Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella, Carrie and friends

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Book Cover (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

For those of you who haven’t yet heard the news, I’d better start with the announcement that last week Carrie Tiffany‘s novel, Mateship with birds, was announced the winner of the inaugural Stella Prize. Unfortunately, the book is still on my TBR but with its also being shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, I need to get a move on.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, back to Stella and Carrie. When she was announced as the winner of the Prize, Tiffany, according to tweets on the night, immediately advised that she would return $10,000 of the $50,000 prize to be shared among the remaining shortlisted writers: Courtney Collins (The burial), Michelle de Kretser (Questions of travel), Lisa Jacobson (The sunlit zone), Cate Kennedy (Like a house on fire) and Margo Lanagan (Sea hearts). She wanted to recognise, I believe, the co-operative spirit of the Stella Prize, and the fact that women writers are supportive of each other. Go Carrie, I say.

Now to the “friends” part of this post’s title. In addition to the above gesture, she also said on the night that:

The Stella Prize is an opportunity to fete and honour writing by Australian women. When I sit down to write I am anchored by all of the books I have read. My sentences would not have been possible without the sentences of Christina Stead, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Beverley Farmer, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Helen Garner and the many other fine Australian writers that I have read and continue to read.

What a great list of writers. I first read all of these women, except Christina Stead, in the 1980s, and was blown away by the quality of their writing. Not only do they all tell wonderful stories but, as Tiffany implies, they write great sentences. You can have the best story in the world but if you can’t write a good sentence you’re not going to get far.

And sentences are clearly important to Tiffany, because in addition to mentioning them in her acceptance speech, she referred to them in an interview conducted by the Stella Prize team the day before the announcement. She was asked why she became a writer, and she said:

More than anything I wanted to become a reader and I’m pleased to have achieved that. In my early twenties I worked as a park ranger in Central Australia. I live in Melbourne now and work as a farming journalist. I started writing fiction ten or so years ago. I don’t remember any momentous shift, just a hankering to make some sentences of my own.

She was right to follow that hankering because, from what I’ve read and from the awards she’s won and been listed for, she too can write great sentences, can write in fact, like the women she named, brave sentences that take risks … I look forward to reading Mateship with birds.

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella, Carrie and friends

  1. This is a lovely analysis of Carrie’s speech! And I look forward to seeing what you think of Mateship with Birds. I liked what she was trying to do in the novel but I thought it could have been much tighter. Also, it’s a particularly feminine, quiet and domestic novel which might not have got much traction outside of the awards, and so I think was a very good choice for the inaugural Stella prize.

    • Thanks Jessica … glad you liked it. I have to finish my current read, which I hope to do by tomorrow, and then I have my reading group book for next week. My plan is to read Tiffany after that. That’s an interesting comment you make about its being a quiet and domestic novel. I look forward to seeing what I think. I so loved her first novel … it’s a little treasure … and I love the way her background as a ranger and farming journalist plays out in her novels. (At least it looks like it plays out in this one again from the couple of pages I’ve read to get a sense of it.)

    • Oh thanks, Karen Lee. I should have done that too. It’s funny how some blogs defeat us with commenting. Ai have a blog or two like that … And it doesn’t make sense when it seems to work for others, does it?

  2. Loved the book ,and so pleased that Tiffany won the Stella Prize. Her writing is excellent and portrays the struggles of women, men and children in the 1950s. It was also very Australian, with the birds and sheep playing their part in the story. I think you will like it Sue. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, her first novel was also a great read and if I remember correctly you also enjoyed the novel.

    • Oh yes, I loved her first novel … And have recommended it to many. I’ve looked at the first couple of pages of Mateship and an am itching to read it. It’s time has almost come!

  3. I loved the interviews, and what a snazzy site. I’ve ordered Carrie Tiffany’s first book so will begin with that. What a gesture for a prize-winner, though it might make next year’s winner seem selfish! It will be interesting to follow this award which I hope is here to stay. Loved her last quotation.

    • Oh yes, Catherine, good point re next year’s winner! Maybe the prize people will decide to do what more seem to be doing these days and provide a prize for the shortlist. $40K for the winner and 2K each for the 5 other short listed writers sounds good, don’t you think?

      I’m so glad you’ve got the first one … Would love to hear what you think.

      • At the Wheeler Centre event that I attended a couple of days after the announcement, the organisers of the prize did say that they would like to be able to honour the gesture in a similar way in future, but obviously there needs to be the funds there to do that.

        Nice post Sue

        • Oh that’s great to hear, Margaret … There’s a simple solution to it … Just reduce the main prize amount! Have the got the same amount shored up for next year, do you know, or is it going to be a year by year battle?

        • It is secure for the first three years. Not sure what happens after that.

          Part of the reason why they announced the inaugural prize as being $50000 was that they wanted it to be equal with the Miles Franklin which would be one reason why they wouldn’t want to reduce the major prize. Of course, after they announced that, the MF went up to $60000 but the board said they didn’t have the capacity to keep on doing the matching it.

        • Thanks Marg for the update. I guess there’s a symbolic desire to match it there but prizes around Australia vary hugely — I think the sharing is a more important symbolic action for a woman’s prize than matching the Miles, don’t you think?

  4. Sentences, yes. That’s what it’s all about, those sentences that make you stop reading and linger over the absolute mastery of the author.
    (Oh. Oops. Is it ok to talk about ‘mastery’ in the context of the Stella LOL?)

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