Trying to contact Tim Winton appears to be no easy matter. A couple of false starts, and a period of waiting is required before Three Monkeys finally manages to get in touch with the Australian author. The surprise then is how engaged Winton is once contact has been made. His remoteness a physical reality rather than mental attitude, living as he does in Western Australia, far away from the supposed ‘centres’ of literary life, like London, New York, or even Sydney. His quietly prodigious and crafted output of novels, short stories, and occasional children’s books has won him admiring readers worldwide, and critical acclaim. His 1991 novel Cloudstreet has been labelled ‘the quintessential Australian novel’ and voted as the Australian novel that means the most to Australian readers, and yet it has also been translated into dozens of languages and has had success around the world. Twice nominated for the Booker Prize, of his last novel, 2003’s Dirt Music, the Independent on Sunday wrote “its insights are profound, its technique mature, and its themes complex – the sort of story, in short, that lives in the mind long after […] the final page”.
Tim Winton kindly agreed to the following email interview with Three Monkeys Online.
TMO: The one word that is inevitably used to describe you as a novelist is ‘Australian’. For me, though, as an Italian reader, much of your work in its rhythm, nightmares, and violence brings to mind Greek tragedy. How much do you relate to the tag ‘Australian’, and what does it mean to you?
Tim Winton: Well, the fact is, I am an Australian, but it’s not something I think about much, to be honest. Certainly not when I’m writing. I couldn’t imagine being self-consciously Australian. Neither can I understand the studied efforts of others to be ‘cosmopolitan’, whatever that might finally mean. I live and work in the country and the region I was born in. Whenever I travel in Australia, I’m made aware of the fact that I’m a Western Australian. And when abroad, I’m constantly being reminded that I’m neither British nor American, that I’m this other anglo-species, the Australian. I guess it’s something to talk about, like the weather.
The best a novel can do is use its superstructure, all those cumulative bits of housekeeping, to achieve poem-moments, the bursts of heat and light that poems actually are
What can I say? I write about Australians. My work is bound to reflect attitudes and understandings that are particularly antipodean. And foreign readers say that the language is often peculiar. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so blasé about it. Speaking and writing in English have become so homogenized, so ironed flat by American TV and net-speak that I should be grateful for shades of difference, a few remnant nuances that might distinguish communities and their stories. And I’m probably forgetting the many times that American and British editors have done their best to make my language ‘conform’. This takes some mulish resisting. I’m no longer required to provide a glossary with each manuscript for my fellow English speakers, which is a victory of sorts.
TMO: Good guys and bad guys, faith, family, and a sense of impending tragedy are the hinges of both Cloudstreet and The Riders. Are they personal obsessions as well, or simply the oldest and most captivating way to describe the world?
Tim Winton: I’m not so sure about the good guys and the bad guys. Sounds a bit Manichaean. But there’s plenty of impending (and arriving) tragedy in those books. Lots of sudden turns, accidents that upset the ‘normal’ lives of characters, that put them in extreme positions. People trying to figure out what their lives might mean and what’s left after everything falls over. That seems to me like the stuff of all story down through the ages. But these are things, as you sense, that are of deep personal interest to me as well. Not many of us write out of some impersonal, archetypal reference. We respond to what hurts, what itches, what causes us fear or gives us hope. It’s personal. Half the time I write to find out what I think.
TMO: How important a trait is sympathy for a novelist?
Tim Winton: Interesting question. It depends on the writer, doesn’t it? There are novelists like Coetzee or Amis who seem quite dispassionate at times, even remote from their characters. Coetzee, for instance, can be seen as quite an icy writer, for all his mastery. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that his work lacks sympathy. There’s a kind of rhetorical sympathy that his books gather in their workings, and denouement, which the reader takes in. I suspect that for certain writers, rhetorical sympathy will suffice; it’s often all they’re capable of, or all they’re prepared to offer. Think of the grim, early novels of Cormac McCarthy. At the other end of the spectrum there’s Steinbeck, for instance, who’s often seen to be too indulgent or too involved with his characters. Or somebody like Houellbecq who seems so confused and confusing that you suspect his only real sympathy is for the outrage he might produce.
Perhaps the question is really more about the reader and the reader’s expectations about sympathy. There’s fiction of all stripes, in this matter, and much of it succeeds on its own terms – is well executed and so on. But people have their own means of gauging the sympathy or humanity or level of emotional engagement of a work. A novel has to cross a mysterious gap, somehow, between the mind and view of author, to each individual reader and the culture she or he is a part of. The alchemy of reception!
I have to confess that I’m more attracted to the warmer sort of fiction, the work of novelists more likely to see characters as subjects rather than objects. There’s no doubt that the character-as-specimen approach has its interest. But it doesn’t satisfy me, in the end, if it feels like a purely intellectual enterprise.
TMO: Talking with Andrew Denton, you spoke about finishing Dirt Music and then realising that it wasn’t actually finished. Maybe this is one of the things that distinguish a good writer from a great writer – knowing when a story is, or isn’t, finished. How do you decide that final full stop? For example, what made you feel your initial version of Dirt Music was unfinished?
Tim Winton: I’m not sure, to be honest. In the specific case of Dirt Music I had a manuscript, not a novel. Not a happy realization after seven years. But I guess it’s instinct. I had that nagging feeling of being unconvinced. I had to dig the novel out of the manuscript, to throw out quite a lot of bathwater in the hope of saving the baby. Most often finishing a novel has more to do with realizing when enough will do. Many films and novels carry on past their ideal end-points for the sake of roundings-off or even from a failure to see where they’ve outworn their welcome. As a novelist, I’d rather risk leaving too soon than overstay. Not many people grumble about the lecture/sermon/speech that was a tad too short. It’s a sin easily forgiven. So I go out at the earliest opportunity, at the moment that offers the best chance of structural and emotional unity.
TMO: In an interview with SydneyAnglicans.net you spoke about spiritual faith and literature: “Faith will always be a more comfortable fit with poetry. The Novel creaks a bit and in a post-Englightenment culture, hostile to notions broader than the narrow materialism we’ve inherited, it’s a bigger challenge still”. Let’s use this as a departure point to discuss the form of the novel. For example, how much room in a novel is there for the unexplained, and the unexplainable?
Tim Winton: Oh I think there’s plenty of room. For hinting at it, for leaving the door open for mystery. Sure. Particularly now that the novel is freed from the old constraints of naturalism. Think of works by John Crowley or Jonathan Carroll or the middle novels of Brian Moore. Or Salley Vickers, or Hilary Mantel. The difficulty is in discussing the nature of mystery, which poetry does much better, because it has in its form – mostly stripped of narrative machinery – the lightness required. All these glancing moments, images, echoes which say more with less. A song has similar advantages.
A poem often has a moment or a movement or an image, to deal with, not a whole series or interrelated and elaborated sequences, nor that sense of duration and vicarious experience that the novel brings. The best a novel can do is use its superstructure, all those cumulative bits of housekeeping, to achieve poem-moments, the bursts of heat and light that poems actually are. The novel that too bluntly challenges the settled world view of the reader is, by dint of scale and size, more likely to turn the reader away out of discomfort. It outlives its welcome, somehow, if the writer isn’t careful. The reader has so much time to doubt, to second-guess, to consult their inner school bully (the one who tells them not to risk feeling or looking flaky or uncool). The poem or song catches the reader unawares. The novel that tries too hard starts to smell of a thesis and the reader, quite sensibly, rebels.