Dr Tony Birch was born in inner-city Melbourne, into a large family of Aboriginal, West Indian and Irish descent. His upbringing was challenging and difficult, and much of this is captured in his remarkable debut, the semi-autobiographical Shadowboxing.
An altar boy and exceptional student at his local Catholic primary school, in adolescence, Birch went 'off the rails' as a teenager. He was expelled from two high schools for fighting and found trouble with the police for the same reason. Although somewhat adrift following his expulsions, he remained a voracious reader – once, when he was arrested by police, all they found when they patted him down was a copy of Camus’ The Outsider, which remains his favourite book.
Returning to night school to complete his studies, Birch met his mentor, Anne Misson, whose credo was very simple: 'You’ll be great, but only if you work your arse off.' Birch still lives by this and applies it to everything including his passion for running, which is where his writing is created and shaped.
Studying as a mature-age student at the University of Melbourne, Birch holds a Masters degree in Creative Writing and a PhD in History.
Birch has been publishing short stories and poetry regularly since the 1980s, although his first collection, Shadow Boxing, only appeared in 2006. Since this, he has published four more collections of short stories and poetry (Father's Day , The Promise , Broken Teeth , and Common People  and two novels (Blood  and Ghost River ).
Among his awards are the Scanlon Prize and the Prize for Indigenous Writing (Victorian Premier's Literary Awards). He has also been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (NSW Premier's Literary Awards), the Steele Rudd Award (with both the original Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and the later Queensland Literary Awards), and the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
In 2015, he joined Victoria University as the first recipient of its Dr Bruce McGuinness Indigenous Research Fellowship. His role sits within the Moondani Balluk Academic Unit and is linked to the University’s creative arts and writing programs. He has also taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne for many years.
Birch’s work is widely read and loved including by those who might normally avoid books, particularly teenage boys. Through his outreach work, he visits many schools to speak to students, and takes particular pleasure in returning to the two schools that expelled him, as both of his previous books are on the syllabus.
'I wrote many poems before I published a single word of fiction, short or long. Some of the poems I was happy with. Others were terrible. Thankfully, most of the bad stuff was never published, although a couple of the more atrocious ones were. I hope they’re being taught somewhere as examples of bad writing and giving students a laugh. The poems of mine that I’m most happy with, while not being ‘found’ poems, riff off the political words of others, hammered into shape with anger, and sometimes caressed with love. Other institutional words, phrases and sentences I picked up along the way, interrogating them until they confessed their hidden meaning. Any dictatorship worth its violent salt executes the poets first. It is the way it should be, as a great poem cuts through the crap and goes for the heart and heat like a double-barrelled shotgun.'
''You find yourself down at the bottom of the river, for some it's time to give into her. But other times, young fellas like you two, you got to fight your way back. Show the river you got courage and is ready to live.'
'The river is a place of history and secrets. For Ren and Sonny, two unlikely friends, it's a place of freedom and adventure. For a group of storytelling vagrants, it's a refuge. And for the isolated daughter of a cult reverend, it's an escape.
'Each time they visit, another secret slips into its ancient waters. But change and trouble are coming – to the river and to the lives of those who love it. Who will have the courage to fight and survive and what will be the cost?' (Publication summary)
'Outstanding new fiction from the Miles Franklin-shortlisted author of Blood
'In this breathtaking new work, Tony Birch affirms his position as one of Australia’s finest writers of short-form fiction.
'Using his unflinching creative gaze, he ponders love and loss and faith. A trio of amateur thieves are left in charge of a baby moments before a heist. A group of boys compete in the final of a marbles tournament, only to find their biggest challenge was the opponent they didn’t see coming. Two young friends find a submerged car in their local swimming hole and become obsessed by the mystery of the driver’s identity.
'Across twelve blistering stories, The Promise delivers a sensitive and often humorous take on the lives of those who have loved, lost and wandered.' (Publication summary)