Carrie Tiffany: Be inspired
Former park ranger turned agricultural journalist, Carrie Tiffany, is also a hugely successful novelist.
The awards for her first book, 2005’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living include the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, 2005 Western Australian Premier’s Book Award and the 2007 Dobbie Encouragement Award. Her second novel, 2012’s Mateship with Birds, has been shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Miles Franklin Award and won the inaugural 2013 Stella Prize.
In the lead-up to her October 29 course at Allen & Unwin’s Faber Academy – Carrie caught up with lotl to chat about the inspiration for her work and navigating the publishing world.
The course you’re running for the Faber Academy is called Fiction Mining: where to find the inspiration to start writing. So in terms of inspiration, were there any specific incidents in your own life that sparked the ideas for your novels?
People can make writing seem pretty mysterious and I think a lot is said about the imagination or about whether or not you’re a creative person and that can seem very daunting for people who have a hankering to write. I have found with my writing that it’s more a question of uncovering something; it’s about working with memory and things that have happened in the past rather than completely trying to imagine something that hasn’t yet happened. If you can think about how you experience memories, how you store them and how you can breathe life into them again on the page, you can start to notice things in a way that makes them available for capture. A really critical part of being a writer is being open to all the possibilities of the world. It’s about being prepared to take a backseat in some ways and be someone who is more interested in looking than being looked at, in listening rather than speaking, being very attentive to the interactions between people. With me, I write a lot about landscape and nature, so it’s a lot about being tuned to the very fine scale of things that happen in the environment, I’m interested in those small interactions.
So you’re talking about observing the world and using your experience of it as inspiration rather than in an autobiographical sense.
Rather than coming up with some crackingly smart idea, it’s more about something that is within your experience, at least within your emotional experience. However, I’m not someone who thinks you can’t write about something you don’t know. In my fiction I’ve written about many things – sewing, baking bread, characters who live both in the 1930s and the 1950s, periods in which I haven’t lived – and I think there’s something anti-imagination about saying you can only write what you know. I think it’s one of the real challenges of writing fiction that you can write about something you don’t know, but there has to be some emotional resonance, there has to be some reason that you’re writing about those things and that’s generally within you rather than outside of you.
As well as writing fiction, you work as an agricultural journalist; do you draw on that experience in your fiction?
My two novels both have rural scenes and certainly my work has been very important to my writing, meeting farmers and going to a lot of small farming towns and communities. I think in farming itself there are some similarities with writing. Farming is really about being attuned to the landscape, noticing really small changes in the weather, in the soil, in your stock and crops, being very alert to your environment. Writing also requires that, it needs you to be alert to being in the world, but also very alert to language and that’s a really critical thing with writing, being interested in language and what language can do and how you can use it.
In terms of your observations of the Australian landscape, having been born in the UK and arrived in Australia at age seven, do you draw on any memories of your first impressions of your new home?
Yes, it’s been really important to me, I’ve actually written quite a lot about that and I think I’ll write some more about it too. I do think there’s something that happens when you have a huge change and coming from Yorkshire, England to Australia, that’s a pretty big change. Also, we came to Perth in the summer, so that was really dramatic. Once you have language, you’re always trying to make sense of the environment that you’re in by comparison really, by saying, ‘What is this? What is this gum tree? What is this smell? And what is this brightness, this glare and this huge sky? Why is it still warm at night?’ All of this strangeness, I remember feeling very overtaken by it when I was younger, quite frightened by it, the whole experience was pretty frightening until you start to assimilate. But for me I think the writing’s always been a way of trying to assimilate in some ways and to make sense of the landscape. Although we’re all from somewhere else, it’s one of the things about being Australian, unless we’re Aboriginal, we’re from somewhere else and we bring a lot of that with us, it’s there in our family histories or in our cultural memories in some way. So the idea for me in my fiction, it’s a kind of made up place, the country itself is a kind of imagined country and there’s something that really interests me about that in my writing.
In your acceptance speech for the Stella Prize, you talked about how important the Stella is in recognising female writers; do you feel as a female writer that you’ve had any setbacks based on your gender?
Until I started to hear about the Stella Prize, I have to admit I hadn’t really thought about it a lot. Because I was one of the first female park rangers in Australia, I experienced quite a lot of pretty active discrimination in my work life. But when I started writing, the publishing industry is full of fantastic female writers, editors and publishers. Although the upper levels all tend to be men, most of the worker bees that you actually deal with are women and I found them very generous. So it was wonderful to enter this world of women and I didn’t feel any sense of discrimination. But once I saw the figures (on how many female writers are awarded prizes) and I started to look particularly at the reviewing pages of The Age and The Australian, I was astonished to see week after week, male reviewers reviewing books by men. I also thought in those years when an all male shortlist came out for the Miles Franklin Prize it was quite remarkable. But I must admit it wasn’t hugely on my horizon. I didn’t personally feel I had been discriminated against on the basis that I was a woman. But after winning the Stella, unfortunately a number of things happened that made me realise the importance of the prize. I had some very patronising interviews from journalists who said to me things like, ‘So you’re competing in these women’s writing prizes because it’s easier, is it?’ And I had a newspaper article with the heading, ‘Mitcham mum wins writing prize’. Can you imagine someone interviewing Tim Winton and saying, ‘Freo dad wins writing prize?’ It doesn’t happen. And I had a headline in The Australian, ‘Bush romance wins women’s writing prize’ and I think my latest book has similar concerns in it to Australian writers like Murray Bail or Peter Carey and if they had written the book, the headline would have been, ‘Forensic investigation of nature and desire wins writing prize’, but because it’s me, it’s a bush romance tale. One of the slight negatives for me about the Stella is people have asked me about ‘women’s writing’. Well I don’t think there is anything called women’s writing, there are women who write, there are men who write, just because you’re a woman who writes doesn’t mean it’s women’s writing, only for women in some way. So that irked me a bit because when I sit down to read and I pick up a book, the gender of the author is just irrelevant.
Given your first novel was rejected by every major publisher in Australia, how did you find the motivation to push on?
I like to think the reason that you write and that you would continue writing is to do with the writing itself, not to do with what might happen to it afterwards in terms of its publication or criticism or acclaim. And I like to think that I would continue writing. I had pretty much given up on that novel, but I was still writing some short stories and I would like to think that even if I had never been published, I would still be writing. I think whatever the outcome of your writing, there are many dumb things you can do with your time and writing is not one of them. Time you spend on your own, time you spend in your mind, time you spend reading and thinking, this can only be a positive thing for your ability to empathise with other people or just as a way of trying to know yourself. It’s also often not so much to do with you, but to do with the fashions of the publishing industry, whether your style hits the style of the moment, whether they think you’re saleable, these are not things intrinsically to do with your writing.
What makes learning through the Faber Academy unique?
I think that the intimacy of Faber is one of the lovely things about it because I have taught at universities where there tends to be big classes and there’s a lot of attention on assessment, but one of the great things about Faber is that it’s about the work of the individual, the assessment issue is not really there. It’s about doing the best work you can possibly do, about us trying to challenge and stretch you and support you in every way possible