Claire Aman’s short stories have been published in a number of collections, and several have won prizes, including the Wet Ink/CAL Prize and the Hal Porter Prize. Aman grew up in Melbourne, but has lived most of her life in and around Grafton, a city of around 17,000 people in northern New South Wales, which is also the setting for her new collection, Bird Country (Text Publishing). A handyman finds an elderly woman’s jewellery scattered around her garden; a woman and small boy bond over a small grey budgerigar; a mother goes to drastic measures to hide her son from the police as floodwaters rise. The stories in Bird Country paint a loving portrait of an Australian country town bursting with natural beauty, but with a persistent sense of melancholy – a melancholy cut through with a dry, lightly absurdist sense of humour that feels startlingly familiar.
I want to speak with Aman about the book and about Grafton, as it’s the town where I grew up – while I’m used to seeing familiar haunts in Melbourne rendered on the page, there’s a surprising intimacy in seeing my home town fictionalised in this way. When I speak with Aman it’s Jacaranda Thursday, the focal point of Grafton’s annual Jacaranda Festival and a public holiday in the town. All day I’ve been seeing photos on social media of the main street festivities, garish costumes mixing bright colours into the sea of purple. It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it – but perhaps we can never fully convey what home means to us.
KYD: Can you tell me about how this book came into the world?
Claire Aman: In about 1995, I had a job in town and I lived at Kangaroo Creek [about 45 minutes out of Grafton], so I had quite a drive each day. And as I’d drive to work each morning, and home, I just started getting this image in my imagination of a woman who looked like an owl, and I sort of just stayed with that, I got a bit preoccupied with that image, and it became someone who worked at the Halfway Creek roadhouse…
KYD: You know, when I read that story [‘Why the Owl Gazes at the Moon’], I was imagining it taking place at Halfway Creek.
CA: Oh wow! That is the place, I used to go there a lot. And also one night I was fighting a bushfire, and there was an aviary, and we were saving the birds from the fire, and I was thinking, oh, this is pretty bad. And then I discovered the Halfway Creek roadhouse had an aviary behind it. And suddenly things fell into place, and I bought a notebook to write all these things down, and then I realised I was writing about the loss of my sister about 30 years ago. I didn’t realise that’s what was happening, but I wrote a novel over about 15 years, about the roadhouse and this woman who was like an owl, and I remembered this old Chinese folk tale that had been told to me about an owl, and so I wrote a novel over about 15 years, very slowly, kept rewriting it.
‘Suddenly things fell into place, and I bought a notebook to write all these things down, and then I realised I was writing about the loss of my sister about 30 years ago.’
And Gillian Mears was a really good friend of mine, she knew I was writing and she said, ‘Oh, send it off to Varuna’, so I did, and they liked it, and I got a residency. Peter Bishop, the creative director at Varuna, was really supportive and fantastic – he came to the launch in Melbourne – and he used to say, ‘this will get published one day.’ But after being an 80,000 word novel that couldn’t get published, I made it into a 10,000 word story, and it worked well.
KYD: The stories in the book were published in various places over a number of years – and yet taken together they form a really cohesive whole. How was the process of bringing all these pieces together into the one collection?
CA: When Text said they’d publish the collection I was really thrilled, it’s a lifelong ambition, I was just so pleased. And when [editor Jane Pearson] said, ‘how would you feel about being edited,’ and I said, that’d be okay – I used to work as a public servant so I was very used to having my work edited. And I knew that Jane really liked the stories, and I trusted that she got them all, and she did. So she was very light-handed, and very intelligent and subtle. She really enhanced the stories so well, I never once felt that she interfered, or intervened, or made something say what I didn’t want to say. With the other stories, they written over about 10 years. It was Gillian’s idea, that I try and write short stories, so I tried and I liked it, moreso than trying to write a novel.
KYD: Indeed, you’ve dedicated the collection to the late Gillian Mears, another writer from Grafton – did the two of you work together much as writers?
CA: No, no, we were friends, we were just very good friends. We met at a meditation retreat, so we weren’t really writing friends for a long time – and I was doing secret writing, I suppose, for a long time before I told her. And she would never look at anything of mine before it was published – it was her rule for every writer, including me, and it set the bar very high. We talked a lot, we spent a lot of time together, we looked at things and we saw the same things, but we didn’t collaborate.
KYD: Did Mears’ work influence your own in the way she wrote about the north coast, and about interacting with nature, that kind of thing?
CA: Oh, I don’t think there was a conscious influence – I mean we talked a lot, and I suppose everything sifts down into your subconscious, and the people you’re close to always influence you, so in that sense, maybe. We had a very writerly existence in terms of the way we looked at things, but we didn’t sit with our notebooks or anything…it’s hard to describe. She was a very good friend, I miss her.
KYD: Obviously I have a bit of a vested interest, but I’d like to talk about Grafton – I’ve seen you describe it rather enigmatically in author bios as ‘an inspiring town’. All of the stories in Bird Country are set in or connected to Grafton in some way – what is it that you find inspiring about Grafton as a writer?
CA: Well I didn’t grow up here, I grew up in Melbourne, so it’s easy to me to say it’s a fascinating place, but it is. I also know a lot of old people – I do Telecross telephoning work, so I talk to a lot of old people, and they tell me a lot of the history. I used to live just down near the Grafton Bridge, near the railway line – the houses are demolished now, to make way for the new bridge, which is pretty sad – but it was just so interesting, just having the bridge, and the footway and the train and the river and the nice gardens, and people would walk past and you’d meet all sorts of people. The kids would jump off the bridge, and we’d jump off the bridge ourselves, it was a really lovely place down there. And the ordinariness of Grafton is really only on the surface. It’s not groovy like Byron Bay, but there are no clichés in Grafton. There is an honesty.
‘The ordinariness of Grafton is really only on the surface…there are no clichés.’
KYD: Was there a side of Grafton that you were wanting to present to the world, or was it more just about reflecting your experience?
CA: Just my experience, just my own preoccupation. I didn’t really write it with an idea that people would read everything. Just your preoccupations, what you tend to be interested in is what you write, so I didn’t really expect it to end up in a book of short stories being published. Especially the roadhouse story, I never expected that to see publication.
KYD: Something that I noticed as I read, which kind of surprised me, was that there were a couple of occasions where you would lightly fictionalise something about Grafton – I’m thinking of Supplejack Island [in ‘Mrs Dogwether’s Bird Moment’], I’m assuming it’s Susan Island. It’s the sort of thing that 90% of readers wouldn’t pick up on, or care about, and it made me realise how much benefit of the doubt I give when I’m reading about other places that I can’t visualise or inhabit in that same way. I’m curious about what inspired this blurring of the line between the real and fictional Grafton?
CA: Well at one stage I was completely fictionalising Grafton, and I was calling it Plumbago. And I didn’t know what I should do, whether I should call it Grafton or not – and in the end it was Jane Pearson’s idea, she said, ‘go on, call it Grafton, it’s okay’. So I just did a name change, a find and replace. But I shouldn’t have called it Supplejack – it’s Elizabeth Island actually, there was a proposal to put the new bridge over Elizabeth Island. There could be other things like that.
KYD: Well, that’s interesting, because there are other instances like that, where I felt maybe there were a few things being combined together, and I wondered whether when you were writing you’d generally have a story in mind, and would kind of reshape Grafton to fit around it.
CA: I kind of did. I wouldn’t use it as a geography or history book, that’s for sure. And I’m sure a lot of local people are reading it at the moment – we had the local launch the other night, about 50 copies were sold. So I’m sure a lot of people are going to accost me in the street, and say, ‘this isn’t true, that’s not right!’ [Laughs]. And it does make you realise what’s fact and what’s fiction – it’s hard to write something completely fictional and completely factual.
KYD: As well as Grafton, the other common thread throughout the collection is the birds – it is called Bird Country after all. I was quite struck by how they seemed to be vehicles for grief or vulnerability or innocence and the way that we interact with them. You can really feel that tension between the boy in ‘Ash Miss’ wanting to care for the budgerigar but also feeling obliged to his cruel father, or protecting the doves on Supplejack Island in ‘Mrs Dogwether’, or the cranky old cockatoo kind of standing guard over the son in ‘Louis’. So they all seem to relate to the way that we protect the vulnerable. What it is about birds and our relationship with them that resonates with you in your writing?
CA: Weirdly enough, none of that is deliberate, but I know exactly what you mean. It’s just that magical aspect of writing – if you write about your preoccupations, without having to make a manifesto, you soon start saying what you really feel, without really trying to. I did notice after a while that [my writing] always seemed to have birds in it, and I did live next door to this woman who had aviaries, and I did seem to always notice, or end up noticing when there was lots of birds. But it was probably because I was open to it. And I do like birds, I do – I don’t know much about them, but I like them.
‘If you write about your preoccupations, without having to make a manifesto, you soon start saying what you really feel, without really trying to.’
KYD: I’d never really thought of the area as ‘bird country’, but it fits, it’s quite a lovely image of the whole Northern Rivers.
CA: There are a lot of birds here, it’s a really high biodiversity, once you’re aware of it.
KYD: It’s something I kind of took for granted until it moved away, but I feel a lot more fondly toward the area now than I ever used to.
CA: Do you? Yes, it’s nice to hear. It must be hard to grow up here. Young people don’t have a lot to opportunities.
KYD: In terms of sustaining a writing career, especially for young people – not just in Grafton but a lot of regional areas – there is this sense of being pulled towards Sydney and Melbourne, there is a sense that you need to be there if you want to make a writing career, or find a community of writers. I wonder whether that is something you’ve felt?
CA: I didn’t really set out to have a writing career, I worked as a town planner for a long time, and writing has always been something I did for fun. But I have, on the other hand, always been quite ambitious in getting my writing out, I’ve always sent things off to competitions and stuff, and tried to get things published, and I have been ambitious in that sense, to have a body of work. And it hasn’t bothered me living in the country – Varuna has good residencies for regional people, so I have had three or four of those. Not knowing a lot of other writers hasn’t bothered me a lot.
It’s a private thing that you do, really, sitting at your desk. I think Gillian’s influence there was that writing was private, she didn’t talk about her writing with anyone, she didn’t workshop it. So I kind of took a bit of that from her. But then I got a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors, and my mentor was Julie Chevalier, who is connected with Spineless Wonders, and she taught me that you can show your work to people, and you can play around with it, and do different things. So she did teach me that it is good to be more outwards.
KYD: So what’s next – are you working on something new now?
CA: Yeah, I have just finished a short story about a group of women on a motorcycle trip through the Kimberley to Melbourne – that is how we got to the book launch, across the Tanami desert and down through the Nullarbor on our bikes.
KYD: And you’re continuing to focus on short stories?
CA: Yes, I like short stories, I really feel happy when I’m writing short stories. And so that’s why I write them, because it gives me a lot of pleasure while I’m doing it. Even though there are few things that are challenging, I really like doing it.
‘I really feel happy when I’m writing short stories…it gives me a lot of pleasure while I’m doing it, even though there are few things that are challenging.’
KYD: Are there any writers whose short stories you particularly enjoy, or that you are inspired by?
CA: I recently picked up a collection of Arthur Miller’s short stories – it was absolutely brilliant, I love his work. I like Virginia Woolf, I like Gillian’s writing. I love Elizabeth Strout, I think she has been a good influence in writing about ordinary people. She’s great.
KYD: Are there any rules or strategies that you follow when you are writing, or other writers that have particularly influenced your style?
CA: No, I just go for it. I make a lot of notes in notebooks and I venture out and I never quite know what I’m doing. I’m always a bit – I don’t know, a bit frightened, I don’t know where things are going, and I never really know what I’m doing. But when I get to a point, I always use Cate Kennedy’s advice – I went to a workshop with her in Bellingen a few years ago, and she would say with short stories, the basic thing is, ‘what does this person want, and why can’t they get it?’ And that always lets me see clearly where I’m going. But I only call on that when I am off quite deep in a story, and I don’t know what I am saying. And Cate launched the book in Melbourne, which was really nice, and she said something else at that launch which was very insightful, which I now use. She said, ‘you have to ask yourself when you are writing a story, what infuses the story, and what is the urgency, and what is the belief?’ And it is such powerful advice, and it is now what I use in what I am writing now. And it helps you get your feet back on the ground and go, right, I know what I’m writing about now. I do get a bit lost, and that keeps me grounded.
Bird Country is available now at Readings.