Tasmanian Gothic


Tasmanian Gothic Convict Breaks the Chains

This essay was first published in Mystery Writers Journal, July 2019

In 1955, a high school somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee decided to exchange student essays with a high school in Launceston, Tasmania. I was one of the Tasmanians chosen by my teacher to produce one of the essays. Two things happened:

  1. a) the teacher said she couldn’t send my essay to Nashville because it dealt with unsuitable material
  2. b) I had my first and inspiring lesson in how to respond to censorship

So what was that unsuitable material? I had written about the dark history of Tasmania at a time when that history was still supposed to be suppressed. I had told stories of the attempted genocide of the indigenous people of the island by the British, and I had clarified the fact that the place was originally a prison colony. Oh no! What was the child thinking? In her pale blue school dress with white collar and cuffs, her straw hat, white gloves, blonde hair, green eyes, hockey stick and piano lessons? What was all this about native wars and escaped convicts?

It was my material. And of course the whole experience was a magnificent spur to me to write and never stop writing. Get the story out. Since then – well it’s a long time ago, isn’t it – the truths of the history of Tasmania have gradually come into the spotlight. I imagine that today my essay – alas, long lost – would possibly be refused entry in the exchange because it was too much of a cliché.

I left Tasmania when I was twenty-three. But the dye was cast. My imagination was formed in that place at that time. The early history of Tasmania would forever inform the fiction I would write. My work is often described as ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ and sometimes ‘Tasmanian Noir’. A clue to this is in the title of one of my books, Cape Grimm. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm meet the dangerous rocky outcrop on the far, far north-west coast of Tasmania. Even when the scene is set far from the island, there will just about always be a character who goes there, or who originates from there. Sometimes I think that’s just lazy, but when I try to change things, they won’t change, and it turns out the character has no alternative but to have the Tasmanian link. Only four of my twelve novels, Unholy Writ; Open For Inspection; Child of the Twilightand Field of Poppiesare crime fiction proper, but all of them, with the exception of Crisis, are explorations of dark and terrible events. I don’t have a detective, or a who-dun-it scenario; I take what is a kind of sideways approach to the whole matter of the horrors of crime.

In my 1990 novel The Bluebird CaféI invented Woodpecker Point, an old mining town on the north west coast of Tasmania, and also a character called Carrillo Mean, grandson of Philosopher Mean. This Carrillo is a shape-shifting Tasmanian who invades or hovers over much of my work. When he isn’t a character in the narrative, he provides an epigraph for the book, a wise saying that originates from his own vast repertoire of writings. He has his own Facebook page, but is rather careless about it and doesn’t often make posts. He really should pay more attention to these things. His most celebrated books are The Mining of Meaningand The Meaning of Mining. Much of his work is published by his own Bedrock Press.

My new novel Field of Poppies, which will be launched at the Terror Australis festival of crime writing in Cygnet, Tasmania in November 2019, has an epigraph from Carrillo: ‘I was sleepwalking through a field of poppies, somewhere in France.’ The novel is set in an old mining town on the mainland of Australia, but yes, there are characters who come from Tasmania. And the plot might as well be Tasmanian Gothic. There is a horrible contemporary crime, in the context of historic crimes, which are gradually uncovered as the new facts come to light. The mining town appears to be a perfect place for professional people to go to for their retirement, while the wider world is mired in wars and famines and terrorism, not to mention the changes to the climate, the catastrophic weather events, and the disappearance of a million species. There are echoes of the Great War of 1914, a war that looms large in the history of Australia. Was it downhill for the planet after that war? The people of the town just go about their lives as if sweetly half asleep, until everything splits apart when one of them disappears overnight.

And in the end, has anything changed in these people? Not much, it seems. Sleepwalking, dancing into the dark, about to be overtaken by a brand new foreign gold-mine in their little old town. Long ago in this place some people got very rich, thousands died from disease and despair. Whatever next? Is nowhere safe?

In the eighteenth century the British imagined they could contain their criminals on the island of Tasmania, could wipe out the indigenous populations, could develop a nice outpost of empire down there at world’s end. Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, as I noted in 1955, when I was accidentally given the freedom to turn the truths of the past into my own brand of Tasmanian Gothic.



Biographical Note

Carmel Bird has written twelve novels and eight collections of short fiction. In 2016 she was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award – one of Australia’s most significant prizes. Her interest in indigenous cultures is reflected in the anthology The Stolen Children – Their Stories, which she edited. She has also edited a range of anthologies of both fiction and non-fiction. She now lives in the historic gold-mining town of Castlemaine.




                                                              New Novel

                 Field of Poppiesis published in November 2019 by Transit Lounge.

“It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery.”         

                                                                                       Michael McGirr 

The scarlet poppy is a reminder of the First World War, a war that tore civilisation apart in the 20thcentury. The poppy grows wild in the fields around Muckleton, a rural Australian town, where one night a woman called Alice vanishes. The village is turned upside-down. In the world outside Muckleton, the seas are rising, the climate is changing, millions of refugees are dying, forests and species are disappearing. The majority of affluent westerners appear to be living carefree, careless lives. Muckleton tree-changers Marsali and William are involved in the woes of the village, are aware of the worries of the world, and yet they seem to be merrily swept along with the tide that is threatening to overwhelm the planet.

                                Two Odd Sources of Inspiration for this Novel

A friend went to a gallery where she bought a fancy hair clip, which she gave to me. The image on the hair clip was ‘Woman with a Parasol’, one of Claude Monet’s many depictions of his wife.

I went on a little Monet spree, and naturally I came to ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil’. Sometimes it is easy enough to explain how and why an event is the inspiration for a piece of fiction, however I can’t really say why ‘Poppies’ set my imagination in motion, but it did.

Suddenly I had a character who loved, not just that painting, but a faithful copy of it, created by her aunt. The main figure of the woman in ‘Poppies’ is probably the same woman as the one with the parasol. For that matter, she’s carrying a parasol in ‘Poppies’ too. Before I knew it, I was writing about the poppies in Flanders, about the waste and horror of war, leading me on to meditate on the ravages that humans have visited upon the planet itself. Yet as I descended into the bewildering darkness of wars, refugees, climate, disease, overcrowding, starvation, thirst, extinctions – I saw all around me people who lead cheerful, comfortable Australian lives, playing sport, going to the opera, the café, the art gallery, flying to Paris, decorating their hair with fancy clips. The novel was beginning to take shape.

I am daily reminded of the urgency needed to attend to looming global disaster. Marsali and William are intended to foreground the dangers inherent in blithely living in a kind of fairyland. I live in something like this fairyland myself. At one level, they know everything is spinning out of control; at another level they are powerless to act. The ground beneath their feet is rich in gold that will betray them, and also seeded with the bones of historic tragedies and massacres. Such things are still happening around them in the wider world.

It’s ironic of course that something as innocent and sweet as the fancy hairclip should have set all this in motion.

Another source of inspiration forField of Poppies was an article I had saved from The Australian Women’s Weekly, June 4 1975. My filing cabinets are full of odd files of rather eclectic bits of information that I seem to have been collecting forever. This was a story about people in London who specialized in producing excellent legal fakes of great paintings. I am interested in the world of art theft (which I explored in my novel Child of the Twilight) and also in the matter of fakes. The character of Marsali’s aunt Clarissa in Field ofPoppies is an amateur painter who made the copy of the Monet Poppiespainting that is one of the key elements in my new novel. The magazine article from 1975 isn’t even particularly detailed or interesting, but it must have fermented away in the filing cabinet, and in my memory, to surface again when I came to construct Field of Poppies.

                                                Comments on Field of Poppies 

Fiona Wright: “Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers.”

Michael Sala: “Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. Carmel has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel.”

Gerardo Rodriguez Salas: “Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.”

Michael McGirr: This is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It is wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute, showcasing the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve.

Gabrielle Lord: “All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.”

Robert Drewe: How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town? Literary tour de force will have to do.”