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An Interview with Anna Tambour

by Keith Brooke

Anna Tambour is very much a writer of our times.

Even though she lives deep in the Australian bush, the wonders of the Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & by Anna Tambourinternet mean she's not at all isolated, keeping in regular contact with friends all around the world with her wonderfully rich e-correspondence. Writing the kind of quirky, miraculous little fabulations crammed with invention and insight and humour that might struggle in the conservative world of commercial publishing, Anna has had most of her early breaks on the web, with short stories appearing at infinity plus, Strange Horizons, HMS Beagle and other online venues. Her first collection, Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales, was published in 2003 by Prime Books, and her work has drawn praise from Jeff VanderMeer, Publishers' Weekly, Locus and others. Her first novel, Spotted Lily, a deal-with-the-devil story unlike any other you'll have read, was published by Prime in 2005.

We carried out this interview in March 2005. Even though I didn't really have time to read Spotted Lily, I dipped into the first chapter just for a bit of background. And then I had to read the second, and the third, and soon I was sitting up late into the night to finish it. It's that good.

Keith Brooke: In our correspondence you frequently come up with wonderful accounts of the things you see and do in the countryside around your home in the Australian bush. Tell us about a typical day in the life of Anna Tambour--what do you see and do?

Anna Tambour: Walking and spending time with my animal family are two parts of my daily routine. These times are often more useful than research as such, another part of every day (such as the lesson learned that it's fun, though not advisable, to have a donkey nibble down a carrot held between a person's teeth--I have the scar to remind me of that).

The bush is forever in a state of change. Orchids drip from ledges in the wet. During bushfires, a black high-tide line appears on the beaches--bushfire confetti--burnt and burning leaves that float on billows of hot air and fall into the sea. The great beauty of the bush is in its details. Travelled through on wheels, you can need the radio to blare to keep you awake, the bush can be so boring for long stretches. On foot, even if we don't see the goannas, their tracks show that they like using the forest paths. Once we came upon a lizard laying eggs. Lyrebirds sort out their sound collections, and one day we heard a lyrebird perfecting the sound of a metal fencepost being banged into the ground. The flora, such as the bottlebrush, grandfather's beard, old man banksia, bloodgum (with blood-red resin), prickly moses, and lawyer vine (so called because the barbs catch you and are the devil to pry off) are weird.

Various mating noises, often quite bad-tempered, liven up the night. Our large animal family extends now to a community of king parrots who have taken to spying on us through our windows. Other species really taught me fun, something I didn't grow up with an adequate sense of--though donkeys aren't subtle, and magpie teens sometimes turn into gangs of hoods. So walking in the forest and spending time with my animal family are parts of every day, and they help me to think.

KB: Tell us about your new novel: where did Spotted Lily come from? What was it like to move up from short story to Spotted Lily by Anna Tambournovel-length writing?

AT: Partly instigated by some illustrations in a 55-cent library discard, it erupted when I was in the middle of working on other projects, and the story and people in it took over my life. As for moving up, I think that a novel is moving over. I love short stories, and have never seen them as stepping stones. Most of my favourite works are short stories. That said, Spotted Lily could only have been a novel. As for how it was writing it, it gave me a lot of bad breath.

KB: "Bad breath" -- in what way? You've just given me a vision of you sitting at your desk, munching on garlic to feed the creative process! Or do you mean mental/creative bad breath?

AT: Not garlic munching! That's a childhood thing (actually garlic-smelling of a thumb rubbed with a clove--the necessary accompaniment to reading fairy tales). This bad breath comes from wherever 'creativity' comes from, and is not what you would call food-scented. It would be nice to think it is the scent of imagination, growing and flowering--an internal Amorphophallus titanum (vulgarly known as 'corpseflower'), flowering upon my command. But since I get too involved to eat or drink when I write, I think it's just bad breath.

KB: Your love of short stories comes across abundantly in your collection Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales, and the diversity is striking -- from the whimsically playful to the deeply moving via all kinds of strange stopping off points. That kind of range of subject and approach can make life hard for a writer, though, in a publishing world where "more of the same" is the usual prescription. What kind of response has MD&OT had? I've seen some enthusiasm in genre circles, but has it reached outside genre boundaries at all?

AT: At a total sale of 124 copies, boundaries?

KB: Your stories are always very rich in sense of place, and the detail of people's lives. We can assume that much of this is from direct personal experience -- those wonderful Australian settings, for example -- but some are less obviously connected to what we know about you from your dustjacket biography. What's your acquaintance with the art and museum world of "Exhibition", for instance? Or the Cevennes depicted in the wonderful "Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes"? What's your approach to research? Are you one of those writers who spends weeks or months preparing in advance, or do you plug in the gaps afterwards?

AT: Experience and observation spawn much of what I write, including "Exhibition" and "Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes", though I never met Mr Stevenson, nor did I actually see a Great Theory, nor have I been able to time travel yet. My approach to research is that it's always been a great tempter. If I let it get the better of me, I'd never stop, but it also takes me down alleys I never knew existed, so it's an ongoing practice.

KB: You've told me before about going through periods of not liking what you've been writing, and how often these frustrating periods precede more productive times. How do you know when something's working, or not working? How much of your writing does the world end up seeing? What happens to the misfires?

AT: Often I feel self-disgust and deep frustration with myself. Sometimes rejections have inspired me, and I feel an electrical zing from tearing something up and completely reworking it. Not for editors as such, though a really helpful comment such as L. Timmel Duchamp's suggestion to show more of the personality of the medlars in "Valley of the Sugars of Salt" knocked my eyeballs into position to see what was missing, and to finally make the story "work", but not for everyone. No story can do that. "Is this something that I would love to read? And would it move me when read for the third time?" are the questions that I'd like to be able to answer in the affirmative, always. As for the misfires, much of my writing does not leave home. I'm glad that it's not live ammo, or I'd need a helicopter to extract me.

KB: What sort of person writes about scientists in search of a Great Theory ... in a forest teeming with Great Theories? Or a potted history of food from the perspective of a god who really doesn't think much of the tastes of his creations?

AT: The kind of person who's attracted to the romantic mind of Miriam Rothschild who, according to her obit in the Economist, "once named a flea (she discovered) after a writer on The Economist. ... probably the highest honour she could bestow on anyone." The kind who was once asked in all seriousness by a professor during one of my oil-and-water encounters with tertiary education, "Have you ever considered that you might be crazy?" The kind who was cured of loving a former oboeist when he told me that, though he really wanted to take professional pictures, he had taken up weekend golf. The kind who is comforted by Charles Steinmetz's statement: "There are no foolish question and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions." The kind who didn't know until a few years ago, when feeding a sick cow by putting food in her mouth, that cows have no upper teeth! They do when they smile in cartoons.

KB: Food, and in particular good food, crops up quite often in your work. What's in your kitchen? What would you feed guests? Please don't tell me it would be a McBurger -- that would shatter my illusions!

AT: Keep your illusions, but if you fulfilled my fantasy, you love good decadent food. No crass double-chocolate or sticky date pudding horrors--the golden dolphin bathroom fittings of modern food. No current chefs' riffs such as cauliflower ice cream--unspeakable! Decadence needs contrast, and love of the food for itself. So ... dates bathed overnight in cream, served neat or with a sprinkling of crushed pistachios or pomegranate seeds. A cake of figs, dates, citron, honey, cardamom, coriander, ginger, pricked all over the top in a fanciful design, and studded with almonds. Little sandy cakes of semolina crust filled with a paste of ground walnuts, sugar and cinnamon, moistened with wine. Chewy hazelnut torte. Chocolate salami. Fruit crumble, cooked slow so that the sugars caramelise. Jewel-red quince, jellied in its juice. I've always wanted someone to make a seedcake for, and never found that person. Lots and lots of pickled and sour things. Cheeses smooth, crumbly, and ones that make you wonder if you've stepped in something. Eggplant dressed many ways--always seductive, especially when it's called aubergine. Fat white beans. Chick peas. Thick soup-stew. Salads that we'd eat with our hands. Oatmeal made with cream for dinner, sprinkled with roasted raisins. Homemade bread that refuses to be squished into a ball suitable only for removing pencil smudges on paper. Medlars sucked from their skins in the manner of spiders ... ah, the fantasy of a guest who likes these things.

KB: Who would that guest be, do you think? Let's play that dinner-party game: if you could invite four dinner guests (bringing historical figures back to life for the occasion as required), who would you invite?

AT: A glorious conundrum! Would they have a foodfight with comfits? Asher E. Treat (1907-2004), the man who wrote, "I had finished work for the night but couldn't resist the temptation to inspect the ears of one more moth" was always my fantasy guest, but he is too contemporary. The long dead are so much more fun to have to dinner. So: Jean Henri Fabre, who rarely had enough to eat and was equally poetic in his love of a raw onion eaten in the mountain air and his description of gravedigger beetles burying a dead mouse. Mary Kingsley, author of "Travels in West Africa". Although she thought gorillas ugly, she had good words to say of cannibals, and wrote "I am unsympathetic ... with Christian missions." Thirdly, Chaucer? Would he be more interesting than a confectioner from Elizabethan times? You never know about writers (is he better on paper? will he, after a quaff of metheglin, declaim?) but I'll take the chance with Chaucer, as it's rude to pick an expert's brains at dinner. For my author guest, I would always have picked Gogol first, but recently read that he got all pious and burnt sequels to Dead Souls, which is why I really prefer authors not to have lives. But on to the fourth guest: the model for the Venus of Willendorf.

KB: And another game: Room 101. If you could consign two things to Room 101 from 1984 -- the room where all unspeakable things are sent -- what would they be?

AT: 1) The godly 2) Shoes that come to a point, unless they curl and have bells attached.

KB: Where next for Anna Tambour? By the time a book comes out the author is usually way ahead on something else: are there more stories and novels being hunted down in The Forest Of Anna's Stories?

AT: Still in the stalking phase on a novel about bugs, jewels, food and treasure. And there's a herd of further adventures of the omniscient (the one who said, "I only know about the stories I tell").

© Keith Brooke 2005.

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