In The Wide Brown Land panel of Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, Tony Birch, Inga Simpson and Alex Miller spoke of their return to places where they each spent formative years, and of the every day things at the heart of their stories.
The Yarra has been an obsession for Tony Birch whose latest book is highly-acclaimed short story collection, The Promise. Although he lived in the inner city, he never saw the beach until he was 10, and saw the Yarra at Moomba.
When his family moved to Richmond, he would spend his time swimming at the river and stealing cars. He would stay at the river all day, there was nowhere else to go and be himself.
“I couldn’t have understood it better than I did then in an emotional sense. It taught me to understand environment,” Birch said.
When the Eastern Freeway was built and took the swimming spot away, he was distraught and had no language to write about it.
Birch does a lot of “field work” where he sees the stories before him from what is right before him. He notices the silos, “the temples” of the towns that were held together by wheat.
He says writers should run. He would run 12kms to his mum’s for a cup of tea, and recalls running on a summer evening and a wonderful tannin smell coming from the river that took him back to a moment as a teenage. He wanted to write a poem, he had tried for years to describe the Yarra, both in its smell and colour, but it had evaded him.
Then he read Richard Flanagan’s Death of A River Guide, where he had described a river as “weak tea”.
Birch’s favourite writer of landscape is Alistair Macleod and he often re-reads his short story collection, Island. (Macleod died in April.)
“I don’t know that place [Cape Breton] but I know his Cape Breton though his writing.”
The idea for Alex Miller’s Coal Creek arose from his visit to where he had worked 40 years ago before as a ringer.
At the age of 16, he had left London and migrated to Australia and got a job as a stockman in the Queensland Highlands. Being there was “like your university for the first couple of years”. These people challenged him and accepted him.
“The aboriginal stockman moved through the country at the pace of the country.”
Inga Simpson’s perspective in her novel, Mr Wigg, one man’s fight to stay in his orchard while the world changes, is of a ruined landscape, and a small town where disastrous things happen. The setting is drawn from her own childhood. Mr Wigg is a fairytale character, living in a slow food world, which, as Simpson reports her mother saying, is the way we lived – “we used to have to live that way”.
As Mr Wigg sees that the farms are being sold off to winemakers, he begins to adapt to his changing landscape.
I began to wonder how he does that….
Marian Edmunds is a writer, editor and mentor.