Tim Winton recalls a recent moment when he led his elderly mother to the beach, to help her into the water. His mum had been a swim teacher as a younger woman, but was now too frail to swim on her own. As Winton and his wife held his mother in the ocean, they were both very aware that this was a scene that Winton had imagined, and committed to paper, more than 20 years earlier.
In one of the most moving scenes of Winton’s 1997 novel Blueback, the protagonist Abel Cradles his ageing mum in the water that she loves. “We come from water,” the mother whispers to her son. “We belong to it, Abel.”
“I’m standing there in the water with my wife and my mother looking at each other like, ‘Remind you of anything?”, Winton says.
“It was odd because I think all of us were conscious of the connection; as if we were inhabiting some fictional reality.”
Forty years into his publishing career, Winton says these weird moments — of his writing coming to life — are becoming more common.
“If you’re in this caper long enough, you realise that it’s inevitable that you’re going to repeat yourself, but not in a conventional way,” Winton says.
“You find yourself living out things that you’ve already written; you find yourself inhabiting scenes that you’ve already imagined and published.”
‘The wrong side of the wrong country’
The run of successes in Winton’s career is the stuff of only the most fanciful of imaginations.
At 21 he won the Vogel’s Literary Award for his first book, An Open Swimmer. Three years later he won his first Miles Franklin Literary Award for Shallows (he’s won the Miles four times to date, and shares the record for the most wins with the late Thea Astley).
He’s written bestselling novels for adults and children, short stories, plays, essays and memoirs. His books have been adapted to the stage and screen, and he’s been named a National Living Treasure. There’s even a fish species named after him – you can find the 30-centimeter ‘Hannia wintoni’ (or Winton’s Grunter) swimming in the freshwaters of the Kimberley.
It’s an unlikely story for any author, and would have been unimaginable for a young Tim, who decided at 10 years old that he was going to be a writer. Growing up in a working-class family in suburban Perth, Winton understood that he lived on “the wrong side of the wrong country in the wrong hemisphere”.
A career in the arts was a radical aspiration.
“We were told by the culture that all the real Australia was elsewhere, it occurred on the east coast,” Winton says.
“Everyone on television was from the east. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was from the Waratah National Park, wherever that was, but it wasn’t where we were.”
Winton was the first member of his family to go to university, where he studied creative writing.
“I knew I was hard working. And I knew I knew I was determined. I thought I might be good,” Winton says.
And good he was. But when the awards started coming in, Winton was more embarrassed than proud. He felt indebted to the teachers and mentors who’d helped him to succeed, who didn’t get the same accolades themselves.
“Art’s not fair,” Winton says.
“I reckon it took me ten years to not feel bad about doing well.”
Pleasure and pain
Looking back, Winton says some books have been much easier to write than others.
Blueback, a heartbreaking allegory about a boy, his mother and a blue grouper, was written “inside a business week,” Winton says.
“That book just slipped out,” he says. “It was a lovely experience to write. There was almost no rewriting, it just came out formed.”
Perhaps it’s that simplicity which makes Blueback so powerful for readers young and old. Winton says he gets more fan mail about that book than anything else he’s written. (A screen adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Eric Bana is slated to hit cinemas in January).
Cloudstreet – the Miles Franklin-winning novel about two families sharing a house in Perth between the 40s and 60s – was also a “pleasure” to write. The book was inspired by stories Winton’s grandparents used to tell about life in Perth – a place that Winton could see was disappearing.
“Perth was just being bulldozed,” Winton says, referring to the many old buildings that were demolished in the 60s and 80s.
“The Perth that my grandparents knew, and that my parents knew, was a foreign place to me, and my children never saw it. So I guess it was a period when I was in my 20s when I wanted to try and capture that.” “
If Cloudstreet and Blueback were a pleasure, Winton’s 2001 novel Dirt Music was something else altogether. Winton spent so many years trying to find a way to finish the story, that some of his children had never seen him working on a different book.
Even when the day came to submit the final manuscript, Winton wasn’t convinced he’d nailed it.
“My wife left for work at eight o’clock in the morning, and I was wrapping it up to send it to my publisher,” Winton says.
“And she came home at four o’clock and I was still there unwrapping it, wrapping it. And I just knew something wasn’t right.”
That night, he got up, and started the book again, from scratch. For 55 days and nights he rewrote Dirt Music, “while my wife looked on, like I was a ticking bomb,” he says.
Winton says he learned a valuable lesson from this “dark, dark time”.
“It’s only a frickin’ book,” he says.
“And I don’t think it’s worth going mad over, or tormenting your family.”
That “frickin’ book” won him his third Miles Franklin, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Writing and the environment
Whether it’s the majesty of the ocean in Breath, or sparse salt lakes of The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton is recognised as one of the most lyrical observers of the Western Australian landscape.
His love for the natural world is echoed in his conservation work.
Between 2000 and 2003, he was famously instrumental in the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef from a resort development. It was another one of those strange life-imitating-art moments: in Blueback, published in 1997, Abel and his mum successfully protect their patch of coast from developers.
Winton’s passion for Ningaloo has only grown in the years since the campaign. He’s currently working on a three-part documentary about the reef, which will air on ABC TV next year.
“This is one of the world’s last great wild places,” Winton says.
“And if we lose these places, we’ve lost everything.”
Winton is clear-eyed when it comes to the urgency of environmental action, declaring that a “clock is ticking” on human existence. Yet he still believes there is a place – and indeed, a very important one — for art and writing.
“I’m in the business of useless beauty,” he says. “And I’m happy with that.”
“I don’t think art needs an excuse to exist. We need beauty in our lives, so we don’t go mad.”
Tim Winton is appearing as part of ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books. Listen back to his conversation with The Book Show’s Claire Nichols.