“Whatever you’re writing about, the story has to work. It has to be a good story.”: Author Tony Birch talks about his latest collection Dark As Last Night

Tony Birch

Professor Tony Birch is the bestselling and award-winning Australian author of The White GirlGhost RiverBloodShadowboxing, Father’s Day, The Promise and Common People. In 2017 he was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award.

An activist, historian and essayist, Birch’s latest short story collection Dark As Last Night was released by the University of Queensland Press in August 2021. We caught up with Tony to find out more.

Tony, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me today. It’s a pleasure to talk to you and hear more about your latest book Dark As Last Night. I’ve just finished reading it and I was just so immersed in these slice of life stories and I was really taken by the vividity of your writing. It’s a really beautiful book. I’d like to start today by asking you to tell us a bit about the collection in your own words.

Well there’s two things to probably talk about at the outset. One is the timing of the collection. So I’d written I think about half a dozen of the stories before COVID began, so that was six of the sixteen stories, and then last year I think two things coincided.

Firstly, that Victoria went into a very hard lockdown including a curfew, and I was about to deal with the first-year anniversary of my younger brother’s death. And it was a very odd situation because our family are very close and we also live reasonably close and we had intended to commemorate my brother’s passing with a very large family gathering, and that wasn’t possible at all. We couldn’t actually visit anyone during that time. And it was a very odd situation for our family because we’re very open with each other and very close, and I think that triggered a deep sense of mourning in me, so that I wrote very quickly and very intensely for a few months.

And the stories that I wrote tended to shift between writing several stories that were very closely related to my younger brother’s childhood, or related to memories of his death, to some really surreal or certainly for me, stories that had no relationship at all to my autobiographical self and I think I was interested afterwards that I felt sometimes intensely personal in the writing and it was driving the writing, and then at other times I felt, well I wouldn’t call it a need, I felt that I got some sense of freedom and pleasure from writing a story like “Animal Welfare” in the collection, which is a very weird story.

But essentially, I think that the stories I wrote for this collection are similar to the stories I’ve always written in my novels, in that I think most of my work is concerned with outsiders and people on the margins. My work is very strongly concerned – not only but at times – with specifically the Aboriginal experience. Also, very strongly the experiences of family and a very strong experience of place.

So, I think that there’s a commonality with this collection and my earlier collections in the sense of the, what you might call for want a better word, themes that I deal with. I’m quite happy to accept that my work is sort of grounded in those things and I do and will probably always return to them because they’re the issues that really shape my writing.

Well they came through so strongly in this collection. I really felt as well that the series of stories really shone a light on those small moments of rebellion that people can embody in their everyday life. And those kind of pivotal moments that don’t seem all that important at first but can be quite character-shaping or life-changing for a person in the long-term.

Yeah, I think that’s really true and I think it’s really relevant in this collection and stronger than others in stories where the protagonist or central character is a young girl or a young teenage girl.

So, in the title story “Dark As Last Night” and certainly in the story “The Manger”, in the short story “The Flight”, there are really strong female characters in all of those stories and they’re female characters who are probably, you know, just sort of going into their teenage years, and in each of those stories the girls are really challenged.

So obviously in the title story the girl is challenged by how she will deal with the violence of her father. In “The Manger”, which is – I love that story – a more humorous story, but the girls, the older sister in particular, her rebellion against the authority and the sort of patriarchy and the church. And the story in “The Flight”, which I also really love, just the way that the girl decides to stand up for her younger brother who’s being bullied and her quite visceral action towards the end of the story. I really like those stories that, as you say, are about rebellion or about defiance.

They are really really life shaping and I’m curious about that because I have four adult daughters and I think in some part those characters reflect my daughters when they were younger, very tough young girls. But also, I mean, if I was to deal with it in a deeper psychological sense, I think there is a sense of my childhood and my brother who passed away of his childhood as well. That I’m articulating a combination of strength that might be part of us as boys but also certainly part of the lives of my sisters, both my older sister and my younger sister.

Yeah, that sense of family really came through. Just what you were saying about some of the stuff with bullying and rebellion, to me it also felt like there was a lot of underlying, maybe it wasn’t intentional, but there seemed to be a lot of underlying commentary on the power of silence, and when we weaponise silence and how it is used. Would you care to speak to that?

Yeah, look, I think it’s interesting you say that, because the whole notion of silence can be both very stifling, so you can take it in a story like “Dark As Last Night” where the silence of course is around the refusal to act or speak about domestic violence which is something that I grew up [with]. This is almost like one of the commandments that we grew up with, that you would never speak about these crimes that were committed behind closed doors. And that of course empowers men very much and disempowers women and children very strongly, so it is in that story as a negative.

But also, I think one of the things that I’ve thought about in my writing more recently is, sometimes the notion of silence can be empowering. In the sense that someone who is equipped or able to observe but not speak is someone who has a greater insight into what’s happening in the world around them.

I was asked recently [about] my favourite fictional character, and my favourite fictional character of all time is Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird who at the end of that novel, of course, becomes a hero and saves the two children, Jem and Scout, from being murdered. Until that point he’s never seen and he never says anything, but my sense is that he’s the only one character in that novel who knows exactly what’s going on and exactly where danger lies. So I’m interested in those people or characters on the periphery, who understand something more of what’s going on than those who are at the centre of the action.

I love that so many of the stories in this collection are told from the periphery, and a lot of these characters aren’t directly involved in some of what’s happening, but there are a lot of as you’ve said autobiographical parts to your stories. And you’ve spoken quite openly in the past about your childhood in Fitzroy and living with the fear of domestic violence, and you’ve written about some of those experiences before, and again in this collection. How does it feel to keep diving back into those painful experiences to write about them?

Oh, it might sound a really odd comment, I don’t find it painful to write about them. I think there’s something counterintuitive here in the sense that what I’ve said is absolutely true, that for the majority of people there were issues that you weren’t able to speak about or as kids told not to speak about, but I’m actually very fortunate to come from a family where, and I trust my mother for this, that, we’ve never shied away from speaking about violence in our family. We’ve been quite open about it, and really open about it with the generation that has come after us.

I don’t sit around telling my children lurid stories about, you know, domestic violence instead of reading them a nice book. But my kids have grown up knowing what I was subject to and what their grandma was subject to and they have to know that to know that this is just untenable for their generation. It’s not acceptable.

So I’ve never found it difficult to talk about, because I think the silence in that sense is really disempowering. I admit that it’s difficult material, but when I return to it as a writer, it’s like any other story. I just think, “How can I deliver this story in a way that values the story and provides an insight into its experience?”

In the title story “Dark As Last Night”, I’m thinking of characters. I’m thinking of this girl who both has some fear of her father, but who needs to find courage, and her relationship with this old woman next door, Little Red, this other woman, and of course the  the tragedy of her mother’s situation which is quite different. Her mother is being literally beaten and psychologically beaten by her husband. I did like that one of the reviewers of this book talked about that story as a form of wish fulfilment, in that sense the story is very much a parable. It’s very much a fractured fairy tale where – and I won’t give it away – the ending is in a way… yeah, you want to provide an ending for a character you couldn’t get in real life if you know what I mean.

Yeah I do, and that was such a powerful story to open the collection on too.

Yeah, yeah, and I’m not using a pun, but the material is quite dark. I was very confident in this story technically. So in other words, I think it works really well as a story. So, I think one of the things I’d like to say here is, although I’ve written about issues of family violence, I haven’t written them as a polemic or to be didactic. Whatever you’re writing about, the story has to work. It has to be a good story.

In my first collection, I have a story called “The Butcher’s Wife” which is a very dark story but it’s a great story, I’m really happy with it, it’s one of the first stories I wrote, and I really was happy with the story, and I’m still happy with it. And the story “Dark As Last Night”, there’s no point using fiction to discuss family violence if the fiction is not good.

So, first and foremost I’m thinking of the quality of the writing. If I wanted to write about domestic violence specifically, I can do that in another genre, which I have of course – I’ve spoken about this in non-fiction. But when I’m using fiction to discuss these issues the fiction has got to be good.

And you do use fiction so powerfully to discuss a lot of very important things. I want to talk about three of the stories in the collection that you dedicated to your little brother, Wayne, who sadly passed away in 2018. You said in your acknowledgements that you initially hesitated to write about him, but changed your mind. What was it that made you change your mind?

I think two things, it’s not complicated. One is that I didn’t want to turn my brother’s death and the grief we’ve experienced into art, you know, just for material. The two things that changed my mind is that, it was based on the fact that my younger brother had suffered serious psychiatric illness for many decades during his adult life, but as a child he’d been incredibly vibrant and quite a beautiful child. I mean quite beautiful-looking physically. And I wrote mostly about him as a child, or a lot of that was as a child, and I thought that was valuable.

But I think the real test was when I showed the early work to my mum, and I didn’t sit down and say “Can I”; I didn’t formally ask my mum permission, but I wanted her reaction to the work. And her reaction was that she was really happy with what I was writing because it gave people a sense of my brother’s life and how much he was valued. So I think if I had written a story which focused on the bad, you know the terrible experiences of my brother’s adult life which were based around psychiatric illness, I think she would be very unhappy and I don’t think she would want that experience shared with the wider world, and neither would I.

So I think to show how he was valued in the family and the sort of person he was, I think that she was very happy. And she has read the whole book since and she’s come out and said, I think on Facebook to a friend of hers, that she shed a tear or two but she was very proud of the book. So it’s a great endorsement of the work.

I think the emotion and the pride you had for your brother and how much you felt for him really came through in  your writing and with those stories. So it was really lovely and I really appreciate you sharing them as well because it was such a lovely insight. Do you have a favourite story in this collection or is there one that has special significance to you? Is it one of those three or another one in particular?

It’s probably that thing [where] it depends which day you ask me.

I really do love the story “Bicycle Thieves” because it takes me back to childhood. The title is deliberate – the Bicycle Thieves is the title of one of my favourite movies. It’s an Italian film made just after the Second World War.

It’s alluded to in the story, but it’s hard to explain this to people [that], when I was a kid, bicycles were just so important to people. Most people I knew had never had a car, and men particularly needed bicycles to get to and from work. You know, you’d see a lot of men riding home from factories, kids would need a bike to get to their paper rounds. We enjoyed riding second-hand bikes riding up and down the streets, and to steal someone’s bike was a serious sin! I think the working-class term would be a “dog act”, to steal someone’s bike. So when the boy has his bike stolen, it’s a terrible terrible experience and obviously reflects on the older brother’s anger. So that’s a, and I say this affectionately, sort of old-fashioned story that harks back to a story like the stories in Shadowboxing.

I think across the collection there are many stories I like for lots of different reasons. “Afterlife” I really like, “Lemonade” I really like, but also those three stories I mentioned earlier with the young females in them. I really really enjoyed those three stories.

Oh I can understand why it would be difficult to choose any one, because every story has something in it. I really loved “Riding Trains with Thelma Plum”, which of course took your poem published in Overland a step further as well. I just thought that story and the girl in that story was just brilliant.

Well Thelma Plum likes it too! So I was very lucky – that story was published independently in The Saturday Paper, and Thelma Plum saw the story and her manager got in touch with us to say that she cried when she read the story. Although it’s not an unhappy story, I think. We sent her copies of both the poetry collection With the Songs [which] has the Thelma Plum poem in it, and of course Dark As Last Night has the Thelma Plum short story in it. We sent them to Thelma after they were published, and I love the fact that someone who I really admire as an artist and as a really strong Aboriginal woman responded to the work. So I feel it was a great outcome.

You’re quite good at bringing scenes and characters to life with your writing. You’re quite concise but also so vivid. How do you know which details are vital and which ones aren’t?

Oh I don’t know. I mean, it depends if you like the writing stylistically or not. I have to say as a caveat here, I’ve been very lucky with my career in the sense that overwhelmingly I get really good responses to my work from reviewers, and when I say “really good”, I mean really engaging responses to know what the stories are trying to do.

Occasionally I’ve had reviews where I think there is the suggestion that not only is the writing simple but it’s too simple, and maybe a reflection on my limited capacities. That’s not the case, because I worked as an academic for twenty years, and if need be I could, like any other academic, write the most convoluted, most dense academic work that only academics read.

I deliberately write in a very simple and direct style, because I think it’s part of the philosophical and creative approach I take to writing poetry and fiction. I don’t feel the need to overcrowd the page, I like to be direct, and, I suppose, it seems like the most simple and direct advice. And for the life of me, I can’t remember who the writer was unfortunately, [but] a writer was asked what does writing do, they said “well if you’ve got a camera and you point it over there, that’s what’s happening there, and you point it there and that’s what’s happening there, so what you do at a surface level is to be a lens”. In other words, to try and convey what the scene is, imagining a reader visualising or seeing the scene, the trick is then to give depth to the scene, which may seem on the surface simple. That really is about, I think, the emotional depth of a scene.

And when you [ask] what to leave in and leave out, I think what I tend to do there is I’m very reliant on one of my core gestures, so the ways in which people interact, whether it be speech or their physicality. So if I just go back momentarily to my last novel White Girl, there’s a scene in that novel which we often refer to as ‘the bath scene’. And it’s just a very simple two-page scene where a grandmother gives her granddaughter a bath, washes her hair. To me that epitomises what I want to do as a writer, I want to set up the scene so that people can see this happening. And then the scene is full of very simple exchanges between the child and the grandmother, but more importantly, the touch.

So I like to describe the sense of the water going through the granddaughter’s hair, the grandmother massaging her granddaughter’s scalp, which we all know. I didn’t like going to the hairdresser when I was younger, but one thing do I like is getting my hair washed, and that sort of tactile relationship between people. I’m really interested in that, I’m interested in the sort of touch, I’m interested in the senses, and I think what you can do is provide readers with premier access to what you’re doing with your characters, and then give it depth by thinking of it three-dimensionally, and all the things that happen in a three-dimensional space between people.

I think your writing as well is deceptive in its simplicity because I think there’s so much hidden in it and it’s a real skill to be able to write that way. So, I mean I love your style, I think it’s beautiful. Are there any specific authors or storyteller’s who inspire you?

I mean there always has been, and I think that, well just a… not a cautionary note, but when I used to talk to my writing students (I taught writing for about twelve years) and when I would talk about writers that I really admired, the students sometimes would somehow think well therefore that’s how I should write, well that’s how you write, and that’s not the case.

So some of the writers I really admire, I don’t admire them because I want to write like them, I admire them just because I really like them as a reader.

In short fiction, my favourite book of short fiction is a book called Island, a collection of stories by Alistair MacLeod who was a Canadian author, who I think he passed away about ten years ago. He didn’t write that often, in the sense that I think he probably would have published from the 1960s, he may have published only one or two stories a year, but Island brings together most of his stories in the one collection. They’re set in Cape Breton which is on the east coast of Canada. I love them because they’re in a very specific locale. I love them because they’re seeped in mystery and tragedy. They are quite literary, so he would certainly write with a much broader palette than I do, but they have a sort of song to them and when you’re reading his stories you can almost hear a beautiful melody to the stories.

And I love a book by a woman who is also no longer with us, Lucia Berlin. She has a remarkable collection called A Manual for Cleaning Women which is a collection of her short stories going way back as well, maybe to the sixties, I’m not sure about that. But I love her writing because most of the characters are girls or women, and really strong characters. I’m sure that, not the style, but I’m sure her writing has had an influence on those stories that I just mentioned in my collection with young female protagonists. I think if I was still teaching, I would give every young woman in my class that book. I’d give it to every young man as well, but I think as a role model to say to young female writers you can write really tough, you know, you can write really sort of… when I say “confronting”, I don’t mean visceral material, I just mean these young and older women are sort of up in your face and I really like that.

Well thank you for the recommendations! I now have two more books to put on my TBR. So we’re getting towards the end of this interview. Before we finish up, there’s obviously so many things that go into writing a collection, and I’m sure depending on who you’re speaking to you get asked lots of different questions by different people. What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to talk about with this collection that you haven’t had a chance to yet?

Ah that’s a great question! I tell you there is one thing I wanted to talk about which is something, it’s not good to end on something that bugs you, but why not. I think that the way, so that, let’s say for want of better words, there’s a lot in this collection and all my writing is around working-class or around class, and I think the way that class is discussed in Australia in relationship to writing is quite narrow. It’s quite unsophisticated.

And I get annoyed that when reviewers, and again, I’ve been really well treated by reviewers so this is not a sort of an act of revenge on a bad review, not at all, but when people talk about working-class writing in Australia, they will often refer to it as realism. Realism in a narrow way. As if when you write about middle-class life, it’s not realism. And for the life of me I can’t understand that.

So that if I read novels, and most novels are not about working class, not about Aboriginal people, certainly not about Aboriginal people in urban environments, not about working-class Aboriginal people who live in cities, most writing is not about working-class Aboriginal people, and I never hear the term used. I think it’s, purposefully or not, quite demeaning and narrow on literature, and I just think it’s either good writing or it’s not good writing. And it’s interesting if you were to look at this issue around class in the US or in England, it would be discussed differently. In the US, discussion is really more on the quality of the writing, than on that narrow sense of if it’s realism or not.

In the UK they will discuss the issue of class but in a much more sophisticated way because the English are much more attuned to the issues of class, or are much more open about the realities. So what I’d like for people to discuss is that writing about working class Aboriginal people, there are qualities in that writing that should be discussed in the same way that other writing is discussed. And I think sometimes it’s not. And you know, I think writing can be pigeon-holed and I think that’s to the detriment of the writing, and I think that’s to the detriment of people who might be interested in the work.

I have to say I’m very very happy that a lot of my readers are older women, older middle-class women, as a lot of readers are, and when they read my work, I think they’re really pleasantly surprised about the depth of character in my work that they probably weren’t expecting. Yeah so I think the pigeon-holing of your work can probably lose potential readers.

Thank you very much for that and I think it’s a really important discussion for us to have, especially for those of us in the reviewing community. So I appreciate that feedback as well. One last question before we finish up. Can I ask what you’re currently working on?

Do writers ever tell you what they’re currently working on?

Aww look, they might give me a hint!

Okay, I think it’s a really good question and the reason I can answer openly is that if I’d started a book I wouldn’t tell you and I’d just make up some bullshit about bicycles or something.

So I think it’s a really good question because even though I had a really productive period before lockdown last year, this year has been less so. I mean I’ve had a good time, I’ve been writing a bit of other stuff, and doing plenty of reading.

I think I’m at that famous fork in the road where I’ve got two possible projects which are very very different. One would be to go down a pathway of more sort of, for want of a better term, historic, more of a crime-fiction type of novel, which I’ve been thinking about for a long time. And the other is to write a probably short novel about issues I’ve already been concerned with. Issues around grief and loneliness, but in relation specifically to my experience.

So they’re very different, and  the real fear, and I’m sure all writers, [or] a lot of writers have this quite seriously, you imagine you’re standing on that road, you can go left or right or anywhere you want, so one of the ways you can think about it is, you can write any book you want. So I can write any book that I think about, I have this incredible sense of freedom. But the fear is that you will choose the wrong book, because once you start and you go down that pathway, and you’re into the book, invariably you will finish the project, whether it will be publishable or not, you will finish the project.

So at the moment I’m scared, well I don’t know if I’m scared… I’m not ready, yeah that’s a better way to put it. I’m not ready to choose yet. And, quite seriously, I may not choose this until the end of the year, which is unusual for me. I’m usually always working on a project, but I feel the need to be patient. And because I’ve had a very productive period, I think the last thing I need to do next year is put out another book. So I think I’ll be able to give myself plenty of breathing time and start a project either probably sometime between now and next year. But I don’t know when I’ll start. So as soon as I start I’ll get back to you and let you know what it is.

That sounds very exciting and terrifying at the same time and it’s nice to have that insight into what it’s like just before you start a project, because I think a lot of people just assume that writers always have something on the go. So thank you for that.

I might toss a coin or something.

I mean both options sounds great to me, so whichever one you put out I can’t wait for it! But thank you so much for joining me today Tony and for that awesome insight into your work and your new collection. Thank you for being so open in everything you talk about as well and, as I say I can’t wait for what comes out next.

Thank you very much. It’s been great.

Tony Birch’s Dark As Last Night is out now from University of Queensland Press. Grab your copy from Booktopia HERE!

You can read our review of Dark As Last Night HERE! And our review of Tony Birch’s The White Girl HERE!

Jess Gately

Jess Gately is a freelance editor and writer with a particular love for speculative fiction and graphic novels.