When Tim Winton was thirteen years old, he’d stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people. The family had just moved. Unsettled and lonely, Tim was nervous at the thought of starting a new school. But why did he lurk there, whenever he had the house to himself?
He examines the reasons in the title essay of The Boy Behind the Curtain, Notes from an Australian Life. And since publication, he’s continued to mull over that troubled time.
“Had someone seen me; had I been unlucky or a little less careful, my life could have been very, very different,” he says. “I’ve recently wondered if I was testing my boundaries; my self-control. I could have loaded that thing and shot it within seconds – and I wonder if, with things spinning out of control in my life, I was trying to maintain some control over myself.”
We’re talking in Dublin just days after the terrorist attack in Manchester. We discuss this; and talk about the allure of weapons for young men who aren’t bright, or who are in mental distress.
“We have to be conscious of those who have no safe expression for their unformed rage. What else is a gun or device than unearned authority? It’s cheap power. It’s you see a problem – you blow it up. You destroy someone. We have to find pathways for young people to safely express themselves and negotiate their confusion.”
Arguably the leading author in Australia, Tim Winton has penned twenty-eight books for adults and children in a career spanning almost four decades. Along with a multitude of literary awards, he’s been named a Living Treasure by the Australian National Trust, and has had his head on a postage stamp. He’s also a passionate campaigner and activist for Australia’s environmental problems.
Casually dressed, his hair hanging over his shoulders, Tim has no literary airs or graces. In fact, he despises such affectation. Writing, he maintains, is simply his job. In the past, when he needed to support his family, he had three projects on the go at once.
“I had three desks and three wheelie chairs. I couldn’t afford to get stuck, so I’d wheel myself to the next desk and the thing would sort itself. I was like Trollope who would finish a novel at 3.00, and at 3.10 start a new one. I love the idea of that. It goes against all the romantic bunkum that people like to believe in.”
Writing since he was four, Tim was nine when he decided to become a writer.
“I’d written a couple of poems, and my teacher, and everyone in my class thought my dad had written them for me. It was this sense of, oh! I’m good at this.”
That he stuck to his objective is somewhat remarkable, as he was the first of his family to finish school, let alone attend college – Curtin University of Technology – where he published his first novel, and finished another two. But coming from a working-class background with 3,000 miles between their home in Western Australia, and the world of publishing and a literary culture, whilst initially a disadvantage, became a gift.
“You’re too far away from that culture so you write unconsciously and unselfconsciously. I didn’t know any better.”
His parents, he says, were amazing.
“Can you imagine? You get your son out of this working-class life, finally not having to work with his hands or carry stuff on his back, and he announces he’s going to be a literary novelist? Their wildest dream was that I’d become a teacher. They must have been looking at one another in horror, but whether it was blissful ignorance on their part, or decency and trust, they let me go with it.”
Perhaps they were simply relieved that their eldest child had survived until adulthood. Because, as the essay, Havoc: A life in Accidents shows, there were some extremely dodgy moments. Tim took death defying risks as a young surfer, and at 18, accepting a lift from a friend, the car crashed through a wall, leaving Tim barely alive. Recovery was slow.
“But it was a pivotal thing,” he says. “A kick up the arse, if a painful one.”
These varied essays give us a greater understanding both of Winton’s novels, and of conservation. (Who knew that some sharks are playful and sociable?)
“I guess I’m reflecting on how I got to be like this. And once you have a body of work, and people constantly comment about your ticks and obsessions, and point them out to you, you go, ok, I wonder what all that is about.”
But it’s very different to writing fiction.
“It’s extremely difficult, and made me realise why I write fiction. Fiction just has to have organic shape and authenticity to work. But non-fiction has this burden of responsibility to other people around it. It’s everyone’s lives and people’s lives are sacred.
“There are lots of things that aren’t in the book because they impinge on other people’s privacy that would be intolerable to them. It’s not wholly my story to tell.”
His wife, Denise, only appears in passing – but even so, we get a great sense of the woman he proposed to aged nine, and married at 21.
In The Shadow of the Hospital, Tim drives their first baby to the hospital car park so that Denise, a nurse, can breastfeed him, and the essay ends with Tim pacing hospital corridors, frantic, as he waits for his first grandchild to be born. Traumatised, he mutters that his fear of hospitals is the reason Denise had home births.
‘Actually, she said, glancing at her phone, it was about more than your phobias.’
Denise features in Letter from a Strong Place, an account of their time when their eldest son was small, in a castle gate lodge in County Offaly. Tim was writing his most successful novel, Cloudstreet at the time, and though he loved the country for the musicality, verbal dexterity and beauty, he swore he would never write about Ireland, so how come it features strongly in The Riders?
“You go home and start having dreams, and years later just get ambushed.”
With such an amazing work ethic, and practical attitude towards writing, I assumed his career had been bump free. Until I read Lightning Out, detailing a time when, at deadline, Tim realised a novel simply hadn’t worked.
“I hadn’t rushed it. I’d taken seven years and thought it was done and let the publisher announce it. There was good writing in there but I had to find the novel in the manuscript.
“I had 55 days to rewrite the whole book. 55 days and nights. That was some achievement but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I nearly went mad and drove my family mad into the bargain. I would never do that again. I’d just say, ‘I need more time.’”
He wasn’t entirely happy with the finished project – Dirt Music – but it won him his third, of four, Myles Franklin Awards, and gained him a second Man Booker shortlisting.
Does writing make Tim happy?
“That’s a bit like asking a shark, ‘do you like swimming?’ It’s what I do. When it’s going well it’s great. When not, I think, you could be down a mine or breaking rocks, or doing an office job you despise with people that you hate.
“I think if you are interested in life and interested in people and you take ordinary lives seriously, there is always something to write about. To be a model person is to be an imaginative person. You can’t be decent if you can’t imagine other people’s lives and prospects.”
The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton. Picador: €19.29. Kindle: €10.77.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 5th August, 2017.
© Sue Leonard. 2017