Having said that, I suspect that the freer form of the novel offers space for the weird and wonderful. In our era people are a strange mix of the cynical and credulous. They’ll insist that they believe in nothing, but in reality they’ll believe in absolutely anything. The problem is that they’ll believe and unbelieve again at a moment’s notice. Was it G.K. Chesterton who said that once people stopped believing in the Devil they’d believe in anything at all? I’m not sure that agree with him but what would he make of this bewildering, fickle age of conspiracy theory and fads and impulses? There’s no shortage of fiction that exploits this protean hunger for novelty. Fake exoticism, magical realism of the most cynical sort, stuff that simply anaesthetizes readers, spares them the grimness of their own physical and psychological and political surroundings.
Life is often inexplicable and mysterious. It cannot be contained by the conventional niceties of literary realism any more than it can be explained by the equally conventional mores of politics. The problem any writer has in trying to write about the strange and the numinous is one of shared language. Within the last century or so the idea of a common language –and I’m talking about metaphor and symbol and archetype and so on, as much as theology – with which to discuss these issues in fiction or anywhere else (outside of specialized cabals of the churches or academia) has been eroded to almost nothing. So the challenge is to find a new vocabularly for such issues. Or to reinvigorate the old language. Dostoevsky might find plenty to stir him in the contemporary world but he couldn’t rely on the theological lingua franca in order to get the same things said. He’d be forced in reinvent the wheel like the rest of us. Another thing to piss him off.
Having said all this, I don’t think the novel is a good tool for explication. It asks questions more successfully than it delivers answers.
TMO: Let’s attempt to define the relationship a writer has with his/her characters, in a sporting context. Referee or Fan? Do you see yourself, like a referee, disinterested and there to maintain the rules of the imaginary universe created? Or, like a Fan, do you sympathise with specific characters, pushing them to perform?
Tim Winton: Both, probably. In order to write characters I need to inhabit their minds and their lives. I need to be them at some level. Otherwise I can’t grind up the interest or the stamina to stay the course. I suppose I need to have invested quite a bit in their (imaginary) lives and needs and foibles in order to make them real enough o myself and a reader. This means that they’ll eventually take on their own natures and surprise me and sometimes confound my plans or my expectations. But that doesn’t mean I’m powerless before them, as in the usual romantic scarf-waving tosh that sometimes gets spouted for the sake of the gullible. After all, in order to make fiction you need to manufacture conflict. You’re not so indulgent about your characters that you refrain from causing them suffering and grief and missed opportunities. You kill them, if pressed. Or, if you’re Cormac McCarthy, you kill them just to get to the end of the paragraph. You’re the despot; you’re in charge. And yet – such is the nature of imagination – you often have to remind yourself of this and exert quite a bit of will for it to remain so. Sympathy without control isn’t much use.
TMO: What kind of influences do you have now, as a writer who has himself become a major influence on other writers?
Tim Winton: To some extent I am, by now, more or less what I’m going to be. After twenty-five years of writing I guess I have a style and a fictional territory that’s recognizeably my own, for better or worse. But I read everything I can, keep an eye on new fiction. Though the older I get the better the fiction of the past seems. Some of it, anyway. Conrad, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Twain, R.L. Stevenson. I’d never read Steinbeck until recently. He’s better than he’s often given credit for. I think I took a lot from regional writers from America, particularly from the south and the north-west. I like Richard Russo a lot these days. I find something deeply humane and sad in those small-town stories. I like the fact that he persists with them while every New York fad, each new bit of London smart-arsery fades on the page.
TMO: What do you think of writing classes, of the possibility that you can learn to write armed solely with determination and hard graft?
Tim Winton I’m a graduate of one of those programs, so I’m never sure. You can teach people to write better than they do when they arrive. But you can’t teach them to be writers. There’s no democracy in art or genetics. Though I will say that there are gifted people for whom a dose of determination and hard graft (preferably administered via suppository) would yield considerable results. Writing programs, in some instances, produce a hunger and an expectation that can never be met, but I suppose you could say the same thing about all schools, monasteries, beauty salons and political parties. We need readers more than writers at the present moment, I would have thought.
TMO: Women are the driving force in Cloudstreet: there’s Oriel the matriarch, Dolly the witch, and Rose that blends the characters of both. And they seem invincible. On the other hand the men seem weak, losers, even physically inferior. For example from Sam without a finger, to Fish mentally retarded, to Ted who dies prematurely… What gave you the inspiration for these characters? A sweeping and perhaps provocative question, but do you believe men to be the weaker sex?
Tim Winton: I’m weary of thinking in terms of sexes, to be honest. In that book, certainly, the men are pretty feckless by comparison to their women. I think this is often the case, but I’m not at any stage trying to make a case. Maybe I’m naïve in continuing to think of them as individual characters with their own histories, rather than representatives of their gender. It’s true that the usual pa
triarchal schema assigns certain strengths and weakness. Whichever form of theoretical feminism you subscribe to will dish them out differently. And the way humans actually live their lives spreads the power and weakness much more chaotically. I don’t think it’s much of a revelation to say that men still exert more overt powerover women. But the weakness of men and the powers of women interest me. More occurs than the surface reality sometimes suggests. Sometimes women like to disguise their power, when they achieve it or understand it, and men often flaunt it.
While I grew up in a culture and time that many people would consider classically patriarchal, I was always aware of the toughness of women, the resilience of their outlook. That was the kind of extended family I had. Despite the standard modelling that’s supposed to apply, the women in our family tended to be the ambitious ones, the drivers. The men tended toward the quiet and sensitive. I suspect each (wives and husbands) reacted to the natures of the other and in doing so became more like themselves, so to speak. My paternal grandmother actually did live in a tent in her inner-city yard, leaving the seven kids and the husband inside. For thirty years or so. She could have run an army, a state, in her spare time. But she didn’t believe in spare time. It was an early lesson to me that, as often as not, people live their own lives. They’re not always at the mercy of the script that the culture (and its theorists) write for them.
TMO: You’ve also published stories for children. Is it, perhaps, because of this that magic and miracles, but also ghosts and dark figures are more or less a constant presence in your books for adults? What difference is there between a reading public of children and adults?
Tim Winton: Actually, no. If anything, my kids’ books are a bit more prosaic than the adult ones. Perhaps with the exception of the one wherein a kid wakes up in the morning to discover that his arse is gone. Children don’t need wonder quite as desperately as adults do. They arrive with it. Only later do we have it beaten and bullied out of us by our grown-up peers. Our nerve fails us. We learn not to mention the elephant in the room. This is not to say that I think of children as angelic beings. They’re not – they’re beasts. There are versions of us that don’t pay taxation. They still have things that they’ll be robbed of later and they lack things that may be provided in time. They and we are but spooky echoes, it sometimes seems to me. Childhood is never over and adulthood never seems to arrive. You only need a glance at literature for confirmation of that.