Since Peter Carey relocated to New York, Tim Winton is the name at the top of most people’s lists when they’re asked best Australian novelist in the world – but the fact is we can safely lose the Australian epithet altogether: Tim Winton is one of the world’s best novelists. We spoke to him on a publicity junket for his latest novel Eyrie, at the end of a long day of interviews and right before a speaking engagement at the Royal Academy.
Peter Wild (PW): Hey Tim. How’s things?
Tim Winton (TW): I’m doing alright for an old bloke.
PW: You’ve had a day of back to back interviews today. Are they working you like a dog?
TW: It’s not like it’s real work. I’m not working in the sun breaking rocks.
PW: Okay so. The new book. Eyrie. The Sydney Review of Books describes the main protagonist of the novel, Keeley, as a haunted version of you. What do you make of that?
TW: That strikes me as a tad presumptuous. I’m not someone who normally stands on my dignity but… it’s a really interesting way to read a book as though it’s through the life or nature of a…
PW: A lot of people do that, though.
Tw A lot of undergraduates… There’s no getting round the fact that all characters are informed by your own experience, there’s a little bit of you in all of them and he’s no exception – but I think that person might have drawn a bit of a bow…
PW: In your last couple of novels – Dirt Music and Breath – your characters seem to take a bit of solace from nature. Keeley doesn’t do that. He seems burned by the world, likes to keep his head down, doesn’t read the news…Was that a conscious shift?
TW: I don’t know if it’s much of a shift – he’s a different person is all. He’s a guy who has spent most of his adult life reviewing the natural world and then spending his spare time defending it and he gets cooked in the process. If you’re doing one of the unglamorous jobs and saying awkward things you feel like you’re the crazy person standing in the traffic holding up a placard – while everyone heads towards the shops. The whole world, the politics and the medias got their eyes fixedly and firmly elsewhere and you’re there trying to give nature a fair go in his case – he could be working in social justice or for unemployed or for people with disabilities, no one really wants to know. Every now and then you get a token moment, a bit of support on the news but he’s cooked – but in a way because he’s in this high rise environment which is reasonably exceptional in the AU experience he is denatured. But I think the natural world does lean in on him in that he’s on the flight path of birds that haunt him up there and haunt him back into existence in the way the little boy does. But he’s troubled, depressed, unemployed, he probably he has a neurological illness – some sort of shadow on his health that has to explain some of the falling down and the coronas and the weird lights he seeing. Whatever he has been he’s only a shadow of that and of course he thinks he’s a failure and a joke. And then this little kid comes along and for some bizarre reason some instinct in [the kid] tells him that this guy is a good person and will save him – ‘I choose you you are my saviour’.
PW: I think cooked is a really good word. Reading Eyrie was like watching the first season of The Sopranos. You can’t help but feel everyone is on a collision course with doom.
TW: Yeah, you expect a bloodbath, you expect him to flame out or you expect him to disgrace himself more thoroughly than he has before. You think you’re reading a long long suicide letter.
PW: But at the same – I mean we’re making it sound like it’s Kierkegaard…
TW: No, hopefully it’s funny. Hopefully its wincemakingly funny. You know people in extremes with at least a little bit of self consciousness can put a bit of English on the ball. I certainly had fun laughing at his expense.
PW: Works the same way when you’re reading.
TW: If it isn’t funny, it isn’t working.
PW: There’s a really fine line and a slight misstep either way could throw the book off.
TW: I realised when I had this character land in my lap, if I couldn’t transmit that mordant humour everything was going to come apart in my hand. A self pitying self destructive individual isn’t worth your time
PW: Philip Roth novel has said the novel is an endangered species and Will Self says the novel is finished – and you’ve said that novels and art can’t affect serious change. Since you said that have you been inundated by plaintive entreaties from earnest bookreaders wondering if you could possibly mean what you said?
TW: Yeah, they sort of want me to recant. It’s ridiculous to say that a work of art can’t change a mood or can’t move things forward but I guess I was just cautioning about the overinvestment people have or people who make art have, the hubris to think that just because you’re going to write a story or make a film that’s going to bring the world to its knees or shake things up. You couldn’t fill the back of a morris minor with writers who have changed a government or changed a people or a policy or condition – maybe Germinal, maybe Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, maybe Orwell’s Animal Farm – but they didn’t change much. They shook people up. Steinbeck was following the change of policy, he was documenting it. The dustbowl stuff. But look, I guess I was just reminding people – a bit of humility is not a bad thing. I don’t think the purpose of art is to persuade, I think it’s to enchant and to leave some kind of embedded energy of experience with the reader so if it’s been successful it’s a little coal that burns on with a person for a while. As a reader I want to be shaken up I want to be moved I want to be intrigued and a bit bothered. It’s an unfinished conversation.
I also work in the NGO world as a volunteer and an activist and a policy person behind the scenes and I know how hard it is to change a government policy or a piece of legislation or a societal drift or a trend – its immensely hard to make a change. And those changes you do make – we have changed policy, almost changed government, we’ve saved places – but every one of those successes is contingent, temporary. In the same way at the end of a novel… I like to think at the end of the novel Keeley has managed to put himself between Gemma and Jai and these malevolent little shits stalking them – one to my mind gets hit by a car but the other only has his legs broken – so any act of saving, any act of deliverance is contingent, is temporary, but you hope that there are enough people of good will with a spirit of sacrifice and a sense of the common good that will be making these contingent acts in the face of change and indifference and some of these will add up and make a difference. That’s what political movements are made of. But I can understand why some readers would think that to say art is useless is giving up – but I think art is in the business of useless beauty.
PW: Eyrie is set in Freemantle, where you’ve lived at various points…
TW: Mostly I live in the country but when my kids had to go to school, high school and university I moved back to the city – and I lived in Freemantle for 15 years or so – and I still have a place there but I don’t live there all the time. It’s a place I love and it’s been dear to me but – the things that you love are the things that you want to be better. The things that you are the most critical of, I guess. I’d be much more indulgent of Brighton if I went to live there for 6 weeks. I’d find it all utterly charming and any criticisms I had I’d keep to myself because I wouldn’t know it enough to give a shit.
PW: When the book first started coalescing in your head was it the place or the person that fired your imagination?
TW: I started with the place. That’s always the case with me. Whether it’s an ecosystem or a landscape or a cityscape. In the case of Cloud Street it was a house. In this case it was a building and the neighbourhood around. I guess in retrospect it came because when I was writing Breath I was working in a highrise for the first time in my life – I needed a place away from the house that was a bit quieter and so I had a place on the 9th floor of a building, a one bedroom flat, not very glamorous, a model for the Mirador [the high rise in Eyrie]; so I was writing Breath in this urban space, writing about these boys on the south coast in the 70s, surfing, which was a bit weird – and then a few years later when I moved back to the country up north and started to remember a lot of the impressions I had of being in the building and – my mind was elsewhere but somehow I realised that over the few years that I was in the building – the vertical environment is quite different, sounds travel way differently from in the suburbs or in the horizontal inner city – the people 2 doors away you’d never know they were there you don’t have to react with them if you don’t want to whereas in a block of flats you’re cheek by jowl you can hear and smell and almost taste everything and all the streets around all the noises come up. So I had all these impressions, and I thought this is an interesting environment I hadn’t thought about, this is an interesting backdrop, this is an interesting novelistic ecosystem. From there the characters and the story comes from the place – what comes from the place has its own logic, what kinds of people they’re going to be, what their stories are. I guess I find that out as I go along which is a much more long term experience for me than it is for the reader but it happens in a wider longer form, discovering as the reader discovers.
PW: Obviously the production process of a book, you probably finished writhing this a couple of years ago…
TW: By the time you have to talk about it you can hardly remember it. [chuckles] You want to kick the dust off your heels but that’s part of the biz. You’ve got to give an account of yourself. Hopefully it doesn’t get to the point where you go into an art gallery and the explanation is almost as big as the painting. Hopefully the commentary and the author is mildly interesting but the work stands for itself.
PW In addition to novels you’ve also written plays and half a dozen of your books are currently being made into films. How do you feel about the relationship of the work you do and the words you produce to these other art forms?
TW: It happens in another reality. Even the publishing happens in another world. I live so far away from where publishers and agents are, I live across the continent, I go to it and then come from it and I leave it behind me. The adaptations is an interesting thing to witness and be a part of only in the familial sense. By the time the book comes out your work is done and then other people do stuff with it – the only relationship with the book and the movie or the book and the play or the book and the opera or the book and the puppet show or the tv show – I’ve had all these – it’s like they’re cousins. You’re just someone who knows the cousins. That’s how it feels. I’m embarrassed to say even audio adaptations. I was driving along one day and listening to a thing on the radio and I thought oh that’s a nice sentence and it got to the end and they were winding it up, topping and tailing it, and it was one of mine and I didn’t recognise it. Either I’m not very serious or … I’m not very attentive. Maybe I had my mind elsewhere. There’s five gears in a car…
PW: Thanks for your time, Tim.
TW: My pleasure.
Eyrie by Tim Winton is published by Picador and is available from all the usual outlets.