Tim Winton recalls a recent moment when he took his elderly mother to the beach to help her into the water. His mother had been a swimming teacher when she was younger, but now she was too frail to swim alone. As Winton and his wife held his mother in the ocean, they were both acutely aware that this was a scene that Winton had imagined and put on paper more than 20 years earlier.
In one of the most moving scenes in Winton’s 1997 novel Blueback, the protagonist Abel cradles his elderly mother in the water she loves. “We come from the water,” the mother whispers to her son. We belong to her, Abel.
“I’m standing in the water with my wife and my mom looking at each other like, ‘Does that remind you of anything?'” says Winton.
“It was weird because I think we were all aware of the connection, like we were inhabiting a fictional reality.”
Forty years into her publishing career, Winton says these rare moments, when her writing comes to life, are becoming more common.
“If you’re in this adventure long enough, you realize that it’s inevitable that you’ll repeat yourself, but not in a conventional way,” says Winton.
“You find yourself living things you’ve already written; you find yourself inhabiting scenes you’ve already imagined and published.”
‘The wrong side of the wrong country’
Winton’s run of career success is the stuff of the wildest imagination.
At 21, he won the Vogel’s Literary Award for his first book, An Open Swimmer. Three years later she won her first Miles Franklin Literary Award for Shallows (she has won the Miles four times to date and shares the record for most wins with the late Thea Astley).
He has written best-selling novels for adults and children, short stories, plays, essays, and memoirs. His books have been adapted for stage and screen, and he has been named a Living National Treasure. There’s even a species of fish named after him: you can find the 12-inch ‘Hannia wintoni’ (or Winton’s Grunter) swimming in the fresh waters of the Kimberley.
It’s an unlikely story for any author, and would have been unimaginable for a young Tim, who decided at the age of 10 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.
“The culture told us that all of the real Australia was somewhere else, it was on the east coast,” says Winton.
“Everybody on TV was from the East. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was from Waratah National Park, wherever that was, but it wasn’t where we were.”
Winton was the first member of her family to go to college, where she studied creative writing.
“I knew he was working hard. And I knew he was determined. I thought it might be good,” says Winton.
And good that it was. But when the awards started rolling in, Winton was more embarrassed than proud. He felt indebted to the teachers and mentors who helped him succeed, who did not receive the same praise.
“Art is not fair,” says Winton.
“I think it took me ten years not to feel bad about doing it right.”
pleasure and pain
Looking back, Winton says that some books have been much easier to write than others.
Blueback, a harrowing allegory about a boy, his mother and a blue groper, was written “within a working week,” says Winton.
“That book just fell out,” he says. “Writing was a lovely experience. There was almost no rewriting, it just came out formed.”
Perhaps it’s that simplicity that makes Blueback so powerful for readers young and old. Winton says he gets more fan mail about that book than anything else he’s ever written. (A film adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Eric Bana is slated to hit theaters in January.)
Cloudstreet, Miles Franklin’s award-winning novel about two families sharing a house in Perth between the 1940s and 1960s, was also a “pleasure” to write. The book was inspired by the stories Winton’s grandparents used to tell about life in Perth, a place Winton could see he was disappearing from.
“Perth was being torn down,” Winton says, referring to the many old buildings that were torn down in the ’60s and ’80s.
“The Perth that my grandparents and 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 treat, Winton’s 2001 novel Dirt Music was something else entirely. Winton spent so many years trying to find a way to end 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 was not convinced that he had succeeded.
“My wife left for work at eight in the morning and I was wrapping it up to send to my publisher,” says Winton.
“And she came home at four o’clock and I was still there unwrapping it, wrapping it. And I knew something wasn’t right.”
That night, he got up and started the book again, from scratch. For 55 days and nights she rewrote Dirt Music, “while my wife watched, like I was a ticking time bomb,” she says.
Winton says he learned a valuable lesson from this “dark, dark time.”
“It’s just a fucking book,” he says.
“And I don’t think it’s worth going crazy or tormenting your family.”
That “damn book” earned 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 the sparse salt lakes of The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton is recognized as one of Western Australia’s most lyrical observers of the landscape.
His love for the natural world is reflected in his conservation work.
Between 2000 and 2003, he played a key role in the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef from tourist development. It was another one of those rare life-imitating art moments: in Blueback, released in 1997, Abel and his mother successfully protect their share of the developers’ shoreline.
Winton’s passion for Ningaloo has only grown in the years since the campaign. She is currently working on a three-part documentary about the reef, which will air on ABC TV next year.
“This is one of the last great wild places in the world,” says Winton.
“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 “time is ticking” in human existence. However, he still believes that there is a place, and indeed a very important one, for art and writing.
“I’m in the useless beauty business,” 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 crazy.”