Roberta Rofman talks to upcoming author and alumni of University of Manchester, Tim (T.F.) Birch, about his time at university, his career and his new book ‘Monkey Steals Plum’.
Describing himself as an outlier, Tim didn’t take the conventional and simple road in his life, becoming a mature student at the University of Manchester after living in America. After a few years of journalism, he decided he wanted to write a book about something that greatly interested him, that being Comet 67P landing.
On his time at university
I lived in America for nearly three years and thought what courses do I qualify for? It was only really going to be something to do with reading and writing given my grades, although I didn’t want to just do a literature degree. Doing American History and Society seemed most plausible given my time in America; it was a top department in the mid-90s with strong professors. I had a friend in Oxford who said that it was a brilliant classic post-modern course and just went with that my most influential friend said. He knew how to do life properly, wasn’t an outlier like myself. Little did I know that it was a completely useless degree.
On his degree
The American history professor said that I was an interesting writer, the usual task of reading and regurgitating lectures was different from my work. I tended to go off on tangents within what I was roughly meant to do. Although the writing was academic, the practice of writing and editing and rewriting set me up for journalism. I think that all things add up, reading helps with research and investigations that you have to do in journalism. It gives you that grounding and hitting a deadline. However, it was a waste of a degree. Those who have a career in mind are the ones who really need a degree e.g. physics. My wife did marketing and stayed in that which proved to be useful. If I think of it in that analogy then I haven’t really done much with my degree. But you take what you can from life and build on that.
Being an outlier, I did do things differently. I was never that bookish but I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut in my teens and gained loads of golden rules from that that I adopt and carry forward. But degree or no degree is a toss-up. I know plenty of people who don’t have a degree. A friend from middle school who I’ve just gotten in contact with didn’t go to university has had similar experiences and ups and downs. But I’m not convinced about just going one way or another, it’s about your journey and what you get from it. I fob my degree off as useless but not absolutely, I loved Manchester so I stayed. There will always be new found interests that make you think about other degrees. For example, my interest of space exploration made me think, what if I only listened in that physics class. I would have loved to do things differently but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’d say it was utterly pointless yet worthwhile.
On his career
I did some acting in America, things such as stage stuff and TV commercials. It was a fun few years. But after, I got into the University of Manchester, did my degree then got into journalism straight after. I pitched a story for Loaded, back when it wasn’t just about boobs. It was about a porn star who I was best man for. She married for a green card and it was an interesting experience but I couldn’t tell the story because of the green card situation. After that, I wrote about what was happening in Manchester e.g. art shows and it kind of spiralled after that.
On his influences
I had a friend who was a proper outlier and was really interesting. He moved out when he was 14 or 15 to his own flat. He has all these books, and encouraged me to read Vonnegut, after that I was addicted. Vonnegut is someone who is frank and doesn’t really do suspense. Also, a friend described my book as a Wong Kar Wai film in book form and I thought it was a really nice summary of what I was trying to do. It is unashamedly visual and the characters are similar to that of Wong Kar Wai characters.
On why he chose to write about Comet 67P
I followed the story for a while when I got into space exploration. I thought many things such as its amazing that it is out there happening and that female astrophysicists don’t get enough credit. I would check the websites for developments and was really inspired when it became a really massive media moment when it got really close. Some say you shouldn’t touch big events but I wanted to acknowledge it. I thought that if I got hit by a bus, don’t want to miss the chance to write about it.
On the storyline of Monkey Steals Plum
The story involves a Chinese billionaire called Feng, it just happened that the character wanted to go in that direction. I had to get a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time so the journalism skills I gained turned out to be a good skill. It is a book about a man who wants to nail asteroid mining, partly to honour family, to help him get over life and to get the monkey of his back. My brother said Feng is like a James Bond baddie, an interesting character who looks at what is possible, who isn’t just a money grabbing billionaire.
On the parallels between the book and his life
Well people said write about the things you know so I set it in the places I was familiar with, that being Manchester and China. I made a character a Salford guy who gives a footing in Manchester. I also set it in Manchester because of the excitement around graphene in Manchester, I thought, why doesn’t Feng come to Manchester? The concept of graphene is very real but seems like it could be sci-fi so I also wanted to include that, in that Feng wants to use it, although this book is not sci-fi.
Will you always stick to the same style of writing?
No. This style was the natural fit for this specific book. It is frankly ‘non-genre’ but there are thriller and mystery elements that suit both of its intertwining storylines: ‘an intrepid quest in space’ and ‘abject characters with disturbing back stories’.
It’s a book driven by the speech, and minds, of the characters. It’s really about journeys – about moments, moods, and memories.
My intention was to have this as the first of a trilogy – it makes sense to have the next two books somewhat echo the style. But my fourth book, currently just an outline, will be differently styled.
Would you have done anything different with your writing?
Not with the book. The lengthy editing process means that I tried out different approaches, plot lines, versions. Editing, when effective, eradicates ‘the agony of what might have been’. To be frank, I had a full length version in which ‘Feng’ was a minor character – he ended up shining through the editing as a significant, leading character.
With journalism what I would have done differently is to re-skill during the moments when the industry transitioned – a bit like shifting your sail to catch the new wind. Looking back around the millennium I had a few great opportunities to learn how to code but never did as I was busy writing, taking photographs and working with audio. In the past few years I have taught myself some advanced data journalism—a good example of the kind of re-training I should have been doing all along.
On his thoughts on Comet 67P
In a few years, we will be in trouble due to the planet heating up, and a reduction in resources. If the book became what the future will be, that would be great. I hope to preserve what we have left on Earth so I would like the comet to give us a way to save the Earth basically, such as finding resources up there in a way that doesn’t cause wars.
On the Charlie Hebdo shooting
If I had a gun to my head, or it was an either/or question, I believe in complete freedom of speech, but just like many of my answers, it’s more complex than that. How can you have freedom of speech everywhere when it is a Western value? You want people to be mature and to laugh things off but you can’t anticipate that. If I believe in a certain God and that you shouldn’t insult it, then you should take it on board. It is worth thinking of bigger questions such as whether there is a God. I also believe that unless I talk to you, then things will never be sorted, people don’t really communicate and spend time with each other to sort problems out.
Self-censorship plays a big part in my life. For example, when I was going to do that story about the pornstar who I was best man for, it was my first big story and I burnt a bridge by not doing. The thing is, I made a bigger promise to her to not tell people. To get to the truth, you sometimes reveal bigger truths and in cases, it is right to just not go along with the story. Some may say you are too principled but you respect people. But, in the sense of major censorship, I don’t think my work has really been censored, I haven’t written stuff that really needed it. Unless you get to a really busy and high profile stance, I doubt censorship needs to be a big worry.
His advice to students looking to pursue journalism or start a book
For writing books, I’ll echo Kurt Vonnegut’s legacy: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. Start as close to the end as possible.”
Journalism is ‘an umbrella term’ covering print (papers, mags), broadcast (TV/radio/web), and data journalism. So I would suggest that what underpins all of these potential futures are transferable skills like research/investigation (find out how to dig in to diverse subjects, sources and data); Interpersonal communications (getting access to people; liaison with all sorts of people; negotiation skills); Equipment (microphones, recorders, cameras, mobile phones); Writing (whether that’s ‘features’ or short scripts for TV/radio reports) … also the more subtle or ‘soft’ skills of curiosity, scepticism (not taking things at face value), and honesty.
‘Data Journalism’ has been the booming trend over the past few years. Look into learn basic coding and get familiar with info-graphics and data visualisation. All of this can be self-taught, so if you can make time and stay committed, get online and start.
On why people should read his book
The first thing that pops into my head is that it is brilliantly exciting and contemporary. It could actually happen and the excitement and drive I have for it is the surrealness of the concept of Rosetta and Comet 67P but it is very real. Also, there is a resonance for Mancunians as a lot of it is set in Manchester. For the literary fans, it is thriller-ish with twists and surprises and the characters have a good quality about them. Also for the science fans, it’s a good read and if there are any inaccuracies in the book, get in touch. But in short, give a guy a chance, it’s my first book.
Money Steals Plum is available on Amazon as an eBook for £2.26.