Carrie Tiffany’s second novel Mateship with Birds won the first ever Stella Prize for women’s writing earlier this week, elevating her to a new status of ambassador for women in literature and the creative arts.
It’s a reward for a career that’s included plenty of sacrifices, as well as the challenge associated with juggling work, life and family with creative goals.
“The award is a wonderful acknowledgement of the book, but it’s also got a really practical element for me,” Tiffany tells Women’s Agenda. “I work full time, I have a couple of kids at uni and I’m on my own. It can be a bit of a struggle.”
Tiffany pursued freelance journalism work rather than take a full-time, higher paying journalism role, so she could find the time for her writing. “Sometimes I think about the choices I’ve made in my life for my writing, how those decisions have impacted my children and how much bread there is on the table. So to be given the money so I can create more time to write really matters.”
Her work as an agricultural journalist partially inspired Mateship with Birds, as did that fact she was reading a lot of Freud as she wrote the novel. Set in the 1950s, the novel follows the story of Betty as she raises her two fatherless children in rural Australia. Her relationship with her neighbour Harry and his with her son Michael create a complex story of love, family, the land, loneliness, and desire.
Tiffany chose to set her novel in the fifties for personal and political reasons. “I began writing this novel at the end of the Howard era. There was so much discussion in the media about the return to 1950s value, which were about women in the home. I wanted to explore what these values really were.”
In her acceptance speech, Tiffany praised the Stella Prize as an opportunity to let girls and women know they are more than sexualised objects. “For a woman to spend time alone in a room, to look rather than to be looked at, means rejecting some of this pressure. It means doing something with your mind rather than your body,” she said on the night.
Tiffany’s win has opened a new conversation about women and writing in many mainstream media outlets, a key goal of the prize. But some of the news angles to emerge have caused Tiffany to reflect on how her story has been told, and if a book about similar themes by a writer like Peter Carey might be covered differently. “Some of the things I’ve been experiencing in the last few days have really demonstrated why we need the prize. I would love for there to be a time when we don’t have to have the Stella Prize, but that time is not now,” she says.
The coordinating team behind the Stella Prize is delighted with Tiffany’s win, and her decision to donate some of the prize money to the shortlisted authors. Stella chair Aviva Tuffield declared Mateship with Birds is an unusual book that’s “subtle and clever and beautifully written”.
She hopes the award will introduce Tiffany’s book to a wider audience, and notes that, Tiffany’s win is only the beginning of the Stella Prize’s work.
Mateship with Birds is in the running for a range of other awards, including non-gendered competitions such as the NSW Premier’s Award and the Miles Franklin. It has been long listed for the Kibble award and the Women’s Fiction Prize in Britain.