Contending with a blank page

TIM WINTON IS arguably Australia’s most widely read contemporary novelist. His books have been translated into eighteen languages, adapted for television, stage and film, and won him Australia’s most prestigious literary award – the Miles Franklin Award – four times. In 2013, Winton published his eleventh novel, Eyrie (Penguin, 2013). The book follows Tom Keely, a man who spends his days alone in a stuffy flat of a tan-brick apartment block in the middle of Fremantle, unemployed, disgraced, divorced, gradually drinking himself into oblivion. His solitude is disrupted by a meeting with his neighbour, Gemma – a woman he hasn’t seen since she was a little girl from the end of the street, running away from chaos at home. Gemma and her grandson, Kai, force Keely into an entanglement with ugly, difficult things. The book, at once a personal story, is also a harsh reflection of Western Australia during the mining boom and the changes it wrought to the state’s cultural and political priorities. In this interview, from different sides of the world, Winton discusses Eyrie, the importance of Western Australia in his work and the relationship between the popular and the literary in Australian publishing.

In a 2008 article published in the Australian, you said you write from what is at least perceived to be the ‘wrong hemisphere, wrong country, wrong part of the wrong country’. I wonder whether you feel yourself to be a specifically Western Australian writer, if in a sense you write for Western Australians?

TIM WINTON: Well, I’m very conscious of the specifics of geography and the way it shapes us, whether we recognise this or not. And it used to take a certain doggedness to be a WA writer, defiance even, given the prevailing cultural headwind. Everything was harder. There was a weird logic to contend with, a kind of continental cringe that made AA Phillips’ cultural cringe look pretty tame by comparison. Apparently, everything important was happening elsewhere – namely in three postcodes of Sydney and maybe two of Melbourne – and this nonsense was internalised in the west to a bewildering extent. It seemed to paralyse people or, worse, turn them into the proverbial crabs in a bucket – always ready to claw the climbing crab back into the homely mediocrity they grumbled about, yet hid within. Thank God that dispensation has largely passed.

It’s hard to ‘own’ where you’re from when you’re perceived to come from somewhere unglamorous and unimportant. No surprise as to why so many provincials quit home and head for the bright lights. And good luck to them, people have different tastes and needs. But if you do stay you get the chance to watch and learn, absorbing quite a lot at a distance. You make raids upon the centre and come home again, and you still retain a connection to home that isn’t quite as reliant upon the myth and nostalgia of the expatriate. And if you hold your nerve and have a bit of luck, you can make your way from the margin. It used to be so much harder in the days of snail mail and the STD (long distance) phone call. But sometimes it seems to me that the biggest barriers were psychological.

So, yeah, do I feel like a west-coaster. But I don’t view myself as a Western Australian writer, writing specifically for people in this state. It’d be like writing for your family – both too cosy and way too fraught. I’m conscious that I have a readership beyond Australia and I’m often puzzled by how warmly my work is welcomed abroad, but I’m comfortable to continue writing as I’ve always done without taking my foot off the pedal, so to speak.

You said in your talk at the Royal Academy of Arts in London that ‘Australia the place is constantly overshadowed by Australia the national idea, Australia the economic enterprise’. What do we risk losing by overlooking the material reality of Australia?

Civilisation, really. Humane values, the sense that we are a social–cultural ecosystem, a chain of interdependent communities. The metrics seem to have narrowed and I think we put at risk our capacity to imagine and empathise. The national idea is a confection, just as the state itself is a confection. Useful, sure, but not quite as real or as valuable as the soil and the water and the human bodies toiling and striving away on them. It puzzles me, the way postmodern people think they’re angels all of a sudden, in the sense that they think they can live without material consequences, that life might be largely abstract or virtual. It’s a peculiar delusion. Perhaps it comes from being in thrall to big woolly notions and from a growing impatience with the specific. And there is a contempt for the material world that has shrunk our communal and political imagination to the point where we may be making life impossibly challenging for those who come after us. If the material world is mere grist in the public and political mind, then the future is grim for humans.

Is it difficult being a writer preoccupied with landscape when so much of the work of writing is solitary, done indoors and removed from the sensory world?

I write about people, actually! And none of those are present in the room when I write, either. But that removal you mention – from people and landscape – is necessary, I find. I need time to decompress and think. The only time I’ve ever sat out in the landscape to write is when I’ve been pressed into doing it for someone with a camera because it conforms to some idea they have about me.

It’s true, though, that I’ve always felt this tension between the indoor world and the outdoors. I can’t imagine a purely sedentary existence of contemplation and analysis. But a life of action and sensation wouldn’t be enough, either.

I was interested in how that relationship to the outdoor world had informed your writing or the influence of your environmental activism, if I’m being precise. For instance, what drew you to the motif of the eyrie – the imperilled nest of birds of prey? That their habitat is at risk seems inextricably tied to the sense that the characters are in psychic and physical danger in their own habitat.

To be frank, I’m not sure how it came to me. Maybe it’s nothing more complicated than being a flatlander and spending a couple of years working in a tall-ish building. I was struck by the difference that altitude brings, the strange perspective of looking out and down. You feel at once superior and vulnerable; your view is both expanded and attenuated. People and things become objects. And the high vantage point, it can tickle latent paranoia. Having conquered a citadel the conquistador can only feel exultant for so long before thoughts turn to defending it, seeing suspicious activity at every turn.

I was in Sao Paulo briefly after Breath (Hamish Hamilton, 2008) came out in Brazil and I was fascinated by how people lived. The richest, of course, commuting in choppers, defending whole floors of skyscrapers with bodyguards. And I guess, at a less histrionic level, any New Yorker understands the peculiarly defended world of vertical living. Not just the social siege, either. And there is the sensory shock of being in skyscrapers and feeling them sway and gulp and buzz. Buildings are alive, even if much of their life is borrowed. And the world is still trying to digest the image and reality of the Twin Towers falling so graphically and potently. So yeah, power, hubris and vulnerability – I guess they were all in play.

Rachel Carson showed that you can get a sense of the health of an ecosystem by how its birds are faring. And I was thinking during the writing of Eyrie that perhaps you can also tell how a society is travelling by the situation its children find themselves in. I hardly understood this at the time, but the little boy, Kai, is the canary in the mine. So it’s not as if I was completely preoccupied with the non-human environment. Even in the grittiest urban place, nature leans in. A tall building is air space for birds and that, I discovered as I went, was where Keely’s primary preoccupation collides with his new dilemma.

Perth is such a small sliver of refuge; there’s a physical hunkering but also a cultural huddling, not all of which has its origins in history. For some reason it’s whiter than most other major Australian cities. There’s still an underbelly of xenophobia, I’m afraid. But the anxiety doesn’t seem to be about folks with white skin. In recent years, the northern coastal suburbs have swelled with waves of ‘white flight’ from the UK and from Africa. These people are welcomed with open arms. This is something rarely discussed, but I think it’s one of the things that distinguishes Perth and it interests me.

I don’t know what my years as an eco-activist will have brought to Eyrie or any other part of my work. Except, perhaps, for Keely’s dyspeptic view of politics and nepotism. It’s a funny thing, but I never knew what it was to have enemies until I became a public advocate for the environment – an unpaid advocate, I’m sorry to say I have to make plain. I’ve certainly never sought nemeses of any kind and as a novelist it seems you’re no threat to anyone, really. As an artist, no one in politics or business will take much note of anything you do or say. If anything you’re indulged a bit because you’re harmless. But it’s another matter when you step outside your ‘place’. You anticipate a certain ideological antagonism, but you quickly learn that there are people in parliament or in the media who want you stopped because you threaten the interests of their masters. It’s a small town, I guess, and everyone wants somewhere safe to land when the music stops.

If I’m honest, I prefer the relative impotence of being an artist, I’m not someone who relishes a stoush. Most days it seems more than enough to contend with myself and the blank page.

In an interview last year in the Sydney Morning Herald you spoke about the decision to write about an apartment block, because that kind of living environment throws into relief how separate we’ve become from one another. You described it as ‘our prosperous individuation’. What did you mean by that?

For a few years I was working in a place not unlike the building in the book. Again, I stumbled into the setting and situation; I didn’t set out to write about it. But the physical experience stayed with me afterwards. It brought to mind just how atomised our lives have become, given the way we build, live and think of ourselves.

I don’t have any boho contempt for the suburbs. After all, that’s where I grew up and I loved it. But the downside of most Australian cities – and Perth is one of the starkest examples – is that the block-and-bungalow tradition is producing enormous, expensive, destructive sprawl. Our suburbs are not designed for humans but for cars and roads. People – families, schools, neighbours – live in startling physical isolation from one another. And the old communal ethos of previous generations has been replaced by the concept of the citizen as consumer, first and foremost. It strikes me that links between people have hardly been fainter, even in this era of unimaginable prosperity. And this is painfully evident in WA, which was once one of the poor cousins of the federation. When we became the richest state, the boom state, the engine of the nation’s great good fortune, the smugness was almost instant. The attitudes of the ‘winners’ in this little economy were breathtaking in their viciousness, their small-mindedness, their anxiety and xenophobia. It was like they were standing in a thunderstorm of money, and before their frocks and shirts had even got damp they’d convinced themselves they’d made it rain by sheer force of will. Those standing beyond the band of showers were, of course, bludgers, or worse, ‘whingers from the east’.

There were two gospels holding sway on the western frontier: the first was unbridled development and unto it the second – Western Australian exceptionalism. And many were the faithful. Look what happened when a federal government decided to tax some of the super profits and also put a price on carbon. The tycoons spent up on PR, astro-turfed demos and bussed in their own employees – they brought down a Prime Minister. It was like something out of Sinclair Lewis.

The boom, we’re told, is over and it’s definitely brought benefits to many communities. Much of it seems to have been pissed away – but that’s fortunes for you, eh? One of the heartening legacies has been the slow awakening of philanthropy, an instinct once viewed in this state as dangerously effeminate. Sadly, though, prosperity brought an ugly ‘fuck you’ to the surface that was not merely the preserve of magnates and their henchmen. It was simmering in the ’burbs, in the clubs, along the taxi ranks every night. Fast money seemed to bring with it a catastrophic epidemic of amphetamine addiction and alcohol abuse and all the violence and heartache that go with them. And children bore the brunt of it. In Parliament we had politicians reeling about, pissed, in the House, sniffing seats and behaving like boors. No, I’m not sure I could say that sudden wealth enhanced civility in this state.

One of the things that came across most strongly to me in Eyrie was the idea of protection. That sense of being left to fend for yourself, whether it’s Western Australia – left to fend for itself between ocean and desert – or whether it’s the characters and the lives they’re barely handling.

I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms before, as in, being isolated and left to fend for ourselves as a state? Yes, I’m sure it’s there in the cultural mind. There’s a historical grievance at work, about being forgotten or forsaken by the rest of the Federation. But also a hardiness and inventiveness that’s worth some credit. And Perth is a city besieged by geography in a way that’s quite startling when you understand its physical situation. Without desalination it’d be a failed state already. The Swan River is almost dead. The upper reaches are kept on life support – mostly for show – by aerating pumps. Keely’s fears for the place aren’t all the bluster of hangover and bitterness, he has every right to be worried and fed up. Physically, the environment within the city and surrounds is on a knife-edge and for those battling to keep it alive it’s a tough, miserable struggle. Protecting it – that is, protecting the means of our own survival – sometimes feels completely impossible. The scientific knowledge and the skills are there to turn things around before it’s too late. But it’s very hard to get the sustained attention of media and government to do anything genuine about it. There’s absolutely no political will. As a city, Perth is living as if there is no tomorrow.

So yes, I guess Keely is trying to keep his neighbours, this woman and this boy, safe. It’s not hard to feel sometimes that you lack the skills, the power, the heart, the conviction to keep vulnerable people or things from danger. There’s no question Keely is, shall we say, under-resourced. He’s a man from a softer, safer world than the one he finds himself in. He’s not practised in violence or machismo; he doesn’t know anything about the bottom-feeders in the amphetamine trade that he’s up against. And he’s a childless man trying haplessly to father a boy who he doesn’t really understand. And the kid, Kai, is a kind of provocation. He seems, almost mutely, to be demanding deliverance. And in a weird sense, since finishing the book, I see him as an agent of grace. Without knowing it, he goads Keely back to life, forces him from his funk. Until this point he has been, as Les Murray puts it and Keely’s mum Dora quotes him, ‘shopping in despair’s boutiques’.

In extremis nobody feels they have what it takes to do what’s necessary to protect others. Particularly those who are more accustomed to being protected. In the end he’s forced to employ the bluntest tool in the kit – himself, his own body, perhaps his life.

I wonder if that tension between protected and protector is where the novel’s preoccupation with fathers and Keely’s ‘father-shaped hole’ comes in. He feels like he can’t measure up, and that feeling is tied into the allusions you make to Biblical stories – the Prodigal Son and the story of Isaiah pressing burning coal against his lips to release him from sin.

I see it more in terms of nurture more than just fatherhood. I guess I’m interested in how people fare in their little sheltering units. The instinct to protect and nurture isn’t always there, as we know, and yet there are those without children yearning to give some kind of nurture and to receive it, of course. People draw upon what they know and much of what they know is the ‘embedded energy’ of experience. Kai’s experience of men is toxic – his father is a thug and his mum may not be all that much better. Keely is clueless and yet he has the fact of his mother and the myths of his father to draw upon.

And yeah, Keely feels inadequate. To some extent this has as much to do with generational anxiety as anything, that squishy subsoil beneath the shiny crust of so many baby boomers spared by poverty, war and so much more, something that’s made worse by the large shadows cast by his own parents. Socially and politically he feels he’s achieved less with more and he suspects he’s part of a generation that is a bit wet and whiny. He feels that prosperity and comfort, the culture of comparative ease, may not have served him well. Or perhaps he hasn’t served it well, either. He admires his parents for having exceeded their origins, to have refused the social boundaries set by their time.

As to religion: well, it was my first culture. It was the means by which I came to high language, I suppose, as well as ideas about ethics, community and so on. You might say that for better or worse it was my introduction to the notion of conscious living. And, as you say, that background seems to run through everything I write. Now and then, I gather, it breaks to the surface and gets itself noticed.

I feel like it’s something I’ve noticed. Not necessarily through anything overt, but perhaps because so much of what’s important in your writing comes from a non-deterministic, non-materialist point of view, particularly when what you’re dealing with has a spiritual dimension. Is it difficult trying to find a language to express that?

The real challenge is in finding language that still carries something to people in an era when religion is counter-cultural, even anti-social – an affront to the mainstream. You’re at the mercy of an erosion of literacy, for one thing, so you can assume less in common with your reader in terms of references. Maybe it’s just another outlying settlement to be writing from. But like anyone – writer, artist, farmer – you have to work a little harder to make yourself understood to someone outside your circle, and sometimes you get through and at others you baffle people. By and large though, I enjoy living and writing from outside the enclave – you can’t take anything for granted. I might be kidding myself, but my suspicion is it strengthens the work. The writing I see, that is obviously from the club to the club, often strikes me as flabby.

As to material and non-material: I’m a religious person for whom matter still matters deeply. For those of us preoccupied by such affairs, the physical world is the prime means by which we encounter the sacred. It’s why I’m a conservationist, I suppose.

There’s a tension in Eyrie between ‘working-class prejudice’ and ‘middle-class anxiety’. Keely’s mother points out that the further he drifted away from his working-class roots ‘the more you wore your blue collar on your sleeve’. What were you trying to explore by writing about contemporary class differences?

Class is a problematic business in Australia. And with the rise of the political right it’s become quite awkward to address without being accused of deploying what certain news editors love to call ‘the politics of envy’. And the traditional left has no language with which to address it because they’ve internalised the Thatcher–Reagan view of the world and rendered themselves impotent and obsolete. Apparently, a person’s wealth or poverty is an expression of character, not an outcome of social circumstance. It seems to me that the egalitarian culture I grew up in has regressed markedly; the barriers between classes that were consciously lowered by government intervention in the ’70s have been erected once more. To me, it amounts to a deliberate counter-reformation, a settling of old scores from culture wars we all thought were done and dusted.

By and large we live, most of us, in sequestered cohorts. It’s easier than it’s ever been to live at a remove from people unlike yourself. As a son of the working class who is now a bourgeois, I guess I’m conscious of that and still interested in it. This is one sense in which I do find myself an ex-patriate and, like any ex-pat, the country I left behind only exists in memory. That said, I don’t think I really set out to examine it or comment on class in Eyrie. I think I just bumped into it. It quickly became a factor in the story I found myself writing and, yes, I guess I drew on my own experience to a certain extent in order to negotiate it.

I’m also interested in the way you use language, particularly vernacular language. To me, it’s always felt like your writing demonstrates a political and cultural commitment through the language you use.

There is a sense in which the ‘owning’ of common language, or at least the choice to use the lumpen vernacular in a literary novel, is a statement in itself. But I’ve been doing this for nearly forty years and my guess is that most of this use of the vernacular is used either automatically or from sheer pleasure. I don’t know if the bulk of it springs from any kind of worthy social commitment. I happen to love the ordinary language of the people I grew up with and who I still mostly associate with. I like the sound of it, truth be told, and the particularity of it. And, yes, I like to honour it. But I’m also appropriating it, distorting it to my own ends, which are artistic and personal. I’m trying to make music with it, I suppose.

There is real pressure to relent from this, to submit to some kind of standardised, placeless, cosmopolitan usage: namely, ‘American Internet’. But there have always been writers holding out against the centre, the imperium. And there are still readers who rejoice in particularity, even if it baffles now and then. I don’t always know what’s going on in a story by Faulkner or James Kelman, for instance, but I am excited to be somewhere, to feel in the language the gravity of the specific, but also not to have someone cutting me so much slack that I’m being patronised. You want to feel like a citizen in these strange worlds, not just a tourist. A really good novel makes you a citizen – it claims you. It’s a full-immersion experience and like any interloper you figure things out as you go along.

You’re one of Australia’s most consistently bestselling novelists. What do you think the relationship is between the ‘popular’ and the ‘literary’ in this country?

I’m not certain I see a necessary distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’. I write literary fiction that seems to have found a popular audience. I’m not sure how to explain how this came about. I wrote ten books before I sold anything in any serious numbers and haven’t done anything differently before or since.

Now and then I catch myself using phrases like ‘commercial fiction’ to distinguish what I do from work that is unabashedly aimed at pleasing a market, and yet publishing any kind of book is an act of commerce. Lots of us in the ‘literary’ camp are squeamish about the industrial reality we participate in. There’s a lot of bad faith and false consciousness at work there. There is much more disguised pandering and targeting and grooming going on in the high-end literary world than people realise. Go to a writers’ festival sometime, it’d make a car salesman blush.

And the fact is, that unless you’re a hobbyist or have academic tenure or a trust fund you’d always prefer to sell a couple of hundred thousand copies of a novel than a couple of thousand. Thing is, all the coy fluffing and mugging doesn’t necessarily translate into big sales anyway. Some of what makes a book sell is industrial grunt and some is just arsey luck. Sadly, for every Dickens there are several Melvilles. Melville didn’t feel pure because only fifteen hundred people bought Moby-Dick – he was utterly miserable.

It’s true that publishing has become more conservative. The industry feels besieged and risks seem riskier. There’s a tendency to concentrate on so-called ‘big titles’ and ‘big authors’. This threatens the whole ecosystem, I suspect, and I say that as one of those people often singled out as looming large in the ecosystem. No one wants to see a monoculture. It seems to me people are still hungry to read and, God knows, people seem eager be published. You have to hope these people find one another by whatever means are possible.



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