His career as a writer began in collaboration with photographer Rick Maynardon a book called Reversing the Negatives: A Portrait of Aboriginal Victoria (2000), and his short fiction includes Shadowboxing (2006) which was shortlisted for the 2006 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.and Father’s Day (2009).
He was born in inner-city Melbourne, into a large family of Aboriginal, West Indian and Irish descent. He says that his upbringing was challenging and difficult, and much of this is captured in the semi-autobiographical Shadowboxing.
An altar boy and exceptional student at his local Catholic primary school, Birch says that he went ‘off the rails’ as a teenager. He was expelled from two high schools for fighting and found trouble with the police for the same reason. Although somewhat adrift following his expulsions, he remained a voracious reader – once, when he was arrested by police, all they found when they patted him down was a copy of Camus’ The Outsider, which remains his favourite book.
Returning to night school to complete his studies, Birch met his mentor, Anne Misson, whose credo was very simple: ‘You’ll be great, but only if you work your arse off.’ Birch still lives by this and applies it to everything including his passion for running, which is where his writing is created and shaped. Birch’s work is widely read and loved including by those who might normally avoid books, particularly teenage boys. Through his outreach work, he visits many schools to speak to students, and takes particular pleasure in returning to the two schools that expelled him, as both of his previous books are on the syllabus.
Here are Tony’s responses for Meet an Aussie Author.
1. I was born in Carlton, Victoria in 1957, and I have just moved back there, living a block away from the house I was born in.
2. When I was a child I wrote notes to the school on behalf of my mother, letting them know that her boy, Tony, was suffering a serious illness and would be absent from school for a week or so, ‘depending on his ability to recuperate.’
3. The person who inspired me to write was a teacher, Anne Misson, who taught me at ‘night school’ when I did Year 12 as an adult in 1987.
4. I write in a cardigan, long-sleeved t-shirt, my wife’s leggings, and thick woollen socks. I don’t write in summer.
5. I write when it is early morning and the house is still and quiet.
6. Research is central to all my writing. I work closely with it, and then push it to the margins when it becomes time to focus on the story itself.
7. I keep my published works next to the television, making it difficult for anyone in the family to completely ignore what I do.
8. On the day my first book was published, I stood out the front of Readings bookshop in Lygon Street, Carlton, and pointed to my first book, Shadowboxing, which was in the window, hoping someone I knew would walk by.
9. At the moment, I’m writing a crime novel set in inner Melbourne.
10.When I’m stuck for an idea, I go for a long run and hope something comes to me.
Thanks, Tony, for participating in Meet an Aussie Author!
My thanks also go to the publicist for the Miles Franklin Award, Rachel Caton from Honner Media, for her assistance in the preparation of this Meet an Aussie Author blog post.
Availability for Tony’s books: Click the book covers to go to Fishpond.