Author’s Roundtable: Des Birch


How long have you been writing? Has writing always been something you wanted to do?

I always enjoyed essays at school. I still wrote short stories after I left school and when my children were young I wrote stories for them. I’m not sure if writing is something I’ve always wanted to do; rather something I’ve always done. Over the years my writing has (hopefully) matured and if I happen to pick up the odd surviving piece from my youth, it makes me smile at the long journey I’ve traveled.
 
What books or stories have you written? Published? Can you tell us a little about your books? What are they about?

My first book, “The Diary of an Innocent,” was written while I was living in Spain. It runs a dual narrative and tells the story of a manual laborer who is trying to make sense of life after losing his job. He finds the diary of a Catholic priest, and the stories of both of their lives are then interwoven by the plot of the book. Our hero eventually makes sense of his life with a little help from an old lady in a park.

“The Redemption” is a tale about a school swimming team whose plane crashed in the South China seas. The story shows how far the mind will go to protect itself. It also shows that people who are outcast from one situation can often shine when that situation changes.

I wrote “Different Eyes,” a book of short stories both to include a few of the stories I had written over the years, and to give a narrative to help readers understand where ideas come from and how they can be developed. Pleasant bedtime reading.

While I love all of my books, “Beyond Dark Waters,” a Young Adult novel has to be my flagship. It tells the story of Ben who enters into the forms of five different species in the watery world of the lake. The challenges he faces mirror the challenges faced by young people going through the rites of passage into adulthood. It is a tale that takes in learnings about life, science and the interconnectedness of the natural world. It also won me the ePublisher consortium’s Award of Merit.

How did you get inspiration for the characters?

Difficult question because it’s not how I write. My characters have to fit in with the point I’m trying to make. Perhaps if I give a brief description of how I approach a new piece of work, all will become clear.

I begin with an idea, but not an idea for a story. The idea is something I want to say and can usually be stated in one or two sentences. For instance, if I wanted to say that drivers shouldn’t speed through urban areas, I would first assess all the reasons why this might be true. If I felt strongly enough to write a book about it, I would then begin to develop events which would encompass most or even all of these reasons. As I thought about events in the book from accidents to congestion, I would have a picture in my mind of the area in which these would take place. From this I would see little tendrils connecting these events, and the shell of the story with its internal (tendril) connections would sit in my mind as the justification for the original statement. Next come the beginning and the end. The start of any book is important because it is often the first few chapters on which a potential reader will judge whether or not to continue reading it. The ending gives the story a position in time and space. An old short-story format from long ago saw a narrator telling a tale, at the end of which he would reveal himself as having been the main character: “I was that man!” I would not recommend this format for a modern story, but it did give the tale more credence because the reader had “met” the character outside the story.

So now, what have we got? From the beginning: A high court judge (M/F?) gets stopped for speeding, but the police officer lets him/her off because of his/her position. (Constantly having to write “him/her” irritates me so that rapidly I decide on gender). Judge is hearing a case of a woman (women are creators of life and are judged much more harshly than men if they take one) who has killed/injured/maimed people because of speeding. During the case the judge wrestles with his/her conscience, and all of my original points of justification can be brought out in the trial. The ending sees the judge seeking out the police officer and remonstrating with him about letting her off.

It is only now that we need to introduce the characters; people whose lives have been changed by the actions of the defendant. However much we believe to the contrary, we cannot completely invent a character. I don’t write about superheroes, and all my characters are taken from individual traits of the people I meet in my everyday life. This often helps me to understand (and occasionally predict) seemingly erratic behavior in others. 

To return to the original question, the characters don’t inspire me; the story does, and it is this that determines the characters.

Are the books based on personal experiences?

My books are not based on my experiences, but what I try to put over in the story is. You don’t get to be on the wrong side of fifty without having had many learning experiences in life. These experiences often spark off ideas. How often have we said, “That wouldn’t have happened when I was young”? From this simple statement might come the next bestseller!

Is there any advice you have been given that you could give to a young up-and-coming writer?

Writing cannot be performed at a distance. Every piece that you write contains a little bit of you and when you submit a work for public scrutiny, you leave yourself open to praise or ridicule from people to whom you can never reply. Writing demands courage! While every piece contains a part of you, so you are a part of every piece you have ever written. To understand that is to understand the difference between writing and being a writer.
 
Can you talk a little about the benefits of getting your work professionally edited?

I am probably not the best person to ask about this. My first book, “The Diary of an Innocent,” was traditionally published. When I ended the contract with my publisher (I found a loophole), I re-edited the complete book (including the cover picture). The feedback I received was that the re-edit was better than the original!

It has been said that if you were to put ten editors in a room, they would produce twelve different opinions! I’m sure that the editors at the major publishers have a better idea than most about what would sell and how to edit a book accordingly, although they don’t always get it right. If selling millions of books was the only reason to write, most authors would have given up long ago. While I would love to sell millions of books, writing solely for that reason would seem to me to be akin to prostitution!
 
What are some of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome as a writer, in order to be published?

Along with most writers I think rejection is the most difficult. It is a mammoth task to produce your first book, and you guard it carefully with pride and passion. Then you send a few chapters and a query letter to an editor. Your baby is out there on his own, and you are hoping he does well. Three months later he comes back to you crying his eyes out saying that nobody likes him! This might sound dramatic but trust me, when you get that first rejection slip, your heart sinks, and all the self-doubts that you had so carefully hidden away in the attic come tumbling down to engulf you! It took me two years of rejection slips before I found a publisher, but now my baby is happy.
 
How do you find enough time in the day to write?

Writing is not something that happens only when I sit at my computer. It happens when I’m working, when I’m shopping, when I’m walking through the countryside. One part of me is committed to writing and will always look at a situation from a writer’s perspective. I have seen characters in shops who fit perfectly into a piece I am writing. I study them, wondering what their life must be like. I observe their mannerisms, recording them in my mind for future use. 

Most writers write more when they are away from their computers.
 
How did you find time to write your books?

I guess it’s like anything I want to do; I fit it into my life rather than making time for it. I rarely drink alcohol, and I’m a little old for night clubs, so I spend the time working at something I enjoy. Life is a trade-off.
 
Do you think writing has any benefits, and if so what would they be?

Writing helps a person rationalize life’s little events. For a story to be credible, you have to know how your characters act and interact. This can sometimes lead to some surprising conclusions about some of the real people whose character traits you have used. Writing also gives a sense of achievement. I have met many people who claim they would love to write a book, but whom I know never will.

Can you talk a little about how writing relaxes you? Any specific examples you can share?

When I was young, I played a lot of Rugby Union. My mother once asked me why I liked playing such a physical sport. I told her that I found it relaxing. Seeing the puzzled look on her face, I explained further. My favored position at the front of the scrum required me to concentrate at being in the correct position all the time. If I allowed myself to become distracted, I would risk serious injury. For those eighty minutes of playing, my only challenges in life were winning the ball and remaining in one piece. Although not as physical, writing requires me to enter into another world. If I allow myself to become distracted, I would be writing from outside the story rather than immersing myself in it.  Therefore, while I’m at my computer, I have no other problems.

One thing I will say is that my character can change with the character I’m writing about.  While I wouldn’t go out and murder somebody (if that’s what my character did), it might bring out the more aggressive side of my character.
 
Has writing made you a better person? Was there a point in your life where writing helped you deal with something, a death or a problem relationship perhaps?

Apart from helping me rationalize life, writing is usually the end product of any problem.  However I did write “The Diary of an Innocent” because I was incensed that, shortly before her death, somebody close to me began to doubt the religion she had followed all of her life. I realized that she had believed because of fear and coercion, and I wanted to help others who believe for the same reasons.
 
Do you like to read? If so, what are your favorite genres and why?

I like to read factual books. I have a BSc, and this year (2012) I have returned to study the final course for my honors. I love the natural world and often include it in my novels. I believe that if more people had an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all parts of nature, the world would be a better place.
 
Can you talk about how important reviews are to writers? What kinds of information do reviews offer authors like yourself? Have you ever received a bad review? If so how did it make you feel?

Reviews come in two types: readers and official bodies. Readers’ reviews come in genuine or spiteful. The lowest genuine review I had was a three-star, which I found to be very positive. The worst review I had was not so much a review as a comment. It was written the day after my book went live so the reviewer would have had to have bought and read it as soon as it went live and immediately written the review; possible but unlikely, especially after reading many of her other one-star reviews. It read: “Bad. So bad you could die from the bad. Do not read under any circumstances!” The three-star review I mentioned was for the same book on the same site, and the only other review was a five-star.

I was once told of an author who, upon receiving a bad review, simply said that the reviewer was not within his targeted readership.

The only official reviews I have received are from the Kindle Book Review and from the ePublishing consortium. I was honored to receive the ePublishing consortium’s Award of Merit. 
 
About Des Birch

I was born in Limerick, Eire, but moved to England when I was a baby. I moved from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk when I was ten, but attended a private school near Southampton. I have two children, whom I have raised on my own since they were ten and eight, respectively. I work in engineering but have gained a BSc and a Dip. Pol. Con. with the Open University. I also hold a TEFL diploma, with which I spent two years teaching in Spain. I now live in Norwich with my wife, Julie.

Catch up with Des 

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3 thoughts on “Author’s Roundtable: Des Birch

  1. Thank you so much, Jason for interviewing my favorite UK author, Des. I can never say enough good things about him. He was my writing coach for a while and actually cried when I lost him. He wanted to go back to school. Any time I’m writing, I always refer to his short story collection, Different Eyes for inspiration and he did such a great job on Beyond Dark Waters. I have a giant oak tree at my entry gate and as I pass it each day, I think of this masterpiece!

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