Carmel’s 2017 collection of eight stories, The Dead Aviatrix, is published electronically and is available from Amazon.
Comments on the collection:
‘Dark, intriguing, yet always witty and delightful’ - Andy Griffiths
‘The stories are ingenious, each a delicious fictional Venus fly-trap that encloses you in its wonder or horror, or both. There is little terrain of the human condition that her stories don’t touch – a child’s cold case murder and a triggered memory that may have solved it, the sinister banality of suburban life and all its hidden vestibules, beauty and ugliness, creation and the future of the world, small towns and their dark undercurrents, and of course love. Bird’s stories fizz and tingle with originality and freshness, and carry an alluring humour that can turn malevolent and deadly in the blink of an eye. Hands down, Carmel Bird is to my mind the best living short story writer in the country’ – Matthew Condon
‘Bird’s beautiful stories soar, though never into a realm you could anticipate’ – Debra Adelaide
THE DEAD AVIATRIX – THE STORY OF THE STORIES
The eight stories in The Dead Aviatrix are not obviously connected with each other by theme or character or plot, although because they originate in my imagination, they all reflect my interests and concerns. The ebook is a gathering of eight of my stories that have been recently published in various journals.
Here is an account of how the present collection came about:
The Story of the Stories
A few years ago I wanted to revise my book on writing, Dear Writer, and offer it as an ebook. I discovered the wonders of Spineless Wonders which was a small publisher specializing in ebooks. Dear Writer Revisited became an ebook, and Spineless Wonders also produced it in hard copy.
Since then, they have published my collection My Hearts Are Your Hearts, and in 2017 they began the Capsule Collections which are small collections of stories or poems produced solely as ebooks. They put eight of my new stories into a Capsule and this became The Dead Aviatrix, published in November 2017.
Every short story has its own history.
The Dead Aviatrix
The title story ‘The Dead Aviatrix’ was inspired by something that happened to me as the writer of a novel some years ago. It was an awful and troubling thing, and I wondered for a long time about how to write about it in a useful and interesting way. The narrative involved my surname and the surname of an Australian woman flier, and it was a story about publishing. Then one day I was reading online about the phenomenon of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the first book-packager for children, and I found there a story with a woman flier in it, and I was captivated by the sentence:
The aviatrix sat looking on through all this tumult with a happy smile.
Something went Ping! and suddenly I had the story. Maybe the use of the term ‘aviatrix’ was what did it. A word very much of its time. Female aviator. Not a word that is safe to use seriously any more because it is unfashionable to characterize women workers as being separate from men workers. You are not supposed to say, for instance, ‘actress’. So ‘aviatrix’ was horribly un-PC. In particular I loved the ‘trix’ part of it; I just liked saying it. The character of the intern invented itself. Since I wrote the story, the matter of interns has become the subject of government and media attention.
I chose the aviatrix as the title for the whole collection. When I began telling people about the ebook I was surprised at how many of them reacted to the title itself. The word ‘aviatrix’ set them off in various ways, and, curiously, so did the word ‘dead’. By coincidence it was at exactly the time of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart. Although the story has in fact nothing to do with Amelia. This was one of those sweet moments of coincidence that sometimes flavour and favour the writing of fiction.
The Whirligigge of Time Brings in His Revenges
When I was at high school, I played the part of Olivia in Twelfth Night. One of the lines in the play that sometimes comes back to me is ‘The whirligigge of time brings in his revenges’. Now skip to 2017. Social media rules. There is no privacy. Once upon a time publishers were often remote and powerful figures, shadowy even. But by 2017 some of them began to give in to the temptation to express themselves on social media. Whereas once they might have mocked the writing in the ‘slush pile’ to their colleagues over lunch, now they could give the whole world a good laugh. I found this quite shocking, really. The lovely line from Twelfth Night leapt to mind, and there’s the story.
‘Cold Case’ has its origins in a memory I have from childhood. I liked to pick flowers that hung over fences. Still do really. One day I picked a puffy greeny white viburnum bloom, whereupon a hideous red-faced man materialized and shouted at me that he would ram the flower down my bloody throat. I can’t really explain how the plots and characters of stories build from these old memories, but clearly the incident with the viburnum made a powerful impression on me, as did the line from Twelfth Night, and maybe because my project in life is to manufacture fiction, those things have the power to give birth to characters and narratives. I wrote the story in the first person, but the narrator is only partly personal to me.
In the goldfields region where I live there are fascinating little old towns that have in the past been busy, grand and elegant, but that are now very very quiet, perhaps more or less dead. One time when I went to Tarnagulla, I saw vast areas of prickly pear gone wild in the middle of the town. It’s an introduced weed. It was beautiful, the proliferation, the sea of thick ears of green sprouting vicious needles and blooming with silky peachy yellow flowers. And the fact that ‘cactus’ is Australian slang for ‘dead, beaten, kaput’ appealed to me as a metaphoric description of the place. There’s a beautiful old bank building, and several handsome red-brick churches which I really love. All these buildings have been converted into residences, I imagine for people who have come from the city to enjoy life in the country. From time to time in towns like this, people set up shops to sell crystals, or to tell fortunes and so forth. Anyway, my visit to Tarnagulla inspired me to write the story ‘Cactus’. The lives of the characters in the story are pretty much cactus too.
The Matter of the Mosque
I live in the Bendigo region of Victoria. In recent years there has been considerable controversy about the establishment of a mosque in Bendigo. The community is divided on the issue. I should clarify here that I am in favour of the mosque. Sometimes I am stopped in the street by strangers who rant about their belief that the mosque is going to bring violence and terrorism to the city, that land values will drop, that women will be raped, people will be slaughtered.
My most vivid experience of this irrational prejudice occurred in an unexpected location. I used to take my small grand-daughter to ballet classes. As the only grandmother among the mothers who waited in a separate room while the children took the class, I was invisible and ignored. The mothers talked among themselves, and every now and then they would interrupt their discussion of ordinary everyday concerns with expressions of rage and fear and disgust about the mosque. I simply told this story as a third person narrative, dramatizing and foregrounding the vicious intolerance that seemed to be as normal to the women as their talk about hairspray. In the narrative I just allowed them to talk. The story is a portrait of the blindness and smugness of a certain section of local society – told in its own words.
I wrote this story at a time when surrogate pregnancies were big news in Australia. When their surrogate baby son turned out to be ‘imperfect’, an Australian family rejected him and left him with his birth mother in a foreign country. Rather than meet this story head on, I explored the issue of surrogacy and imperfection as a type of fairy tale from the nineteen fifties. I think that some of the issues involved in surrogacy can be highlighted by shifting some of the emphasis, and by adopting an unexpected tone for the telling. Unlike many of my stories, this one has distinctive characters and a straightforward plot. Incidentally, it is set at a time when Europeans were arriving in Australia after the Second World War. The Dutch people in the story are of course figments of my imagination, but I knew several Dutch families in Tasmania in the fifties, and memories of them just entered the narrative.
Love Letter to Lola
I think extinction of species has been one of my preoccupations since my father told me that the last Tasmanian Tiger had died in the Hobart zoo a month after my older sister was born in 1936. My father had seen the animal, but I would never see it or its like. Small evidences of this interest have surfaced in my writing over the years, but ‘Love Letter to Lola’ is the probably only story I have written purely on the subject. In 2003 a friend asked me if there was a book I would like for my birthday and I said I would like Tony Juniper’s book about the extinction of Spix’s macaw. The friend was a bit surprised at the choice, but she gave me the book, I am happy to say.
In 2016 a publisher invited writers to contribute to a book of love letters. For some reason the idea that came to me was a love letter from the last Spix’s macaw. So I tell, through the voice of the parrot himself, the terrible story of the extinction of the bird. Tony Juniper told the history; I gave the parrot a voice. The history that emerges in my story is based on the facts in Tony Juniper’s book.
The Tale of the Last Unicorn
In 2013 I was guest editor for an issue of Griffith Review. The topic of the journal that quarter was fairy tales, one of my particular interests. The notion of ‘fairy tale’ is still more or less lodged in the popular Australian imagination, possibly thanks to Walt Disney, in the narratives of the Grimms, and in other European traditions. At Griffith Review, it became clear that although there are glorious Indigenous foundation myths and other legends, and also stories such as ‘The Magic Pudding’, there is very little literature past or present that falls into the category of ‘Australian fairy tale’.
With this at the back of my mind, I began writing a new story. It’s always a mysterious process, writing fiction, and so I can’t really explain why the idea of the Rainbow Serpent and the Unicorn meeting in Tasmania occurred to me. But it did, and I began writing, and it turned out to be an end-of-the-world story. Extinction of everything. In a way it is a long-awaited response to the story my father told me long ago about the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger.
The family lives in luxury in the richest suburb of Melbourne.
The Second World War is pivotal to the story, which is set in the present day. At the heart of the novel, in the cellar of the family home, is the old bomb shelter, a ghastly structure which speaks of the war, and of the depths to which human nature can descend.
Matriarch Margaret’s equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of Doria, a distant relative, who is poking around in the family stories.
The question is – what will this woman discover that is not part of the official family narrative?
Can Margaret block her somehow?
Then Margaret herself discovers the shocking family secret which she will do anything to keep from Doria.
A lifetime of apparent goodness can be undone in a split second.
This is a dark novel of manners, a sharp satire – comfortable lives can easily be threatened by the past, and also by the rapid changes in society.
“Dark comedy interwoven with a fierce, incandescent savagery.” Peter Craven
Fair Game is a small book published by FinlayLloyd. It is a Tasmanian memoir, inspired to begin with by a cartoon from 1832. There was a great shortage of women in Hobart at the time, and the ship, the Princess Royal, sailed from England to Hobart with a cargo of non-convict women. The cartoon, which is reproduced on the cover of the book, illustrates this event.
The essay traces my knowledge of the cartoon itself, and delves into my own memories of growing up in Tasmania.
The book is one of what the publisher calls ‘smalls’, and there are four other little volumes being published at the same time as Fair Game.
SHORT STORY COLLECTION 2015
My Hearts Are Your Hearts is a collection of twenty stories written over the past few years, most of them having appeared in a range of journals. At the back of the book there is an essay ‘The Story of the Stories’, which examines the origins of the stories, and also the history of their writing.
"These extraordinary stories do more than take you in – they abduct you." --
The stories pose questions regarding the workings of the human heart.
– Who kills his wife and dumps the body in the pool?
– What are the hares getting up to among the sunflowers?
– Who is paying $6000 for a raincoat?
– What did the bishop say to the schoolgirl?
– How do you feel when you find your death was listed long ago online?
ON WRITING FICTION 2013
Dear Writer Revisited is a complete revision of Dear Writer (1988). This book, on the art of writing fiction for both writers and readers, is one of the most popular and useful manuals around. Its messages are delivered in the form of letters from an experienced writer to an inexperienced writer. The tone is friendly, warm and inviting, giving serious comment on the composition of fiction in a particularly accessible form. The book developed from work I did as a manuscript assessor.
ON WRITING MEMOIR 2007
Writing the Story of Your Life. Like Dear Writer, this manual for memoirists (and for that matter, for story-tellers in general) grew out of my life experience. A friend had been asked by her therapist to write short accounts of her memories of early life. The friend confessed to me that she was unable to recall anything much. So after a while I asked her if she would like me to devise a program of writing in order to encourage memory. I did this, and when she followed my directions, she found the past not only became accessible to her, but that she could report on it in very satisfying ways. These exercises are the foundation of Writing the Story of Your Life.
Child of the Twilight Deftly weaving together themes of art theft, reproductive technology, love, loss, belief – this is a luminous novel that questions and celebrates the miraculous. Who would steal the beloved statue of the Baby Jesus from his shrine in Rome? And why?
The overall narrator is a young woman who was ‘manufactured’ from sperm and egg, the origins of which will forever remain unknown. She calls herself ‘The Navigator’.
“Playful and dangerous.” --
“One of Australia’s finest storytellers and connoisseurs of story.” --
Cape Grimm Here Carmel returns, as she frequently does, to the tragic history and remarkable landscape of her native Tasmania. In a contemporary religious community on the far north west coast of the island, the charismatic leader persuades his followers to incinerate themselves in the little church. He and his wife and child escape to become the subjects of the author’s precise psychological examination.
“Bird offers here the edginess and unexpectedness of a novel of our times.” --
The White Garden Seven people die in deep sleep therapy. A woman dies from a bee-sting in th egrounds of a psychiatric clinic where inmates are encouraged to liv eout their delusions.
The doctor rapes his patients in the Sleeping Beauty Ward.
Carmel Bird's examination of the secrets of the human mind is a chronicle of tragedy that is inadvertently revealed in the search for a lost library book. It is also a compelling portrait of a doctor whose lust for power is a form of madness.
“The narrative includes erotic dreams, and readers who have been impressed by Bird's sensuous vignettes in her short stories will appreciate the skill with which she weaves sensual ( and at times, cruel) interludes into The White Garden. Bird write fiction every bit as spectacular as Angela Carter's but, I think, with infinitely more sympathy for ordinary people relegated to the fringes of psychiatric and spiritual wellbeing. The book is a clever, wise and humane triumph.” --
SHORT STORY COLLECTION
The Essential Bird 2005
This is a collection of forty-four of Carmel’s stories, most of which have been published in journals over several years.
“Deep-dyed rhetoric, gorgeous and perfumed.” --
The Stolen Children – Their Stories 1998
Moved by the Report of the National Government Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Carmel compiled this anthology of the personal stories included in the Report. The book also contains comments and reactions from a number of leading Australian voices.
Chronological List of Publications
2017 The Dead Aviatrix 2016 Family Skeleton 2015 My Hearts Are Your Hearts; Fair Game 2013 Dear Writer Revisited 2012 Fabulous Finola Fox 2010 Child of the Twilight; Home Truth 2007 Writing the Story of Your Life 2005 The Essential Bird 2004 Cape Grimm 2002 Open For Inspection 2000 The Cassowary’s Quiz; Unholy Writ 1999 The Penguin Century of Australian Stories 1998 Red Shoes; The Stolen Children – Their Stories 1997 Daughters and Fathers 1996 Red Hot Notes; Automatic Teller; Crisis 1995 The White Garden 1994 Not Now Jack – I’m Writing a Novel 1993 The Common Rat 1992 The Mouth 1991 Australian Short Stories 1990 The Bluebird Café 1988 Dear Writer 1987 The Woodpecker Toy Fact 1986 Cherry Ripe 1983 Births, Deaths and Marriages 1976 Dimitra and Other Stories