Tim Winton has been a part-time writer for three years. Yes he has a book on the way but he has also written and narrated 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: homage or elegy? Maybe even eulogy; possibly all three. Whatever the documentary turns out to be, it was disturbing.
Like so many things at the moment.
“Look at what is happening in the UK and Europe. We’ve reached a place they told us about but never thought would happen. I think everyone who is not afraid [about climate change] just don’t pay attention. When you live close to nature and have a little investment – whether you’re growing grapes or crops or swimming on coral – it’s quite challenging.”
A few years ago, Winton told me he was an optimist, so I had to ask: is he still?
“I see no alternative. I need to wake up every day, if not every hour, and revitalize and stabilize my optimism, and I need to strengthen and encourage that discipline as much as I can. Hope isn’t something you just inherit like rich parents or good genes, it’s something you make, shape or make.”
How you do that?
“Through action. I think we create hope through the actions we take, even if they’re just moments of kindness or tenderness between people. You only see what is possible through what other people are doing around you. You look at other people, at the best in people. Whether it’s in politics, art, or commerce, when you see people doing something decent, they don’t have to do it.”
I was always told you were too this or that, it was too Australian and that slang was too difficult.
Tim Winton, author
In August, Winton celebrates 40 years as a published author. He won the Vogel Prize for an unpublished manuscript when he was 20, and that first novel, An open swimmerhit stores in August 1982. Since then he has won four Miles Franklin Awards, been nominated for a few Bookers and written cloud roada classic that has often been cited as the most popular Australian novel of all time.
He has been praised for his commitment to colloquialism in Australian literature and is one of the few Australian writers whose works are both literary and sell in large numbers. He writes about Australia, its land, its seas and its people for the world, but without compromise. And he’s proud of that.
“I was published internationally very early on and was always told you were too this or that, it was too Australian and that slang was too difficult and the place was too foreign and strange. I didn’t know any better, I just said too bad: Like it or lump it.”
Winton will be 62 in early August. Already at the age of 10 he knew that he wanted to be a writer, put his flag in the ground, he says, and told his parents. They must have thought he was crazy.
“Of course. I didn’t know a writer, I didn’t know what a writer was, I hadn’t met one, I didn’t meet one until I was 18 or 19. I had no idea what being a writer entailed.”
Neither of his parents had graduated from school, and to a working-class white family in the 1960s, a writer was someone from another life, place, or time. 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 even an optimist, or at least stubborn and defiant.
But his family – who moved from Perth to Albany when he was 12, where his father was a traffic cop specializing in fatal accidents and “mortality, chaos over the house” – gave him their full support.
“I rode the currency of life that they could have had if they had been able to make choices, if they had agency. I was also growing up at a time when the culture was exploding with confidence it never had before and the difference between me and my parents was that a Labor Party was in power at a time when a Labor Party was actually anything meant. It was a social democratic outfit and it was about the liberation of the people.”
He was at the University of Perth when he won the bird and had to board a plane to fly to Sydney for the first time.
“The invitation said you have to wear a lounge suit. I had to ask someone what that was. I had to borrow a beige suit from 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 literally stepped out of my white, working-class reality into something from another world.”
His life might have been very different if he had started writing when he was older, but he was young, flexible and energetic.
Many [Cloudstreet] was hard work, but there was a kind of thrill to write once I found the voice and Fish Lamb whispered in my ear.
Tim Winton, author
When he was still a student, he met Clives James, who told him that nobody should write a novel until they were 40. “I just thought I’d better not mention that I wrote two.” By then he had already written most of it shallowswho would be his first Miles winner in 1984, and half of Cleavage, his first collection of short stories.
“I think I wrote the best part of three books when I was a student. But this [James] was an important person so you don’t want to disagree with him…you just think, okay, the guy is a tremendously educated person, but he doesn’t know anything.”
His early writing years were productive and demanding. At one point he had three desks set up and moved from one to the other depending on how the work at hand was going, from a novel to a story to a children’s book.
cloud roadthe beautiful, good-natured, slightly wacky saga of the Lamb and Pickles families who share an old house in Perth was his fifth published adult novel. cleavage was out like the first of him Locky Leonard novels for children. but cloud road changed the lives and precarious finances of him and his wife Denise, selling more than 60,000 copies in its first nine months and going straight to Australia’s collective heart. It has also been adapted for stage and small screen.
Since then he has been publishing The Riders, Dirt Music, The Turning (a collection of linked stories), Atem, Eyrie, The Shepherd’s Hut and more.
He remains a bit confused by life cloud road has had. Although he doesn’t usually reread his books, adapting them for television made him revisit them.
“All gags aside, I remember the pleasure I had, the excitement I had writing it. A lot of it was hard work, but it was kind of a thrill to write once I found the voice and Fish Lamb whispered in my ear… It felt good to write.”
However, there was almost a disaster. On the way from Rome to Athens, he left half the manuscript on a bus while struggling with children and luggage, but luckily an Italian — “I could have kissed that whiskey Italian” — saved it.
“I remember the last day, the last page. I was in Greece on Hydra and all I remember is getting up and going to the window and looking out and thinking ‘okay, we can go home now’. It was a good experience.”
There is a strange effect of his long life that creates other lives.
“One weird thing is, if you live long enough and imagine yourself breaking into other people’s lives, you find yourself years later in a scene you’ve already written. And that happened several times. You just think, “I know this, and I wrote this”. And that’s really weird, to what extent you either have some kind of prophetic ability or it shows you how drab and ordinary your imagination is.
Tim Winton’s work is published by Penguin.
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