Tim Winton Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tim Winton
Photo: Denise Fitch

Tim Winton

An interview with Tim Winton

A transcript of an interview with Tim Winton on Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Enough Rope hosted by Andrew Denton in which Tim discusses many aspects from his life including how he nearly drowned when he was nine and how he avoided the school bullies by telling taller and taller tales

Tim Winton is consistently voted Australia's most beloved novelist. In books such as Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and his new collection of short stories, The Turning, he's shown an exquisite feel for the language, the smell, the very pulse of Australia. It's never easy to coax him away from the shores of WA, the source of so much of his inspiration, and we're delighted to have done so tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Winton.

Andrew Denton: And that's it. You can go now.

Tim: Oh, good. I'm out.

Andrew: Now, Tim, welcome.

Tim: Thanks, mate.

Andrew: You write so much about the sea in your books. And, you know, a lot of kids, when they're teenagers, they're into fast cars or getting off their face, but you were into the sea.

Tim: Mm-hm.

Andrew: What's down there?

Tim: Well, less than you think and more than you think. Do you know what I mean? When you're a teenager you feel overcome by all these problems. Everything seems enormous. Everything seems big. You seem tiny and bewildered. So, in a way, jumping into the ocean and diving deep was a way of getting over myself, you know, a way of leaving myself, not worrying that I wasn't tall enough, that I wasn't skinny enough, that I wasn't smart enough, that, you know, you didn't get the girl. You jump in the water and just... It was like a hallucinatory experience, you know? Fish, sharks, dolphins, seals and weird noises, like something out of a Kubrick movie.

Andrew: The amazing thing is you were... You nearly drowned when you were nine. Is that right?

Tim: Yeah, I've nearly drowned several times, which some people would say was not nearly close enough. But I was sort of interested by the idea of how close you get. Yeah, we were out in the boat one day, pulling our craypots, with my dad and my uncle and a couple of my cousins...too much gear in the boat. Just went out on the reef and suddenly there was this huge wave popped up. And, you know, we just started heading towards it.

And because my uncle wasn't a surfer he just sort of didn't get it with waves. So he tried to outrun the wave. And, um, yeah, we bought it. It was, uh... It was... The last thing that was said on the boat was, "Hanging five," by my cousin. And then I was under the boat, trapped. Had fishing line and rope and stuff around my leg and I was kind of drowning. I was sort of in that last moment before, you know... I'm just seeing bubbles, thinking, "Oh, this is beautiful. This is nice."

Andrew: Really? So there wasn't...

Tim: I wasn't drowning yet. I hadn't started to inhale any water. I mean, people say that drowning is an easy death. I think that was an old romantic thing that's... I think it would be horrible. It'd be like suffocating.

Andrew: You said, though, you were interested in how far you can get. What does that mean?

Tim: I think, um...I was interested in the kind of limits...the limits of things. I mean, I wasn't into taking drugs and driving fast cars, as you say, but I think part of that strange male thing in adolescence, to test yourself and to frighten yourself a little bit, was there. We used to dive as deep as we could on one breath. We used to ride waves as big as we could cope. We were always pushing ourselves. And I don't know what that was about except maybe feeling what it was like to be mortal, you know, feeling what it was like to have things in jeopardy. 'Cause there wasn't much else to test ourselves against except high school maths.

Andrew: Which is hardly life-threatening.

Tim: Well, I found it life-threatening. Believe me.

Andrew: Yes. Death by algebra, it's a shocker. I'm interested in the stuff that fuels a writer's imagination, beyond the sea. When you were a kid your family were into storytelling, which is, I think, a lost tradition in Australia. What sort of stories were they? Are we talking tall tales and true?

Tim: Oh, well, the tall tales were true.

Andrew: Even better.

Tim: Yeah. I mean, no-one ever said anything in my family that wasn't true. And my grandmother was going to enforce that as a fact, you know? No, there were a lot of family gatherings, a lot of cousins. I can remember, you know, being a little kid bored out of my wits at, you know, a kind of Sunday lunch. And I'd climb or sort of slide off the chair lie on the floor under the table, look up me aunties' dresses, tie my...you know, tie people's shoelaces and look at people's varicose veins. And then once I got through the sort of procedure of all that you'd lie back in a kind of a fugue state of...of boredom and ecstasy, I suppose. And I would hear the voices, you know, the way that people were talking. And that for me was kind of musical. I liked the way that people would tell the stories, but in the way... The way that they TOLD it was great, you know, the musicality of it and the kind of old language that they were using, you know, before the war and... That was nice. And I guess what I appreciate about storytelling in families is it's...it's elemental. It's like saying, "I was here," in the same way that someone in a cave somewhere once scratched a picture or...or a symbol that said, "I was here. This happened to me," or, you know, "Beware of those guys over the hill. They're a bit feral."

Andrew: When you were young your dad was a cop. And you'd lie in bed and you could hear through your bedroom wall your dad talking to your mum about what had happened at work. And a small-town country cop has some pretty good stories. What sort of stuff did you hear?

Tim: Well, I ended up finding out a lot more about my mates' parents than I ever expected to know. You know, the old man knew where all the bodies were buried, and some of them still had pulses. It was, particularly because I was from a really sort of sheltered, loving, warm environment, I was sort of protected from a lot of stuff. This other stuff came to me through the asbestos wall and introduced me to other peoples' lives. I didn't realise how other people lived, you know, that their dads bashed them or that their mothers were frightened or that their brothers were junkies. I can still remember one night when Dad came home and told Mum about... He'd gone to a prang, as we used to call it, or a 'fatal'. It was called a 'fatal'. "Just come in from a fatal." There was always a little bit of a smell of Dettol about him when he came in from a fatal. Um, and a kid had been riding behind a school bus in the country town, or outside the country town I used to live in. And he was sort of chiacking around, showing off for the girls in the back seat. And it was a winding road in a forest. And then he decided he was going to pull out and go into his farm and he pulled out into the path of a truck and...and was hit. And my dad got there while he was still alive and he died in his arms. And, you know, when Dad thought we were safely asleep - 'cause I never slept at all, you know - so everyone else was snoring away and I'd be listening through the wall and hearing Dad off-load this kind of stuff, I guess it had a real effect on me. I mean, it was good for stories if you turn out to be a novelist, but somehow you have to absorb that stuff. And I realised there was so much damage out there and people were living other kinds of lives. You know, I guess it fuelled my imagination and I think it gave me more sympathy for other people.

Andrew: Did you ever talk with your dad about this?

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, um, certainly as he got older. And I think he felt that it was his job to protect us from that kind of stuff. And like a lot of cops', uh, kids, well, you know, like kids who have cops for fathers, the whole procedure was to keep damage...to keep the family safe, you know? It would have been very difficult not to have a siege mentality. I think he managed. We talked later, you know, later in life. And, yeah, it was... It made my hair curl.

Andrew: Did that make you fearful as kids or did you go the other way and think, "No, we're just going to rebel against this"?

Tim: No, we weren't fearful. And I think that was probably... We were lucky 'cause somehow my parents managed that balancing act. And I think my siblings fared better in a sense because they slept well. So what you don't know doesn't hurt you. And I just...I couldn't sleep at night. You know, I would read and read and read and read and put the light out and I just... I'm still the same. I mean, I didn't sleep last night, you know? I came with my own bags. But it's just a lifetime of insomnia.

Andrew: What are you thinking of?

Tim: Why am I here? And what are they doing in the next room, you know? It certainly was true last night.

Andrew: Yes, I do apologise. We won't let you stay at my place again.

Tim: (Laughs) At least you could oil the trapeze.

Andrew: I was. That was the noise. Your father was a gentle man, but you've described the women in your family as fierce. In what way fierce?

Tim: In my family, the women were the tough ones. They were the organisers. They were the leaders. They were the strategists. They were the pushers, in the sense of the urgers. The men tended to be a little more feckless, um, a little more fey, I suppose. So I was always surprised when people talked about their big scary dads and their big scary uncles, 'cause the only people you had to look out for in my family were your grandmothers and your mum, you know? They knew where it was. They were like generals and we were just foot soldiers.

Andrew: Were these the sort of people that could anticipate your every misdemeanour?

Tim: They imagined every perverted fantasy you were about to have before you could grind them up, you know? My dad's mum was a wonderful woman. She just organised the family. She organised the suburb. She lived in a tent in the backyard in the inner city in Perth for 30 years. It was a sort of Boer War-era tent under a mulberry tree. And the mulberries used to drop on it and it looked like it had bloodstains - like one of those Civil War medical tents where they used to saw people's legs off - "Oh, stop crying, you sissy!"

Andrew: Why did she live in a tent?

Tim: That was a great mystery. I mean, she had seven children. And perhaps that's just it.

Andrew: Contraception.

Tim: Yeah - "I'm gone." They ran a shop and had a huge block, and, um... I just thought everybody's grandmother lived in a tent. She had a kerosene lantern out there. She would keep the accounts for the shop and... My father introduced Mum to his mother at the flap of the tent, you know? It was like going to meet Custer. And she was a little like that, you know?

Andrew: Signing a treaty of marriage.

Tim: Yeah, no, she wasn't for turning. No, I was completely accustomed to the idea that my grandmother lived in a tent in the inner city forever.

Andrew: You've said that you became the person you are between the ages of 12 and 14. What changed in you...for you?

Tim: I was brought up in the suburbs until I was about 12 and then Dad got transferred to a country town. So it was a real shock for me to suddenly find myself in Albany in Western Australia. It's a long way south. The weather is kind of a little like Victoria, so it's like four seasons before 9 o'clock in the morning. We wore beanies all the time. I rocked up to high school the only kid in shorts. I didn't realise that in Albany after the age of 10 boys didn't wear shorts. It was just...it was not done.

Andrew: So you were marking yourself out big-time first day at school - basically wearing the sign 'Target'.

Tim: Yeah. It's like 'Hit me'. Someone asked me a while ago where the whole storytelling impulse came from, and I think it predated that shift to the country. I used to live a couple of miles from school, so the walk to and from school was a long walk. And somehow - I don't know what happened - but I'd always have some bigger kid fall in next to me. And he lived near me and he was going to victimise me the whole way home, you know? So I realised the only way I could prevent having my head kicked in as a form of entertainment to this bored kid was to tell him stories. And they were usually barefaced lies, but they were good. And so I'd walk home, and it would take half an hour - it felt like the better part of an hour - and I thought, "If I can get me to my driveway just by sort of entertaining him, spinning this line, then I'll be safe." And it worked great the first time. And the second time he sought me out again. I thought, "Oh, he's just raised the bar. I've already told him all the lies I knew yesterday. I'm going to have to start making up..." And it went on and on like that - the bar kept being... Like, "What have you got for me today?" I mean, he was looking forward to it. I was, like, terrified. The only way I could avoid getting a flogging was by lying through my teeth - just saying, "Oh, my dad did this," and, "My uncle did this," and, "Did you know that in Ethiopia they do that?"

And that same impulse was there the first day of high school when I went to Albany with all these huge kids, you know? The kids in the country - I don't know what they feed them, but they were huge. They'd all been shaving since they were about 9 months old. They were really big. And the great thing there was to stick your head down the dunny as a way of initiating you into high school and then flushing the bog on you and stuff. And the only smart thing I ever did in my life politically was to... I understood what was going on instantly - it took me 19 seconds and seeing these kids getting dragged off to the dunny. So I went over to the taps and stuck me head under it and wet my hair. And they came running for me. I said, "Mate, I've already been done." Then they left me. The other impulse was really just changing my personality from being a nice kid who brought flowers to the teacher and didn't want any trouble to being a smart-arse, just to stay...to sort of stop from disappearing. I thought I was just going to evaporate in this different environment so I became sort of artificially extroverted. It's like tap dancing in front of the machine guns, you know - "They're gonna kill me! They're gonna kill me!" - and the only way I can do it is by being sassy or funny or cute or repulsive - usually all of the above simultaneously.

Andrew: Anything to stop the shooting.

Tim: Mmm.

Andrew: In this book of short stories, The Turning, in a couple of instances you refer to just the power that adolescence has over you for the rest of your life - you still very much are that person. Do you still feel strongly the emotions of those teenage years?

Tim: Yeah, I think that adolescents and people in middle age have an enormous amount in common. I think they're both times when you feel a little bewildered, a little overcome, confused. You feel under kind of weird pressures that you can't come to terms with. And the strange thing is that when you're in middle age, the kinds of things that you're dealing with are almost mutated versions of the same things you were dealing with when you were a teenager. In fact, you still in some sense are the teenager that you were. You're just dealing with the consequences of the things that you did when you were 14, 15, 16, 17, the people you knew, the things that happened to you, the things that you were afraid of, the ways in which you tried to cope. And it sort of comes back to you in a scary way. I mean superficially, of course, people then - particularly baby boomers - try and relive their childhood. They try and edit it, you know - "I didn't do these things, therefore I'm going to do this now."

Andrew: When you were a kid, when you were absorbing all these stories and you couldn't sleep, did you know you were going to be a writer?

Tim: Yeah. I knew from about the age of 10.

Andrew: How did you know?

Tim: Now I'm puzzled as to how I knew. I mean, I was certain then and I've understood it my whole life, but the older I get, the scarier I find that certainty that I had. I mean, what did I know at 10? I mean, I didn't even know what a writer was. I'd never met one.

Andrew: You knew who you were.

Tim: Yeah, but I'd never met a writer until I was in university. I didn't know what they looked like, what they ate. Now I know better - they eat everything. I just had this strange sense that I wanted to do this very particular thing and I spent the rest of my life narrowing down my options so that I couldn't do anything else. So it was almost a weird form of foot binding, you know? I just made sure I couldn't do other things so that I could do this. It was a form of tunnel vision.

Andrew: You refer to yourself as a sound nazi when you write. You can't bear to hear noise. What happens if there is a noise?

Tim: Well, I listen to it, which is hopeless.

Andrew: Any noise?

Tim: Oh, I'll listen to a clock all day, you know, because there's one tick, pretty soon there's going to be another tick and there's going to be another one after that. And they'll build this whole edifice of ticks and that'll be an hour. And it's pointless - the clock's gotta go. I'm very, very easily distracted. Music - if there's music playing I'll listen to it...you know, I'll listen to music. I'll think, "Oh, man, this guy's good. Listen. Hang on, this bit's coming up." You know, someone noodling away on a guitar or a violin or whatever. So it's got to be silent.

Andrew: Dead silent.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you could lower me into a concrete, brick...into a mine or something. Just silence.

Andrew: What is your actual writing technique? When you're in this cone of silence, how do you write?

Tim: I just rock up to the desk in the morning and hope something shows up. I figure if I don't show up then nothing else could show up, or it could show up and I'm not there, in which case there's a day gone - the bus has been and gone and what am I going to do with the afternoon? I just write by hand. I don't know how to describe it, really. The process is not very intellectual. It's not very rational. I don't plan things. I'm just trying not to be bored.

Andrew: I don't wish to make you sound ethereal, but does it sometimes just come through you in a way that surprises you?

Tim: Yeah, it's not quite that...it's not quite that Linda Blair, but, um... But there are some days when you just can't believe your luck and other days where you know it's just not going to rain for five years. But it's a really strange... The only other analogy I can give you is it's a strange way to live a life where you have to live by your wits - like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and some days you're not sure if there's a rabbit in the hat and other days you're not sure if you've got the hat. But you've just got to go there and hope that something shows up. And there's a kind of discipline in going to the empty desk, the empty page, and waiting. It's not for something to fall out of the sky on you. It's something to...for you to be in the right space, to remember where you're at. And once I achieve a certain kind of momentum, then I'm OK. But it's sort of getting up to warp speed that takes me a lot of energy.

Andrew: It took you seven years, I think, to write 'The Riders'.

Tim: Oh, 'Dirt Music'. Yeah.

Andrew: What is it to have that in your head for so long?

Tim: Yeah, well, Orwell said that, um, "Writing a novel is like having a long illness." And writing 'Dirt Music' was like having a sort of...an infirmity that I'd got from birth, it seemed, you know? It was just...it was never going to end. It was difficult. It was... I felt like I was flogging myself, a little bit. And I got to deadline, I finished the book, I thought, and I was wrapping it up. My wife left me in the morning, she was going to work, and when she got home at 4:00 I was still wrapping it and unwrapping it and looking at it and there was this huge pile of paper, and she could see the sick look on my face. And she said, "Oh, no. Don't tell me..." And I said, "I don't think it's ready. It's not finished." But they'd advertised it, they had a name, it had a price and it was due in a few months time, and I thought, "Oh, man - people are gonna lose their jobs! Maybe I should just let it go. Maybe they'll...maybe I can hoodwink 'em. Maybe people will buy it anyway." And I couldn't live with myself, so I said, "Oh, I'll sleep on it." Which sort of meant, you know, lying in bed like...Rock Hudson in a bad movie...

Andrew: (Laughs)

Tim: ..like, you know... (Tosses his head) ..thinking that he's going to have to go to bed with Doris Day. I mean, that would hurt my neck. And I got up at 2:00 in the morning and thought, "No, I've got to start again." Yeah, I worked for about 20 hours. I rode down to the office in the dark, I sharpened up 20 or 40...I forget how many pencils, and I just started again from scratch, and rewrote...I rewrote it in 55 days and nights.

Andrew: I want to talk about faith. When you were, I think, about five, a stranger came into your family and affected your family quite profoundly. Is that right?

Tim: Yeah. My dad was a motorcycle cop - a traffic cop - and, uh...uh...he was knocked off his motorbike by a drunk driver, and he went through the wall of a factory. And he was in a coma for weeks and weeks. I remember the day that they brought him home, and he was sort of like an earlier version of my father, a sort of augmented version of my father. He was sort of recognisable, but not really my dad, you know? Everything was busted up and they put him in the chair, and, you know, "Here's your dad." And I was sort of horrified. And mum had real difficulty, because he was a big bloke, you know?

And even though he was a little withered by the time in hospital, it was really difficult for her to bathe him. And I remember one day this bloke showed up at the front door. He just banged on the door and said, "Oh, g'day. My name's Len. I heard your hubby's a bit crook. Anything I can do?" He just showed up, and he used to, um, he used to carry my dad from bed and put him in the bath and he used to bathe him, which in the '60s in Perth in the suburbs was not the sort of thing you saw every day.

Andrew: No.

Tim: It turned out that this bloke, Len Thomas, was from a local church and he'd heard that the old man was sick, and he thought he'd come and help out. And this weird, kind of strangely sacrificial act, where he'd come and wash another grown man and carry him to bed and look after him in a way that Mum just physically couldn't do. Something, you know, it really touched me, in that regardless of theology or anything else, watching a grown man bother, for nothing, to show up and wash a sick man...you know, it really affected me and, um...and gave me some stories.

Andrew: I'm intrigued with this book of short stories, 'The Turning', because you're writing about people who are on the fringes or lost in suburbia, who are maintaining dignity in the face of desperation or disillusionment...sometimes not maintaining it. How do you know these people? They're not just inventions. How do you know these people?

Tim: Oh, um...in this particular book, I mean, there's so many stories of, you know...which, I guess, have their physical origin in that town that I moved to when I was a kid. So I know the milieu, if you like. I know the country. But the rest of it is, simply, that they're all me. Every character is a version of me. There's a bit of me in every one of them, and especially the really creepy ones.

Andrew: Well, for instance, the character of Vic, who is a young boy, sits there with a gun, and as an older man, recognises something of himself in Martin Bryant.

Tim: Yeah, it's a weird thing that... My father was very strict about firearms. And I was in the cadets, and - this was in the '70s - and the Vietnam war was more or less over, getting to be over, by the stage I was in cadets. But I was a 14...15-year-old boy, teaching other boys how to fire automatic weapons and assemble a self-loading rifle in the dark, with a stopwatch. We were firing heavy machine guns. We were shooting at targets. We were imagining ourselves as warriors for the Commonwealth, and for the Queen.

Um...I don't know why, but...I actually used to - on the rare occasions when the house was empty - I used to go to my dad's wardrobe and pull out the rifle. And I used to go and stand at the window and, um, point the rifle at people and sort of follow them down the street. Or certain cars, certain models of cars, you know, Morris Minor...

Andrew: (Laughs)

Tim: Falcons. I was a Holden boy.

Andrew: (Laughs)

Tim: Country town, you know.

Andrew: (Chuckles) Yes.

Tim: But I literally used to have this... I mean, I knew where the bullets were, and I knew where the firing bolt - the mechanism that actually makes it into a real weapon - was. And I was a happy kid. And later in life it sort of scared me that I'd spent this time, you know, probably many hours, standing by the window drawing a bead on my neighbours and fellow citizens. And I was a happy kid. If I'd been an unhappy kid...

So when Martin Bryant killed all those people in Port Arthur, it was sort of a cold shudder, beyond the revulsion of what had happened in the shop. There was a certain shudder of recognition there. I thought, "That kid could have been me. If my life had been different, if things had gone differently for me, if I'd been in some kind of turmoil...I could have shot people." It's a strange thing to recognise about yourself. And I'd been trained to kill people.

Andrew: Mmm.

Tim: I knew how to do it, you know? And I'd been firing big-calibre weapons, and what was I doing? I thought I was in it for the camping, in terms of cadets. But it's like reading 'Playboy' for the essays, isn't it?

Andrew: (Laughs) Was it that realisation that it actually doesn't necessarily take a lot to cross the line that...

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: ...scared you?

Tim: And I knew people in jail in the '80s, and I did some summer schools and a little bit of work teaching writing in jails - maximum security - in the '80s. And I realised that the people who were in jail were just people like me who'd done things that I'd thought about. 'Cause everybody thinks about doing hideous things. You sort of...you're at the mercy of your own mind and your impulses and, um... I think it gave me a kind of a sympathy. It didn't make me kind of feel warm and fuzzy toward murderers and rapists, but I recognised them as human, not as somehow outside the species.

Andrew: The book's out now. 'The Turning' is out. You're free of the pain of writing for a while. When are you going to start sleeping better?

Tim: Oh, I don't know. When they get me on the tranquillisers and the Zimmer frame, I think. I think...I'm sure I'll never sleep well, because, you know, the news is you sleep less well as you get older. I mean, all the old people I know say, "Oh, no. I used to sleep really well, and now I'm rubbish." And I think, "Oh, good - this isn't boding well." I'll, um... I don't know, it'll be formaldehyde injections, I think.

Andrew: Look, I think it's to our benefit you're so wide awake. Tim Winton, thank you.

Tim: Thanks, mate.

A transcript of an interview with Tim Winton for ABC. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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