Join us for a rare view of Tim Winton's imagination at work and play as the Miles Franklin Award winning author reveals the real characters and events behind his bestselling novels in this intimate discussion with ABC's Andrea Ho. The Boy behind the Curtain ranges from his boyhood - movies and road-trips, family and faith - to the natural world, art and writing.
Tim Winton has published 26 books for adults and children, and has been translated into 28 languages. Since his first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the Australian Vogel Award in 1981, he has won the Miles Franklin Award four times (Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath) and has been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize (The Riders and Dirt Music).
In association with Penguin Random House.
Transcript of ‘In Conversation with Tim Winton
Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (MLA), Andrea Ho (AH), Tim Winton (TW)
Location: National Library of Australia
MLA: As we begin I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present, for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
I'm delighted that so many of you have joined us today to hear from one of Australia’s bestselling authors. Tim Winton is one of Australia's most acclaimed writers, thinkers and essayists. He’s the author of 28 books and three plays. His nonfiction as appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The Monthly, The New Statesman, Prospect, The Los Angeles Times, The London Review of Books and The Economist Intelligent Life.
Since his first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the Australian Vogel Award in 1981 he’s won the Myles Franklin Award four times for Shallows, Cloud Street, Dirt Music and Breath and he’s twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Riders and Dirt Music. May this year marked the 25th anniversary of Tim Winton’s publication, Cloud Street, which has been noted as one of the most renowned pieces of Australian literature. I think that’s me ringing there so when I sit down I will turn it off and I invite all of you to do the same so that you don’t start blushing as well. So I think we’re at the 25th anniversary of Tim Winton’s Cloud Street and I just want to say that the audio book of Cloud Street is one of the best audio books you will ever, ever hear so if you’re not into audio books start with Cloud Street.
Tim began transferring his personal papers to the National Library in the 1990s. Last year he transferred another large consignment of his papers and the Library now holds 104 boxes of his material. This is quite a large literary archive. The material’s been very generously donated to the Library through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts program. Now Tim's papers are something of an archivist’s dream, they are beautifully organised and managed and they reflect a meticulous approach to the discipline of writing. Each new work begins with a neat handwritten draft and it looks as though the words flow straight out of his brain and onto the page ready-formed. And the subsequent typescripts and proofs show the evolution of each text right through to publication. The Library is enormously grateful for the privilege of being the custodian of Tim's papers and his generosity in donating the material will surely continue to grow in value and significance. We hope that this will ... relationship will continue over many more years as he continues to engage readers with his remarkable literary output.
Now joining Tim this afternoon is Andrea Ho, the Editorial and Operational Manager for Triple 6 ABC, Canberra’s local radio. Andrea has been working in radio all over Australia for more than 20 years, having been bitten by the radio bug at a student station in her university days. In 2015 she was awarded a fellowship with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and she’s going to use this to investigate practical strategies for improving cultural diversity in broadcast media. Now please make welcome to the stage, Tim Winton and Andrea Ho.
AH: It’s a bit scary, all this, Tim. I’ve never seen the audience so full here before. I’m not going to have a lot to say today because our guest today, Tim Winton, is the person that you want to hear from and it really is a great privilege to have him here in Canberra. I’m sure that all of you have read many of his books but this particular book if you haven’t had a chance to read it, although I’m sure some of you have ... I saw somebody reading about a third of the way through just outside on the stairs as I walked in this morning, I thought oh somebody who knows probably even more than I do but this book is an opportunity for you to have an insight into Tim as a person as opposed to his characters and for me it was the opportunity to see where those characters come from. I mean where do they come from? So today I think it would be lovely to hear from Tim about his own life and perhaps we should kick off this morning by having you read a little of the book for the people who haven’t had the chance yet, something from the opening chapter maybe.
TW: Okay, no worries. Thanks for coming, by the way. It’s ... it would have been even more awkward being here if there was nobody here, it’s pretty awkward with you here as it is but it would have been a little more strange and awkward in an empty room reading to oneself. Again. Oh I’m reading from the proofs, aren’t I? Okay. Originally this essay began with a quote from a songwriter whose work I really liked. He had a little problem with heroin so his health deteriorated to the extent that he became a posthumous phenomenon. His name was Chris Whitley and originally I began the quote with these lines.
In the hours after washing I do my dreaming with a gun ... and I asked ... I think it was CBS or Warner Brothers or whoever owned the rights and they said yes, you can use that, no problem. That’ll be three thousand American dollars. So I told them to get fucked and so ... greedy pricks, I mean you can’t even get the benefit of the money, you know? Wouldn't mind ... anyway so that’s not in the book so ... and yet I managed to utter it and it didn’t cost me a cent, you know? In a minute I’m going to sing Kookaburra Sits On the Old Gum Tree and get off scot-free with that one as well so ... anybody got any other suggestions, we’ll work it up.
When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people. I hid behind the terylene curtain in my parents’ bedroom with a .22 and whenever anybody approached I drew a bead on them. I held them in the weapon’s sight until they passed by. They had no idea I was lurking there, 13 years old, armed and watchful and that was the best part of it. The family rifle was a single shot .22 Lithgow and when the old man first acquired it, having swapped it for a fishing rod, it was already a rather homely-looking pea shooter but after he gave its battered stock a generous coat of mission brown he rendered it genuinely ugly.
Dad had a great passion for mission brown, I ... in gloss. I think he must have had a 44-gallon drum of it that had rolled off the back of some truck somewhere but what he didn’t paint mission brown just didn’t count obviously. So it was ugly, even ... but even so I couldn’t get enough of it.
I loved to be out with him on brisk evenings hunting rabbits or whistling up a fox. Some Sunday afternoons I was given five or six bullets and entrusted to roam at liberty in the lonelier paddocks of local farms. This was a big deal, a privilege earned from months of training and supervision during which the dogma of firearm safety was drilled into me. I know all about the folly of climbing through fences with a weapon, likewise the dangers of ricochet near water. I understood trajectory, the effects of wind and the perils of firing into vegetation that could obscure livestock or the occasional unsuspecting hiker. I observed the sanctity of the safety catch. I never walked with the rifle cocked nor would I travel even the shortest distance in a vehicle with a round in the breach. And once the shooting was over I knew how to render the weapon safe, to clear the breach and check twice in a manner both ritualistic and pedantic.
Often enough on these solo excursions I came back without having fired a shot. True, the rabbits were skittish and the foxes wily but there were moments when having got the drop on something I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. Not that I was squeamish, I’d killed snakes, birds and ‘roos with hardly a thought. And it didn’t have to be a creature in my sight, sometimes I couldn’t even let loose at a rusty tin because I was stricken by the very idea of the rifle, its eerie potential and authority, cowed by the sinister power of the thing and burdened by the weight of responsibility that came with it.
Now the Lithgow was no blunderbuss. It made a noise like a damp Christmas cracker and it lacked the slick glamour of the Winchester repeater that Chuck Connors made famous in the TV show, The Rifleman.
Anyone remember that? Are you old enough?
Or the tommy gun that Vic Morrow toted so nonchalantly in Combat exclamation mark. For some reason Combat on the telly had to be Combat exclamation mark as if war in itself wasn’t an urgent enterprise. All the same our family gun was a killer. I’d destroyed enough things and creatures with it to know that. Some Sundays it was enough just to cradle death in your hands and hold fire. I was appalled by its atavistic potency yet I was entirely in its thrall.
At our place during the ‘70s in the days before mandatory gun safes the Lithgow lived at the back of my parents’ wardrobe, behind a thicket of jackets and ties and police tunics. The bolt ... that’s the rifle's firing mechanism ... was kept separately in the drawer on my father’s side of the bed, right next to the envelopes for the church collection. Lying snug against were packs of antacids as big and orange as shotgun cartridges.
Can anyone remember Quick-Eze?
In the cut glass jars on the dressing table salted in with the uniform buttons and old coins were a few tarnished rounds of ammunition, .22 shorts and longs, the odd hollow point, perhaps a .38. None of this was a secret, my parents understood that I knew it was all there but I was not allowed to touch any of it. Handling the rifle indoors without adult supervision was forbidden. This is a fundamental rule. Of course there were worse sins like pointing a gun at another person, that was completely unthinkable, the action of a dangerous fool or a crim in the family parlance.
I saw the sense in all these regulations and morays and I accepted them without reservation. I would have been disgusted by someone who flouted them and yet at 13 whenever I had the house to myself I went straight to the wardrobe and I drew the rifle out. I handled it soberly with appropriate awe, which was a respect laced with fear, but then I carried it to the window and I aimed it at innocent passers-by.
This didn’t happen only a time or two, I did it for months. I stood behind the filmy curtain, alert and alone, looking down the barrel of a gun at strangers.
TW: What a creepy little boy I was. Go on, you’re going to say it, you know.
AH: Took the words right out of my mouth. I think in fact the way you described yourself later was as an intense little boy and I have to say after reading that passage I thought twice about having said to do this so it seems alright now, you seem alright now.
TW: I mean it was a bit ... it’s not made any easier by being confronted by a childhood photograph on the cover and there’s me on the back of my dad’s BSA, my brother’s on the front, Dad’s in his leathers and his aviators and there’s me clutching onto the back of the old man with this look of ... I mean either it was anxiety or constipation, I’m not sure but ...
AH: Well you said you weren’t very fond of speed, your father had a passion for it but you weren’t.
AH: But you enjoyed the rifle. I mean to me as a woman this is very interesting, the insight into a 13-year-old boy’s mind. Are all 13-year-old boys like this? Was it just you?
TW: No, I don’t ... I mean I think you know luckily most Australians don’t get contact with a firearm but if you live in the country or if you come from a family where you know firearms are in use or ... in one way or another then I think that’s not an uncommon ... I don’t know if everyone did what I did but I think the emotional space, if we want to dignify what I was up to there as an emotional space, was ... is very familiar and I think part of what was going on there for me, and it’s taken me years to realise that, is that I ... I’d just moved to a new town you know where we’d been sent, we hadn’t chosen to move to Albany in Western Australia from Perth, I was about to go to high school, I just didn’t know anybody, everything was wrong, we’d moved south and the weather was wrong, the vegetation just didn’t seem proper, it felt like we were aliens come to somewhere that didn’t want us and for about six months I think I was lonely and I was anxious and I was sort of defending myself and my family in some weird way from the outside world. And the real problem I think goes back you know goes beyond me, it’s a thing that I see in young people and young men are afflicted by it, is you’re full of this turmoil of emotion you know what with the old puberty knocking on the door or on your underpants in our case ...
AH: But there’s a point of pivot ...
TW: ... you haven’t got a language for all your feelings and I think that was the thing, the rifle was a sort of default language you know an inappropriate ... or not an inappropriate, an insufficient language and I think probably you know some of the roots of misogyny are just ... are in the violent behaviour of men and the mulish behaviour of men is they don’t you know we don’t ... there’s no kind of pathway, no ritualist pathway toward expression of our feelings and so this suppressed rage is you know is dangerous particularly if you know those many men who never grow beyond that slightly infantile state of anxiety and machismo you know the emotional infancy of men is you know is a big problem.
AH: And it seems like there’s a circular obsessive aspect to it too. You broke out of that but you comment on the fact that that’s not possible for everybody. The obsession seems to also translate into obsessions with objects you know the gun as an object. You talk a lot about objects in this book ...
AH: ... and it seems as though for some people objects are very powerful things. What do they mean to you?
TW: Well you know different objects mean different things but in a general sense I think I ... I think I somehow instinctively knew that the material world was meaningful in itself. Again it took me a long time to find a language for that and I was raised in a religious tradition which was you know we had our eyes on higher things. And ... and the physical world wasn't that important, it was all just backdrop to our ... our moral journey. And in a way even though that’s not mainstream thinking in Australia we still have fallen into an idea where we’re not part of nature and the material world is grist you know it’s just the stuff that we use or it’s this background and we don’t notice it. So I somehow think that as a little boy without having read the nature mystics you know the Christian nature mystics and the Asian nature mystics and St Francis and all of that. I’d certainly never read William Blake but I somehow sensed that there was value in the organic world, in things. But to go back to the original thing about objects, objects sort of ... particularly if they’ve ... if they’re associated with events and emotions, they get this kind of sacramental value you know so there's a lot of things I’m not sentimental about but there are some things that I am sentimental about you know I’ve still got the desk ... I’ve still got the desk that I started writing on you know the you know the desk I wrote An Open Swimmer and my earliest stories, I still use it you know it’s a piece of crap, you know?
AH: And that emotional attachment's really interesting, it’s like your grandparents’ car.
AH: Which you talk about again in the book.
TW: Yeah, that’s right, I mean I ... that was a car I loathed, you know? You know I think it was a car in my adolescence where I think it delayed on the onset of puberty, I hated it so much, you know?
AH: What was it?
TW: It was a 1954 Hillman Minx and it was a disgrace to civilisation, it really was. It was like ... it was like y ... I mean ‘cause it was actually ... it wasn’t ours originally, it was my grandfather's. I had four ... like ... unlike you know like most people I had four grandparents but only one of them ever drove a car and he was a bit of an eccentric, my pop, his name was Les. And he always liked you know eccentric forms of transport. For some years he had a Harley with side car and the side car was as big as sort of the gondola of a zeppelin. You could fit the entire family ... and they had seven kids ... the entire ... they’d take ... they go camping in it, you know?
AH: It’s like a circus act.
TW: You could get all the kids in and on it, the tent, the rifles, the fishing rod. Anyway so he ... and he had a Rugby Tourer for a while, it was called the X-ray Rugby ‘cause they had no windows or side curtains but they lived around the road from the repat hospital so they used to go and filch old x-rays and then staple around so you’d be driving through the suburbs of ... riverside suburbs of Perth looking through somebody’s dodgy lung, you know? So I always loved all these stories about you know these mad sort of you know kind of transport and then he goes out and buys a 1954 Hillman Minx in glorious cardigan grey. And it was like a ... it was like driving in a slow combustion stove, it was that aerodynamic you know anyway don’t start me on that. But ... so ...
AH: And you could never get rid of it.
TW: No, no, just ... you c ... so old Pop decided once he finally ... he was the worst driver, geez, he was like Mr McGoo, you know? And when he finally gave up driving or driving gave him up, I think, really, he decided in his great munificence to hand on the car to us and that’s the means by which we became a two-car family. So we had a proper car, a real car, a Falcon you know and we ... but Dad ... any opportunity Dad could to humiliate us by taking us in the Minx, dropping us off to school, you know? It wasn’t just that he wanted a kiss goodbye at the gate ... I mean he’d be in his full uniform, you know?
AH: He was a policeman.
TW: He was a copper, yeah and so he’d pull up outside high you know high school and you know we’d pull up in this you know excrescence of a vehicle and then have to lean over and give the old man a kiss, you know? And I learnt the art of kissing at very low altitude so I could just ... I haven’t got the spine for it now, I haven’t quite ... I’m just not flexible enough to kiss that low anymore but ... so he’d humiliate us and oh geez, I hated that car. But ... anyway, stop me.
AH: It ended up in a paddock, I think, from memory ...
TW: Yeah, we couldn’t get rid of it.
AH: ... but you start to see where the eccentric characters in the novels come from because this is Tim’s life, this is not some story, this is you, this is your family. How did your family and your friends react to your novels? I didn’t understand how truthful your novels were to so many of your family members until I read this book and I thought oh my god, there must have been a few people a bit cranky with you at times.
TW: I borrowed some things here and there.
AH: Some things?
TW: Yeah. There was a ... when Cloud S ... before Cloud Street came out there was a little family petition trying to gag it, yeah. And ...
AH: From your grandmother, no doubt, who lived in a tent.
TW: No, no. No, no ...
TW: See this is the thing, there ... we you know we had all these really interesting people in our family and then there was a generational change where people had gone from you know being ... where eccentric was normal and then they got all anxious and ashamed and embarrassed so the fact that their mother had lived in a tent in the backyard of inner-city Perth for 30 years, that’s a fact of their life and they would talk about it all the time but as soon as I was going to fictionalise it and write about it to the rest of the world suddenly they all got ashamed and angry, you know? Not all of them, just a couple of the more paranoid uncles and aunties.
AH: Surprised they didn’t hit you with a libel suit or something.
TW: Yes. So I’ve been you know ‘cause I wrote the book in Paris and Ireland and Greece and I got home having finished the book and my old man pulled me aside one day, he said oh there’s a little bit of a ... when we had a blew it was called a bubble ... it was a bit of a bubble about the book but don’t worry about it, I’ve got it sorted. Dad’s idea of sorting things was just to apply passive aggression to everything just by not doing anything and so no, it ... but mostly I think ...
AH: Your father probably had ...
TW: ... really the biggest, strongest responses I’ve had are people who are imagining themselves into a book and they’re not there at all, I’ve never heard of them.
AH: Everyone wants a piece of you now.
TW: I don’t know, I think it’s nice if I can you know increase people’s imaginative life but I don’t want them angry about it.
AH: Well it’s interesting that it’s your father who you know looked after the bubble, fixed it because it seems like he had the most to hold you accountable for. He pops up in one way or another in pretty much every one of your novels and it’s interesting to me as a writer’s device that you know in a book there’s always got to be drama, in a story there has to be drama otherwise it isn’t a story, it’s just a photograph, isn’t it? Really ...
AH: A verbal photograph. It seems to me that your stories revolve around the prang, there’s always a prang, right? And again I didn’t realise that your own story, your personal story revolves around a prang, the prang was pivotal in your growing up.
TW: Yeah, no, that’s true, I mean I realised probably just before the reviewers that there was this pattern in my work. I couldn’t say it as interestingly or as with a ... air of disappointment that they would deploy to point it out to the general public but you know that there were always these sudden collisions and turnings and often quite literally you know prangs. And I sort of ... and I’m interested in the way that we’ve developed this mindset where we think that we control reality but are you know at this moment in history you know in the rare position of being able to control more of our environment than any people before us. The mistake we’re making is that we think we control all of it and that we’re not at the mercy of it. But having said that I’m interested in the way that you know despite all our preparations and our insurance and whatever else, you still get T-boned by life you know unexpected things happen to you all the time.
AH: And that happens ...
TW: And I guess the origins of that are simply in you know road trauma. I mean we were a family who were quite literally in accidents. When we’d go to the police picnic at Christmas time I ... it was funny remembering this but we all kind of organised ourselves tribally or institutionally. You’d show up and all the families’d be there on their blankets but those families over there, they’re in Vice and these families over here, they’re in Liquor and Gaming. And we were in Accidents. I mean there was the General Traffic mob you know Traffic you know we’d be that subset but ... that set but there was a subset of Traffic that were Accidents and they were the ... it was really weird so oh yeah, you’re licking your ice-cream. Where are you again? Oh yeah, we’re in Accidents, you know? So you know when you climb up on Santa’s knee and he’d be a detective with an outfit on and he smelt of whisky you know what do you want from your you know what do you want for Christmas, little boy? I want a BSA like my dad, you know?
‘Cause the old man was a traffic cop, he rode a beeser and his job was to literally you know be the first one at a prang and to be there to help pick up the pieces and ... but you know so that was a kind of a work culture and we absorbed all of that sort of stuff but then suddenly we you know we were ... he and we were in the script literally you know Dad went to work one day, I remem ... you know when my dad went to work it was ... when you were five it was pretty impressive, you know? He’d get ... he’d have his leathers on, his gaiters, his gauntlets, his aviators and he’d creak out like a Teutonic knight, throw his leg over the beeser, kick it into life, pull the kick stand out, give it a bit of a fang in the driveway under the aluminium carport you know and just beef it out, you know? And our hearts would swell with pride you know there goes our dad, the warrior prince, you know? And one day he didn’t come home and he'd ... he’d been knocked off his bike by a drunk driver and was put up against a factory wall and he was terribly injured and some ... think somebody saved his life on the road by giving him an emergency tracheotomy. Somebody later said it was with a hollow Biro but I think that was for my benefit to make it sound like destiny. But no, he was suffocating ‘cause his chest was crushed and so then you know suddenly our life was completely different.
We woke with you know he didn’t come home for a long, long time and I just got to the point where I thought all the adults were just ... they just lacked the guts to tell us that Dad was dead, you know? He was in a coma for a long time then he was in ... when he finally did recover we weren’t allowed to s ... you know weren’t allowed to see him. And when they brought him home he was a ... sort of an effigy of my father. He’d lost a lot of weight, he was you know his injuries were pretty severe. The most vivid thing I remember is they plonked him down in the loungeroom in this big white chair that arrived and some of his colleagues and ... came around and I didn’t know it was my father. There was a sort of build-up and then they bring this scarecrow in. And they’re all saying oh you know they’re all trying to be jolly and cheerful and Johnny, you’re looking great you know John, John, John and I was trying to take their cue, the way you do when you’re a kid and just trying to believe and here’s this person breathing through his neck and there was this big plaster and it was like a spinnaker, it would puff out, it would go in and whistle as well, puff out ‘cause it hadn’t quite grown back over but my you know you can imagine my mum, she’s got a five-year-old boy, a three-year-old boy and a six-month-old girl on her hip and the terms of her life were completely redrawn, you know? So that ... yeah, that was a ... and there was a you know there was this one in a series of you know violent interventions into our life that probably you know shaped us as a family and they ... I think they shaped my character and ...
AH: They certainly shaped your writing ...
TW: Yeah, I’ve ...
AH: ... I mean at least one of your novels is a complete autobiographical telling of this story. But there’s that point at your life when you were at university where another prang intervened and the way you tell it, pushed you without reservation into words without looking back and that’s a pivotal moment because it’s brought you here in front of all of us today so can you just describe that for us?
TW: Yeah, I mean I ... unsurprisingly as a little boy I was a bit phobic about hospitals. And I knew that hospitals were ... early on I thought you know hospitals were sort of factories of miracles, that’s where they brought babies from, you know? But I hated visiting hospitals ‘cause Dad had to keep having surgeries after you know I remember going to visit him once years later when he had a bone graft and I don’t know if you remember what an orthopaedic ward was like in the 1960s but it was like a charnel house, I was just ... I couldn’t ... I’d go into this sort of tunnel vision of hysteria pressing against my mum’s leg and it was like the longest walk of my life. Anyway I won’t bore you with that one but ... so I didn’t like going into hospitals and I just would get weird about it and then one day I woke up and I was in one, I ... I’d gone ... I’d been to an 18th birthday party ... this is all you get in Australia by way of rites of passage. Everyone else has these kind of elaborate cultural rituals of you know working your way up to manhood, we have the 18th where you go out and get pissed, you know? And I went to it very late so I didn’t even get a chance to get drunk. I think the keg was mostly warm foam by the time I got there. But someone gave me a lift home and that’s all I ... I don’t remember anything else but we somehow ... this boy put his Valiant through the front wall of an Anglican girls’ school so it was our little blow in class warfare so ... and the only thing that had stopped us ... this is like a classic Australian cliché ... the only thing that stopped us from going through the caretaker’s house and into the inner sanctum of girlhood you know on the other side was the concrete base of the Hills Hoist, I’m told.
Anyway I woke up in hospital and I wasn’t the same person that I was the day before, I ... I had this plan that I was ... I knew that writing was a dud gig you know the commonsense view you know the adult view, the wisdom on the street was that you weren’t ever going to make any money out of writing and I thought well that’s fine you know I’ll take it as a vocation, I’ll write my o ring out and then to finance that I’ll ... I’ll just do physical work, you know? I’m a strong lad, I’ll work as a brickie’s labourer or I’ll work on the deck of a crayboat. But after my prang two hours chucking pots around on a crayboat or a morning heaving bricks around a building site would have put me in bed for a fortnight you know so I had no plan B and I thought well you know you’ve been telling yourself you’re a writer since you were 10, it’s time to shit or get off the pot, sorry to be eloquent about it but it was that you know I was 18, you know? I was much less civilised than I am now and I ... it was like stop being a pretender you know I had ... I had to either ... in my mind ... in my own mind, go ahead and be a writer and give it everything and not deviate in any way or take the king’s shilling and do what your mum wants you to do and go to teachers’ college and be a primary school teacher. You know ‘cause my parents had never finished school. The fact that we got through high school and then got into university, I mean it was a sort of a miraculous thing and then to have your oldest child say hey Mum, I’m going to be an artist, I’m going to write books just ... yeah, just have been bewildering for them, you know?
AH: Look, there’s your working class ethic, though, here you are.’
TW: Yeah well I did have a workmanlike you know tradies’ kind of approach to it ... but without the FM radio. But with quite a bit of plumbers’ crack in the day but ... but no, I just went hard and I think it was the ... there’s a kind of a theme in my life where I was spared the panoply of choices that paralyses most of us. In our you know life that we’re leading at this end of civilisation many of us paralysed by a serfit [? 36:11] of choices, there's just so many things. Whether you’re at the restaurant and you’re trying to figure out which frickin’ salad dressing you’re supposed to choose from or all of that or just do your life choices there is a kind of a mercy sometimes, even if it’s applied violently as it often was in my life of limitations being imposed upon you that then liberated you from lots of other choices. So it was another form of tunnel vision for me, I just ... I was propelled into writing. Some of it just out of bucking yourself up out of self-pity, some of it out of gratitude that I was alive and so yeah, I went on and you know I ... in the next two or three years I wrote the better part of three books, I you know I ... yeah, I think I wrote three books as an undergraduate or at least as a ... and I wrote 10 books in my 20s.
AH: Which is an extraordinary level of productivity, an extraordinary achievement for any writer.
TW: Well yeah, I mean I used to hate it when people said that but now I look back and I think well yeah, that was ... it used to irritate me when I was ... in fact it was here the first time somebody ... I came here in the early ‘80s ... not in this venerable room but in a ... at some writers’ festival and somebody introduced me as ... it has to be in a foreign language, of course. You either have to be the wunderkind or the enfants terribles which is all just really exotic ways of saying that you’re a frickin’ weirdo. But you know you got to ponse it up with someone else’s language. And it used to really irritate me ‘cause I didn’t feel that weird, I didn’t feel abnormal. I was just working hard like ... as I thought other people worked hard. But then ... when ... and also I was going ... having to go to these festivals and my colleagues and peers in high-end literature as we saw it were all my grandparents’ age so I was generationally displaced, shall we say. So you know and they were at the normal age of production. So looking back in middle age I have to concede that they were right, I was a weirdo.
AH: Or a bit of a shit or something.
TW: It was ... I was odd you know I was the wrong age to be you know having the backlist that I had, it was odd.
AH: Well lest everybody think that this book is only about Tim and his internal musings, which of course there’s a lot of that and it’s pretty interesting, I think, it’s quite an eye-opener in some ways there's also ...
TW: Talk bringing your own x-rays, yeah.
AH: Yeah. There’s quite a bit in here too about your external thoughts and you’ve just brought that up thinking about where we’re going as a world and you’re well-known for your environmentalism, I think people are well accustomed to knowing the good fight that you’ve put in for Ningaloo and that is very much worth a read but there’s some other interesting sections in here including a section on faith which for people who are interested is again very interesting because it’s quite an Australian journey that you’ve taken. But you also bring up what has become the C word in Australia, the C word that we never say and that’s class and I wonder if you might read just a little out of that chapter.
TW: Alright, if I can find it.
TW: Starting in all these ...
AH: You’ll get the chance to answer questions ... ask questions at the end too ...
TW: And I get a chance to evade them so it works for all of us. It’s funny to think you stay in all these hotels and you pick up bits of paper and the odd receipt and I think I didn’t buy that. Usually for a bookmark. Anyway I won’t read very long, I promise.
During an interview in 2013 a journalist pulled me up for using the C word. Class, she asked with a lifted eyebrow, what do you mean? I found myself chewing the air a moment. Had I said something foul? Something embarrassing to both of us? In discussing two of my fictional characters in terms of the social distinctions that separated them it seemed that I’d broached a topic that wasn’t merely awkward, it was provocative. There was a little charge in the atmosphere. I tried not to put it down to the fact that I was talking to an employee of News Corp. The reporter in question was a person of independent mind whose work I admire but she was after all in the employ of Rupert Murdoch whose editors and columnists maintain a palace watch on what they like to call the politics of envy.
A blur of competing thoughts went through my mind. Was she being ironic? Or did she really expect me to defend a casual reference to class relations? Was I being paranoid or was this the kind of clarification necessary in the new cultural dispensation? Did the nation’s drift to the right mean that we all needed to be a lot more careful about our public language lest we expose ourselves to the charges of insufficient revolutionary zeal?
Maybe I’ll just ... shall I read another paragraph? Or is that ... Aussie.
After a mortifying beat or two I made a clumsy attempt to explain myself and soon saw that whatever the journalist’s own thoughts were on the matters of class the fact that she’d challenged me on my use of the word meant that she’d somehow done her duty. To whom she’d fulfilled this implicit obligation wasn’t immediately clear beyond my initial twinge of anxiety. I didn’t seriously think that she had a proprietor or even an editor in mind when she baulked at the offending word. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that a Fairfax journo or a Radio National presenter might well have posed the same question from a similar felt sense of obligation. In itself it was of course no big thing, it just caught me unawares. All the same it was a signal of the way in which something fundamental has changed in our culture. In calling me out over my use of the C word the interviewer was merely reflecting the zeitgeist. I should have anticipated it. I’d been making assumptions about our common outlook that are plainly outdated.
And later in the essay I talk about just having said something like that, sometimes you feel like you’ve taken a poo in the municipal pool, you know?
AH: This to me was the most surprising of all of the things that you had in the book because I thought to myself well number one, when did we as Australians ever become afraid of the word, class? Clearly I don’t work for Radio National, I work for Triple 6, it’s a different ... different beast, right? But also ...
TW: I hope it’s underfunded. Is it?
AH: All the time, you have no idea. Anybody, donations you know at the door on the way out, half for Tim, half for me, we’ll split it. But it ... to me it’s interesting because your novels read to me as being completely imbued with class, with the interest that comes with that. Who you are in society, what your position is, that’s where so much of the tension and the interest comes from. Why do you think we suddenly don’t want to acknowledge that in Australia? What’s it all about?
TW: Oh you know I think it’s you know we’ve had a generation of this kind of experiment from ... where we stopped thinking of ourselves as a society and started thinking of ourselves as an economy. And that you know that’s ... we’ve had long enough of that now to see how it goes and I don’t know, I ... I’m not a specialist but by and large it’s looking like it’s not working that well.
AH: But it seems to have come through every level of what we do ...
AH: ... like we don’t talk about what you do anymore as a craft, which it is, writing is a craft, radio is a craft, these things ... and to have a craft once upon a time was an honourable thing but now craft is like another C word, a dirty work, it’s a profession, it’s a calling, it’s ... goodness knows what it is. That twisting ...
TW: You’ve either got to monetise it or romanticise it ...
AH: That’s it.
TW: ... that’s what it is and ... yeah, it’s a really odd thing because I’ve been travelling this week and meeting people you know or mostly they’re in the dark ... I can see you people. It hasn’t helped much but it’s nice to know that you’re actually there but you know meeting strangers in the dark and they ask you ... you know given that you came from you know barely better than white trash working class suburban coastal Perth and your parents never finished school how do you end up being you know a literary writer with pretensions to art? You know how did you get here? There’s a pretty simple answer, it’s called taxation. You know the Australia that I grew up in, people were used to paying tax and they were used to expecting that the tax that they paid, which was much higher by our current standards, was going to go to fundamental things and I’m the product of a state school system, properly funded. My sister runs the education system in Western Australia and she went to the same school as me.
And I think we forget the cost at which we’ve become the sleek sadomonetarist, as Bob Ellis used to say, modern version of our former selves. We’ve been trained to pay less taxation, resent the tax that we pay more than we ever did and to see our public institutions pillaged, emaciated and traduced and so schooling, health you know all the fundamental things and we you know where we sold this idea of a trickle down economy. The only thing that trickles down in truth is trouble but the great news is there’s money in trouble because there’s money in locking people up who fall foul of the law because they’re poor and they’re marginalised and they’re from violent backgrounds and whatever, there’s money in that, there’s money in locking people up behind barbed wire, whether we offshore or we onshore them. If people think that’s working go team but ... so ...
AH: But is there a danger?
TW: ... but that’s about ... we don’t talk about class ...
TW: We don’t talk about class because it’s supposed to be no longer an argument, we’ve taken that out of the equation you know we’ve divided people into there’s lifters and leaners, you know? And the people who’ve told us that we’re you know that we’re lifters and leaners are usually the biggest leaners in the country, you know?
AH: I couldn’t possibly have an opinion but is ...
TW: This is the wrong town to be saying things like this, isn’t it? Sorry.
AH: That’s alright, they’ll never let him leave Canberra.
TW: Blame that breakfast I had at the airport.
AH: Is there a danger in the romanticism then of novels like yours because as long as we have the beauty and the romanticism of that life, the simple life in the novels to read on our shelves at home that we can afford to ignore ...
TW: You mean me sentimentalising a former life or ...
TW: ... nostalgia or do you mean romanticising the art business itself?
AH: No, no, romanticising that life and if we ...
AH: ... have evidence of it continually in our houses that perhaps it’s not gone and we can afford to turn a blind eye to the changes that you’ve just described if we don’t happen to like it.
TW: Yeah and look, I’m not sentimental about my working class origins, there was a lot of things about being working class I don’t miss you know I mean I did wake up one day and I was a bourgeois. That took a bit of swallowing but I came to terms, I you know I don’t miss the sort of reflective tribalism you know I don’t miss the limitations that were imposed on me that I didn’t you know but ... and so I don’t you know I’m not on any project to sentimentalise working class people, I’m just interested in all kinds of people and it’s interesting to me that people would somehow talk about ordinary people as though they were ordinary you know every person is interesting, every ... and if people see you know ordinary ... I just don’t see ordinary in a negative light but ... anyway I won’t keep banging on about that.
AH: Well one last question then, because I’m sure that there are people here who are dying to ask you questions as well ...
TW: Or just dying to go home but ...
AH: I doubt it very much. Coming to do this I had the privilege then of being about to revisit your books, I made myself you know you go back and you reread them and you think you know I ... because I just want to re-familiarise myself with the work but ...
TW: Which is a really nice way, you had to swot up a bit. Yeah, that’s right.
AH: Dead set because I didn’t pay enough attention the first time ‘round you know what ...
TW: I did find out if you had a dog first just in case you said that a dog ate your homework but ... so ...
AH: No, just a husband. Yeah, I know, they’ll eat ... yeah.
TW: But I know that your broad beans are under attack.
AH: They are, earwigs you know can br ... earwigs, broad beans, yeah ...
TW: Things you find out backstage. Can’t say I don’t do my homework.
AH: I also found out about the things that Tim doesn't have and one of them is food, the other one I won’t tell you. When he’s on tour. The thing that struck me about those beautiful, beautiful books is that when I read them you know 10, 15, 20 years ago, they ... the subject matter was a lot closer to the life that we lived and now those ... some of those books like Cloud Street seems to me that you could hand that to a new generation of people for whom it could be incomprehensible. How do we connect that Australia to the Australia that we have today? Is that a writer’s job? Can you do that?
TW: No, I think that’s a historian's job, I suspect but you know all idea ... most ideas evaporate into the ether unless they have a beast of burden to carry them and that’s story. Whether you’re talking about philosophy or theology, ideas about sociology, the only way you can test those ideas and bring them to life for other people is to you know saddle them up with story and ... so you know my hope is that our historians and ... keep telling our story and keep us from forgetting you know and you know art is a part of that project of remembering but I don’t think it’s necessarily central. I think art doesn’t need an excuse to exist, it doesn’t need any utilitarian purpose. I think you know if something I’ve learnt from the trades class that I came from is that art is one thing you know I’m in the business of creating useless beauty and I don’t shy away from that. As a citizen I feel obliged to do useful things but that doesn’t seem to ... I don’t feel that’s my role as a writer but I hope that we continue to tell each other stories and to sort of chip away at the kind of ossification of forgetting that we sometimes fall into.
AH: Mm, thank you.
TW: No worries.
AH: Enough from me but a little more from Tim if we could.
TW: Are we getting the windup?
[End of Recording]