His latest book, ‘Common People’, has ended up many must read lists for 2017 and he’s already at work on his next novel. Clearly acclaim isn’t slowing down this writer. We speak with Convent-based author and 2017 Patrick White Literary Award winner Tony Birch about Fitzroy, the Yarra River, climate change and what he’s reading this summer.
Firstly, congratulations on winning the 2017 Patrick White Literary Award – an award that recognises those who ‘may not have received due recognition’ for ongoing contributions to Australian literature. As a Victorian Premier award winner and a Miles Franklin shortlisted writer, did it come as a surprise to be recognised for not being recognised?
A little – although it depends on how broadly you use the term ‘recognised’. What I discovered, partly in relation to the judging reports, and in speaking to two of the judges personally, was that they wanted to recognise my body of work, which includes the poetry I’ve published, the essays and academic writing. Also, looking back on some of the past winners, a few had already won major awards. So maybe, they felt I needed to be elevated to superstar status.
The award comes shortly after the publication of your latest collection of stories, ‘Common People’, which includes a cast of characters – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, children and adults, men and women – have you always been confident writing across the breadth of the community?
I’ve never been conscious of whether I’m confident enough to write this way. I simply have been naturally drawn to produce a range of characters, who do have in common the status of outsiders, those who live on the margins of society, and those who are both invisible and constantly present at the same time.
You grew up in Fitzroy and made that time and place the focus of your PHD – a social history of Fitzroy from 1939 to 1970. Is that period where you feel most at home as a writer?
Not really, although both the period of the research of the PhD and living in the inner city from the 1960s, I do feel that both the time and location are familiar to me. Having said that, I have also set work in other locations and times. My first novel, ‘Blood’, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin prize, was largely set in rural western Victoria and South Australia in the 1990s.
Another place you often capture in your writing is the Yarra River? Was the Abbotsford Convent’s proximity to the river a factor in taking up a studio space here?
I know the Abbotsford Convent really well, particularly from the early 1970s when we used to swim along the river – mostly at Dights Falls and the old Deep Rick swimming pool – since demolished. One of my uncles was a ‘chicken rustler’, who stole chooks from the convent farm. Most of my novel, ‘Ghost River’, is set between the falls and the convent. I see it as my place.
Are you a strong believer in the adage, write what you know?
My writing would suggest so, and I’m drawn, if not to personal memories, to deeply personal emotional experiences of time and space. Having said that, I think that any writing ‘commandments’ should be viewed with caution, if not suspicion. I think such mantras can both restrict a writer and mislead you about how to approach your work. Another, mantra, ‘show don’t tell’, well that’s bullshit. Sometimes you really do have to tell.
Your dialogue has been praised for deftly capturing the banter and easiness of Australian language. Do most of your characterisations come from specific individuals you encounter in the real world, or are they an amalgam of people and behaviours?
For me, I wouldn’t consciously base a character’s voice / dialogue on any ‘real life’ person. I would find that restrictive, and paradoxically inauthentic. I work very closely on hearing and composing voice. I like to get the pitch and pace as clear as possible. If I’m writing well, I tend to hear a dud note before it hits the page. Also, when I’m writing dialogue I’m always thinking about physicality and movement.
Do you place importance on the ‘Australian-ness’ of your writing? Do you see that as a mark of authenticity?
No, I never consider ‘Australian-ness’ – but maybe ‘Melbourne-ness’?
In more recent times, climate change has been a focus of your non-fiction writing. As a writer with a humanities background, as opposed to a scientific background, what’s pulled you in that direction?
I was initially involved in a global project, working with 15-year-old kids around the world, focusing on the relationship between creative, place and climate. I became more interested in the area and began to do a lot of research and writing. It led to the current work I do, which is the relationship between climate justice and Aboriginal Ecological Knowledge.
Does your research and non-fiction writing often form a platform for your fiction?
Never directly, but as with any fiction writer, I’m something of a bower bird, and influences come from both likely and unlikely places.
What are you reading at the moment and what are your plans for 2018?
I’m in one of those phases where I’m reading too many books at the same time – climate change stuff, a British crime fiction novel, and ‘Content Provider’, a series of essays by the English comedian, Stewart Lee. In 2018, I will be writing a climate change book (non-fiction) and starting a new novel, ‘The White Girl’.