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Australia’s vernacular architect

30 May 2014

The novelist Tim Winton tells stories of family, faith, and memory, planted in the sunbaked soil of Western Australia. He talks to Malcolm Doney


TIM WINTON is an Australian to the soles of his Blundstone workboots. But while he is delighted to surf, fish, cook, and sleep outdoors, he does not conform to the Ocker stereotype. He swears like a poet rather than a trooper; he is painfully sensitive to others' heartache; and is carried, somewhat unwillingly, by a deep riptide of faith.

In his homeland, he has been named a "national treasure" by the country's National Trust, and his novels have won Australia's premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, a record four times. Now 53 years of age, he has a growing cult-following in the UK, where two of his novels, The Riders and Dirt Music, have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

We spoke earlier this month, just before he arrived in the UK to launch his ninth adult novel, Eyrie. Like most of his work, Eyrie is planted firmly on the coast of his native Western Australia. He writes as he talks, in a vivid vernacular: after fish and chips by the marina, Tom Keely, the central character in the novel, urges his fellow diners to move on: "Carn, you two. I'm as full as a fat lady's sock."

The son of a policeman, Winton was raised in working-class surroundings. At family gatherings, he would secrete himself under the table, and gather literary crumbs. "I think it was the distinctive sounds of people's voices, which may explain my love of vernacular.

"I heard quite a few actual stories, which I butchered to suit my own purposes later, some of which I doubt I was supposed to hear; but once you'd wormed your way down there to lie between all those feet, and all those varicose veins, the ancients forgot you were even there."

HE WAS the first in his family to go to university. "None of my people had finished school," he says. "Some family members hadn't even finished primary school, and there were one or two who were illiterate." So, much of his culture came from the church, his "village" - in his case, the Church of Christ, one of a loose collection of autonomous, dissident, fundamentalist congregations who were intent on regaining the freshness of the Early Church.

"The 'religious wing' of the family was quite bookish in the rather circumscribed tradition of working-class dissenters," he says. "We read the scriptures devotedly - feverishly, really - and we had a great respect for language and the power of story." Because the church was lay-led, everyone had to be a theologian. "It was the realm of the passionate, yeoman autodidact. We studied the scriptures alone, and in house groups.

"Like communist cadres, we 'brought one another along', and held one another to account. Lots of 'self-criticism'. We scoured each other for signs of 'insufficient revolutionary zeal'. We argued passionately about the meaning of certain words. And we had a great library at our disposal. For that's what the Bible is, I guess. . . Everything from existentialist philosophy to apocalyptic visions, with a bit of erotic poetry thrown in for good measure."

The Bible piqued his taste for stories. "Story was vital . . . [it] did the heavy lifting for ideas. A story is an opportunity to saddle an idea and ride it around the paddock, to make it live in three dimensions. . . Had there been no parables, no previous tradition of Jewish story and mythology, the faith would be an arid affair."

If family and church were vital ingredients in the starter culture that made Tim Winton into a writer, a third element was place. He once said: "The place comes first. If the place isn't interesting to me, then I can't feel it. I can't feel any people in it. I can't feel what the people are on about, or likely to get up to."

THERE is something of the sunburnt nature-poet about his descriptions of ocean, beach, and scrub: "There were jellyfish all around the boat, big as pumpkins, and Keely breathed in the estuarine miasma of algae, cypress and invertebrate slime that reminded him of holidays, exam week, summers gone."

The attachment to land and ocean has led him to become a reluctant advocate for environmental conservation. Reluctant, because his retreat is friends, family, and the remote outdoors, but he is determined, none the less. He is the patron of, and a spokesman for, a number of environmental NGOs.

He is particularly exercised by the race to excavate Western Australia's mineral riches, "where nature is just the grist from which to extract unheard-of profits".

His distress at the desecration of the natural world has turned him into a public figure. And he does it for reasons of "family, place, memory, faith. I have grandkids to think of, and other people's grandkids to consider. What are we leaving them?

"To my mind, the natural world is the most vivid way we experience the divine. . . Without a physical existence, religion means nothing. The creation is sacred - for one thing, it's the means by which we exist; it's what we live on, in ways that, as moderns, we've let ourselves forget."

His litany - "family, place, memory, faith" - are threads that run through Eyrie, as they do in his earlier novels. Keely is a 49-year-old, burnt-out, divorced, environmental advocate who has retreated to a low-rent, high-rise apartment block in Fremantle, where he self-medicates with drink and pills.

The relationship that Keely develops with a beleaguered neighbour and her grandchild - who is threatened by the child's drug-dealing father - unearths the uncomfortable, atavistic challenge of his own Christian parents, who are rescuers of lost causes. This turns him into a conflicted, inadequate, public defender.

Keely's late father, Nev, who haunts the book and Keely's life, is "a holy fool with hands like mallee roots and a heart while it lasted as big as a beer keg".

THE novel is bleak, dark, and angry. But, as several reviewers have pointed out, it also has a propulsive narrative, and moments of both hilarity and hope. In the despairing Keely, Winton has created a narrator who provides a caustic, and sardonic commentary on contemporary Fremantle, a "boho theme-park perched on a real-estate bubble."

One piece of baggage that Winton has not carried with him from his Evangelical past, however, is the desire to tie up loose, happy-ever-after endings. "I guess I've always resisted the authorial hand on the neck," he says. "There are some folks for whom the parables would be more therapeutically digestible if only Christ had added at the end of every one of them a little explanatory coda. . . That level of finishing, of tidying up, doesn't interest me.

"Novels are worlds in which anything can happen. Sometimes, good triumphs over evil in a book, as it does from time to time in 'real life'. But I think it's a mistake for a reader to expect a novel to be 'redemptive' as a matter of course. . . Anyone who's been to school, followed politics, or read the book of Job knows life isn't that simple."

But Eyrie is no novel of despair. Keely, Winton says, "has restored something to himself in his efforts to rescue the woman and the child. In his hopeless, clumsy way he has lived up to his parents. . . The orphan and the widow - it's bone-deep, this moral impulse to save, to sacrifice.

"For the whole book, through every convulsion of self-pity, he thinks he's a failure, a moral weakling, another soft-handed passenger, and yet, despite himself, he does what his parents would do: that is, to side with the weak, and suffer to spare them."


WINTON and his wife, Denise, a marine biologist, have three children, and two grandchildren; so the plight of six-year-old Kai in the novel is close to home. "Keely isn't travelling too well, and he is, to an extent, a canary in the mineshaft. But so, too, is the little boy, Kai, he seeks to save from harm. You measure a society's health and values by the fortunes of its children.

"An unseen underclass of neglected, traumatised, and abused children is another of those undersides to prosperity. There's a pandemic of amphetamine addiction ripping through Australian society that I've had some experience with, and the little boy is one its many casualties.

"One of the richest countries in the world, where a tradesperson can earn more than a doctor, and it's quietly tearing itself to pieces - Saturn devouring its own children."

This wars against his own deepest instincts about family. "One of my characters says: 'Family; it's not a word, it's a sentence.' Family's what you're stuck with. Often, it's all you're left with, and that's not always good news. It's an inescapable reality, even if family is a black hole, an absence. . .

"The family should be where we find and learn love, where love grows, from which love is exported. . . . If that means two lesbians, a couple of kids, and a lost mastiff, all of whom would die in a ditch for each other, then that's just fine by me."

Clearly, he has travelled some distance from his Church of Christ beginnings, but, as is the case with Keely, faith clings to him like a leech. "I love Flannery O'Connor's image of the Christ-haunted man who keeps seeing the shadow flitting from tree to tree at the corner of his eye. It reminds me of [the Canadian singer] Bruce Cockburn's line, 'And I can't scrape this dream from my eye.'

"It's true, in a sense, that my own faith is not the faith of my fundamentalist childhood. But I've never felt the need to scrape that visionary dream from my eyes."


WHAT has changed is that the faith of his childhood "saw things in moral monochrome. Mystery and complexity were simply too hard to process." These days, he says, "I'm always caught between the active, muscular, do-gooding impulse, and the contemplative response. . . I get on my knees in an Anglican parish - and, where I grew up, C of E was the bosses' religion.

"I cross myself like a papist - a scandal in itself. But I'm a mongrel believer. A Tolstoyan who can't quite relinquish sex; an Anglican who wants to sing like a Wesleyan."

Winton is an awkward customer. He is a literary novelist who sellsin near-blockbuster quantities at home, and bemuses the churchgoing community - some of whom want him canonised, while others brand him as a heretic. Eyrie has stirred this pot more than usual.

"I've always had a certain kind of religious reader. Now and then, someone sends me a dissertation I don't quite understand - trying to figure out if I'm a Christian existentialist, or a pantheistic nature mystic, or just a redneck. But not since That Eye, the Sky and Cloudstreet has there been quite this much interest in these spiritual themes.

"Maybe it's nothing more than a few punch-drunk God-botherers clutching at something, after Dawkins has been through with his scorched-earth circus. Maybe it's something in the state of nation. Maybe it's something in the book."

This doesn't worry him so much as interest him. "What worries me is some incipient idea that I could be some sort of apologist, a kind of Christian public intellectual. There's a little bit of that expectation, I suspect.

"But, seriously, I'm not that bloke. I'm a tradesman. I make stories. I'll leave the commentary to others. I couldn't argue my way out of a Quaker meeting." 

Eyrie by Tim Winton is published by Picador at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30).



That Eye, the Sky (1986)

Twelve-year-old Ort Flack's vision of his troubled world blurs distinctions between the natural and the supernatural. 

Cloudstreet (1991)

A broken-down house, with its own memories, gives sanctuary to two dysfunctional families.

The Riders (1994)

When Fred Scully's wife disappears, he and his daughter set off across Europe to try and find her. 

Dirt Music (2001)

Georgie Jutland, at 40 years of age, is in a mess, and then she meets Luther Fox, a local poacher, jinx, and outcast.

The Turning (2005)

Short stories about turnings of all kinds: changes of heart; nasty surprises; slow awakenings. . . 

Breath (2008)

Two boys, intoxicated by the power of the surf, defy rules to fling themselves into experience. 

Eyrie (2013)

Tom Keely, his world in ruins, in a low-rent, high-rise apartment, meets a troubled neighbour with a link to his past, and a six-year-old grandson.


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