As part of the Melbourne Wheeler Centre’s “On the Road” program, author Tony Birch was in Wangaratta last Wednesday. Birch’s novel Blood was nominated for this year’s Miles Franklin award. I went and saw him talk primarily because he had some indigenous blood in him and I am curious about how his writing might portray indigenous Australians. He also teaches creative writing at Melbourne University so I was hoping for some writing tips.
The talk was free, but only about a third of the 100 or so seats were occupied. The audience made me feel young.
The Perfect Pedigree?
Tony Birch seems to have lived a life full of hardship and triumph over adversity. He grew up on a housing commission estate, his father was an alcoholic, Birch was expelled from schools for fighting, he was a fireman for eight years, he then went on to get a PHD in history. Jealous of how his background made him attractive to publishers, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I could still reimagine my background like Bryce Courtney seems to have done.
Tips on Character Development
Birch had some interesting things to say about writing. The narrator in Blood is a 13 year-old boy. Birch said when creating the character he had to think how a 13 year-old would think. But there was a lot more to it than thinking how he would relate to a particular issue at that age. Birch had to try and think how this particular, older and wiser than his years because of his hard life, character would think. Birch said unlike his first novel Shadowboxer, Blood was not autobiographical.
Birch said he got one of his characters from an image he saw. This interested me as I have gone a lot further than just appropriating an image. In the novel I am currently writing I used aspects of particular movie/television characters. My excuse is I started writing it in National Novel Writing Month, so I had no time to fully imagine characters while frantically writing. But the appropriated characters developed their own non TV/movie personas as I wrote.
How Birch Learnt to Write
He said even though he was expelled from school, he was always good at English at school and wrote a lot of stories. Birch said reading books and newspapers was very important in him learning to write. Disappointedly he did not mention any Australian authors when asked to name writers who influenced him. John Steinbeck was one of the writers he mentioned.
He suggests writing economically, leaving it up to the writer to fill in the details. He also admitted he can’t write sex scenes. He sees himself more as a writer of short stories. Nearly all the stories he writes are published. In a good year he sells six short stories.
I walked out of the hour long talk with a copy of his book and a boost in motivation.