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Copyright © Carmel Bird 1996. All rights reserved.
Automatic Teller is a long, flowing ribbon of essays with perception beyond perception
that you somehow want to physically snatch up and philosophically
espouse and quote until the last stain of ink in your pen dries
up. -- Jayne Margetts
Jayne's review is published online at the THE iZINE. You can read
A provocative collection of stories and essays in which Carmel
Bird meditates on the heart, mind and inspiration. Here Carmel
examines the nature of fact and fiction, and also the complexities
of our lives in writing that emcompasses dark humour, shy wit,
and abiding compassion. Automatic Teller was published in Australia in 1996 as aVintage paperback (ISBN
I began to write 'Conservatory' when Ross Fitzgerald asked me
for a piece on the subject of generosity for an anthology The Eleven Saving Virtues. But shortly after I had begun, Christopher Pearson asked me
to write something for the Adelaide Review about Barbara Hanrahan who had just died. As I wrote about Barbara
I realised that I was writing about someone whose great generosity
of spirit deserved to be explored. So I abandoned 'Conservatory'
and wrote about Barbara for Ross.
I could easily have put all the stories and essays collected here
in Automatic Teller together in a book without all these notes and reflections and
explanations, but because I often wonder, when I read collections
by other writers, how it might have come about that this writer
came to write all these different things; how these ideas fit
into the life and experiences of this writer, I wanted to expose
to my readers the process of the writing of my work.
It is quite possible and legitimate to read the stories and essays
paying no attention to the notes that link them; just as it is
possible to read the notes, I suppose, and ignore the rest.
Writers are often invited to speak at schools, and although I
do this as infrequently as possible because it is very demanding
and time-consuming, I agreed to speak one time at Ruyton, and
there I first met Gary Crew whose work for older children I have
always admired. He invited me to contribute to an anthology of
kind of horror stories inspired by parts of a house, and so I
completed 'Conservatory' which was first published in Dark House. It has recently been included in another book of horror Bonescribes edited by Bill Congreve.
The inclusion of 'Conservatory' in a book of spine-tinglers marks
the beginning of a number of my appearances in the world of horror,
a world where the editors, it seems to me, are particularly sweet
and pleasant people. My novel The White Garden was, somewhat to my surprise, on a short-list for the Aurealis
horror book award. The other horror stories you will find in Automatic Teller are 'A Telephone Call for Genevieve Snow', 'Reptile Girl', 'One
Last Picture of Ruby-Rose', 'Now Ida Haunts the Car Park', 'Mr
Lightning', 'Ties of Blood'.
Fact or Fiction: Who Knows, Who Cares
I presented 'Fact or Fiction' as a paper at the Salamanca Writers'
Festival, and in it I explore not only the relationship between
fiction and fact, but some more of my memories of my mother, as
well as some ideas about how it is I happen to write fiction.
The voice is a kind of relaxed yet formal one; you can sense that
I am conscious in the writing that I will be delivering the paper
to an audience. I thought of changing the tone for Automatic Teller, but then I decided that there was some merit in leaving it just
as it was when I read it out.
On the subject of reading aloud -- often, when I read a story
or a bit of a novel to an audience, part of my preparation is
to edit the text for the purpose of reading. So my own copies
of my books are quite scribbled on. Or the editing can be so drastic
that I need a whole new script. My aim is to give the audience
as good an experience of the text as possible, and so I edit and
rehearse the reading. I enjoy reading to people, but some writers
don't like doing it. If they don't like it, I suspect they and
their audience would be better off if they didn't do it. Writing
books is one kind of performance; reading aloud is another. Not
everybody likes doing both. So really what I am giving you here
is a reader's script which I have decided not to alter for publication. The other way about, you see.
A Telephone Call for Genevieve Snow
'A Telephone Call for Genevieve Snow' is a very unpleasant story
which underlines the vulnerability of children and their teachers
in schools. I daresay I see it in that particular light because
as I write today the news of the masssacre of sixteen little children
and their teacher in a rural Scottish town has just reached me
and I am tearful and breathless with the horror and blind, nameless
I live near a state primary school and I am fascinated and troubled
by the fact that on the slightest pretext a voice yells out over
the public address system announcing all the small domestic details
of the life of the school to anyone in the neighbourhood. Perhaps
this system of getting the notices around the school is the cheapest,
in financial terms, but it seems to me that the public address
system is a nice powerful toy in the hands of whoever owns the
voicee. The top dog in this place is the one who has the freedom
to inform the whole district that some kid (named) has lost a
paper bag containing a chocolate donut and a strawberry milk.
Mind you, that one gave me pause for thought about the diets of
the children, not to mention of the voice. I imagined that the
voice itself had perhaps stolen and consumed the contents of the
paper bag, and was cleverly advertising the loss to cover its
All this has its funny side, but I live (as who does not) in an
area where children are sometimes stolen from their bedrooms while
their parents are watching television, never to be seen again,
and so it was not a big step for me to go from my astonishment
at being privy to the names and lives of the children and staff
to the thought that anyone who wished to could use the information
for their own ends.
Well, of course, I used it for my own by writing the story.
Most readers, I think, have been so horrified by the events in
the story that they have overlooked the sinister role of the voice
on the public address system. Masquerading as the voice of Goodness,
Innocence and Information, the voice sets the whole thing in motion.
Of course Nigel and Genevieve had to be the people they are for
any of this to happen, but the voice is, if nothing else, the
catalyst and enabler. There is perhaps a blind stupidity about
the voice that is the most dangerous thing of all.
The narrative voice of the story is that third person, knowing,
probing, rather plain voice that I sometimes favour as the voice
of the automatic teller. And this kind of urban horror story is
the type that is so appropriate for the reader to get at midnight,
ear pressed to the hole in the wall.
In 'A Telephone Call for Genevieve Snow' the importance of photography
is flagged. My work, like the work of many other writers, betrays
a fascination with the place, in our lives, of photography. When
it became possible to 'take pictures', to produce multiple facsimiles
of things more or less at the press of a button, life and perception
changed forever, and the past, the present and the future took
on new relationships to each other. My most complex and sustained
examination of this phenomenon is in a novel The Bluebird Cafe where a whole town is reproduced as if it were a living photograph,
and where the importance of photos underpins the action.