Monday, 25 August 2014

Tony Birch: In Conversation

By William Schack

Usually when I'm sitting in a cinema on a Sunday afternoon I'm wolfing down a choctop or munching on popcorn, but today at ACMI I'm here to engage in a thoughtful and illuminating intellectual discussion between Arnold Zable, writer, and today’s subject, Tony Birch, writer, historian and teacher.

Zable and Birch cover a great deal of territory in their allotted 60 minutes discussing not just Birch's latest book The Promise (his fourth publication and third collection of short stories), but his entire body of creative work as well as his essays and work as an historian.

Birch’s debut book, Shadow Boxing, showed great promise and with each subsequent publication he has further enhanced his reputation as an Australian writer with something important to say. His writing explores themes that others consider taboo – domestic violence, alcoholism, homelessness, poverty, Indigenous peoples dispossessed of their land and their family, broken families – and it shines a light on aspects of society that others prefer to pretend they don’t see.

Birch insists that the kinds of people he writes about are the ones who have the most courage. He asks us to think about what a homeless person has to go through each day just to survive – finding food, keeping warm, finding somewhere to sleep, keeping away from violence – and explains that this is where real courage can be found.

But he also explains that he is very conscious not to invite his readers to simply pity his characters, saying that although he grew up in a home where he was never sure if there would be food in the fridge, he also grew up happy and that he looks back on his childhood with great fondness. He and his friends experienced great hardship, but they were able to find happiness through simple things like playing down by the Yarra River. It is this fresh perspective that makes Birch’s writing so compelling. He deals with confronting and brutal subject matter, but finds a way to let humour, happiness and hope shine through.

Most interesting in today’s discussion is the insight Birch provides about his writing process: he never writes anything before giving his characters a name; he always writes a short bio of a character before beginning the work; he writes first and foremost for himself; he always writes in the first person because he enjoys writing that way the most; and he always carries around a camera to take photos when performing what he calls “field work”. Amazingly he doesn’t own a mobile phone so a camera is not omnipresent otherwise.

The catalyst for one of the strongest stories from The Promise, ‘The Snare’, in which a young boy and his Greek neighbour strike up an unlikely friendship, came one day when he was on the train returning from a talk at Victoria University and he remembered there was an abandoned bowling alley near one of the train stations. Birch got off the train and explored the place and took some photos. The bowling alley is only a minor part of a much wider story but the process of investigating the area and trying to give it meaning, rather than just disregarding it as abandoned, enabled a touching and moving story to be written.

All too soon our 60 minutes is up. It's a sign of a good event when you leave thinking wishing you could have stayed all day. ‘Tony Birch: In Conversation’ was just like reading one of his books: exciting, confronting, engaging, and sometimes funny. It’s only been eight years since his first short story collection was published, but Birch’s body of creative work is already the envy of many, and with The Promise he has cemented his position as one of Australia’s most important and compelling contemporary writers.


  1. Thanks for this review, William. Tony Birch is such a compelling, thoughtful and gracious speaker - you've captured this nicely in the review. Looking forward to reading The Promise.

  2. Great review Will. I am very much looking forward to reading The Promise now

  3. Well said Will I too will read the Promise


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