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Tim Winton
We met Tim Winton after his event at the Brighton Festival promoting his new novel, BREATH. He was as anyone who has read his novels would expect – laid back, sporting his trademark pony tail, jeans and tee shirt, with a pint of lager in his hand. He speaks softly and eloquently, his conversation, like his writing, enriched with original and apposite metaphors.
Your novels evoke an incredibly powerful sense of place. Are they essentially Australian stories?
They are stories and in one sense a story is a story is a story. At one level it doesn’t matter where they come from but, looking back at all these books, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of it could have happened anywhere else. So I guess they are Australian stories, but I’ve learnt that if you’re stubborn enough to stay in your own patch and honour your own language and your own vernacular then it becomes your own vehicle. In the same way that Hardy is still read even though the setting of his books was so particular, in time as well as place.
Kate Grenville said about the Australian landscape that ‘Writers can't ignore it even if they wanted to - something like 98% of Australia is non-urban. The tiny fringe where people cluster along the edges is so insignificant in the face of that immensity.” You mentioned about the defining geography of the place about which you write, does this ring true for you?
Yes, especially in Perth, it must be the most isolated capital city in the world. It has the sea on one side and thousands of miles of desert on the other. It’s like we live in an enormous house but we spend all our time perching on the verandah. All the time looking out. That’s probably true especially for the first few hundred years of settlement. It’s certainly changed a lot. In the last few generations people have come to terms with their place in the world. A lot of it is about confidence, owning your own vernacular. I am lucky to be part of the legacy of the new confidence. In the old days, two or three or four generations ago, people in Australia were literally looking out to sea because they were looking to some sort of abstract home – England. Even though half of them came from England in chains, like my ancestors, they had this idea that the important places were across the sea and where they were was nowhere.
One reviewer commented that your characters are “too scarred and thwarted for heroism”. How do you feel about this judgement?
In some ways I agree that they are scarred and thwarted. But most of us are scarred and heroism is a kind of luxury. Just coming to terms with his past is a struggle for Pikelet, and that is itself a kind of heroism.
Your prose is a mixture of totally original and lyrical description with down-to-earth realistic dialogue? Why does this combination work so well?
I don’t know. (He laughs and shrugs modestly). Someone else can answer that – how would I know. Maybe it’s because I get a lot of pleasure writing in the way that my family and the people in my town who I grew up with speak and maybe it works because I’m having fun doing it. Or maybe it works because I’m honouring that peculiarity rather than being embarrassed about it. A few generations ago those expats I was talking about probably were embarrassed about it. It’s that old Australian thing about the cultural cringe – being embarrassed about where you’re from instead of embracing it.
Looking back on his life and the thrill of surfing, Pikelet says “I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.” Were those highs worth the lows?
I think he feels that the massive adrenalin highs from that really high risk, that sort of macho kind of warrior thing that they were doing, probably wasn’t worth the effort. When he is remembering the more modest ambition that he started out with, of him surfing in smaller ways in a more open, more aesthetic, way where he is thinking about grace and beauty and just simple pleasure, he is reaching for what’s really important to him. So in a way he’s saying that sort of love affair with death wasn’t worth it. He’s saying I got waylaid. Later in the book he says, I’d go back to what I lost and what I’ve missed for so long – simple pleasures that are small and lovely and elementally beautiful. He starts out with this instinct for beauty and he gets waylaid by danger. And beauty is what saves him as an older man and it is the more ordinary humble things that save him, otherwise he’d go mad. He’s tried to stitch together some decent way of living.
As you approach middle age, do you succumb to the lure of living dangerously or do you live vicariously through your characters?
Yes, I guess I do. But, you know, writing is akin to an extreme sport. In any other jobs you have a task to do and a time to do it in and a predictable outcome. Writing is a risky business.
Finally, we like to know, who gets your surf up (in literary terms!)?
I read a lot. One of the great struggles of my life is getting out of the reading chair and into the writing chair. I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel, THE CHANGE OF CLIMATE, which is very good. Anything by Brian Moore, especially, LIES OF SILENCE, THE COLOUR OF BLOOD, BLACK ROBE, THE GREAT VICTORIAN COLLECTION.
Tim Winton

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