Dr Tony Birch is an Australian novelist, short story writer, poet and academic.
Tony's most recent collection, Common People, was published in 2017. His previous novel, Ghost River (2015), won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and was longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. His other works include Shadowboxing (2006), Father's Day (2009), Blood (which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin literary award in 2011) and The Promise (2014).
Tony is a frequent contributor to ABC local and national radio. He has taught creative writing at Melbourne University for many years, and is the inaugural Bruce McGuinness Research Fellow within the Moondani Balluk Centre at Victoria University.
- Tony recognises Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird as profound influences on his writing, as well as Barry Hines’ A Kestral for a Knave.
- Tony grew up in Richmond and Collingwood, which were at the time rough working class inner city suburbs of Melbourne. He spent a great deal of time wandering the lanes around Trenerry Crescent, as well as, of course, the Yarra River itself.
- Tony’s PHD – Framing Fitzroy: Contesting and (de)constructing place and identity in a Melbourne suburb – explored the social history of Fitzroy from 1939 to 1970, and was an interrogation of the way that national, social welfare policies predominantly impacted on a working class suburb.
- Tony mentions Hannah Kent, a fellow Australian writer who researches her historical novels, as well as Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap, with whom he has a longstanding friendship and whose novel Tony has taught at university.
- Tony quotes Destiny Deacon who once said to him, ‘I just wish we could get a bit more of that other than the jailbird poetry’.
- Tony refers to Jared Thomas’ Songs that Sound Like Blood.
- Leah Purcell won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature in early 2017.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to the Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today. And Tony Birch is certainly one of the best. To me, this Melbourne-based writer’s work is reminiscent of great American writers. His novel Blood features a Steinbeck quality, but it shines a light on Australia’s working class (rather than those in the American Dust Bowl).
More in Tony in a minute. Before we get going, we’d love to take a moment and review The Garret podcast on iTunes. It’s easy to do and it really does help us. Thank you for being part of The Garret.
I’d also love you to share your writing story with me on Twitter, at @GarretPodcast. I’d love to know what you’re reading, and what you’re working on.
So, this episode features the thoughtful and powerful Tony Birch. Before we started recording this interview at the State Library of Victoria we talked about the influence that Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had on his writing, and we started with how he discovered not only those books, but any book.
Tony Birch: It is interesting because when I was a kid we certainly didn’t have the book in the house. And, my oldest sister says that’s because my dad chopped up the bookcase for firewood, but I don’t remember having a bookcase. But there were things in the inner city and there was one in Brunswick street called a Book Depot, and you could go there and literally swap a book. So that if you had bought a book there for six pence, you could go back and get three pence back and you could buy another one.
So, we use to buy a lot of second hand books. We did read a lot of comics when I was a kid, but I was an early convert to the Public Library so I went to the Fitzroy Library from when I was very young. I loved reading, and I was good at reading. So reading and writing were subjects that I did well at, so I always read and from that age until now it would be very rare that I would go anywhere without a paperback in my pocket.
Nic: Why… Do you remember why you started reading. I mean Fitzroy and Brunswick in those days were obviously were tough working class suburbs. Your background, I’m imagining a lot of your friends didn’t necessarily spend their time reading. What was it? If it wasn’t a household family thing, any idea why you started reading?
Tony: It certainly wasn’t a household thing with my parents, I can’t remember my parents ever reading. I don’t think it was an issue of intellect, they both worked very hard and my mum had five kids by the time she was in her early 20s, so I imagine she’d be too tired to read.
I think there are two things – I think that just story, I really enjoyed the escapism of story. So, if you took a story like the Tom Sawyer story, there is obviously a familiarity, universality, but it did take me to a place in time that was foreign to me. And I obviously really enjoyed that, and also I was very good, if I picked up a book that I enjoyed I would very quickly ‘lose myself’ as they say within the book and I’d be surprised if I didn’t read 100 pages a night.
It’s the one thing with age, people will often tell me my running would be slowing down, but in actual fact my reading – if I get 10 pages before I fall asleep, it’s a good night.
So I loved it. And I suppose as a not a negative, but it was a response to having a very difficult home life. At times, I think reading was literally also almost a spiritual escape so that I could take myself out of the world that I was actually in.
So, having said that I think without being able to articulate it, I think I understood the importance of literature, so that reading books you learnt something that you otherwise wouldn’t have known.
Probably the most influential book when I was a little bit older as a teenager is the Barry Hines novel, A Kestral for a Knave, which was then made into a magnificent feature film, Kes by the great film maker, by Ken Roach.
And it’s interesting, that’s a book I did in Form 2 in high school – so that would have been 1970 and there are a whole heap of kids who I still know as adults, we still catch up with each other – and we all remember that book even though that book was set in a mining town in the north of England, most of the boys and girls I know who did that book in school, they related very much to Billy Casper the central character and the circumstances of his life.
Nic: I was going to say, it would resonate with them, wouldn’t it?
Tony: Because in that book, you have a working class kid who gets belted by everyone. It starts with his older brother, his mother, teachers, school yard bullies, everyone gives him a whack around the head, and he finds solace in this beautiful bird, this kestrel.
And for us living in Richmond and when I lived in Collingwood when I was a bit older, I do think this was what it did for us. We had this incredible beauty just behind that line of factories in Trenerry Crescent which was hidden from the world, and you could work your way through these lanes and suddenly you’re on the Yarra River. And in those days – because there were no bike paths or whatever – there was no one else, there was just teenagers and it is a much as people malign the Yarra River, it was actually quite beautiful.
Nic: And some of the things you are talking about now have either consciously or subconsciously found their way into Ghost River, when you are talking about the birds the school bullying and all that sort of stuff. I wonder whether that was conscious or not. It has stuck with you, those experiences but also what you read elsewhere has certainly found it’s way into your work.
Tony: Yeah, and I think with Ghost River its quite a particular book in the sense that, before I published a novel… so that when I did Shadowboxing (the first book I did), I did have a story within that called the ‘Sea of tranquility’. It was set along the Yarra at the time of the first moon landing. In my second book, Fathers Day, I had a story called ‘The Chocolate Empire’, which is set along the Yarra River during the famous flood of 1971, and in my third short story collection, The Promise, I have a Yarra River story called ‘The Toe Cutters’.
So that I always felt that there was a story about the river that I wanted to tell, and I was fortunate that with the success of Blood and getting more publicity because that was the book that was short listed for the Miles Franklin, I literally had an opportunity in a way to do what I wanted to do. So, basically it was pretty pragmatic that I got a two-book deal from my publisher and I thought ‘I want to do this river book’. In a way, to bring all those ideas together. And so it was always at the forefront of my mind that the river would be central in the novel that I wrote
Nic: Ok. That works beautifully. So while you were doing all this reading, did it ever occur to you to want to be or could be a writer?
Tony: Obviously when you live in Fitzroy or the inner city in those days you never think you’re going to be a writer. To be honest… See I went to the Christian Brothers, and it was a very rigorous, intellectual environment, and I was actually very good at primary school. It was very competitive, they had awards and they had very detailed school reports and I did really well. And the subjects that I did best at were English and composition, which in those days was essay writing. I could literally write a story very easily, so that I knew I was good at it but having the notion that it would take me anywhere, no I didn’t have that idea at all.
And then when I was a teenager I did very badly in high school, I dropped out of school very young.
And although I never stopped reading – and I think that’s a really important survival mechanism – it wasn’t until I was at University as an older adult – so I didn’t go to University until I was 30 – and in fact I did a PHD in history and I was doing my PHD and I had published a bit of poetry and then one day I just felt an urge an idea had come up in my research to write a short story, and that was the beginnings of what Shadow Boxing became.
And Shadow Boxing, although a book set around the inner city, the main impetus for that, talking about how you develop story was that I literally made a decision that I would write down a couple of key words of what were either the dominant memory experiences of my own from childhood to adulthood or dominant stories that were held in my family. And I remember I had twelve of those I think and I literally then, methodically looked at each one and thought what sort of story could I frame around that memory.
And then those ten stories became the story sequence in Shadow Boxing are each based to some less or greater extent a real experience that I ever had personally or I have very strong memories of.
Nic: I’ve heard of a number of writers who use various techniques involving in just thinking of a word and then getting a story just from a word or from a couple of words, from a single thought. I know Ray Bradbury use to do that quite regularly for ideas.
What was your PHD on?
Tony: My PHD was a social history of Fitzroy from 1939 to 1970 I think. It was really more than that, an interrogation of the way that national, social welfare policies – post welfare policies – predominantly impacted on a working class suburb. So, it looked at slum clearance, it looked at social work, it looked at street crime and street policing. It looked at cleaning, because one of the ideas that people have of people living in the inner city up until the 1970s was impoverished people living in really abject conditions. But every time I went into a house as a kid they were spotlessly clean and incredibly well organised.
And when I think, well, we lived in a one bedroomed house, seven of us, how could you organise it?
I interviewed women about how they went about cleaning, and how they went about shopping. Women are ingenious of making the best out of very abject circumstances.
So, women had this strange wall papering technique, is when you had holes in the walls they would glue newspaper into it and then paint it into the wall and it would look lovely until one of the kids came along and poked a hole in the newspaper.
So, it’s really about how the State intervened in the lives of the poor after the war.
Nic: It’s fascinating, and so many stories from interviewing people no doubt find their way, or have found their way, or will find their way into your stories that you are writing.
Nic: Obviously, your stories reflect your experiences and observations, I’m wondering could you write a historical novel set in another country full of characters whose experiences are foreign to you?
Tony: Is that a pitch? I could do anything for money.
Nic: Forget the money aspect of it.
Tony: It’s really interesting, because I think that technically I could pull it off, but whether it had that real sort of depth of authenticity, I would doubt. So that my sense is it’s an issue where there are nuances I think through experience which often give a story or a novel a particular flavour.
I’ve got a new book coming out in August called Common People, a new book of short stories. I was talking to my publisher yesterday from UQP, and I’ve got a story in there called ‘The Ghost Train’ which is about the illegal abattoirs that operated on the outskirts of Melbourne in the 1970s. So literally these were outside any regulation of either unionised, any health and safety, health issues around carcasses etc, and they were quite maverick.
I worked in some of those as an older teenager and an adult. You were paid big money to do a 12 hour shift out there and then the whole thing would vanish – just on the backs of trucks.
Now I set a story in one of those, of two women, two meat packers, and I actually felt that writing the female voices I was more confident than I thought I would be, because often I write male characters. But what was interesting, my publisher said, ’you’ve worked in that caper haven’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. She felt, one of those things you had to have done it to know it that way. Now, I don’t know how she knew that, but on reflection there are little aspects of it that really flavour the story.
So, I do think that I’m not a writer who thinks you only can write about experience or that you have to have experience, because I’ve taught people mostly in their late teens to early 20s who don’t have often experience and you don’t want to say to them, ‘oh you don’t know anything, so you’ve got nothing to write about’. It’s so derogatory and detrimental, and in fact I’ve had wonderful stories written by young people of sometimes of which they have no experience.
So, I don’t think that’s the case, I think when you are writing about experience there are particular aspects of that experience that will really I think probably individualise your work, rather than produce something that might be in a relative sense, generic.
So, I mean the thing that would annoy me about doing it in the historical novel would be, I’d be concerned about tone, voice etc. I’d be probably quite anxious about whether I got that right or not.
Nic: Yeah. And I guess one of the points I’m trying to make is, you know if you were to do that sort of story, you would have to do a great deal of research into every aspect of the character’s lives but also tone, voice and that. I guess what I’m saying is could you be bothered doing that?
Tony: Well again for the money. I think it’s interesting… Hannah Kent the Australian writer who I think has now done her second historical novel. She’s a great writer, and when I’ve talked to Hannah she does a lot of research around her work. But I think that one of the things that we had a discussion on at the festival, it’s also your work needs to be impressionistic, not ‘historically accurate’, quote unquote.
I think some writers get caught up with the notion of authenticity to the degree that they have product placement, so you’ve got to know exactly what people were eating and wearing etc. And my sense if I were to write a historical novel it’s really just to create an authentic impression of the period rather than anything else.
Nic: That’s interesting given your background studying history, I wondered how much you would insist everything be historically accurate.
Nic: The story is what counts.
Tony: Yeah. And again, I suppose the other point here is one of the things that we can agree on, writers are very idiosyncratic, and there are some things we do in common and in fact one of the things I’ve always said to anyone I’m teaching is, ‘if I feel there is something common in successful writers in the sense of being published is they often have a very strong work habit’, so they know when they write, they don’t just do it on a whim, they don’t just do it when the time is available. They’ll have a very regulated schedule, and I think most writers have quite an insatiable sense of curiosity that can never be satisfied. But other than that, writers are very individualistic in how you approach things.
So for me, a really good example of what may seem a contradiction – I know the stretch of the Yarra River that became Ghost River very well. So, since 10 years of age, so that’s 50 years, I’ve frequented that river. I’ve swam in it, I’ve run it, I’ve walked it, I’ve cycled it, I’ve taken hundreds if not thousands of photographs. But when I was writing the novel I would visit the river every week. I’d go down to Dights Falls every week just to think ‘is there something there that I want to include?’.
Now, I could say well I know the river well enough to go and write that at home, and not have to go back and visit, and I could. But I’m of a very strong belief that there’s always something there waiting for you. And toward the end of Ghost River there’s a scene that involves a tree that has come loose from the bank in the flood and it cartwheels over the falls. I remember when I was walking down the river and saw this massive old tree on the bank after a flood and I thought ‘no I want to use that notion of that’, which I wouldn’t have seen it, had I not gone.
So, I always say to students every place that you want to write about or a place that stands in place of the fictional, life is being enacted there and if you go down there you’re going to pick something up, and sometimes it might be something very subtle, but it is something quite rich.
Nic: Wow such a wonderful and simple suggestion from Tony, go there, discover the subtle and rich details of your story.
Nic: Now back to Tony Birch and where he gets some of his ideas.
Tony: Well they’re those things that often writers… the triggers. In the new book coming out there’s a story called ‘Frank Slim’ and to show you how something evolves, a friend of mine who is Canadian sent me a historical piece of footage based on a working class community in the Yukon which has since vanished. And she was talking about in relationship to my Fitzroy vanishing.
And they interviewed two older women who are now in their 80s and they talked about the families that lived there. And the women said, oh there was this fellow who lived down the road, Frank Slim. As soon as I heard that name, I was just obsessed by it. And in the end, Frank Slim is the title of a story, of a character called Frank Slim who of course is not from the Yukon, it’s set in the inner city of Melbourne. But it’s those triggers, and once you recognise them – particularly for short story writers, not exclusively but for short story writers – once you recognise them, you can’t shake them and it’s like they are tapping you on the shoulder.
Nic: And you recognise how valuable they are to you.
Nic: You seem to love writing young characters. How do you think such characters resonate with adult audiences, or do you just assume they will?
Tony: Well it’s interesting because you can’t assume they will. Even with Blood, when I was in the process of writing, I didn’t think what sort of novel was this. So some people call me a YA novelist!
Nic: Oh, because you’ve got young characters?
Tony: Yeah, and I think it is very different YA.
Nic: Yes, it’s very different. It’s the YA Bonnie and Clyde.
Tony: But I would say the two things that teenage kids who do my novels at high school really resonate with, the characters really resonate with them. If I did a straw poll myself amongst adult readers, my most loyal readers, you know when you do local library gigs – and I know this is part of the demographic of the reading audience anyway – but older women really get my books.
And it’s interesting, because even though they’re sometimes called masculinistic etc, and you know male themes, most of the people I’ve had really great discussions with around any of my books have been older women who understand those characters in relationship to their own children, their husbands. Or even where I’ve had compliments from older women who talk about the silence of the males of their generation that hasn’t been replicated in their sons. So, the tenderness that does come out in some of my stories, they identify with their own sons and see that as something really pleasing. So for those women they see that sort of change in emotional literacy and communication as being some of the biggest change in their lives in regard to the men in their lives.
Nic: Your female characters though are very, very strong, they’re as dynamic and as interesting as the male characters, and surely that would resonate with the women. You know, those that have had, shall we say a hard life will recognise that in your characters and what characters are going through.
Tony: Yeah. It’s interesting in that… and again in the new book there are more female protagonists as in first or third person as in any of the other books. There was an initial challenge. When I wrote Blood – so the character Gwen, who is the quintessential bad mother in some ways –I was a little bit hesitant about how I would write her. But once I got to write her and I mentally realised why she had ended up the way she had, which is explained in the section of the book, I really enjoyed writing that character.
And in the story that I just talked about ‘The Ghost Train’, which is about two women desperate to get money because they’re both single parents and working this industry, this abattoir, they are very crude.
And I was saying again to my publisher yesterday, when I started to write it, yeah they have very crude jokes about one of them wears an Obama t-shirt which gets blood stained at the end which I think is great. And one of them says have you ever slept with a black man and she says, ‘well, a real black man?’, with the inference Obama not being black enough. So it’s pretty crude. And I hesitated, but then if these were two blokes that I was writing.
Nic: You wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
Tony: Well I wouldn’t even have the thought, so then I pushed it further. So they have an Ivan Milat joke in the conversation, and I actually really started to love it because they are really tough badass women, and I got a lot of enjoyment out of that. Both my editor and publisher, who are both women, of the ten stories in the collection, they love that story.
Nic: I was just saying to someone today earlier, I’m giving them some advice and saying ‘if you’re going to do something, go the whole way, don’t go half way. The half way won’t work but if you go all the way it tends to work, because it tends to feel more natural and real’.
Tony: It does, I’d have to say I’m more of a coward than that than some people. I know Christos Tsiolkas really well, and I’ve known Christos for many, many years before he was famous and I’ve read some of his stuff and thought ‘oh I could never, I couldn’t do that, as in write that’.
With a book like The Slap, I taught The Slap at university and the student who presented on Christos’s work that week said something really interesting, he said ‘I don’t think it’s one of the best books I’ve read but it’s one of the bravest books I’ve read’. So I think that applies in that case, he will take it all the way, whereas I am probably more of a back off a little bit.
So maybe I’m a bit of a coward.
Nic: Just going back you were talking about Gwen and taking a while to understand her.
I know a lot of emerging writers will be interested in this – you don’t have to know your character, you can get to know your character as you’re going along, can’t you? You don’t have to know them… The more you get to know them the more real they become over time?
Tony: Yeah what happens is, and again people have odd habits, one of my habits is that I couldn’t start to write a character – I name the character before. So I always name the character, I actually name the title of any work before I start which is pretty weird, but that’s just a thing I have.
But what’s interesting you’re exactly right with Gwen, because it wasn’t until I started the first draft and as I was working through it to really understand why she is the way she is with her kids, why she gets into these terrible relationships with men who you should just avoid, and then how it is that she reacts in the way she does.
And I would say in the first draft that you don’t quite get that impression clear enough for yourself, let alone the reader. One of the things about second draft that I enjoy is by the time you finish that draft, you’ve engaged with her, you’ve got to know her, for me as I go back again I’ll just work a bit more with her to get a bit more clarity around her. I might work with dialogue, I might work with why she does something and I think that takes something time. And again, I know there are some writers who write copious notes around character, I don’t, I probably at the most would have a card which would have just straight biographical detail, the name, the age, the background.
So that with Gwen, I don’t think in the first draft that I had this scene where her son Jesse sees a photograph of his mother at his grandfather’s house and he can’t believe it’s his mother – not because she’s a teenage girl but because she’s in a holy communion outfit and she looks like an angel. And considering his age and her being a young mum, it’s not that many years away from where he is, but its incomprehensible to him, and it allowed me then to consider to at least allow the grandfather some space to explain how she got to where she was. And that is of course in her case before her mother had died and her father became a heavy drinker and she went off the rails.
The thing… and I think again going back to curiosity and observation, I was very fortunate and I know some other writers in Melbourne who have done this, where we have got to work with a group of people at the St Kilda library through the City of Port Phillip who were either homeless or living in rooming houses.
They run a group called Rumours, and we taught them creative writing over a number of years and I still run a two week program towards the end of each year. And one of the things in them telling their stories and doing the writing and talking to them is that what I realised, and I should have known this through my own family experiences, none of us are that far away from trouble.
Tony: And these people when you think how did you become homeless? Some people became homeless because their son or daughter died and they had a nervous breakdown and then that led to job loss. Some people became homeless because of a marriage break down, some because of an illness where they didn’t have a job where you got what we would consider things like basic sick leave. So their financial situation could become precarious within a matter of weeks. And when you combine that with the psychological pressure of that, you know people who you’d be shocked to think how did you end up on the street. That experience and I didn’t anyway want to interfere with personal stories but that knowledge has probably informed most of my writing ever since then.
Nic: In what ways do you think you’re a better writer now than you were say twenty years ago? How have you changed, better is wrong, different. What have you learnt along the way?
Tony: Well, I think probably what you learn most of all is to preempt your mistakes, so that I would say when you’re looking at a draft of a short story, I would find that pretty much when I have an idea for a short story, I’ve got a clear sense of ‘yeah I think this will work’, and then by the time I’ve finished the draft I know if it’s going to work or not. And I think during the process of writing those bad habits and ticks that you have as a writer, whether it be over writing too much exposition, explaining the story etc, you tend to iron those out.
So you might consciously iron them out before you put your fingers on the keyboard or you’ve unconsciously got rid of them. So that I have a tendency, for instance, my characters move around too much, they can’t keep still. Again my editor was saying yesterday this scene ‘you know he goes down the road, up the road, down the road sort of stuff’, being a bit funny about it, but I still do that a bit. So in my mind I see my characters visually, I see them moving and I tend to have a habit of over describing that movement. Where you could do that in a much more nuanced way. And that’s why editors are great.
Nic: And so getting rid of that early on comes from listening to people. Feedback, listening to people, realising you’ve got particular traits and then it becomes second nature not to do it.
Tony: Yeah. And also it’s why it’s great if you can work with the same editor. Jacqueline Blanch, UQP, this will be our third book together. And between us we’ve got rid of some of those habits, but she knows what they are and when she recognises them she’ll talk about it. I think people outside the writing world don’t really understand what editors do, because anyone can correct my spelling, including spell check.
She’s great. A good editor will say ‘look this paragraph, you’re trying to do this, aren’t you?’ And I’ll say yeah. And they’ll say ‘well you’re not doing it’. And will then give you, maybe try this or that. And some writers I know get annoyed at that, I never get annoyed at it.
I’ve never had an editor I didn’t enjoy working with, and if anything, part of the writing process that I enjoy the most, other than doing that first draft, is when an editor says to me, ‘Look this scene, I understand that there should be real tension, it’s not quite there. The scenes a bit rushed, you need to both extend the scene and you need to build the tension.’
That rewriting I actually… I find it very easy because I get the message, and I go, ‘Oh yeah I know what she’s talking about and I can do it. And I really love it. A really good tangible example would be in Blood there’s a scene when Jesse and Rachel are up at the top of the Silo and Ray Crow and Limbo turn up in the Camaro.
Well it’s interesting because in the first draft Gwen wasn’t in the trunk, she was just in the back seat. And the editor said ‘Why are they so afraid? they know the kids are bad, Gwen went off with them and they’ve just turned up. Is it just because they are afraid for themselves?’ And I said, ‘No Jesse’s afraid for his mother’. And she said, ‘Why?’. And I said, ‘Because something bad is going to happen’. And she said, ‘Well make something bad happen’. So I put her in the boot and then I put a can of petrol in Ray Crow's hand.
Of course, I know that no one is going to set fire to Gwen because I love these kids too much. But it’s a great moment of tension. And those little things where you’re thinking as the writer, you actually strangely think you’ve done something but you haven’t. In other words, you haven’t delivered on the concept. And you can sometimes go to the next scene and you never did what you’d thought you’d done and often you’ll pick it up on a second draft. But again, a good editor will pick that up for you.
Nic: As a teacher of writing, as a mentor – we’ll talk about that in a moment to emerging writers – what common mistakes do you see people – you know young writers making?
Tony: Unfortunately it’s quite easy and that is I think, again it goes back to the issue of experience. They unfortunately do feel the story that they have, which is autobiographical is interesting. And it’s either not interesting or it’s not written in an interesting way.
And I think that comes from a lack of knowing, so they might have a story – and I often call them signature stories – that they’ve known since they were kids, it might be about a childhood accident or something stupid they did. And it circulates, it’s got good currency within a family discussion because everyone’s in on the joke, people know each other, but they try and turn that into a short story and it’s not that interesting, technically it could be badly written. And this is interesting in the sense that while I value oral story telling as a technology, the reality is different than the written word so you can’t simply transcribe and replicate. You have to approach things differently.
A good example would be what they lack in experience is knowing what is valuable. A great example would be, I remember a student writing a very bad story and she was talking about her parents and I said why is this interesting? And she said ‘To be honest when I was 12 years old my parents divorced’, and I said oh ‘OK’. And she said, ‘Yeah, my mum and dad had just bought a Volkswagon that they were going to do up, a 62 Volkswagon, and it was a bit rusty and I remember them going to pick it up together and they put it on a trailer and they took it home and they rolled it down through the gates and into the back yard into the garden, and they were going to work on it together because they had worked on a car before. And then two weeks later, I don’t know why, but my dad left us. And for the next five years I looked out my back window and I saw that car disintergrating in the yard’. And I said to her, ‘There’s the story’. It’s just a beautiful story and she said literally, ‘People wouldn’t be interested in tha’.
And again, it’s a part of saying, it’s not the car crash, you don’t have to tell the dramatic story and often the best story are quite nuanced and subtle. I used to use it as a sort of statement because I taught at Melbourne University for a long time, the story of you getting drunk in O Week and going into a certain pub and vomiting on your best friend and waking up the next morning on the nature strip in Royal Parade – that’s not funny, it’s not interesting. Tell us a story about how you got here from Glen Waverley. And those people who live on the fringes of Melbourne who we often disregard in the suburbs, you know I’m sure there are great stories to be told from there and people need to tap into that quality.
Nic: And that’s where writing courses help as well . It helps people who maybe weren’t going to study, but they’ve got a voice, they’ve got stories to tell. They actually can use that as a way to learn how to do that and feel as if they’ve got a voice.
Tony: Yeah I mean it’s interesting you bring up writing courses. There’s been a long discussion you know on what’s the value of teaching writing. I don’t teach writing now, so people could say I have a vested interest in saying it works because I was paid to teach it, but having said that I moved from teaching history to teaching writing, because I loved the teaching. I didn’t have to move for any personal gain.
And I think that writing courses really can work very well. And what it is, it’s about those sorts of practical hints you give. But I think what is most important about a writing course that works effectively is that you set up an enriching environment. So if you get a group of people together who love the craft, who are learning the craft and they work with each other – considering I taught for 15 years as a creative writing teacher – when you taught a class where that dynamic operated, it would literally enhance the quality of the work, enrich the energy in the room and it just provided that environment. It’s like studio, it’s creating studio to work effectively. And I’m absolutely convinced that it works, and when people say that creative writing courses don’t work, more than not they are statements from writers who have taught creative writing who should never teach it. They’ve done it because they’ve had to and they probably never asked the question, ‘Am I a good teacher?’.So they always say that students are no good or you can’t teach it but are you a good teacher?
I’ve had people teach for me – and people might see this as sacrilegious – I have had great writing teachers teach for me, who haven’t published. But they are great communicators and teachers and they would be as good as anyone about bringing ideas to the table. Maybe some will say who is this person they haven’t published, but those who are interested and get to know that person, they really understand a quality teacher.
And you know it as a teacher when you are teaching and I could name people, I could picture them, who I’ve taught publish a short story in a group and then say a student brings their work in. I’ve seen students in that room be able to respond to that student who has written a story, give remarkable feedback, give them a sense of where they should take it in a way that I could never do. And they are natural teachers and they have a great understanding of text. If you’ve got a person like that in the classroom you can run a remarkable studio for teaching.
Nic: I know you’ve worked or act as a mentor to Indigenous writers, that must be obviously extremely rewarding. The stories that they are telling and writing, are they stories that are helping to enrich the Indigenous culture or are they just stories about life today?
Tony: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I think what’s happened in the Indigenous community in Australia is this remarkable upsurge of both published writers and emerging writers in the last ten years.
And the first time I taught in a course on Aboriginal writing, which is now 25 years ago, finding enough writers to put on a course was difficult, now it is endlessly rich. And in fact what we are now seeing is young writers – probably as an emerging young writer, Ellen Van Nerveen from Queensland – is that her collection, Heat and Light, what you get in that again is the diversity of Indigenous experience, the nuance of experience and also like a lot of Indigenous writers, writing material that is not overtly itself labeled as Indigenous.
But is informed by that experience, which I think is a really important development.
I think to answer the question, I specifically say this, what is happening now with more younger people being involved in getting access to older writers, staying longer at school etc, is you are not getting the singular narrative, we are getting a much more wide range of stories. A really good friend of mine, Destiny Deacon an Indigenous artist said to me once, ‘I just wish we could get a bit more of that other than the jailbird poetry’.
Nic: There used to be the jailbird plays. There was a whole lot of them…
Tony: Yeah, so it’s good to know there are young black fellas out there writing about places other than prisons. Which is important, but in Ellen’s case and Jared Thomas the great Noongar writer from South Australia.
I went to Washington on the First Nations Tour with both of those writers and Bruce Pascoe and several people, and Jared and I were having breakfast and he said ‘I’ve got this idea for a novel’. And I said, what is it? And he said when you are a writer you don’t give too much away. And he said ‘I’m going to write a novel from the perspective of a young aboriginal girl who discovers her sexuality, she is a young lesbian’. I said, ‘Oh good luck with that one’. And he did it and it’s a great book. I mean, it is a crossover book, but I think you could say it’s a YA book. And when I read it and I launched the book for him at last year’s writers festival, I thought young black fellas going to love this stuff. And they do, and you are getting that incredible change happening.
My role as a mentor in that sense with Ellen, there is nothing I can teach her technically, what we’ve found is that as there are more of us out there and if we are on some circuit or if we go away together, the solidarity, the comradeship, the mutual support is so important. And yeah, I get along probably with most writers but if I go away to a festival and you’ve got to talk all day, I tend to want to go off and go back to the hotel and watch the news. But we hang out a lot.
Nic: Unless you are in Mildura and you can eat the food.
Tony: That’s right. So, we tend to hang out a lot, we go to each other’s sessions and that support is invigorating.
It’s really important to say this, because people say what does it mean to be called an Aboriginal writer or Indigenous writer? What it means, and this is important, is that you are part of a group of people who have that unity, and you are part of a group of people who are the role models for young people.
So it is important when you asked me where I thought I would be when I was a kid. Well, one of the things that is clear is that when a 15 year old Aboriginal boy or girl, an Aboriginal kid says I’d love to be a writer – when I was that age there were one or two people in the whole country that you could point to – now not only can you say well Jared or Ellen or someone else, you can get those people to come and talk to you. And that idea, that dream, is not impossible.
Nic: Absolutely. And they win awards, and not just for Indigenous writers. The Victorian Premiers Awards, Leah Purcell and you see it more and more.
Tony: And it’s interesting with Leah Purcell, in relationship to the large award, her almost surprise of ‘how did this girl get here? How did I get here’. And I think that’s both remarkable and I think as this change happens, it will be less of a shock that I got here. I mean you should be still surprised, unless you are a bit arrogant.
Nic: You must act surprised.
Tony: Yeah but it’s not a shock to do those things anymore.
Nic: Just to wrap up now, I’m just wondering which classic do you wish you had written? Which classis do you wish you had your name against?
Tony: I’m too envious. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be anything surprising. Iif I was one of my students at Melbourne University, I’d pull something French out of the air. I’d have to say, To Kill a Mocking Bird, for what might be in a contemporary climate a bit more of a critique of that book, I still think that there is something beautiful about that book. I did a gig for the Wheeler Centre around To Kill a Mocking Bird last year at the Athenaeum, and whatever else has changed for me around that book, every time I read the book, the Boo Radley character is so affecting for me and quite emotional that in a way that character is another influence on where my writing is. He epitomises the marginalised who we ignore, or we demonise, or we push to the edges of society and don’t want to see them, and yet he becomes the central player in this drama, so that in a way he is emotionally and metaphysically the most important character I’ve ever read.
I’ve never changed and that’s never swayed. The other thing of course in To Kill a Mocking Bird, it’s interesting in the way text has an impact on you over your life when you go back to it. And the character Scout who in some ways is a slight reflection of the character Rachel in Blood, although she is younger. One of the things I thought when I was writing Blood is that we have this situation where this boy Jesse at the start of the novel is already world weary, he’s had it. But Rachel is still quite naïve, she’s a bit delicate and she believes in her mother, for that book to work, she had to get to the end. And when I thought how would she get to the end, I thought one she has to be like Scout, this tough kid in To Kill a Mocking Bird. And not surprisingly I have four daughters and I thought which one of my girls at 8 years of age would be able to do what Rachel would do and my youngest Nina who is 19, I thought no it can’t be her, I couldn’t send her to the milk bar without complaint. My daughter Siobhan, who is in her early 30s, she actually looked like that girl in Scout when she was that age, and I thought they are my role models. Scout from To Kill a Mocking Bird and my daughter, they would make it.
That for me would be a book I’d love to have written but I wouldn’t be that arrogant to even consider that as an idea.
Nic: Last question, and I’ve asked all the interviewees this, well most of them and I haven’t given you a heads up about this. So I’m wondering if you’ve got a favourite joke you’d like to relate?
Tony: A favourite joke?
Nic: Surely jokes are the ultimate art of storytelling?
Tony: Well I have a very short one that I made up, I dreamt this the other night and I’ve told it and no one thinks it’s funny. It’s not my favourite joke, but what do you get if you cross one monkey with another monkey?
Nic: Given this is made up I’ll probably be here for hours trying to guyess. What do you get when you cross one monkey with another…
Tony: A double crossing monkey.
Nic: A double crossing monkey. [Laughter]
Tony: Well you laughed, no one else has laughed.
Nic: No I did laugh, thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you Tony, thank you so much for giving us the time and the words of your experience and immense talent. I love reading your work so thank you very much for spending time with us on The Garret.
Tony: Thank you.