Q&A with Tony Birch, author of Blood
Jo Case talks to Melbourne author Tony Birch about his latest novel, Blood.
You’re best known as a short-story writer, for your collections Shadowboxing and Father’s Day. Do you think your experience in that form affected how you approached writing a novel?
There are scenes in Blood that were conceptualised in a similar manner to the way I have approached short story writing. I sometimes have a idea, framed as a moment or brief encounter that I then build a story from; stories that are quite traditional in their form, with a beginning, middle and end. In a novel such scenes, while not seamless, need to be attuned to the overall mood, pace and emotional heart of the bigger story. For instance, when Jesse is confronted by the ‘scarecrow’ woman in the cemetery, the gothic nature of the scene is reflective of the mood of the novel more generally. If this were not the case the scene would appear as an aberration, and would not be as convincing and evocative as it is. I realised that with a novel, you can’t simply write a scene because you are interested in an idea. It has to fit, basically.
This novel grew out of a short story of the same name, from the anthology Brothers and Sisters. What made you want to develop it further?
I liked the central idea of the initial story, that these two children, a brother and sister confronted with a need to survive in a broken down world would only be able to do so if they took care of each other. The blood pact that they engage in is totally believable on their terms. It is their only means of making sense of the world. While Jesse would like to escape his mother, Gwen, he could never abandon his sister, Rachel, once he has gone through this blood ‘ritual’, as he calls it. I began developing the story into a longer work because I wanted to introduce a deeper sense of menace and danger into the story. Blood is strongly influenced by the 1950s film The Night of the Hunter, where a psychotic preacher, played by Robert Mitcham, pursues two children on the road, a brother and sister also, with the clear intention of killing them. As the writing developed my interest shifted to a stronger focus on the children themselves. What I realised at the end of writing the book was that I really loved these two children. I had created them, of course, but to my surprise, I truly feel that they now exist independent of my creation. I am proud of their courage and determination, and feel very loyal towards them.
The family at the core of Blood spend much of their life moving from one place to another – and much of the second half of the novel takes place on one suspense-filled road trip. What challenges and opportunities does writing a road novel present?
I feel strongly that the road genre, whether in literature or film, can both provide a strong backbone for a story, but equally it can inhibit the quality of a story if you keep your characters on the move because it is all you can do to keep the story going. The epic journey that Jesse and Rachel undertake had to be convincing. It is certainly not realism in the traditional sense, but I wanted the story to be true to the characters and authentic for a reader. Each time that they stop to rest; each time they encounter a stranger; each time they are confronted by danger, it must be believable within the context of the story. Blood, of course, is a sort of fractured fairytale, a desperate attempt to escape danger and find a way home – as in the fairytale we all know, ‘Red Riding Hood’.
The narrator of Blood is a 13-year-old boy – albeit a very mature one; he’s basically raised his eight-year-old sister. Was it difficult to write from this child’s perspective for the length of the novel, to get that voice just right?
Creating an authentic voice for Jesse, and holding the pitch and rhythm throughout the novel was both a challenge and a joy. I could hear his voice quite clearly when writing the first sentences of the novel. Occasionally, I would hit an off note, and immediately realise that Jesse would probably not use that particular word or phrase. Having said that, we should be careful as readers to assume, for instance, that certain words or thoughts are beyond the vocabulary or maturity of a boy like Jesse. Because of the circumstances of his upbringing, he is both streetwise and world-weary. He’s a survivor and an intelligent reader of people; particularly people who might harm him and his sister. He also has a fixation with and knowledge of television. We parents might don’t like to hear it, but TV does educate. And I do not mean ‘quality television’. Children learn to mimic what they see on television. They also learn to structure stories. They learn to rationalise the world for themselves, even when the lesson comes from an artificial world. Jesse loves TV because it is not the real world, which is far more dangerous. He loves TV because it is unreal. I also read the novel Lean on Pete, by the American writer and musician, Willy Vlautin. The most convincing aspect of the novel was the pitch-perfect voice of the narrator, also a teenage boy.
A tussle between loyalty and independence/freedom seems central to the novel, especially in the character of Jesse, who longs to escape his mother but feels bound to his sister. Was this something that was important to you while you were writing?
I didn’t realise how torn Jesse would feel until I was working on the second draft of the novel. In the first draft, which I was happy with overall, did not provide Jesse with enough opportunity to question the situation he found himself in. He seemed to go along with what was happening, taking most things that confronted him in his stride. I needed to build more tension into the book; when we come to realise that he desperately wants to escape, but cannot leave because he is sure that Rachel can never be safe without him. So, in the second and third drafts I raised the temperature and the tension to be sure that Jesse would be confronted by his own doubts. Basically, his loyalty to Rachel had to be tested.
I read this novel in one gulp, because I had to know what would happen next – and I was so invested in the fate of the children at its centre. How much work did it take to build and sustain that suspense?
Obviously with the children being chased by a pair of dangerous and desperate characters, tension is a must. One might think that a chase story will be inherently suspenseful. But what I quickly realised was that I had to build devises into the story that provided a strong investment for the reader. You want you reader to fear for the safety of the children. You want your reader to at times be frustrated with Jesse for possibly making poor decisions that would put both the children in danger. And you hope that your reader will be proud of him when he finds the courage to confront danger. With Rachel, I wanted to create an extremely vulnerable character who must grow if she had any chance of survival. She was a wonderful character to write. I have four daughters myself, so I had a lot of material to work with. She is only eight, but I can identify traces of each of my girls in her – the good and the bad!
The role models in Blood are not paragons of virtue, but deeply flawed characters winning their battles against their divided natures. I especially loved Jon, the tattooed ex-con boyfriend of their mother, who bakes and builds billycarts. Was it important for you that your heroes be significantly flawed?
We’re all flawed, aren’t we? And if we’re not, we should be. We’ve all done something wrong. Jon is such a wonderful character because he has a mighty big heart, while at the same time resigned to the realities of violence, within himself, and society. I partly based his character on a schoolmate of mine, who for a time was the head cook at Pentridge Gaol. When I talked to him after he got out he could talk about the equal pride he felt in being able to make the perfect sponge cake, and his ability to fashions a razor sharp knife from a spoon. He was very matter of fact about his experience in gaol. Jon, like Jesse, is a survivor. His streetwise philosophy, although crude in some ways, is all that he knows to get him through. The advise he gives to Jesse is from a position of relative wisdom. He knows that at some time in the future Jesse will be confronted by the same issues that Jon has had to deal with. And as he says to Jesse, you got to be ready.’
Signs and omens play a significant role in Blood, from crucial scraps of advice that become important to tarot cards and talismanic objects (like Jesse’s binoculars). Why is that?
Jesse is both a fatalist and the creator of his own destiny. While he may be sceptical about the tarot cards, he’s smart enough to know that you might as well go with magic than reason. That is why he both fears and is attracted to characters such as the scarecrow woman, and Magic, the old Blackfella he meets at the farm. He is a little afraid of both these characters, but he does recognise their spiritual power. Objects are also used extensively in the story, including photographs. I love photographs because the never quite capture what is there. But a good photograph is like a good piece of writing. The first time you see an image you accept what you are looking at. You are drawn to the meaning of, and perhaps the story embedded in the image. Photography has that power. And then when you look at it again, you suddenly realise that there is a lot more to the story – and the photograph. That’s what I hope a reader gets from my writing, a little more each time they think about the story