Tim Winton has been a part-time novelist for the past three years. Yes, he has a book on the go, but he has also been writing and narrating a documentary about the Ningaloo Reef off the coast of north-west Australia. And for once, he’s not quite sure what he’s writing: is it homage or elegy? Perhaps even eulogy; possibly all three. However the documentary turns out, it has been unsettling.
As is so much at the moment.
“Look at what’s going on in the UK and Europe. We’ve reached a place that they told us about but that we never thought was going to happen. I think anyone who’s not frightened [about climate change] is just not paying attention. If you live close to the natural world and you’ve got a little bit invested – whether you grow grapes or crops or you’re swimming on coral – it’s pretty confronting.”
Several years ago, Winton told me he was an optimist, so I had to ask: is he still?
“I don’t see any alternative. I have to wake up and revive and restabilise my optimism daily if not hourly, and it’s a discipline I have to reinforce and nurture however I can. Hope is not something that you just inherit like rich parents or good genes, it’s something you manufacture, fashion or make.”
So how do you do that?
“By action. I think we create hope by the actions that we take even if they are just moments of kindness or tenderness among people. You only see what’s possible by what other people are doing around you. You look to other people, to the best in people. Whether that’s in politics or art or trade, it’s when you see people doing something decent that they don’t need to do.”
I was always being told you were too this or too that, it was too Australian and this vernacular was too difficult.
Tim Winton, author
In August, Winton marks 40 years as a published author. He won the Vogel award for an unpublished manuscript when he was 20, and that first novel, An Open Swimmer, reached the shops in August 1982. Since then, he has won the Miles Franklin award four times, been shortlisted for the Booker a couple of times and written Cloudstreet, a classic that has frequently been named the most loved Australian novel of all time.
He has been praised for his commitment to the vernacular in Australian literary fiction and is one of the few Australian writers whose work is both literary and sells in big numbers. He writes of Australia, its land, seas and people for the world, but without compromise. And he’s proud of it.
“I was published very early on internationally and was always being told you were too this or too that, it was too Australian and this vernacular was too difficult and the place was too alien and strange. I didn’t know any better, I just said too bad: like it or lump it.”
Winton turns 62 in early August. When he was only 10 he knew he wanted to be a writer, stuck his flag in the ground, as he puts it, and told his parents. They must have thought he was crazy.
“Of course. I didn’t know any writers, I didn’t know what a writer was, I hadn’t met one, I didn’t meet one until I was 18 or 19 years old. I had no idea what a writing life entailed.”
Neither of his parents had finished school, and for a white, working-class family in the 1960s, a writer was someone from a different life, place or era. As he regularly says, he was constantly told he was from the wrong side of the wrong country in the wrong hemisphere. So he was an optimist even back them, or at least stubborn and defiant.
But his family – who, when he was 12, moved from Perth to Albany where his father was a traffic cop specialising in fatal accidents and “mortality, havoc hung over the house” – was entirely supportive.
“I rode on the currency of the life that they could have had if they’d been able to make choices, if they’d had agency. I also came of age at a time when the culture was exploding with confidence that it had never had before and the difference between me and my parents was a Labor Party in power at a time when a Labor Party actually meant something. It was a social democratic outfit and it was about liberating people.”
He was at university in Perth when he won the Vogel, and had to get on a plane for the first time to go to Sydney.
“It said on the invitation that you had to wear a lounge suit. I had to ask someone what that was. I had to borrow a beige suit off a friend who worked in an insurance office, so it was a whole different life. How did they let me get away with this? … I just literally stepped out of my white, working-class reality into something from a different world.”
His life might have been very different had he started writing when he was older, but he was young, flexible and had energy.
A lot of [Cloudstreet] was hard work, but it was a kind of thrill to write once I found the voice and I had Fish Lamb whispering in my ear.
Tim Winton, author
When he was still a student he met Clives James who told him no one should write a novel before they were 40. “I just thought I’d better not mention I had written two.” At that stage he had already written the bulk of Shallows, which in 1984 was to be his first Miles winner, and half of Scission, his first short-story collection.
“I think I wrote the best part of three books when I was an undergraduate. But this [James] was an important person, you don’t want to contradict him … you just think okay this guy’s an enormously well-educated person, but he doesn’t know anything.”
His early writing years were prolific and demanding. At one point he had three writing desks set up and moved from one to another depending on how each bit of work was going, from a novel to a story to a children’s book.
Cloudstreet, the beautiful, benign, slightly bonkers saga of the Lamb and Pickles families sharing an old house in Perth, was his fifth published novel for adults, Scission was out, as was the first of his Locky Leonard novels for children. But Cloudstreet transformed his and his wife Denise’s life and precarious finances, selling more than 60,000 copies in its first nine months and going straight into Australia’s collective heart. It has also been adapted for stage and small screen.
Since then, he has published The Riders, Dirt Music, The Turning (a collection of linked stories), Breath, Eyrie, The Shepherd’s Hut and more.
He remains a bit bewildered by the life Cloudstreet has had. While he tends not to re-read his books, he did have to look at it again when he was adapting it for television.
“All gags aside, I remember the pleasure I got, the excitement I had in writing it. A lot of it was hard work, but it was a kind of thrill to write once I found the voice and I had Fish Lamb whispering in my ear … It felt good to write.”
There was almost a disaster, however. On the way from Rome to Athens he left half the manuscript on a bus while wrangling children and luggage, but fortunately an Italian man – “I could have kissed that whiskery Italian guy” – rescued it.
“I remember the last day, the last page. I was in Greece on Hydra and I just remember standing up and going to the window and looking out and thinking ‘oh well, we can go home now’. It was a good experience.”
There is one strange effect of his long life creating other lives.
“A weird thing is if you live long enough, and you imagine your way into other people’s lives, years later you find yourself in a scene that you’ve already written. And that’s happened several times. You just think ‘I know this, and I’ve written that’. And that’s really strange the kind of the degree to which either you have some kind of prophetic capacity or it shows you how humdrum and ordinary your imagination is.”
Tim Winton’s work is published by Penguin.
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