Rain Birds by Harriet McKnight is a powerful and lyrical novel about love, grief and loss, one that examines personal tragedy as set against global and environmental responsibilities, and how we negotiate our often-conflicting ideals.
Harriet McKnight’s work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Overland VU Short Story Prize, the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, and the 2016 Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. She works as Managing Editor of The Canary Press. Rain Birds is her debut novel. Harriet now answers the Booktopia Book Guru’s Ten Terrifying Questions.
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Gundaroo, NSW but spent my adolescence on the South Coast of NSW which I think of now as ‘home’. My three siblings and I were home-schooled briefly by our mum and then went to local schools. I lived in Melbourne for 8 years and then moved to Darwin in May with my partner where we adopted a kelpie-dingo cross called Poppy.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was 12, I wanted to be a writer or a park ranger. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be a musician. I’m not yet 30 but I hope that I want to do whatever it is I’m doing then!
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That the way I felt and thought at eighteen was always going to be the way I felt and thought.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
The novel Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park was given to me by my mother and had a huge impact on me as a child.
The film Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn is wonderful. I see it as a lesson in the ability to communicate the incommunicable through silence and the non-verbal, as well as the power of symbolism and attention to aesthetics. I think about it a lot.
Anything by Australian musician Ainslie Wills but in particular her album You go your way, I’ll go mine. If I had been a musician, I’d want to be her.
Can I sneak another one in? The novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. In a tradition of novels that explore things left unsaid, this one is more powerful than any other.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book?
I wouldn’t say that innumerable artistic avenues are open to me! If I could have been a painter I would have done it in a heartbeat. I think that every person eventually finds their means of expression whether it’s music, baking, raising kids, building houses, tour guiding, whatever. We all have a way to make our mark on the world and the one that was open to me was writing. This story became a novel because it led the way and expanded itself enough for me to do so.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Rain Birds is set in the remote East Gippsland town of Boney Point. It follows two narrative threads that become increasingly intertwined towards the end of the book.
The first thread involves Pina who has lived in Boney Point with her husband, Alan, for thirty years when he begins to develop early on-set Alzheimer’s. Their story charts the progression of his disease and Pina’s coming to terms with her changing role in the relationship when a flock of black cockatoos take up residence in the bush around their property. Pina is desperate to find indicators of the old Alan and becomes convinced the birds are drawing that out of him.
The second thread of the novel involves Arianna who is a conservation biologist living temporarily in Boney Point. Her story follows her undertaking a reintroduction program of a subspecies of black cockatoos to the area. She has a great deal personally riding on the success of the project and becomes increasingly unstable when the flock leaves the designated nesting area and takes up residence near Pina’s house.
It’s about how two people can have competing desires with equal amounts at stake. It’s about how we rectify the personal good with the global good. It’s about the tragedy of illness and who a person is once their memories are stripped away from them.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I hope that people take away a sense that we don’t ever have all the answers and that we don’t have to.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
This is an impossible question to answer with just one name! I’ll stick to Australian women – Fiona McFarlane for her ability to turn a story with a single line, and Ceridwen Dovey for her brilliance and control of her craft. Chloe Hooper and Anna Krien for their precise, empathetic and powerful long-form investigative works.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To be brave with the stories I write and to not shy away from doing a narrative justice. To write things that matter to me.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Know that writing is mostly hard work and the authors that make it are the ones who are able to sit their bums on the seat and put in the hours. Don’t get caught up in the romantic ideal of a “writer’s life”. Also, you have to be able to set your ego aside and redraft and redraft and redraft. Finally, you can put energy into networking or into writing but not both equally.
Thank you, Harriet!
Alan and Pina have lived in isolated Boney Point for thirty years. Now they are dealing with Alan’s devastating early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis. As he is cast adrift in the depths of his own mind, Pina is left to face the consequences alone, until the arrival of a flock of black cockatoos seems to tie him, somehow, to the present.
Nearby, conservation biologist Arianna Brandt is involved in trying to reintroduce the threatened glossy black cockatoos into the wilds of Murrungowar National Park. Alone in the bush, with her birds failing to thrive, Arianna’s personal demons start to overwhelm her and risk undoing everything...
About the Contributor
Anastasia Hadjidemetri is the former editor of The Booktopian and star of Booktopia's weekly YouTube show, Booked with Anastasia. A big reader and lover of books, Anastasia relishes the opportunity to bring you all the latest news from the world of books.