First published by The Big Issue on 4 November 2016
“A boy’s a bit of a mystery to himself; most young people are. You can’t figure out why you are the way you are and why more people aren’t like you,” says Tim Winton with a loud and eruptive laugh. Each time he begins a new novel, he starts with a place that puzzles him. And he describes the process of writing about these places as: looking at something he doesn’t understand, until he understands it.
In The Boy Behind the Curtain – a newly published collection of personal essays – the subject under scrutiny is in fact himself, the man behind the stories. And he proves just as fertile a starting point as the suburbs of Perth we came to know in Cloudstreet, or the rips of West Australian surf he brought to terrifying life in Breath.
The collection is littered with small and poetic revelations, all delivered in that iconic prose that is widely loved, if sometimes labelled as overripe with Australian vernacular.
In Havoc: A Life in Accidents, Winton the survivor observes that his life has been shaped by a series of witnessed tragedies and near escapes. To name a few: there is the road accident that altered his father forever, the premature death of a family friend and a car accident that saw Winton bedridden and finding a renewed commitment to professional writing. He is fascinated by this assortment of fateful moments. “They are the landmarks by which I take my bearings,” he writes.
Winton the activist recalls and celebrates a public campaign he was a vital part of in The Battle for Ningaloo Reef, and in The Demon Shark he debunks the media’s harmful portrayal of these misunderstood creatures, writing about them with great affection and a wealth of firsthand experience (he’s the kind of surfer who, after seeing a bronze whaler up close, feels lucky for the near-miss and heads back out for the next wave).
Winton the spellbound boy is there in in A Walk at Low Tide, as he contemplates the wondrous and unknowable lives of coastal creatures and their relationship to human observers. He is there in Repatriation, as he recounts a night spent camping alone at the edge of a dried up salt lake, with an awe that is straight-up romantic: “I’ve driven all day away from the coast in order to roll my swag out on the edge of a ghostly body of water… I want to be present at dusk and dawn to see what comes in from the shimmering distance.” And there he is again on the other end of the phone: in the middle of answering a question about the risky business of writing, his mind wanders to a baby humpback he saw laying across its mother’s nose last year and he happily, distractedly offers up this anecdote instead, in the manner of a child who must have another story before being made to go to bed.
Perhaps one of the most personal and, to date, less explored sides of Tim Winton is the one who maintains a complex relationship with Christian faith. We see a six-year-old Winton sidle up to a church elder, to ask with some urgency about the size of a human soul. We see him adolescent and impatient, bellowing hymns and withstanding dud sermons. Then, later, as an independent thinker causing a stir among the congregation. He writes that it was church that taught him the beauty and power of language.
“There is a lot that is sacred or divine in the way that I see the world and my language is constructed around all those instincts,” he says. “Most of that expression is, by now, pretty unconscious.”
For fans of Winton’s work, this idea that some of it happens unconsciously is a familiar one. He’s been heard to say he’s not clever enough to preconceive themes and that instead, they tend to reveal themselves as the work goes on; that if he has a problem with a story, sometimes it helps to leave the room and let the issue solve itself in his absence.
So what is this invisible work? “I’m not really sure I understand it,” he says. And then – joking that he’s not patient in any other aspect of his life besides the writing process – he says he’s simply learned to wait. “Somehow,” he says, “the mind does work for you. That’s what sleep’s about I guess. You go into neutral, or what passes for neutral… but your mind’s just working. Churning if not working.”
This is not to say that there is anything passive or easy in achieving the kind of success Winton enjoys. More than anything, writing has always been about showing up to work every day. “I think we get poisoned young by this ridiculous romantic notion that we have about what writers do. It must seem attractive to people, the idea that you just sit around and do a lot of soulful staring out of the window, all after getting up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe lots of people do that but I don’t know how many people have made a living doing it.”
He laughs at the suggestion that he must be tirelessly perceptive in order to write the way he does, to capture people and places with such home-hitting detail. “I’m not very observant, which is why I could never make a career in journalism. I’d have to pay too much attention and then write everything down immediately. It doesn’t work like that for me. When one of the kids or grandkids rings, I’ll hang up and my wife says: ‘what did they have to say?’ and it’s like ‘Aaaaah, I dunno!’ I’m not really very good at giving an account, in that sense. I have to wait for things to emerge and stick. Of all the things I could have written about I suppose these are the things, in this book, that really did stick. They were vivid in memory and then I thought about them long enough and started to understand them as pivotal. These were the things that really were important and a big influence.”
After this, though, Winton will be back to working on novels. “I’m a bit more comfortable doing that; I know how that works. Back in stuff that’s just made up. I find it easier to negotiate to be honest.”
Making things up and writing them down is one of the most notoriously underpaid vocations. But well beyond putting bread on the table, Winton’s imaginings – the result of his trying to understand people and places – have achieved critical acclaim and meant a great deal to many people. Will he attribute this to more than just hard work, a churning mind and divine intervention? “I don’t really know… the whole trajectory’s so unlikely, to come from the kind of background that I have, the wrong side of the wrong country of the wrong hemisphere and to somehow have had an international publishing career and all that blather. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher that one, isn’t it?”