Protectors of Secret Natural Places: Tony Birch and Inga Simpson

TreesI was very fortunate to chair a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers Festival.

They both have had books long or short listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin award. Tony’s Ghost River is currently longlisted.

It was also shortlisted for two categories in this year’s NSW Premier’s Awards: the Christina Stead prize for fiction and the newly created Indigenous Prize.

Tony and Inga both know their way around universities, as well as being accomplished fiction writers who take us on secret, sensory journeys with their young characters, particularly into natural ‘inbetween’ places, around rivers and trees.

I was first aware of Inga’s writing when her debut novel, Mr Wigg was shortlisted for the Indies awards. I remember the ripples that her lyrical writing about an elderly man in his orchard caused in the literary community.

The writing in her second novel Nest is also the equivalent of fine slow-cooking with its depiction of Jen’s life in a sub-tropical forest but it is utterly captivating and suspenseful at the same time. Nest

Her new novel Where the Trees Were also has evocative descriptions of place – the river and trees.

A group of boys and one girl, Jay, spend their summer holidays before starting high school in the bush, mainly around the river. They find a circle of trees that seem to be out of time and world. Designs are carved into their trunks. Are they a story or code?

The parts of the story about Jay as a girl are told in first person. We also meet her as an adult in Canberra, told in third person.

The indolence of quite an idyllic childhood, although charged with the urgency of adolescence, changes to a harder-edged anticipation and anxiety when a conservationist, (we’re not immediately told her name is Jayne) is involved in stealing a carved Indigenous artifact, an arborglyph, a Wiradjuri burial tree.

Tony Birch’s writing is assured, direct and unpretentious.

I was very moved by his novel Blood, particularly the strength of character and loving heart of his young part- Aboriginal protagonist, Jesse.

His most recent novel is Ghost River, set in the 1960s where the intersected lives of two adolescent boys and the dispossessed river men play out alongside the Yarra River. Ghost River

Storytelling and the changes and roils of life are intrinsic to this novel, reflected in Tony’s own virtuosic story-telling style which moves from energy and adventure to trouble, pathos and weariness and back again like the river itself.

I wonder how much of his own boyhood Tony has drawn upon to create his lively characters Ren, and particularly Sonny.

Mr Wigg

Player Profile: Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg

inga simpson_18Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg

Tell us about your latest creation:

Mr Wigg is the story of the final year of one man’s life. His wife has died and it looks like what’s left of the family property will have to be sold off. He loses himself in his somewhat magical orchard, and spends time cooking with his grandchildren – telling them stories of the Orchard Queen. Despite his age, and Parkinson’s, he begins an ambitious project: to forge a wrought-iron tree.

9780733630194Where are you from / where do you call home?:

I grew up on a property in Central West New South Wales, and now live in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland. I tend to call both “home” though with different meanings.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?:

An author, closely followed by spy or detective.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:

The next novel, the one yet unwritten. At the moment it is all possibility; without flaws.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:

I write in a studio looking out into bushland though odd-shaped windows – including a circle, which has me feeling a little like a hobbit some days. The interior is reasonably ordered, or starts out that way … But I do accumulate piles of papers and books to be dealt with ‘later’.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:

I try to read as widely as possible but tend to read a lot of contemporary Australian fiction, as well as nature writing.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:

Blinky Bill, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?:

Sam Gribley, from My Side of the Mountain. He runs away and lives in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains, befriending a peregrine falcon and becoming entirely self-sufficient, which appeals to me some days.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:

Surf, though not as often as I would like lately. Or Trivial Pursuit by the open fire on winter evenings.

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:

Moroccan lamb and a decent glass of red wine.

Who is your hero? Why?:

Judith Wright. Not only an amazing poet but an uncompromising activist on environmental and Indigenous issues.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:

Reminding decision makers and educators of the value the arts, including a national literature, in tough economic times.

Website URL: http://www.ingasimpson.com.au/
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