Jo Case interviews Tony Birch about his new short story collection, Father’s Day.
The stories in your first (interlinked) collection, Shadowboxing, were semi-autobiographical. Did you draw on life for any of these stories – and if so, to what extent?
The stories in Father’s Day are not autobiographical, in the sense of drawing on my own experience and memories too strongly, although the story ‘The Chocolate Empire’ is a notable exception. It is closely based on being stuck in the famous Melbourne flood of 1971 after having wagged school for the day. I put myself in one of the situations that wayward teenagers dread.
The Father’s Day stories do though reflect my view of, and maybe even preoccupations with two issues; firstly, the relationship between men and their families, and men and boys in particular. Secondly, I am attracted to, and interested in lives of men who live on the margins of society, either by choice, or as an outcome of being estranged from both family and society due to some past transgression. But while Shadowboxing was a hard book, in that one of the key characters, Mick Byrne, the punch-drunk father, was an unlikable character in many ways, generally the men in Father’s Day have redeemable, even admirable qualities.
Once again, these are very Melbourne stories, firmly anchored in setting like Sydney Road, Brunswick; Church Street and Bridge Road in Richmond; the Yarra; or the St Albans train line. How important is place to you in your writing?
I never consciously set out to write ‘another Melbourne story’, but I am a dedicated wanderer (and runner), so I tend to discover the seed of a new story while I am out walking or running. It may just be an observation, something I overhear, or perhaps see out of the corner of my eye. Some of these moments vanish while others stay with me. They nag at me, demanding to be written into story. When the time comes to write the story I will reflect back on the place, the location of the original idea, which is generally somewhere around the inner city of Melbourne – a place and a landscape that I know well and have great affection for.
The only place that I have a self-conscious desire to return to again and again is the Yarra River. I love it, and the stories it holds. My ultimate ambition as a writer is to produce ‘the great river novel’ – although I guess that Mark Twain has done that already.
Many of your stories take us into the world of Melbourne’s underclass – the residents of a halfway house, an immigrant living in a Housing Commission flat, an autistic man who lives alone and mysteriously collects junk mail. What draws you to exploring these lives?
Firstly, as I spent my teenage years on a Housing Commission estate I knew it as ‘home’, not as a place on the margins of society. It was a good place to live. It was vibrant and contained a sense of community that held me securely. While I accept the label of an ‘underclass’ and have witnessed the sense of marginalisation it defines, the characters I have created in this book are men who I want to place at the heart of what it means to engage with the human condition; men who through their actions and gestures demand that we look at them and consider their human value rather than look away from them and ignore them because they are ‘different’.
I truly believe that our measure as a decent society has to be based upon - to quote a line from Raymond Carver – not just some of us, but ‘all of us’. I would hope that my writing reflects this.
I’m struck by the deep empathy and compassion in these stories, and equally by the happy lack of sentimentality. How do you strike that balance?
If the stories are empathetic and compassionate, and I hope that they are, it is because the characters in these stories have asked that of each other. These are fictional characters, but they are also characters that reflect the generosity that I have witnessed between people who are equally marginalised, equally disadvantaged. I could have just as easily written a book where people turn away from each other. It would not be difficult, as it also reflects what often happens in the real world. I was guided by ways in which the sometimes powerless in society turn to each other, not by those of us who are ‘better off’ but too often turn away.
I do not find it difficult to avoid sentimentality in writing. These are stories that delve into our emotions, and seek an emotional response from readers. My rule of thumb is simply – don’t write emotively when conveying emotion. It is a cheap trick that will inevitably produce a sentimental outcome.
Surprising or unexpected connections between people are a common thread in many of these stories: the young boy’s infatuation with his father’s girlfriend; a stranger who intervenes to save another’s dog; a boy’s easy warmth with his little-known grandfather. Was that a conscious theme or interest?
These are chance or brief encounters. They also reflect gestures that are exchanged between people every day. Most often we quickly forget about them, or as is often the case, we fail to recognise them at all. But they are so important. I have seen a mother on a crowded tram briefly lean down and pat her sleeping child on the head; or I have seen a person fall in the street, and while most of us have continued walking by, or stood back, someone has stopped and offered an arm of support. They are the moments that become the beginnings of many of my stories, stories of recognition, where someone, such as in the story ‘Two men and their dogs’ came forward and offered friendship when it was desperately needed.
Another recurrence in these stories is imperfect families – and the depth of seemingly precarious bonds, like that between the father and son in ‘The Last Time I Saw Cherry’ and the brothers in ‘Gifted’. What attracts you about exploring those relationships?
I have seen many perfect families. Unfortunately or not, they were in black and white and came into my life from America, via television in the 1960s and 70s. Family life is complex and sometimes difficult. As I get older I feel that I am a little like the narrator in the title story of the book, ‘Father’s Day’. This man is stuck, in a way, between his young son, who will not communicate with him, and his own father, who he also has an awkward relationship with. I really like this story because it takes a little magic, in the form of the invisible giant rabbit from the wonderful movie Harvey to create a moment of beauty and tenderness. It is just a moment, one of those brief gestures I like to create. But I hope that it is full of meaning and resonance, and that it contains hope itself.