How author Tony Birch makes it matter
When you’re talking to poet, short-story writer and novelist Tony Birch, there’s the impression that he uses every moment, no matter how small, to conjure stories. This man is all energy so it’s no surprise that he’s managed to carve an incredible creative life.
How do you give it mouth?
I give it mouth by giving voice to marginalised people; people living on the edges of society.
So much like Charles Dickens you’re giving voice to the Pips of the world?
Of course the material Dickens got for his fiction came from his famous night-walks where he went around the streets – to courts, police stations and so on – and actually mixed with people who were only otherwise represented in fairly sordid ways.
So I think he gave greater depth and understanding to those characters.
Do you liken yourself to Dickens in that way?
(laughs) If I could be anyone else in life I’d be film director Ken Loach. When I think about the sort of issues I’m interested in I find great affinity with him. I’m interested in the fact that people sometimes see his films as depressing. I’m interested in that because I don’t see the issues he makes films about – or the situations and characters I write about – as depressing.
Perhaps like Loach’s work, my writing affects people who simply don’t want to engage with those issues. And if they get depressed by them it’s more their problem than mine.
Early on in your writing career you wrote and essay called Why I Run. How is writing like running?
The relationship for me is very clear.
As a working writer – as with running long distance – you need to keep the habit up. I’ve run now for 35 years and I never do it spasmodically, I’m ordered in the way I go about it. And I think that reflects in approaches I take to my writing.
But the other aspect I think is that running gives me great contemplative space. So it’s very unusual for me to go on a run, particularly if I’m working on a short story or novel, where aspects of the writing don’t come into play. Running is a very good outlet for me to solve a problem with a writing project.
So I find it meditative, but it’s also wonderful to be able to use running to create a clear and ordered space to contemplate a writing problem I’m trying to solve.
So do you think that repetition of the body movement helps with thought?
I think it’s the evenness and the repetition and the understanding of your body.
I’m also very interested in muscle memory and how your body and mind interact through that memory. The familiarity and the re-association are really important.
I don’t want to ever test this because I don’t want to stop running – but I can’t imagine being able to write anything of substance if I didn’t run. Because I’ve never found another way to create that clear space. I’m sure other people find different ways of doing it, and it doesn’t have to be running. But it has to be something which strangely turns your mind off and turns it on at the same time.
The other relevant issue here is that I never go out on a run seeking to resolve a problem or find a short story. I just think to myself, I’ll go for a run. Then ideas comes to me, though I don’t necessarily demand it from the run.
It’s something we’re not really taught in creative writing classes, but there seems to be a strong link between what we do physically and how we are mentally, doesn’t there?
Well, it’s interesting, I taught creative writing for 15 years and people got sick of me talking about running. I also taught creative nonfiction and we know that walking and running essays have become quite fashionable these days. I follow a lot of that genre.
The first class of my creative writing classes was always taken up by a two hour walk. I found this tended to clear people’s minds and get them associating with one another.
One of the things I discovered from starting with the walk is that you would condense that desire you have as a teacher for people to get to know each other and trust each other and work together. When I introduced a walk, people came together quickly. It is a great device where people share stories and create a narrative while on the walk. It creates intimacy and that’s important for students.
One of the things that walking does whether you do it alone or with others is that story and the motion of moving go hand-in-hand. So you tend to return from a walk with material you can work into a story. One of the things about space and place is narrative is always being performed. As you move through space, you’re also moving through a narrative.
Birch’s latest: poetry collection Broken Teeth (Cordite, 2016)
It’s true. That essay was not an immersion piece of writing. My sense is that it was just observational to see what people were doing.
And though I’m more than aware of the social inequities in Australian society, when you come across a group of children by themselves at the homeless van, it gives you a kick.
One of the difficulties of writing that essay was I wanted to write about these children in one scene who were overjoyed at getting food. These two kids I was watching were incredibly happy. And it’s a hard thing to write about because you don’t want to romanticise their situation, you don’t want to conclude, you know, “just give a homeless kid a pie and he’ll be really happy” because it’s not like that at all. But I am interested in moments where in a relative sense they can have happiness. I grew up for instance in abject poverty and in violence, but I would say that for most of my childhood I was happy. I was happy because I had great sibling support, great friends in the street, aunties I was close to. So I enjoyed what I had.
And I think it’s important to consider when we think about people on the edge of society, because we tend to think about them in terms of resentment or pity or in ways that patronise. What we forget is they have their own lives that they find a way to value. As much as they would like the situation alleviated, I think most people day-to-day find ways to give value to their lives rather than sitting around waiting for a handout.
As I was reading your essay it struck me that if it weren’t for university tenure and perhaps social institutions like marriage, most Australian authors earn incomes that would see them homeless. Does that concern you?
We talked about this at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday. Writing as a form of work is incredibly poorly paid. And certainly in the production of your own book, you are most likely as a writer the person who is paid the least and certainly the only person not paid a proper wage. Just on the basis of understanding what writing is, that concerns me.
Second if you raise this issue as a writer there’s a seeming sense of ingratitude. People simply say, “Well you don’t have to do it”. I like that response in way because it equates to the way anyone not properly paid is often treated. I have five children and my daughters who work in retail are told you don’t have to do it we can get someone else.
Having said that I didn’t start to publish till I was older than most writers, and when I published Shadowboxing I already had five children. And I didn’t even consider giving up my full time job because of my commitments as it would have been completely impractical to do so. And in any case, had I given up my day job, I don’t think I would have written another word because I wouldn’t have known where my next feed was coming from.
And I don’t judge anyone else, but I personally would not ask someone else to be the breadwinner so I could write. It’s probably part of the background and community I come from, but I would always like to think that my ability to contribute equally to whatever family situation I’m in comes first and foremost.
Pragmatically, that’s why I think I decided to write short stories. I generally get about three or four stories published each year, which is a good output. And I can usually find the time to carefully craft those stories so that I’m happy with them. With the two novels I‘ve written, they’ve never been as enjoyable as writing projects simply because I’m always under the hammer.
You mentioned your book Shadowboxing, which is semi-autobiographical. What are some of the ethical tensions in writing autobiography?
That’s interesting because when I was teaching writing I always began my classes with the question what is your ethical commandment? And students would look at me puzzled, then I would explain, whether you’re writing fiction poetry or nonfiction, you should always have an ethical statement that you adhere to. And mine has always been “Never misrepresent”.
In writing autobiographical fiction I never wanted to misrepresent characters that were based on real people. Having said that the character Mick, who’s the father in Shadowboxing and based closely on my own father, is not exactly a favourable character in the book. I just felt I’d write it as honestly and as committed as I could. And then I decided I’d take full responsibility for not only the work, but also its criticism. I don’t like it when writers deflect responsibility, where they might say “I didn’t realise people would be upset”, or “This is fiction, it’s not a real character.” I guess in representing my father on the page, the only thing I was concerned about was my father. And so I showed him the book and he said he thought it was funny, he enjoyed it. Which was rather an odd response.
The only thing that has happened in my family is that we’re big storytellers; we’re very open. Nothing’s taboo and I think that’s helped. Anything I wrote about in the book we’d talk about at the dinner table. And if we were talking and you walked in, it wouldn’t worry us, we’d just keep going. There were no family secrets. The only thing is my mother would have said her version of events is different. And she doesn’t mean this at all in a negative sense, she‘d probably embellish the stories more than I would.
The only thing I’d worry about is, for instance, when I write about say domestic violence. I take the issue seriously, so I do want to make sure I get right for myself how I want to represent my view on those issues. Then of course if anyone wants to debate about the stories, I can do that with confidence and with a respect for listening to others.
Birch’s Shadowboxing (Scribe, 2010)
Yeah I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. One thing that teaching at Melbourne Uni taught me was the extent to which middle class cultures are anxious about their privacy.
In Aboriginal and working class families our lives were prised open by police, reporters and social workers. Whether people wanted more privacy or not was not the issue, the notion of privacy is a privilege beyond your reach. Plus, family stories are told and the more salacious ones are those that people enjoy more.
But at Melbourne Uni you could spend a whole semester with students and not get to know much about them. So therefore if someone from that background exposes family secrets, it’s much more fraught. I think when you see a lot of controversy around family secrets in fiction it is more likely to be in a middle class family than a working class family.
How does it feel to be a grandfather?
Before my granddaughter Isobel who is nine months old now was born, people told me about the impact on them of grandchildren. I wasn’t dismissive or anything, but having come from a big family with children everywhere I didn’t think the change would be that large. I think it has had a really positive impact on me. I’ve felt calmer since she’s born; a little quieter since she’s been born – more peaceful since she’s been born. That doesn’t mean I’m getting put out to pasture. But I feel more level-headed about things.
The other thing in terms of my work is that I was working on both a crime novel. I finished the manuscript about three months ago and it’s technically well enough written. But as I started redrafting I actually felt disassociated with it and I no longer wanted to work on it. I decided I didn’t want this work to represent my legacy. So having a grandchild makes an impact on how you want to be represented. And I find that a pleasurable revelation. It’s about me realising there’s another generation.
How do you elicit emotion from your readers?
I like to show it through action, how people interact. And I don’t mean overt action. I love the subtlety of interaction. In my short story collection The Promise, there’s a story called ‘Refuge of Sinners’. At the end of the story a man is in church grieving for his son who has died. And he sees a woman in the church picking the word fluff from her jacket.
Sometimes when people can’t express themselves emotionally in an open way, they do it with other gestures. And if you’re not careful you’ll miss them. I like to show those. And I suppose while you can slip into sentimentality, I prefer to push that envelope a little and pare back in my redrafting.
Are creative writing degrees relevant/useful/important for the craft
Rather than make a comment on the degree, what I would say is creating a space for a creative writing class, done well, is remarkably helpful.
My view is that what you’re ultimately there to do as a creative writing teacher is to set up an atmosphere and space where people can work at their most energetic and productive. You’re there to keep the momentum going for them to complete the projects they’re working on. As a teacher I always felt like a motivational coach. Some people need that, particularly young writers.
And to people who say creative writing classes are a waste of time, I say this: I taught history as well as creative writing. When I taught history, no-one said I had to turn out every student as an historian. I simply taught students about the value of history and to have a passion for it. When I taught writing at Melbourne Uni, I taught hundreds of students and I knew that most of them would not write for more than that one year. But if they left understanding writing, understanding reading, appreciating the link between writing, reading and the human condition, I felt I’d done a good job. That’s what the humanities is about.
If you could use your writing to change one thing about the world, what would it be?
It would be specifically climate change. Because it is my day job, and part of what I’m working on is the relationship between writing and climate change.
But there’s a general point here that I could apply to any issue: I want to use my writing to engage people, for people to engaged with the world and feel confident to act. I think we’re in a situation where people feel disenfranchised or have estranged themselves from the political process so I really want to produce work that motivates people to act on their interests, to act on their motivations, to act on their intellect. And if I could do that, I’d be a very happy man.