The Bird’s Child is a beautifully written, imaginative novel from debut Australian author, Sandra Leigh Price. It’s a moving tale of three intriguing characters, all trying to escape their pasts, when they find themselves washed up on the steps of a once grand terrace turned bohemian boarding house in Sydney’s Newtown.
Ari is a young Jewish man, who lives under the stern rule of his rabbi uncle, but dreams his father is Houdini. Finding an injured parrot one day on the street, Ari is unsure of how to care for it, until he meets young runaway Lily. Together they form a magical act, but their lives take a strange twist when the charming and dangerous drifter, Billy, twisted by war, can no longer harbour his secret desires.
Sandra Leigh Price talks to Better Reading about the subject of The Bird’s Child and how she finds inspiration for her writing…
Better Reading: The subject matter of The Bird’s Child is unusual. Where do you get your ideas?
Sandra Leigh Price: The Bird’s Child started for me with the image of a boy with the mysterious tattoo abracadabra on his hand. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was also toying with setting the book in a particular street. When I remembered the street had a synagogue in it and that tattoos are forbidden in Jewish culture, the plot came to life. I was also obsessed with the images from the exhibition, City of Shadows and the bravado of the criminals photographed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the swagger and resistance, the unloved returned soldiers of WW1. And then the Yeats poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus, which kept circling through my mind. All these elements of the story presented themselves to me as a series of locks I needed to pick.
BR: What have been your influences – in a literary and non literary sense?
SLP: In a literary sense, I writers such as Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Peter Carey and Louise Erdrich – not only do they use such thrilling language, but they allow for a sense of wonder to brush up against the real. In a non-literary sense, I’m completely inspired by the whirlpool of my own family’s stories, genealogy and history in general. Stories that are just waiting to come into the light.
BR: Who are some Australian writers – old and new – who you read and admire?
SLP: Peter Carey is someone I greatly admire. Also, Sonya Hartnett is another Australian writer I admire (I can almost forgive her for putting so many fictional children in danger!). And, historian Grace Karskens – refocusing our national identity in all its complex detail, as something striking and strange and ours. Also, Christine Keneally (Secret History of the Human Race) and Clare Wright’s work are very inspiring.
BR: Is the historical setting something you intend to pursue in future books?
SLP: I’m kind of with Faulkner when he said: “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past.” I don’t even think of my work as ‘historical’, but as I find history so fascinating I can’t resist visiting it. We are part of history and history is part of us – we share the same needs, hopes, desires regardless of the costume.
BR: You are also an actor. Have you now turned to writing permanently?
SLP: I think so, it’s been a while since I’ve performed – I used to love the communal buzz of the rehearsal room when the spoken word came to life. I also loved the fantastic yarns of the older actors. Maybe writing in the first person is a left over habit from acting? And with writing, one gets to be like Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and gets to play all the parts.
BR: How much of an ‘Australian’ voice do you consider yourself to be?
SLP: Completely, even when not working on Australian subjects. To me it is as if the ‘Australian’ voice is a lyrebird, we can sing other songs but remain ourselves. With The Bird’s Child I was thinking a lot about the vernacular, the larrikin, the tall tale, the outsider and how these things, to me, are part of Australian identity. It is no surprise that our most popular song, Waltzing Matilda is about a vagabond who steals a sheep and haunts a billabong. For Australians, we sometimes don’t think about how eccentric and rich some of our stories really are and how many more are waiting for us to discover them.
BR: What have you got planned for the future – is there another novel on the horizon?
SLP: I’m working on something to do with immigrants in the 19th century and researching for my novel after that and enjoying the epiphanies of that.