Q&A with Carmel Bird on her novel 'Field of Poppies'

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Carmel Bird interviewed by Tara Mitchell

TM: You’ve written across a range of formats - novels, non-fiction, short stories, essays and children’s books. What’s the most satisfying for you?

CB: The novel gives me the most scope – it can stretch itself across the other forms of essay and short story, encompassing their powers and pleasures, thus giving me as the creator the immense satisfaction of a range of entries into the material. Writing a short story is a source of fabulous delight to me. But then so is writing an essay. When I am immersed in writing a novel, I am conscious every day of the joy of slowly constructing a single narrative. There’s a kind of grand music that plays in my heart as a novel builds from one day to the next. 

TM: How did receiving the Patrick White Literary Award in 2016 change your perspective on your own writing?

CB: It was such an honour to receive this particular award, which is a recognition of a lifetime of work. One anti-Patrick White journal sneered and described the award as being ‘a cross to bear’, but if that is the case, I am prepared to take on the full catastrophe of the cross and the crown of thorns. I revel in the privilege of writing fiction, of publishing novels and stories and essays. To have my work, however tangentially, linked to that of the great Patrick White, is for me simply magical.

TM: Your latest novel, ‘Field of Poppies’ is set in a small country town, highlighting the minutiae of domestic rural life, against a backdrop of looming global catastrophe. What was the most challenging aspect of connecting these two worlds?

CB: I wanted to construct an entertaining narrative of everyday life in rural Australia, while bearing in mind the trouble the whole planet is in. The noises of wars and weathers echo throughout the everyday life of the town where people nevertheless go about their daily business more or less as usual. So I designed the text with a rhythmic rollcall of terrible images as an opening landscape, and then I followed that with a personal account by one woman of her perspective on her own life and the lives of those around her. The very soil and rocks of the district yield up past horrors. And the presiding irony of it all is that the woman telling the story never really wakesup to the facts of the danger she is in, never realises that she can run but she can’t hide. On the surface are the fields of flowers. Beneath the surface are the dead bodies of soldiers.

TM: How did the main characters of Marsali and William come to you?

CB: I wanted to deliver the ideas of the novel via two fairly ordinary middle class, reasonably affluent, intelligent, half-aware semi-retired Australians. They are both survivors of previous marriages, are happily embarking on the final adventures of their lives. But the gentle, amusing life of the village is underpinned and overshadowed by evils of the past and the present, and a terrible future looms. He is a good man, a doctor, a kind of walking Google. She is an interior designer, good, lively, kind, sociable. But they are really pretty USELESS in the larger scheme of things. They seem to be unaware even of the fact that they finally try to escape the village by taking up residence in the Eureka Tower. The last line of the novel ‘There’s nothing quite like the real thing’ is the final irony uttered by Marsali. She has no idea what ‘the real thing’ might be.

TM: What would you most like readers to take away after reading ‘Field of Poppies’?

CB: Pleasure is the first thing – the pleasure of having been taken by the hand and led into the imagined world of the narrative. But I hope that there is a raising of the reader’s consciousness to the realities of the human responsibility for the state of the planet. See the beauty. Be aware of its fragility. Wipe out a species of butterfly, and you are looking into the mirror of your own extinction.

About Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first collection of short stories appeared in 1976. Since then she has published novels, essays, anthologies, children's books and also manuals on how to write.