Working with Words: Tony Birch
Tony Birch is currently shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for his first novel, Blood. Yet he’s best known for his short stories, which have been published in two collections, Shadowboxing and Father’s Day, and several anthologies. Tony teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.
We spoke to him for our Working with Words series, about teaching creative writing, finding your mentor on the page and dreaming of being Atticus Finch’s son.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I began publishing poetry, and published several poems with the 925 poetry magazine, out by collective effort press. My first short story, ‘Joy’, was published by antithesis at Melbourne University in 1991.
What’s the best part of your job?
Coming across a student who has a real passion for both reading and writing, who knows it is a long haul, and is driven by the quality of the work, and not their ego.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The fact that universities are driven more by metric outcomes than intellectual and creative development.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Probably this year’s shortlisting for the Miles Franklin award for my novel, Blood. But personally, it was walking by Readings bookshop on Lygon Street and seeing my first book, Shadowboxing, in the front window.
What’s the best (or worst) feedback you’ve received about your writing?
The best is unforgettable and wonderful. A past student of mine, Julian Drape, told me that Shadowboxing was being passed around in his circle of friends like a favourite Gillian Welch album. The worst – which also makes me smile – is that my writing is depressing and bleak.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
That I was hiding my identity behind my fiction – clearly insinuating that my fictional characters had no life, or identity of their own.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I make a living by teaching writing, not writing itself. I could never make a living writing, and don’t really want to. I’d worry too much about money, and my five children would have to save their scraps of toast rather than feed them to our loving Staffie, Ella. I don’t know what I would be doing, but given the choice I’d be riding the Tour de France.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Well, the ‘debate’, if you can call it that, is so shallow and misinformed that it’s not really a debate. For instance, those who shit-can writing classes sometimes claim that it is the reason we are not reading fiction, Australian fiction in particular. That’s bullshit. My students have to read fiction every week, and analyse and come to understand what it is trying to do.
I have never taught a university class where students do not read some Australian writing, particular new and younger writers, who I always promote. The debate sounds more like a screech from a monkey cage. (Not that monkeys should be kept in cages – or chickens, birds, and even ferrets).
A good writing class establishes an atmosphere where students firstly learn to value reading quality writing, and gain knowledge from it. And then realising that a writing career is based on discipline, regular labour and a passion for curiosity, creativity and the shift from an idea to work on the page.
I don’t teach writing to get students published. Most will never publish. I teach to create a foundation for those who will continue to write long after they leave university, and to illustrate to each of my students that both reading and writing enhance both the intellectual and creative ability in all of us.
Those who continue to claim that creative writing cannot be taught seem to believe that it is a ‘natural’ talent, and that good writers are inherently ‘gifted’. Some are gifted and some may be naturally talented. So what? It’s only part of the story, and a small part of it. And so what if a writing student is not good enough to be published? Many of my students leave my class having a greater respect for what writers do. And they become better readers – for life.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Always be reading. Find your mentors on the page. Write regularly. Accept rejection as an occupational reality. And if you don’t make it, ask yourself: is there another way to pursue your creative interest?
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I will always buy a book in a shop, if I can. I only buy online if the book is not available in the country, and then if there is a delay in getting it from a local seller. I love the physical space of the bookshop, and can spend hours in them.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and what would you talk about?
It would be Atticus Finch. And I would ask him if he would mind if Harper Lee rewrote To Kill A Mockingbird, and I could be his son, and he would put a secure hand on my shoulder on that front porch of his, and he would say to me, ‘listen to me son. Hanging out at that river instead of getting your schooling, and smoking those cigarettes, and chasing after those private school girls, and cussing and fighting, that’s no way for a boy to grow up.’
He would then gently ruffle my hair with they same hand that took down that crazy dog with a single shot from his rifle and say, ‘you’re my oldest boy. You have to set an example for your brother, Jem, and your sister, Scout, and it needs to be a good example.’ We would then sit on that old porch in the quiet and heat and take in the scent of the night
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The answer is directly above (and obvious).