Write around the Murray Festival last day – Poh at the Wood Fired Oven; Dickens & Crumpets …

The final day of Write around the Murray is always a mixed bag – a lucky dip where really everybody wins. Something for everyone isn’t a cliché. Up early were the ‘Pitching and Publishing’ workshop participants with Irina Dunn where there was an opportunity for them to pitch their manuscripts. Afterwards more writers spoke about or read from their work at The Writer’s Journey.

Poh prepares to make a Nonya curry at the Community Wood Fired Oven

Poh prepares to make a Nonya curry at the Community Wood Fired Oven

One of the events that sets Write around the Murray apart from many other festivals is the event at the Community Wood Fired Oven, where a guest chef, who has also had a cookbook published demonstrates their skills at this great community facility. This year Poh Ling Yeow, who was also guest speaker at the festival dinner the previous night, cooked a Nonya curry. During her dinner speech Poh entertained with tales from her Masterchef experience, including a story about her and winner Julie Goodwin having a few drinks and then not being able to give a taxi driver their address. Not because they were intoxicated, but because they didn’t know it!

“We’d been chauffeured each morning from the Masterchef house to the kitchens and honestly did not know our address. We had an idea of the suburb, so I asked the taxi driver to take us to the suburb and we managed to find our way home!”

What many people may not know about her is that she’s also had success as a visual artist and as an actor. She plans to exhibit again next year – after the release of her new cookbook.

Important to Poh in any endeavour is the integrity of the process and the final product.

“When my first cookbook, Poh’s Kitchen, was being produced I had to fight to have it look the way I wanted it to – to be a reflection of me and not to be driven by a marketing deadline.”

The Big Book Club – Rising from a Dickensian Childhood
Jason Steger in conversation with Tony Birch about his writing and novel, Blood.

Blood cover imageTony Birch’s books include Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009) and Blood (2011), shortlisted for the 2012 Melbourne Literature Prize and the Miles Franklin award.  He also publishes essays. Tony teaches in the writing program in the School of Culture and Communication at Melbourne University.

Jason Steger and Tony Birch in conversation about Tony's novel, Blood.

Jason Steger and Tony Birch in conversation about Tony’s novel, Blood.

The Age literary editor and regular on the ABC’s The Book Club, Jason Steger has become a familiar name on the Write around the Murray Festival program.  His first ‘in conversation’ with short story aficionado and NE Victorian, Cate Kennedy about her debut novel, The World Beneath, in 2010 was a very popular event and Jason indicated he was happy to return to the festival. In 2011 he chatted to Arnold Zable about Violin Lessons and last year there was a double treat with him speaking to Charlotte Wood about her novel, Animal People and with Elliot Perlman about The Street Sweeper in two separate sessions.  Jason always does his homework bringing informative background and context to each author’s work.

This year’s guest, Tony Birch like many other authors on the festival program had a busy lead up to his session. Tony judged the shortlisted entries in the AlburyCity short story competition and presented prizes, ran a workshop for Years 10-12 Extension English students, and facilitated the Blokes on Belonging panel.

Jason:  In your work you write a lot of about families and relationships and in particular relationships with parents and siblings.

Tony:  Shadowboxing is very autobiographical. I live now about 100 yards from where I was born, so I haven’t gone very far. My Dad was Aboriginal/West Indian and I was the third child born to him and my mum who was only 18 when I was born. We lived in a one bedroom house. There were seven people all living in the same house. It was 1966 but we had no running hot water for a bath or shower. It was a bit Dickensian . My father was violent, but we need to understand the circumstances. There was great happiness at times and a great sense of adventure.

The house was pulled down when it and the other houses around it were compulsorily acquired. One at a time we watched the houses come down. We moved to a new estate at Richmond, but the sense of community had disappeared. I’d  lived with extended family and saw my grandmother every day.  When we moved she was moved to Preston, so that stopped.  Amongst women there was a household economy. They’d mind each other’s kids, borrow money from each other and had ingenious methods of getting by. Sometimes we could be hungry for days, but we lived next door to the crumpet factory. Whatever crumpets weren’t sold went into a big bin – they were still edible – so we’d go and get them out of the bin. I think my mum had 52 crumpet recipes. I don’t eat crumpets now.

Jason: So you were a bit of a scallywag?

Tony: That’s a genteel way to put it. (smiles) But I read a lot.

Jason: Was reading your way out?

Tony: I borrowed lots of books from the Fitzroy library. There were no books in the house. Dad read sporting magazines, Truth – that was a bit salacious. Books were a literal escape.

I was expelled from two schools in one term. When I was 28 I returned to study. I was working with the Fire Brigade and there was a lot of down time so I would read. I completed my Year 12 at TAFE and found I was well equipped to study.

Jason: How did you get from  reading to the writing?

Tony: I teach a lot of students who say they don’t read, but you have to read. I love story. I love character. At uni I was drawn to history and wrote a lot of history essays. I found the academic writing very exhausting so I started writing stories. I was influenced by Junot Diaz and his collection of short fiction, Drown, that partly documents his life as a child in the Dominican Republic, but is viewed from his perspective as an adult in New Jersey.  The MA in Creative Writing provided a discipline for me to work within. I wrote a list of my most lucid memories of the things that happened and went from there.

Jason: Why mot write memoir then?

Tony: The fiction gave me freedom.

Jason: Is fiction an empowering way of understanding the past?

Tony: Writing is therapy, but not therapy with a capital ‘T’. Fiction forced me to engage with those memories. But through the writing, I gained a sense of forgiveness and was able to have a more open relationship with my father.

As part of my PhD in Urban History looking post WWII intervention I asked my dad if he saw his home bulldozed and he broke down and cried. All he salvaged was a brass tea strainer from among the rubble. Sometimes we can judge hastily but we need to consider what they’ve gone through. In some ways that tea strainer was like the Genie’s Lamp offering the ability to go back in time. The house was gone. The mantelpiece, that family altar was gone.

Blood is a story about siblings and had its beginnings in a long short story I wrote for an anthology edited by Charlotte Wood …

Jason: She wrote the novel Animal People

Tony:  … It looked at the invisibility of kids, but that kids exist and conveyed the enormous courage they can have and how much damage it takes before a child will give up on a parent. It tests what would happen to children.  It’s dedicated to brothers and sisters.

Jason:  I noticed you were very careful  (in Blood) in having the grandfather tell the children about their mother.

Tony: Yes, because the mother is one of the marginal people and it’s important that we look at them in a multidimensional way. To look at the fractures and think about how we would act. We need to look at them in a more complex way.

Jason: Most of the characters are formed at the start of the book, but we see in Rachel real character development.

Tony:  That develops in the traumatic road journey they take. And in some ways Rachel is like my daughter Nina who wouldn’t walk down to the milk bar. Siobhan is more adventurous.

Jason: Was there a challenge in changing form from short fiction to the novel?

Tony: I tried three or four times – it starts out smooth, but then runs out of fuel. Once I worked out the structure of the novel and how it would work, I was right. I thought about an ending which might not turn out to be ‘the’ ending. You have to have the backbone tight and strong and plan. I like to work out the physical dimension of a scene. It makes it more real.

Jason:  You’re a runner.

Tony:  When the writing dries up I run. The aerobic rhythm helps me solve a problem. It refines and sharpens the writing.

Jason: Do ideas come to you when you’re running?

Tony:  Subconsciously sometimes, but it helps me to think about the process. If I can get the first 6,000 words right then I know it’s going to be alright.

Jason: I’d like to ask you now about the difference between your creative and academic writing.

Tony: I’d like to be writing more long form essays, or narrative essays. I really like the form. I think about the essays of Robert Macfarlane and Iain Sinclair. I’m an urban Aborigine. I’d like to write about my connectivity to land and nature.

And that as they say in the movies is a wrap!
You can find all of the guest biographies here.


About Robyne Young

Writer, creative writing teacher, editor, columnist. Literary lover. Short story collections, The Only Constant and The Basket and the Briefcase available via website.
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