In September 2016 Carmel Bird, author of Family Skeleton, spoke to creative writing students at the University of Technology Sydney. In October Bird received the 2016 Patrick White Award for her contribution to Australian literature. Her address to aspiring writers at UTS offers insights into a life of writing, and we're pleased to be publishing it here.
“Suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close to her. Burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment, down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was going to get out again.”
You all know that story – how Alice entered the world of the imagination. And the rabbit-hole long ago entered the language. So it’s a kind of cliché to say that writing fiction can be for the writer a journey down the rabbit-hole. The surprise of the rabbit, the chase, the entrance into another world, another set of circumstances, led on by curiosity – and a rabbit. I wondered in fact whether the expression originated with Lewis Carroll, or whether it was older, but as far as I can tell, he made it up. “Down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.”
I don’t always have a particular rabbit and rabbit-hole that I can identify as the beginning of a novel, as the inspiration that set my imagination going. But with Family Skeleton I am able to identify the moment.
I was on a bus driving through bushland when I saw, not wildlife, but an Edwardian funeral hearse slowly emerging, almost sailing, out from a track between the trees, onto the road. I suppose I saw it for about half a minute, and possibly my imagination instantly embellished the vision. It was elegant, regal, gleaming. Eerie. Romantic. Ominous. The windows were etched. There were silver knobs. It was the gift that stimulated my imagination, that put in motion the story that became Family Skeleton. I followed the hearse. Well, figuratively, I followed the hearse.
I knew at once that it was the impetus, the heart of a novel. I am in the habit of writing fiction. I don’t suppose anyone else on the bus went home and started a novel as the result of the apparition of the hearse. I could be wrong about that. I am trying to explain to you how these things happen for me, and I think I can best do it by giving you another example.
The rabbit-hole for my novel Child of the Twilight was a small news item in the paper. I mean small small. It told the story of the theft of a miraculous religious statue from a church in Rome. I had seen the statue years before. I wondered how you would steal it, and why. Then I wondered what you would do with it. Incidentally, the statue is still missing. In its place in the church there’s a copy, and it seems to perform the same function as the real one anyway. But the theft was the beginning of the writing of the novel.
I think a fiction writer is always naturally alert to these prompts, these objects or occasions that set things in motion. It’s often a small thing. Sometimes I can’t even remember what got me started. But whatever it is, it raises urgent questions for me, and the novel in its construction and its characters is a form of answer or answers to the questions. I have to tell you I am not the kind of writer who begins with a written plan. Some do, some don’t. I don’t. I would not find it possible, as I begin to write a novel, to set out a detailed plot outline, to write the details of the characters, or to do any of the other things I often see described in books about writing fiction. When I have finished a novel, then I can analyse the parts, can tell you the plot and discuss the characters and so forth, but for me everything develops as I write – the characters along with the plot and structure. This is a personal matter – I’m not saying one way is right or better than another, I’m just saying this is how I do it. I believe that the Spanish novelist Victor del Arbol (The Heart Tastes Bitter) is the opposite of this – he does a complete plan, and also has detailed biographies of all his characters before he begins writing. I also do biographies of my characters, and in particular I do a lot of timelines and dates – but nothing like what someone such as Victor del Arbol does.
But to return to Family Skeleton – before I knew it, there was a dead body in the Edwardian hearse, and I knew who it was – the matriarch of an influential family, but I didn’t know how she had died. However almost at once, she was the matriarch of a family of funeral directors. Where did they come from? I realise now that there are points and elements in my life from way back that inform the narrative. Probably a key element is the fact that when I was a teenager I had a boyfriend whose family were funeral directors. So I had quite vivid insights into that world. The family in the novel call their place of business ‘the box office’, as those people did. And the boyfriend occasionally was permitted to use a hearse for social purposes. These details are the same for the people in the novel. When I came to prepare this talk for you, I realised that the funeral and the graveyard and so forth are threaded, woven throughout the course of my own life.
Maybe to begin with, my great grandfather, who came to Tasmania from Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century, became a tree feller and timber miller, and he also bred horses. Part of his business with the horses was training black horses for the funeral industry. My grandfather followed the same career, and was known as a horse whisperer, training the horses for funerals across the state. As a child I found this pretty interesting.
As a teenager I used to sometimes spend the afternoon at a place not far from our house in Launceston. It was a disused old grave yard, called the Caledonian Cemetery. I used to ride my bike there, and take a book to read and also a notebook for writing and drawing. Many of the graves were sepulchres, rooms dug into the side of the hill, with wrought iron doors. Everything was broken down and overgrown. There was a view that stretched far down to the centre of the town, and in the foreground I could see a formal Chinese garden where a man in a coolie hat worked among the vegetables, like something in a painting or a myth.
I think they are the three main elements I can point to as feeding my choice of a family of funeral directors for Family Skeleton. But there are also more pieces of evidence for my being a novelist who would write about this stuff. When I lived in Los Angeles for a year in the sixties, I visited three cemeteries of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park chain. I had read Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, and Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death. These days there are six of these privately owned cemeteries. These places were the antithesis of the old Caledonian Cemetery in Tasmania. The first idea was to eliminate upright grave-markers and feature works of art such as sculpture and stained glass. They were not called cemeteries, they were funeral homes and memorial parks. When I visited them they were in fact sparkling, manicured parks where flowers bloomed in glorious profusion, where recordings of birds played in the trees, where the atmosphere was dreamy, sentimental, full of fantasy, and serenity. The memorial parks were described by management as ‘A first step up toward Heaven’. Copies of famous statues and paintings – Leonardo’s Last Supper is a stained glass window in the wall of the vast marble Memorial Court of Honor in the Glendale location, the first one to be built. Glendale began as 22 hectares (might be bigger now, I don’t know, probably is) on which there are churches and lakes and places of meditation. You can be married there if you like – in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather. There are sections called Babyland, Vesperland, Dawn of Tomorrow and Inspiration Slope. I like the sound of Inspiration Slope. When I looked recently at the lavish book I bought at Glendale in the sixties, I see that there is a photo of the Council of Regents of the Memorial Court of Honor and they are all old white men in scarlet robes. I thought at the time that the photo was horrifying – today it seems even more ghastly and full of dread.
So anyway, Forest Lawn was an inspiration for the private cemeteries owned by the family in the novel. I take matters further and satirise them, making them closer to theme parks where there are ghost rides and such. This brings me to the tone of the novel.
At some point, and I am sorry but I can’t tell you how this happened, because I don’t really know, it became clear to me that the narrator was in fact a presence – it was the truth-teller, the skeleton in the wardrobe. I’ll read you the prologue:
Prologue by the Storyteller
“Imagine you have a talking skeleton in the wardrobe. That’s me. I still have my own teeth.
Once upon a time, in the years between the great wars, there was born a baby girl named Margaret. This happened in the artistic atmosphere of Eltham in the shire of Nillumbik, twenty kilometres to the north-east of Melbourne. Margaret’s childhood was happy, although during some of it the whole world was at war for the second time. When Margaret grew up she married Edmund who was a very distant cousin, and she went to live in the wealthy atmosphere of Toorak in the city of Stonnington, five kilometres to the south-east of the Melbourne Town Hall. And lived happily ever after. You think so? There was happy and there was sad. Life’s like that. Even Cinderella died in the end. Margaret and Edmund had four children, and in the way of things, before he was quite seventy years old, Edmund died. So Margaret lived alone in the lovely old house built by Edmund’s father. She was known as a philanthropist and patron of the arts, and people from the news media would sometimes come round with various recording devices and would then tell stories about her and her good works and her pretty family life in Toorak. These stories didn’t get very far beneath the surface. How could she possibly be as good as she seemed? One morning she said to her faithful housekeeper, Lillian: ‘I think I’ll write my memoirs.’
Now we’re getting somewhere.”
So the ironic tone has been set. There are sections of the text where the matriarch Margaret tells her version of things in her Book of Revelation. And sections where the family skeleton tells his (I think of it as a he, but it’s never clarified) version. He has access to everything that’s going on – I think that’s often called omniscient – but he has a particular perspective, and always has his mildly amused ironic tone. And his vanity, by the way. His own teeth. Of course all omniscient narrators have to select what they report – nobody can ever tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, can they? I think I’m right in saying that.
I recently heard from a friend in a book group that she was the only person in her group who liked the book they were reading, and that the other people hated the book because they didn’t like any of the characters. This gave me pause for thought. I didn’t really know that people – in this case the whole group but one – read fiction in that way. I wonder if those people would like any of the characters in Family Skeleton? Would they dismiss the novel because they didn’t LIKE the characters. Surely it doesn’t it all come down to just liking characters? And for that matter, what does ‘liking the characters really mean?’
I put my mind to some of the characters in Family Skeleton – and I decided that I for one like the skeleton. And I decided that even though many of the characters are pretty awful people, and do pretty awful things, I think that in the case of the main ones at least there are compassionate insights into them. Does this make them likeable? Would they pass muster at the book group? Possibly not.
But as I thought these things, I thought also about the first requirement for a piece of fiction. Lean in close. The first job for the writer is to make the reader CARE. Maybe you disagree. But that’s my belief based on my reading and my writing. The clue, maybe the little hook in the Prologue, is the bit that says the stories about Margaret in the media ‘didn’t get very far beneath the surface’. Will the Book of Revelation go deeper for the reader. The reader hopes so.
So the writer is suggesting, promising really, to the reader that the text is going to go beneath the surface and reveal truths. Of course a skeleton in the wardrobe, or cupboard, or closet, is a secret, isn’t it? So even the title of the novel is suggesting that secrets are going to be uncovered. If you go back to the epigraph at the front of the book – between the title and the prologue – it says: “The storyteller knows what the story teller knows; the storyteller tells what the storyteller tells.” So the skeleton knows – but he might not tell you everything.
Going back to what I said before about planning and not planning – the things I have just said about tone and narration and so forth – I didn’t, couldn’t, plan any of that. It all happened in the telling and in the writing – each element influenced the other – the characters and the plot and the structure and the tone – all this developed in concert. Perhaps this is due to years of practice in writing and in reading. I must stress my belief in the importance of reading, careful, close, attentive reading of other writers.
As the characters and plot develop, the writer’s own interests and concerns also become part of the fabric of the whole thing. Subject matter. Sometimes the subject matter of a novel is a huge dramatic topic, a current burning issue such as racial inequality or climate change. My novels are not like that. The subject matter of Family Skeleton is, in a sense, death. It approaches this via the life of one woman, Margaret, and how the events that happen on the surface of the everyday ultimately pull her to her destruction – so that she ends up in the aforementioned Edwardian hearse. She would have died anyway – as the skeleton says in the prologue, everybody dies in the end, even Cinderella. But to begin with Margaret is set up as a wealthy Toorak widow with a family to dominate, and the reader can tell from the prologue that she is going to come to a bad end – but how will this be managed? This is the matter the reader cares about. And before long there is in fact a mystery – the woman visiting from Florida has disappeared.
The narrator has an ironic and satirical slant on human folly, and the family of the undertakers is rich pickings.
There are some key elements to the writing of fiction that I haven’t yet mentioned. There’s language and rhythm. Choice of words and attention to music. The melody of the sentence. The harmonies and discords set up by the structure. The attention to punctuation and paragraphing.
In a few sentences, I can’t really tell you how any of that is done, but if you are alert to those things as you read, you can become practised in them as you write.
I said the novel is about death – but it also plays with death’s close relative, sex. I will read you a little sex bit. It’s told by the skeleton, and it is about a young man called Edmond and a schoolgirl called Cecelia, known as Sissy. They have been playing tennis at the family home of the funeral people. Edmund O’Day is the eldest son.
“After the last game everybody gathered under the oak for lemonade and cakes. Somehow, it seemed to Sissy, everybody dissolved and she was suddenly alone again with Edmund. She had longed for this, and dreaded it too. The tingling feeling of the pleasure of Edmund’s touch filled her body and seemed to spin into her brain. She had to be back in the boarding house and ready for tea by six-thirty. There was a flutter of panic in her heart. But Edmund had this time-table well figured in his brain. We are after all dealing with Edmund here. Sissy would be back in time. But first they must explore the paths that went round to the outside door, the door to the wine cellar. Edmund produced a key, and in they went. The door was dark green. It was worn and dusty. Yes, it squeaked as it opened. The interior was dark as dark can be. They briefly roamed the gloomy passageways between the rows of bottles. He showed her wines from Bordeaux that were put down when he was born, that would be opened when he turned twenty-one. He grasped a dusty old bottle of brandy and swung it by the neck. She loved the sight of him doing that. And he showed her the door of the bomb-shelter.
The bomb-shelter. Who had not heard of the legendary bomb-shelter in the O’Day house? Thirty-nine steps down, down down below the cellar.
‘Do you want to see? My family had it built at the beginning of the war. Excavated underneath the cellar. It’s like a really deep grave.’ He laughed. ‘Or an Egyptian tomb. Do you – want to see?’ His voice was careless, but with more than a hint of expectation and sexual excitement. Sissy lifted her face towards him, opened her eyes wide, slightly pursed her lips while smiling shyly, and nodded. Edmund kissed Sissy ever so lightly on the cheek. He was an artist in these matters.
There was a steel bar on the outside of the door, placed there because the door had a habit of swinging open at inopportune times and hitting anyone who happened to be there for one reason or another. In truth, few people ever ventured into this remote part of the wine cellar. Edmund lifted the heavy bar and swung back the door, flicked on a light, and stood aside to let Sissy go in first. There were cobwebs, and dusty concrete steps leading down to the underground shelter. Then he followed, closing the door behind them. They were beautifully sealed off from the outside world of reality. Never mind the dangers inside the cellar. It was completely freezing down there, and Edmund plugged in an old electric radiator that had a centre like a beehive. It was in fact quite effective.
This was Edmund’s special place, furnished with broken chairs and a sofa, glasses and ashtrays, everything faintly grimy and covered in a veil of dust. Three gas masks, like the heads of three terrible insects, hung from a hook high up on the wall. Sissy had heard of the cellar before, but nobody had ever described it to her. The walls were covered with maps of the world, resembling in their pastel colours, maps from the Bible. Empty shelves on one wall, a few comic books lying in a heap on the floor. An old stained sink with a tap. The air was stale, there being one tiny clogged-up ventilator high up near the ceiling.
‘A drink?’ he poured them generous glasses of brandy. Sissy was unused to drinking, and so Edmund watered it down for her. She gagged a little, then got used to it. They sat on a sofa and Edmund lit them each a cigarette. Sissy was quite accustomed to smoking, as it happened. They removed their shoes, and Sissy tucked her feet, still in her socks, up under the pleats of her tennis frock.
Before long, naturally, they were lying on the sofa in an embrace. The perfect buttons in their perfect buttonholes placed by the deft needle of Daphne Feeney give way to the deft fingers of Edmund O’Day. And Sissy, her head beginning to spin with the brandy, became a lovely young creature in white socks, chaste white knickers, thick white bra, gold cross on slender chain around her throat. She still dimly remembered she was supposed to be a temple of the Holy Ghost, but her will was in fact, at this stage, growing very weak indeed. The bra and knickers were gone. She had never really been a particularly devout or religious girl, and right now her body was feeling simply glorious. She wanted more and more of the feeling Edmund aroused in her. More and more. She hardly even knew that Edmund was naked, then in a flash Edmund’s fingers were inside her, and the feeling was one of almost unbearable pleasure. He was above her. He took her hand and placed it on himself and she began to stroke him, quite softly, and he obviously liked that a lot. She was by now drifting in a little ecstasy of astonishment. He grinned and then he said quietly in her ear, ‘Turn over,’ and he gently rolled her onto her front. Her backside, remember, was one of her greatest attractions. ‘Kneel up,’ he whispered and then he pushed himself into her from behind, and in a few miraculous seconds of wonderfully sharp pain and a blissful flood of unknown warmth it was all over – with Sissy flat on her face on the sofa and Edmund lolling back, stretching out full length, obedient to cliché, lighting two cigarettes. If he, in those few minutes, hurt her, the pain was the pain of high pleasure. He took a long draw and exhaled, throwing back his head as he did so. Then he turned Sissy’s face towards him, kissed her lightly on both cheeks, and put the second cigarette between her lips.
‘There,’ he said. Then, ‘Oh-oh, there’s a bit of the old blood.’ He handed her a grubby towel. Cecilia stared in a kind of dumb horror at the sight of her own blood on the towel. She stared and stared. She was in fact beginning to feel ill.
‘It’s OK, it’s normal you know,’ Edmund said. Is it? Is this normal? Nothing was normal. Everything was shifting and spinning slowly. Sissy knew very little about the facts of life.
‘Here, have some water,’ and he handed her a glass of water that was still tainted with the brandy.
There she was, a convent girl naked except for her socks and her gold cross, bleeding a little, sitting on an old leather sofa deep underground in a bomb-shelter, gulping down water from a dirty glass. Where to from here, Cecelia?”
The skeleton has a little habit of asking questions of the characters. He’s going to do it again in the last piece I will read. Then you might like to ask me some questions.
Here is a scene between Evan the psychiatrist who lives next door to the O’Days, and Doria who is the visitor from Florida who is eventually going to disappear. They are out at one of the O’Day cemeteries – this one is called Heavenly Days, and it’s a jolly kind of theme park. Doria is an historian who is doing the O’Day family history. This is a shorter reading.
I should point out that part of my technique is to signal for instance the importance of the unconscious mind in the text by putting a Freudian psychiatrist in the house next door.
“As it happened, Doria became sort of friendly with Evan Keene, the psychiatrist in the house next door to Bellevue. The O’Days had very little to do with their neighbours, but Evan was different. He was in fact a significant part of their lives. He took Doria shopping in the city and also in Carlton. She seemed to buy nothing at all – while Evan stocked up on cheeses, wines, and exotic sausage. One afternoon he drove her, in the pink MGB, out, out to what she called the boondocks – to Heavenly Days. They roamed the pathways under the spreading trees where lifelike birds warbled sweetly, and lifelike blooms nestled permanently among the leaves. This was nothing new to Doria, America being well stocked with much bigger, wilder, better, stranger death parks than this. They read a few clean, expensive headstones, and Evan became very quickly bored. Doria would have kept going – this was an area closely related to her life’s work, after all. But in the end they gave up and lunched on death-watch beetle wraps and Blue Bat merlot in the Catacomb Café. Things had begun to look up! They went on the rides in the theme park. Yes! Evan was like an ecstatic child on the ferris wheel, while Doria took everything in a strangely solemn mood, scarcely batting an eyelid, never uttering a sound, let alone a squeal. Inside the sepulchre that housed the tomb of the unknown zombie Evan grabbed Doria’s hand in alarm when two zombies, accompanied by threatening music, came slowly tottering towards them, and Doria said ‘Woah, Evan, it isn’t real!’ But of course it was; the undead lurched up against Evan’s arm and almost knocked him over. Doria was unmoved. Evan went to jelly, rushed from the place and had to sit down on a pile of coffins at the entrance. Still Doria didn’t even crack a smile. Remember she looks like Andy Warhol – that’s something to think about. Doria had wanted to take the option of being locked up for five minutes in the dark with the zombies, but Evan drew the line. Daylight, daylight! He was almost hysterical. With some relief he went for a ride on the Spooky-Kooky, and had a grave-robber’s sundae with wiggly worms. And this man, Doria said to herself, is an eminent psychiatrist. Yes, Doria, he is. A loony-doctor. What are you to make of that?”
I will conclude with a quote from Edmund – who is in the habit of making up pithy sayings:
“The past is a ghost, the future a dream, all we have is now – and the funeral industry.”
Purchase Family Skeleton by Carmel Bird here.