Dickens, and he said that in some ways its harder to relate to Dickens than it is to science fiction because that world is so different to us. Could you relate to the world of Dickens?
Carmel: Yes, absolutely.
Nic: In what way, in what way?
Carmel: You ask difficult questions, I’ve never thought of it like that, ‘how did I relate to Dickens’. I have to do some mental acrobatics to think about how I was relating to Dickens.
Carmel: I suppose I loved the language, and the fun of it. It was an awful lot of fun, you see, in Dickens. And the interchange between the adults and the children, and the sadness, and I was even then I was conscious that the sentimentality was sentimentality of not a very interesting kind, but the violence, and the darkness, the drama…
Nic: A lot of what you describe is what is in fairy tales as well.
Carmel: Yes, well fairy tales are a great interest of mine to this day…
Carmel: … much more so than Dickens, probably. Yes, I think almost certainly. Well, I was given a beautiful book with a blue leather cover when I was 6 of the Brothers Grimm, and it was illustrated by Crookshank, who also illustrated some Dickens. And so, there was a crossover…
Nic: There is a crossover…
Carmel: Yes, not only in the material but also in the presentation. And I treasured that blue book. I don’t have it anymore, I don’t know, it’s lost.
Nic: Probably your brother has got it.
Carmel: [Laughter] Oh yeah, maybe. I should check that out. Good point. The illustrations were gripping, and the stories were gripping, and they grip me to this day, the stories of the Brothers Grimm. And they… the motifs and ideas and plotlines and things from the Brothers Grimm will surface in my fiction.
Nic: Of course they do.
Nic; Were you writing as you were reading and growing older? Did you start writing at an early age?
Carmel: Yes. I absolutely loved reading and I loved writing as well. And my father used to give me big, Spirex bound blank books, and I would write the ‘illustrated histories’ of members of vast families.
Nic: Now, are these families you created? Or you’re talking…
Carmel: Yes, yes, yes. I didn’t know anything about any real families.
Nic: [Laughter] Do you still have any of those?
Carmel: No, I don’t. Where do these things go? I don’t think my brother has got those. He might have the Grimm.
Nic: [Laughter] You mentioned before you used to put on plays. I’m not aware of you writing plays like that. Do you write plays, have you written plays?
Carmel: No, no. I haven’t written plays.
Nic: Are you interested in writing plays? No?
Carmel: No, I haven’t gone down that path. I’ve been interested in writing short fiction and novels, principally.
Nic: On that note, when you come up with an idea for a story, at what point do you realise this will work as a short story and not a novel, or as a novel?
Carmel: I’m sorry I have to say that it is an instinct.
Nic: Yeah, no, no, that’s fine.
Carmel: Something comes to me, and I write it as a short story and I know it’s a short story, and that is that. And a novel comes to me as a novel.
For example, Family Skeleton. The first inspiration for Family Skeleton was when I was on a bus driving from – I wasn’t driving the bus – I was on a bus from Castlemaine where I live to Tullamarine to go to somewhere or other, and out of the bushland emerged like something in a dream an Edwardian hearse, a funeral, very elaborate, very beautifully kept and so forth. Now, Castlemaine is a place where people collect vintage vehicles, there is beautiful, beautiful things all around the streets all the time. Old utes, old cars and so forth. And this was an old hearse. And I’d never heard of it, and I’d never seen it, and the bus kept going, and the hearse went in the other… and it was just a flash, like that! But by the time I got home from the trip – wherever it was that I was going, see I can’t even remember where I was going now – the novel had formed in my imagination. And so I just wrote it then.
Nic: And were you, that moment that you got that flash of inspiration, in the days that followed, were you taking notes?
Carmel: No, I wasn’t.
Nic: You were just developing it in your mind?
Carmel: I was just really thinking about the moment in the bus, and then when I got home eventually, it would have only been about four days later or something, I was obviously starting to write a novel.
Nic: Because they’d be a lot of people out there, and I’m certainly in this camp, you come up with an idea and then you develop it, and you’re developing it and you know I’m often doing it walking the dog and I’m developing this great idea, and then ask me two hours later and I’ve forgotten most of it, and I wish I’d written it down. You obviously manage to…
Carmel: Well, perhaps you should be writing it down.
Nic: I should be, so exactly, I should be. So how do you… are you a note taker?
Carmel: I do take the occasional note these days. I used to take a lot more notes, but mostly now I just go straight to the laptop and off I go. You know, name in the file and there you go.
Nic: Ok. Are you a hoarder of ideas?
Carmel: I suppose so. I think so.
Nic: In your mind or on paper?
Carmel: Mostly in my mind, yes. But I do cut things out of newspapers and put them in a file. And sometimes I never, ever go back to that file. But sometimes I think, ‘oh, there’s that file’. And I’ll have a look and its exciting. Mostly that results in a short story.
But there was another one of my novels, the one just prior to Family Skeleton, called Child of the Twilight. It was the result of a very, very tiny article in the newspaper about the theft of a religious stature in Rome. Just like a postage stamp, a filler, in the newspaper. And that set off Child of the Twilight, which is a novel that deals with the theft of religious art, and why would you do it, and would you do it, and what would you do with it then?
Nic: Sounds like the beginning of Dan Brown…
Carmel: Well yes, that’s right, yes.
Nic: I’ve always found newspaper articles to be great sources of inspiration, particularly historical ones. And I’ve always said to any student, ‘if you can’t come up with an idea, go to the library and get an old newspaper out and read it, and if you can’t come up with an idea from some article because there are the most bizarre things in them, then there’s something wrong with you’. I find them an amazing resource.
Carmel: You’re right, yes. Even just the daily newspaper, you don’t need to go to the library.
Nic: No, that’s right.
Carmel: Classified ads, and living in the country we have local newspapers, and they are full of stuff.
Nic: They’re full of characters, and things that people have done, and little bits of conflict that can just build and build and build…
Nic: In what ways have you got better as a writer over the years?
Carmel: You ask the most appalling questions. [Laughter] I don’t know. You’re making me think.
Nic: I’m sorry.
Carmel: I didn’t realise I was brought here to think, to be tortured and to think.
Nic: Just tell me about your latest book and why we should buy it.
Carmel and Nic: [Laughter]
Carmel: Ah, how have I improved. Or how have I changed?
Nic: Or perhaps I’ll rephrase it. Are there things that you know find easier than you used to in the process? Or are there things you actually find harder, or you still find as hard as always, or maybe it just flows?
Carmel: Oh, that sounds a bit bad, doesn’t it, that it ‘just flows’. I do edit, and rewrite and reconsider and reread it, and read out loud. I am a believer in the idea that writing needs to be read and heard to be tested. And something that I still find in my work, and that students will always find if they look for it and read out loud, are unnecessary repetitions.
Carmel: That you don’t know you do. And when you read it aloud, in particular, you find them.
Nic: And do you think that occurs because it’s a lack of confidence, not believing that a reader is going to get something straight away so you just go that one step too far?
Carmel: Oh no, I don’t think that at all.
Nic: So why do you think repetition…
Carmel: By repetition I simply mean that on page 10 I might use a word, and on page 12 I might use the same word, and it’s a striking word that is obviously fascinating me at that time, and I should use it in one place or the other but not both. Unless, there is a purpose in using it twice, and sometimes there is.
Carmel: But useless repetition is something to look out for.
Nic: It is, it’s very much something to look out for. It’s very common.
Can you give us some insights into – let’s take your last novel, Family Skeleton, as an example – of the process, from the… so you’ve talked about the idea came, and you want home, and you got your laptop out. Take us though the process, in terms of the first draft all the way through to publication, in terms of length of time, how…
Carmel: Well I was going to say, how long have we got?
Nic: As long as you like.
Carmel: Well, the first thing that occurred to me was that there would be a dead body in the hearse. And it transpired that it was… I mean, it’s funny when you say this, that ‘it transpired’ and that ‘it was’, as if it’s real. But it is real to the writer, and it has to become real to the reader without too much repetition.
Carmel: And it was a woman of 77, I think, who’s a matriarch, a widow, lives in Toorak, wealthy family, philanthropist, grandmother, tyrant… and how did she die, and why did she die? You don’t know that until the end of the novel, but the novel begins with her being dead in the family hearse. Now, this particular – oh, well the family runs a funeral business.
Nic: That’s right, and they made a lot of money out of it.
Carmel: Yes. And she has always loved this particular hearse, which is in their museum, because of course it’s not something that you would normally have in a funeral in 2015, I think the story takes place.
And so, from her, my imagination fans back into her, the history of her family, the history of her husband’s family, and then finally forward into their children and their grandchildren and so forth. And it became evident very quickly – now, a writer doesn’t know how this becomes evident, well I don’t, I don’t sit and think ‘she is a good woman, her husband is a bad man’, I don’t work like that at all, it’s as if they are people I am meeting and discovering and writing about as I discover them. And her husband turns out to have been a philanderer. A philanthropist, but also a philanderer.
Nic: A philanderer and a philanthropist.
Carmel: That’s right, and very funny too. He has a lot of girlfriends, but his main girlfriend, which you might call his lover, his mistress, I don’t know, is like his other wife. And she lives just down the street, with his other children.
Carmel: Now, you may think that his widow, her name is Margaret, she is already his widow – ha ha he’s dead – might not know about the mistress or she might disapprove of the mistress, or she could be unkind to and about the mistress, but she’s not silly, she accepts the idea of Fiona, she’s called, and her two boys, and in fact embraces them as members of the family.
Now this is perhaps, it’s a little bit European, to do that, I think.
Nic: At the end of your first draft, what state is it in? Is it... compared to how it finishes up. I mean, for a lot of writers the first draft is just ‘get it all out there, put it on paper’ and then really start developing it. Or is it pretty damn good…
Carmel: It’s pretty well developed, yes, but it needs reading allowed and maybe shifting things around. But the most important change that happened to Family Skeleton, in probably the third draft, was suddenly it occurred to me that the story ought to be being told by a narrator who is the skeleton in the closet.
Nic: Ok, sure.
Carmel: So, the book starts of saying to the reader, ‘I’m your narrator, guess what, I’m a skeleton and I’m telling you this’. So, the reader knows immediately that there is a certain level of comedy. It’s a book about death. It’s a book and sex and death and history, and… so it’s got to be funny.
Carmel: I mean, I just do write funny anyway.
Nic: You do. At what point do you get someone to read it?
Nic: The first time someone else reads it…
Carmel: Read the whole thing? Not until it’s a long way, a long long way down the track.
Nic: And are we talking second draft, third draft, or when you’ve got the first draft done?
Carmel: Not first, not second, no. I’d say probably third. Well, as soon as the skeleton appeared I know that I had the book, and then I could send it to a good friend of mine who is an editor. Something in there is that I don’t willy-nilly show it to or expect other people to read it.
Nic: No, absolutely.
Carmel: It’s a professional arrangement.
Nic: And also, it shows that you trust your own instincts to be able to pick up, reread your first draft or reread your second draft and know or feel instinctively what need to be changed without having anyone else do it. I mean, that comes obviously with experience…
Carmel: Experience, confidence…
Nic: … And confidence. Yeah…
Carmel: … And determination.
Carmel: … And loving it.
Nic: Do you fear it, when you give it to someone else?
Carmel: Because I only give it to someone I trust, and I know that she’s going to see things that are wrong and things that are right, and we’ll have a discussion.
Nic: When writing stories set in the past, as you have done a number of times, are you writing about the past or are you writing about the present?
Carmel: Well, there’s Oodgeroo Nunuccal, who is a wonderful Indigenous poet, has a poem in which she says, ‘the past is all around us and within’. And this suggests that when one can reflect on the past and sort out the past and bring it up from within, the present and the future are going to be in there too.
And, although I may be writing, and am often writing, about historical events, such as, well in my novel Cape Grimm there’s a lot of Tasmanian history, I’m doing that and it’s the past, the present, and the things that are happening in the present are being dealt with at the same time. Like loss of species, and change of climate, and terrorism, all these things inform my fiction, even when I am writing about past events.
Nic: How much thought – this takes us back to Dickens, actually, because one of the things about Dickens is the wonderful names of his characters – how much thought goes into the names of your characters?
Carmel: Oh, they just arrive, they just arrive.
Nic: Do they really?
Carmel: Yes, they are so fun. I just let them be.
Nic: At what point did you decide that the siblings in Family Skeleton would all had names beginning with O.
Carmel: I don’t know. Well, you see, the family is the O’Days, and the wife, the mother of these O’Day children has no taste and no brains. She’s very rich and beautiful, she’s the beautiful wealthy daughter of a millionaire drycleaner, which of course Margaret thinks is pretty way down the social scale. But Margaret is the wife of a wealthy funeral director…
Carmel: She doesn’t think like that. Anyway, the woman who names the children thinks it would a be a cute idea.
Nic: You hear them… Orson, Orlando, Ophelia, Oriane.
Carmel: Yes, yes. And of course, it is on the name Ophelia that Margaret starts to come unstuck.
You’ve read this book?
Nic: So names, they just come, they just arrive?
Carmel: No, I don’t labour over any of them…
Nic: But the names seem so right, the names just seem so right.
Carmel: My unconscious mind is always at work, and I trust it.
Nic: Yeah. Well, it’s done alright so far, why not trust it?
Carmel and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: Alright. So, you’ve obviously also taught writing for many years at many places, you’ve run workshops, you’ve written a wonderful wonderful writing guide, which is considered the number one writing guide I think by a writer in Australian, it’s a really…
Carmel: People do like it.
Nic: … they like it very much. What are some of the common mistakes, the most common mistakes that emerging writers, or even established writers for that matter, continually make?
Carmel: Being dull.
Nic: Being dull.
Carmel: Being so, so solemn and self-serious and dull.
Nic: Is that where your obvious love and inclusion of humour, you know, does humour fix that problem? You can still have dull humorous stories, can’t you?
Nic: What is it that makes a humorous story dull? What is it that makes a dull story?
Carmel: Yeah. Well, dead prose. It’s the dead prose.
Carmel: Yes, it will be unoriginal. It’s dead when it’s unoriginal.
Nic: In terms of prose, can you teach people? Can that be taught?
Carmel: Yes. A lot of it is lodged in abstract nouns rather than concrete nouns. If people can be persuaded to move away from abstraction into the concrete then hey are 80 per cent of the way. I’m not saying they have to be funny at all, I’m saying they have to move lightly through their language.
Nic: I’ve often found the writers, the emerging writers who I could criticise as being dull are often the ones that don’t read enough. Do you think…
Carme: Well, reading is tremendously important. Reading, and thinking about reading, and realising what it is that one likes about one piece of writing. Why a student thinks this piece of writing – by someone else – is good. Analysing writing, reading analytically, reading with a notebook, taking notice, taking care, looking at language…
Nic: Yeah. Understanding how language works, and when you’re reading, not just reading for the joy of it, but obviously reading to work out if you love something, why do you love it, and if you hate something…
Carmel: … Why do you hate it? Yes, yes.
Nic: What’s anther common mistake that writers make, and that you are trying to address in your writing?
Carmel: Yeah. Overdoing the similes and the metaphors. I sometimes hear students, yes students of writing, say that they’re going to ‘put in’ some metaphors, or ‘put in’ some similes. Well look, if the similes and the metaphors don’t arrive from what you’re writing about, then they are not worth having, they’re very strained and poor and weak.
Nic: It’s all about that love of words and language for you, isn’t it?
Carmel: Yes, yes. And it’s a good idea sometimes to try to write something without adverbs and adjectives. And then to look at it and say, ‘well, maybe I could have some adverbs and some adjectives’. See, some of the masters of the language, such as Nabokov, he used adjectives with great excitement, and was very, very successful in using them, because he was the master of them.
Carmel: Careless use of adjectives and adverbs, and careless use of abstract nouns, and not enough use of strong verbs…
Nic: Are there any contemporary writers, Australian, international, who you most admire at the moment, who you love reading or you just can’t wait for the next work?
Carmel: Look, it’s always hard when people ask you that, because there are so many. There are so many. I can’t really answer, I don’t think.
You could say, ‘well, what were you reading on the train?’. I was in fact reading a fascinating book, nothing to with what you’ve just asked me, called Publishing: A Memoir, by an American writer called Gail Godwin, who is a best-selling novelist in America. Fascinating. Her memoir about the history of herself and the publishing industry. But that doesn’t answer your question at all, does it?
Nic: Yes it does, you told me what your reading on the train.
Carmel: You didn’t ask me what I was reading on the train!
Carmel and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: As a teacher of writing, you’ve no doubt taught many people who have gone on to become published authors, and I believe you taught Andy Griffiths at some point.
Carmel: I did.
Nic: Andy is also part of this season of The Garret.
Carmel: Oh good.
Nic: Can you tell us a little bit about the young unpublished Andy?
Carmel: The young unpublished Andy was so funny, right, and so keen to know how to get it right. I mean, he had it right, anyway, but he was so fresh and alive, and just the way he is today only younger, you know. And a delight to have in a classroom, because he was open, and open to every suggestion, every question, he was a thinker, and what more can I say? He was a beautiful student and a beautiful writer then, and he’s gone on to be a very, very beautiful writer.
And I, in fact, have his Treehouse series on, oh what do you call it, on CD, and I play that in the car to my grandchildren, and we – I shouldn’t say singalong – we natter along with it. And we’re very good at the voices and we think it’s hysterical.
Nic: I mean, the way you describe him is exactly the way you would imagine him, and…
Carmel: Yes, well he was just like that.
Nic: … It shows to me that most writers are… they write in a way that brings out their voice and personality, almost every writer.
Carmel: Certainly. That puts it so well. Yes. His personality went with his language, went with his attitude, went with what he wrote.
Nic: Successful writers can’t be fakes, can they?
Nic: They’ve got to be natural, they’ve got to be… It’s got to come from inside.
Carmel: Yeah, that’s true. It still can be taught…
Nic: Of course! Technique can certainly be taught.
Carmel: Yes, yes.
Nic: There is no question. And as you were talking about before, how do you use words, how do you use language etc etc, that can definitely be taught.
Carmel: And reading poetry aloud is very helpful to students of prose. Another thing – going back to Mrs Marsden – another thing Mrs Marsden had us do was learn beautiful sections of I think mainly the Old Testament, and recite the beautiful verses from parts of the Old Testament, Song of Solomon, Psalms…
Nic: Do you write much poetry yourself?
Carmel: No, no, I’ve never really written poetry.
Nic: You’ve just enjoyed it.
Carmel: For its attention to language and ideas, and for its compression, and its music and its mystery, its certain mystery.
Nic: And the imagery.
Carmel: Imagery, yeah.
Nic: If you could give one piece of advice to emerging writers listening, what would it be?
Carmel: Read. And notice. And be always curious about the world, and about people and life, and about language. And read.
Nic: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Carmel: Have we finished? Good grief.
Nic: Well we can go on, if you like? Tell me more.
Carmel: It’s alright.
Carmel and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: We could go on forever. But no, it has been an absolute delight. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Carmel: I’ve really enjoyed it too. I was rather hesitant and nervous.
Nic: Well it didn’t show, it didn’t show. And I’m glad I pushed you to think about things you haven’t thought about for a while.
Carmel: Things I don’t think of, yes. You see I just do them. But it is possible to analyse them. And Dear Writer Revisited will give people a handle on that.
And there’s another writing book of mine that is still around called Writing the Story of Your Life.
Nic: Which is about memoir writing.
Carmel: Although it sets out to be for memoir writing, but it is very much about writing. And there is a chapter in it on tense, something that…
Nic: A lot of people don’t understand.
Carmel: Well it is hard to understand.
Nic: And that is one thing that a lot of beginner writers totally muck up.
Carmel: Well, I’m glad to hear you say ‘muck up’, that is what is done.
Nic: It is.
Carmel: Often. It became a fashion – I don’t know when, maybe twenty years ago or something – to write everything in the first person present tense. And sometimes that’s brilliant, that can be the most wonderful thing. But it can be the most appalling thing, and people can get into such tangles.
Nic: I had this conversation with students this morning, exactly this conversation. I said… We were talking about preference, and my preference is always for past tense. And I find it very, both writing and reading, I find it very… and we were just having a discussion about it, because a lot of them do write in the present tense.
Carmel: Yes. They do. Because it is the fashion.
Carmel: Now, I suggest that you do turn to Writing the Story of Your Life, and turn to the chapter on tense in there, and have a little… You know, it might be helpful for them.
Nic: I will do that as soon as we put the microphones down. Immediately!
Carmel and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: Thank you very much Carmel or your time, and congratulations on the Patrick White Award, which is phenomenal. But mainly, because it does recognise – I mean, I was looking at the list of the winners, and it’s a prestigious award. It’s a great honour, but it also justifies, not justifies, its acknowledgement of a lifetime’s achievement of which you should be very proud.
Carmel: Thank you very much.