Lauren Smith: In the review that opens "Grimmish," Michael Winkler writes a book ostensibly about the hapless Italian-American Boxer Joe Grim's visit to Australia in 1908 to 1909. Grimmish spirals into knottier regions including motivations behind the author's attraction to the Grim story, problems of fictionalised history, how a contemporary writer handles gap-riddled historical narratives, and most of all, the rich realm of pain.
Good evening, everyone. A very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia and to this author talk. I'm Lauren Smith, Assistant Director of Publishing here at the library. And as we begin, I'd like to acknowledge Australia's First Nations people, the first Australians as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and give my respects to the elders past and present, and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Thank you for attending this event, either here in person or online. Coming to you from the National Library Building on beautiful Ngannawal and Ngambri country.
Tonight, we will be talking about a book with an interesting story as the first self-published book to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, one of the most significant literary prizes in Australia. I read Grimmish quite soon after starting here as publisher, just beginning to wrestle myself with why we feel convicted to tell particular stories, how we find the truth, or at least something truthful in a vast archive, or what to do when there isn't actually quite enough to go on. It was very good timing for me to have an example of someone tackling that problem with creativity, wit and bravery.
The book "Grimmish," bears a connection to our current exhibition, "Grit & Gold: Tales from a Sporting Nation." That exhibition... and this wonderful publication, uses a rich collection of books, magazines, paintings, drawings, photographs and memorabilia to celebrate Australia's sporting heritage and its impact on our culture over the years. Joe Grim was aspiring partner for both Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns prior to their fight for the world's heavyweight championship in Sydney on Boxing Day in 1908, which drew a crowd of 20,000 people. We've got some great items in the exhibition related to that event and to other 20th century boxing history. The exhibition Grit & Gold is on the show here until the 28th of January.
Tonight, we have the author of Grimmish, Michael Winkler. He's the Author, Co-Author and Editor of numerous books and won the Calibre Essay Prize for "The Great Red Whale." He's had short stories and poetry published in various literary magazines. Aside from Grimmish, he has written widely on sport, including collections of great Australian sporting quotes and speeches published by Penguin and a biography with A-league football star, Archie Thompson. Michael will be in conversation tonight with Beejay Silcox. She's a Writer and a Critic, the Artistic Director of Canberra Writers Festival and Chair of the 2024 Stellar Prize. Please join me in welcoming Michael and Beejay to discuss Grimmish.
Beejay Silcox: Good evening, Canberra readers. Can everyone hear me? Get that right? Canberra readers and the bookish voyeurs lurking on the live stream. Hi, mum! My name's Beejay Silcox and I am a book critic, and that always sounds a little bit like a confession or maybe a sort of diagnosis, some sort of terminal diagnosis because when people learn that you're a book critic, they kind of assume that you have a pretty... Okay, can we hear now? I'm just gonna test my sound. That's better? Aha! Now I'm on.
When people learn, you're a book critic, they sort of assume you have an incurable mean strike, that you have a smug punitive little twinkle in your eye and what you love to do on the weekends is sort of go through and cut down all Australia's aspiring tall puppies like a great big cultural lawnmower, or take pot shots at Dan Brown. That couldn't be further from the truth. I don't have a problem with Dan Brown. Some of my best friends have read copies of Dan Brown. More importantly, I'm not looking for knits to pick, I'm searching for awe. What I love about being a critic is what I love about being a reader, and that is the thrill that comes from reading the opening pages of a book and knowing that you hold something special, something extraordinary, something alive, something that will shake your certainties. And as a critic, I get to share that feeling. I get to spread it. I get to sort of light the conversational match. And the only thing more significant or magnificent than finding one of those cage-rattling books is when the book finds you instead. And that's what happened with Grimmish, Grimmish found me.
You might have heard the literary fairytale when no Australian publisher was bold enough to take on his book, Michael Winkler published it himself. After more than 50 rejections, he became the first self-published author in 65 years to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. That's an extraordinary story, but my part in the story, or my experience of the story was far more personal, which is that an essayist I deeply admired sent me an email saying, "I've written something. I have no idea what it is, would you read it?" And I did. And as an early reader of Grimmish watching that story unfold, watching the fire catch has been one of the great joys, the great privileges of my critical career.
Grimmish is one of my favourite Australian novels of all time, perhaps my favourite Australian novel of the last decade. And I remember still how it felt to read those opening pages, so gloriously grotesquely, irrepressibly alive, a squirming paradox of a book that was as gentle as it was violent, funny and feral, and earnest, a novel of pain and solace and how easy it is to confuse the two, a hymn to the sublime human mess. I read Grimmish in a single sitting late into the night and then immediately started it again to try and work out what fuck he'd done, how he'd managed to do it, what was this thing? And I'm still not sure, and I don't think Michael is either. So let's find out. Please join me in welcoming my favourite Australian author, Michael Winkler.
Michael Winkler: I might just go home after that.
Beejay Silcox: Well, you can if you like.
Michael Winkler: I'm not gonna top that, yeah.
Beejay Silcox: Well, you did say that this might be one of the very last times you ever talk about Grimmish.
Michael Winkler: I think so, yeah. And yeah, to have the opportunity in that case to talk about it with you is pretty special because in the Mutual Aberration Society, I first read Beejay's criticism almost, oh, a while ago anyway, and was always amazed by the depth of your insights. And yeah, I think we got in touch at some point at the-
Beejay Silcox: I wrote you a fan letter about The Great Red Whale.
Michael Winkler: You did, which was just the most lovely thing to receive. I think you were living in the US at that time.
Beejay Silcox: Well, if everyone sends me a book as good as Grimmish when I write a fan letter, then that would be excellent. I wanna start by saying, when you first wrote to me, you said, I dunno what I've made, you called it an "unruly beast." I wonder now, having watched it refract through the vision of other readers, do you have a sense now of what it is that you made?
Michael Winkler: What a wonderful question. I actually, I reread it overnight to prepare for today because I hadn't actually read it for a while, and it was a little bit different to how I remembered. There is something that there's a risk of being disingenuous when I talk about it now, because the position that it was written from was a position of outside of them, a position of literally not knowing any Australian writer or not having any connection of having decades of attempting to write fiction and not succeeding in having it published.
And all of that is true, and that is the substrate that formed what's in the book, but that isn't my life now, you know? In the last couple of years I've met so many wonderful people, and in fact, discovered that to my surprise, that the Australian writing community is an extremely supportive and generous place. I'd expected people to be more competitive and difficult. But most of my experiences, the overwhelming majority of my experiences have been of generous kind people who wanna see better books and who want other people to do well.
Beejay Silcox: That's a really lovely way to come to it. But do you think then that the part of you that wrote this book is gone?
Michael Winkler: I mean, it was real and it existed, but it's not who I am now. And the book... It's actually more research heavy than I remembered. I thought that there was more imaginative stuff in there and yeah, rereading it, I was surprised sort of 50% of it cleaves relatively close, actually not that much. Some of it cleaves to the known story and the known record of what was going on.
Beejay Silcox: So there might be a great place to start for readers who aren't familiar with the book, but a sense where we did start with, who is Joe Grim and when you first encountered him?
Michael Winkler: Yep, so Joe Grim was a real person, and I read about him when I was a child. I dunno how old I was, six or seven, or eight. And I was interested in the idea of this person who in the whole history of boxing had the greatest capacity to withstand physical abuse. And I think as a child, particularly a sort of, you know, twitchy, vulnerable, thin-skinned child, I found this a very appealing idea. The idea that perhaps you didn't have to go through the world feeling pain or experiencing, whatever. Anyway, I was aware of him.
In my late teens, early 20s, I had an interest in boxing, not as a participant, but as a spectator and a reader because it's the richest literature of all sports. And Grim is a known figure. It's acknowledged that he's the person who could withstand the most pain or the most physical punishment. And then maybe 10 years ago, I happened to see, probably while I was spending time on the National Library of Australia's Trove website, where I have spent hundreds, thousands of hours probably on Trove.
Beejay Silcox: This is not a paid endorsement.
Michael Winkler: No, but it is the best. And I suddenly realised that he'd come to Australia. So in 1908 and '09, he spent 18 months in Australia, had nine fights that we know about, or that I've been able to verify through Trove. And then he left, went back to the US, ended up in a, what they've called an asylum with probably his brain, a complete jelly.
Beejay Silcox: How did learning about that, so he, you know, he comes to Australia in 1908. He's here effectively for a year for a bunch of bouts. And begins the year as a Prize fighter and ends the year in Perth in an insane asylum.
Michael Winkler: Almost, yeah, pretty much, that's absolutely right. And then from Perth, he caught a ship back to Melbourne and then Sydney, and tried to sort of drum up work and then had one final fight in Charters Towers in Queensland.
Beejay Silcox: How did, learning about that trajectory from being the most invulnerable of men to being sort of involuntarily kept against his will, how did learning about the end of that story change your relationship with Joe? 'Cause he'd been a bit of a childhood superhero.
Michael Winkler: Hmm... A typically astute question. I mean, what that provided was a dramatic arc, you know? So in terms of the novel, it gave light and shade. And so suddenly there's this pathos, if not bathos of this man being held in the asylum in Claremont, I dunno if you know the building?
Beejay Silcox: It's just around the corner from where we went to uni.
Michael Winkler: Okay, yeah. And it wasn't through the National Library, but I was able to dig up the actual handwritten records from his time in the asylum. And yeah, I mean, we can see then what an enormous cost there was in his chosen profession.
Beejay Silcox: When you talk about finding that as a narrative arc, what did you think you were writing about? Were you writing about boxing? Were you writing about pain? Were you writing about men? Can you ever separate them?
Michael Winkler: You can separate them, but certainly in this book, they're intertwined. And part of the book's conceit, I suppose, is that it's a combination of nonfiction and fiction. But then there's also a few elements of memoir where I try to explain the fictional decisions that I made. And one reason to do that is because you're writing about someone who existed and he's not alive anymore. And to the best of my knowledge, he died without having children. And I haven't been able to trace any family of his, but it was a human and I'm taking enormous liberties by inventing a personality for him and doing things with his backstory and so on. So I thought it was only fair to, on occasion, show different elements of my life that might inform the fictional decisions.
Beejay Silcox: So a kind of radical accountability.
Michael Winkler: Radical accountability. So, you know, there's an undercurrent, I think, throughout the book about mental health and that, you know, relates to the great, one of the two great narrative threads of my life, I suppose, would be the complexities of living with ongoing mental health issues. And so, yes, to have him there in the asylum, obviously, that reflects my experiences, but also my greatest fears, and perhaps something that I feel I've got something I can add it to the narrative about.
Beejay Silcox: What I'm fascinated by is the point at which you start embroidering and the archive stops, and fiction starts, what responsibilities fiction has in that space, in a sense, or even the delicious liberties that it can take?
Michael Winkler: I think that you, if you're talking about someone who existed, it limits those liberties and that deliciousness, you know? I think suddenly there is an overlay of, there's a moral imperative there that you have to be aware of. Not everyone does, maybe, but I felt that. Yeah, whereas if it's stuff that's purely from the imagination, there can still be moral overlays, but they're different.
Beejay Silcox: Is there something important that fiction does that the archive can't do?
Michael Winkler: Well, there's a Janet Malcolm quote that is in the book, and she says that... Janet Malcolm, the great US journalist and author, and in her book on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, she said something about the idea that "It's only in nonfiction that we don't know what happens." That in fiction, it's circumscribed and it's dictated that is the truth, the reality of it. So it's in nonfiction that we are left with the unknowing, and perhaps we can potentially feel further from truth.
Beejay Silcox: That's a wonderful one.
Michael Winkler: That's me, not her, that last bit.
Beejay Silcox: Yeah, yeah. She's very smart. What I'm fascinated about with that is the extent to which then, by making your workings available to people, this is how I thought about it, this is how I am picked it. You create in a sense what feels like a deeply experimental novel, but actually, potentially in your head was just honest.
Michael Winkler: It's honest about what it's doing. So, you know, if there's tricks, it's honest about them.
Beejay Silcox: Yeah, so why the talking goat?
Michael Winkler: Well, it's a trick.
Beejay Silcox: Everyone's favourite part of the novel is the swearing, talking goat.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, it is, it is.
Beejay Silcox: Are you surprised at how much love there is for the talking goat?
Michael Winkler: Yeah, you know, the talking goat just happened and people love it so much. And Beejay, as you well know, it's so many of these decisions are mechanistic. So I had two people stuck in the desert, and I was trying to get them from Ballarat, I think, to Perth. And it's gonna be really, really boring if it's a dialogue, I needed the random third element.
Beejay Silcox: I would've used the Indian Pacific, but you've invented-
Michael Winkler: Yeah. And originally it was gonna be a donkey, but the donkey, of course, occupies a very particular place in the Australian mythology. I spent a bit of time out in Central Australia over about a decade, I suppose. And there's a lot of feral donkeys out there, a lot more donkeys than goats. But, and one reason is because Jesus rode a donkey. And so the very sort of religious communities in Central Australia don't want the donkeys to be disposed of. So you went up with a lot of donkeys. So it was gonna be a donkey and then I thought of the way McCauley book, and I thought of Simpson's donkey and so on. I thought, oh, I probably shouldn't be a donkey. So I became a goat, yeah.
Beejay Silcox: When did he first trot into your?
Michael Winkler: Pretty early on.
Beejay Silcox: Pretty early on?
Michael Winkler: Yeah.
Beejay Silcox: Your book joins a quiet, luscious tradition of boxing culture that sort of an apparatus of culture that sits around the sport itself. And, you know, Norman Mailer writes about boxing, their incredible essays about boxing, their incredible films about boxing. Is there that kind of rich tradition in Australia? Do we have a tradition of boxing writing and boxing culture as much? Or is this something external to us?
Michael Winkler: Yes, certainly not as much. Let me quickly flick through my mental teledex. Grantlee Kieza, who has written a lot of books, wrote sort of the definitive history of Australian boxing, but that was 20 years ago. Peter Corris, the crime author, was very interested in boxing and wrote a history of... It might've been aboriginal tent boxing, maybe, I think. There probably are really prominent Australian boxing books that I just suddenly can't think of, but I don't think it's been a big tradition here.
Beejay Silcox: It's not hard in sense to come up with a narrative for why boxing's such like, such a rich space, right? It's sort of a metaphor waiting to happen, or in fact, it's an embodied metaphor. In your head, were you thinking of it as a metaphor when you were writing about it? Was it a metaphor from pain from the beginning?
Michael Winkler: I was interested in the idea of pain more than I was interested in the idea of the boxing. Because while boxing has the richest literature, it's also got a lot of really bad writing. The metaphor can be too obvious. And it's been so overused in a lot of movies and books, and so on, as well as those amazing things.
While I was looking into the fact that Grim had been in Australia, and I thought it might be a nonfiction book, and I was doing that research, and there wasn't enough that I could find, I was simultaneously trying to write some essays about the topic of pain, which is something about which there's been remarkably little written over the years, given its omnipresence as something that every human experiences. And it's bizarre now that it wasn't obvious to me, but it took me quite a while to realise that the two projects were one project and that I could actually put them together and use the Grim stuff to get, have the discussions of pain that I was interested in.
Beejay Silcox: Was there, when did you realise that I'm fascinated from a craft perspective? Did you have a kind of light bulb like, oh, I'm an idiot, but-
Michael Winkler: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly like that, exactly. It seems so glaringly obvious that I've been doing these two things in parallel thinking they were completely separate projects.
Beejay Silcox: That's really fascinating to me.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, well, I never talked to anyone about anything I'm doing, and this is probably the problem, if I actually shared this with anyone, they'd go-
Beejay Silcox: Yeah, but then there wouldn't be a fucking goat, I would've just stuck 'em on a train and they would've been there in minutes. How do you write the body? So I think that's a really important point. Pain is so ubiquitous, it's so embedded in the human experience, and yet we have such a dearth of language for it. We dunno how to talk about it. And you know, Virginia Wolf complains in the '20s about how we have a language for love and a language for everything else, but we can't describe what it feels like to have a headache.
Michael Winkler: That's right. You're absolutely right. She says English can give us the innermost thoughts of Leah and the tragedy of Hamlet, but yes.
Beejay Silcox: Can't describe a headache.
Michael Winkler: That's right.
Beejay Silcox: How did you do it? And maybe just before you talk about it, if you wouldn't mind indulging us and just read this one passage, and this is the point at which, it's a tiny passage, and it's not... The last time I saw Michael Reed, he ended up being asked to read a whole passage about masturbation, which was wonderful to see how good it was. It's just a paragraph, but I'd love you to read this. And this is the point at which the care on when on end, when I was reading it.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, so this is right near the beginning. "Red of slit eye. Red of slashed eyelid. Red of tongue sliced this way and that. Red of screaming echoes in cudgelled ears. Red of gashed nose. Red of welt and rent and tear. Red of broken gum and tooth and mouth. Red of leering gaping eyebrow. Red of flayed forehead. Red of intercranial bleeding. Red of torn nostril. Red of smacked cheek. Red of swollen jaw. Red of ripped lobe. Red the river from roaring red core spewing redly through red-slapped mouth. Red mask. Red veil. Red the abuse, abuse.”
Beejay Silcox: That still gives me absolute shivers-
Michael Winkler: Oh, Beejay-
Beejay Silcox: It does. It does.
Michael Winkler: Something that people, I think, misunderstand about boxing is how dreadful it actually is viewed up close. Because even things like that Scorsese movie, "Raging Bull." which, you know, one a lot of plot it's, if you're actually very close to a boxing ring or sometimes even to boxing, sparring, the things that it does for the human body, grotesque and quite shocking. And there's something sanitising about the distance of the spectator, which doesn't answer your question at all, which was to do with writing -
Beejay Silcox: It actually answers my next question.
Michael Winkler: -about writing the body and writing about pain. One of the many difficulties of writing about pain is that pain is often inarticulate. So if something was to happen at this moment and your arm was to break, you would not be speaking in full sentences. There would be a how, there would be... And that's not terribly rewarding as a literary experience, you know, to just read.
Beejay Silcox: Or to write she howls-
Michael Winkler: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's right. There is something also almost unconscious about extreme pain where you lose the capacity to think properly as well as to articulate. So it's a interesting writing challenge.
Beejay Silcox: What it feels like when I hear that passage read is like punches. So there's the, you know, there's the boxing runs through it, but it also feels like the heartbeat that pain can have in your body, that sense of the throb of it inside of yourself, it can feel like that, the kind of relentlessness of it. And it's almost like, rather than describe pain, one of the things you do is describe injury, but give it the cadence of pain. That's what it feels like.
And one of the things you write in the book, and in fact I have the quote because I love it so much, was from your full review at the beginning, you say, "There is likely to be a readership, however small that enjoys what Winkler is attempting to do. And finds within these covers something sincere and worthwhile. Sometimes it is a question of timing, the happenstance of the right reader meeting the right book at the right time."
When I read your book, I was recovering from one of many spinal surgeries, and you know, I'm not a man, I'm not a boxer, but this book spoke to me more than anything I've ever read about the erosive quality of pain and the extent to which you feel like in fronting up to it, a part of you gets battered every day. And I just think that's quite an extraordinary achievement to have in a book.
Michael Winkler: Thanks, Beejay. Yeah, look, some of the most gratifying feedback has been from people saying that it captures something of their very personal experiences, a woman who runs marathons wrote to me about linkages that she could feel to her own experiences. And yeah.
Beejay Silcox: I wondered about that. Who the other readers that are by happenstance, the right readers at the right time. Who have they been?
Michael Winkler: Yeah, there was a man who was going through, particularly gruelling blood cancer treatment. And yeah, he found connections and wrote me a, yeah, got in touch with me, it was lovely.
Beejay Silcox: And one of the other erosive qualities is art making, because what we do is we, you know, we bash our heads against the wall to make something. And it isn't an accident. I think that you've written a book about a man who bashes his head against things while you creatively bash your head against things. Does this, we sort of talked about it at the beginning, but does it feel like a hymn to the sort of the exquisite pain of artistic failure?
Michael Winkler: Yeah, pretty much. Certainly that was the conceit of the book, I suppose. And that that's something that, as I say, has now changed. And it's kind of a little bit weird to talk about it 'cause I get to come to beautiful things like this and talk to you and have people read it. But certainly that had been my experience of trying to make art, yes.
Beejay Silcox: But also, I think there's something beautifully empowering about reading that I think every art maker who does read this book, comes to the passage inside of it where you say, you know, I've wasted so many countless hours of my life doing something so stupid, it's absurd. And we all come to that passage again and again, I think because there's something gratifying about knowing you're not alone. You're not alone in that feeling of trying so desperately to pin something to the page and you can't, but feeling compelled to, feeling desperate to, if anything, it's by failure, I don't mean to suggest that you are one, but that it captures that commonality of feeling that artists have.
Michael Winkler: Well, we've only got the one life, haven't we? And it's interesting how we end up using it. So if you're a writer, you actually can use your allotted span of years sitting on your own in a small room doing something at the start of this year, along with I think every single person in Australia, I came to Canberra to have a look at the Crest of the Campbell exhibition, which was just-
Beejay Silcox: Extraordinary.
Michael Winkler: Extraordinary, so extraordinary. And then there's a small video that goes with the exhibition, and you can see that she spent her allotted days, 16 hours a day, 18 hours a day there, you know? Working this far away from herself. And we've ended up with these exquisite works, but yeah, that's the life, that's been the reality of her life. I'm grateful that she's done that as I'm grateful to all the writers who sit in dark rooms and the musicians who, you know, slave away and practise for six hours a day. But yeah, there's a lot that goes on in the substrate.
Beejay Silcox: There is. And boxing might not seem like the obvious metaphor for it, but when you do read it, it does feel deeply perfect.
Michael Winkler: Ah, and I mean, really top boxers these days will only have one fight a year, two fights a year, but they'll be training every day and doing extraordinary feats every single day in order to be ready for that one thing.
Beejay Silcox: Is that why boxing, you think, it's perhaps spawned more kind of cultural engagement than almost any other sport? I think in terms of films, in terms of written material, boxing is the thing that takes up, interestingly enough, the most artistic space.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, I think a lot of men see themselves in that role, who probably shouldn't, you know? Should perhaps interrogate why they think that that's them. Yeah, I mean, it's so extreme.
Beejay Silcox: Yeah. Yeah, I come from a position of deeply disliking watching sport, but loving sport art because the inbuilt narrative of it is so beautiful, even though I find the hours of watching the thing itself quite tedious which is a very paradoxical way to approach it. But actually your book is quite paradoxical, and I'd like to talk about those. The fact that it's a critique of violence, but a deeply violent book. And it's a deeply embodied book, but actually it's about the mind. Were you sort of, did these paradoxes feel like something you had to sort of solve in a sense? Or were they the sort of engine of it?
Michael Winkler: Yeah, it was really important to me that it was violent. And it's a strange point to make, but something that didn't properly convey that depraved, the depravity, the baseness of that violence, I thought risked veering into pornography and glorification, you know, I wanted people to understand what it must have been to be him, and-
Beejay Silcox: So that's a really interesting distinction. So you didn't wanna step back far enough so it looked like glory, you wanted to be close enough that it felt grotesque.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, it's abject. I mean, it can also be viewed in other ways. Some people might see it as heroic, I don't, but so much writing about sport, but particularly about combat sports sanitises the violence or glorifies the violence.
Beejay Silcox: 'Cause it fits into a battle narrative, right? You love it.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, and so it was actually really important to me that the reader has a chance to go, "Oh wow! Okay. So that's actually what it would've looked like to watch that” or perhaps felt like to experience that.
Beejay Silcox: There's also something about the grotesqueness of watching someone be beaten down again and again, and getting up and again and again, that sort of speaks to a kind of Australian mythos. And I wondered if you might speak about that because this book tackles many things, but one of the things that quite explicitly tackles is the way we speak about our country and the violence in the heart of it. And I was really, I would love to hear you talk about how you decided to do that?
Michael Winkler: Hmm... I had a look through the Grit & Gold exhibition here at the National Library. And it just shows again, how we've co-opted so many sporting stories into our national narrative, whether it is the Bodyline series and using that as an emblem of where Australia sits with Empire in the 1930s, or how we view it now. Whether we look at, there's two beautiful photos in there of Ash Barty and Evonne Goolagong Cawley and whether we, and another photo there of Kathy in 2000.
And that can be used in a range of ways, and one of the ways that it can be used is by people who want to talk about opportunity and hard work. And First Nations people can achieve all these things, which can be used to obscure things as well as to illuminate things. Yeah, we'd love to see ourselves as a great sporting nation. I think a lot of nations see themselves as great sporting nations. And I don't think it's unique to us, but the whole sort of Gallipoli idea of the heroic failure, the Bodyline series, not withstanding, and things like Les Darcy and far like, I suppose notwithstanding, we do still tend to prefer our sporting victories in the narrative rather than our sporting defeats.
Beejay Silcox: We do. And there's a way to look at Grim as both, again, the paradox of the book. You can look at the success of, you know, never knocked down this extraordinary myth around him. And then we anchor it with what happens in Claremont and then the rest of his life.
I wonder now... I have so many questions about this book and we've spoken so much about it. I'm trying to remember what I haven't been able to unpick with you. How you feel about him having written the book and stepped back from it, and contributed to the way that people start to engage and think about him.
Michael Winkler: Yeah.
Beejay Silcox: Who is he to you now?
Michael Winkler: Yeah, it's a fascinating question. It's been fascinating for me to observe that like he started out as a quirk or a hobby, or a strange thing. And now over time, I actually feel quite tender towards him. Quite... Not protective 'cause he didn't need protecting except perhaps from himself. But I feel... Yeah, not admiration, but not even exactly empathy, a tenderness, you know? A tenderness, I'd like to give him a hug. I don't know that was the sort of physical vocabulary that interested him all that much, but yeah, that's how I would.
Beejay Silcox: That's a lovely way to think about him. How do you think about the boy version of you that loved him?
Michael Winkler: Well, that was the interesting part of the writing of the book, I suppose. And I probably feel kinder and gentler towards that boy. And hopefully, through the writing of the book have resolved of a few of those things.
Beejay Silcox: That's a really interesting-
Michael Winkler: In public.
Beejay Silcox: In public, yeah, that's right. I remember talking to you one early in the piece about it and how trying to talk to women about the book. And they're like, oh, it's a book for boys. And you said to me, I fucking hope not. And the extent to which this book kind of arrived almost accidentally 'cause she worked on it for a long time. It arrived at a time when masculinity was under the spotlight in a very different way than it had been in the decade prior. And your book clicks into that in a way that's not necessarily intentional, but sort of arrives at this cultural moment and ends up being, you know, at a time when we use words like toxic and noxious, and things to talk about men. This is a book that's quite, is both critical and tender, and I think tender is the right word. How has it been watching this book be part of that conversation?
Michael Winkler: Certainly, it took a little while for women to find it. I mean, it really, it did look like a book about boxing. And it is a book about boxing, you know? It's nothing but boxing and plus a swearing goat, you know? That it's... But hopefully, what it's actually is about other stuff and how we endure and how we cope with the things that life throws at us. And also about what it is in men, you know? I mean, there is violence in men and that's not necessarily a terrible thing, you know? I think it's harnessable, some of the things that seem innate in men. And we now understand gender as a spectrum and all of that, and yet so many men who I know and love still have fightingness in them that so many women that I know and love don't. And whether that be nature or nurture, or whatever else, I don't know. But I think if we can somehow work with that, rather than simply saying it's beyond the pale.
While, you know, if you look at the issues in society, men are at the heart of all of them. And I'm well aware, you look at the statistics for family violence and so on, men are almost always the perpetrators, but men are also often the victims, usually at the hands of other men. And so, you know, 75% of people who suicide, I may have made that stat up. I think it's 75, 97% of people who are in Australian jails. It's as best we can work out a slightly higher proportion of people suffering from mental illness. There's a lot of work we need to do with men. And part of that might be trying to deal with whatever that unruly agro thing is that seems to come from having testosterone in your system.
Beejay Silcox: Which is why I feel like this book is as what I talk about as being as gentle as it is violent, is that I feel like this is a book that acknowledges that the cruelty of it in men itself that is saying, you know, it both critiques, you know, which you don't refer to as toxic 'cause we hadn't had the language for it, but toxic masculinity critiques it as well as sort of putting its cruelties on display. Looking now with the, you know, we're sort of couple years into the journey of Grimmish, what do you hope comes next? Because one of the things that was miraculous about this book was that it was, you know, it's a book with a swearing goat that's deeply meta-fictional that we, you know, you couldn't describe what it is that you'd done. It's really difficult to put it in a bookstore, and yet it's had this literary fairytale, which is extraordinary. What do you hope comes next for Australian publishing?
Michael Winkler: Oh, Beejay! Yes, I have strong views on Australian publishing. I have strong views on publishing worldwide, but I would just... Yeah, we pump out a lot of books and we pump out a lot of books that are okay. We pump out a lot of books that are quite good. We pump out an enormous number of competent books. And I'm not seeing publishers taking risks on wild stuff. Michelle de Kretser says that "Competence is the enemy of art."
And I would like to see, I don't think the economics stack up, but yeah, somehow publishers, whether they're small publishers, whether it's self-publishing or people publishing online, or small divisions in great big corporate publishing houses, taking a little bit more of a punt on stuff that's a little bit wilder.
I mean, one of the peculiarities of this book is that no one saw it before it came out. So it didn't go through an editing process. And I really believe in editors. I've actually decided to stop reviewing Australian fiction, but one of my ongoing things is feeling that books aren't edited sufficiently rigorously and given the time they need to really become what they can be. But if this book had been through an editing process, would people have encouraged me to make it less wild and woolly maybe, you know? So I'm here for it.
Beejay Silcox: And you could never take the goat out.
Michael Winkler: Yeah.
Beejay Silcox: We might open up for questions for Michael if anyone has questions, I always have more.
Audience member 1: Really quick comment, which is-
Beejay Silcox: Oh, wait a second. We're just gonna give you a mic, Alice.
Audience member 1: My quick comment is thank you for writing a book about writing that doesn't actually centre a writer necessarily, that you've got a boxer at the heart of it. Thank you for that. My question is a superficial one about the book. It is an incredibly handsome object, and I know that you had, as a self-published author, you know, a fair degree of control over it. Can you talk to us about this beautiful cover? I mean, it's a very handsome typeset. The decisions that you made in terms of headings and footnotes, and what were your reference points for those?
Michael Winkler: So that's a question from one of Australia's best publishers. Not not one of Australia's bad publishers, one of Australia's most wonderful publishers. So when I decided, I really didn't wanna self-publish it, I'd self-publish two small niche nonfiction books. And I really, really didn't wanna do that again. And when I decided with a very heavy heart that I would self-publish this, I thought the least I could do is invest in making it look as good as it absolutely could be. And so that I wouldn't feel as embarrassed offering it to people.
And so there's a guy called Peter Long who I had met decades ago and had lost touch with, and I got in touch with him and he is a genius, and he did the cover design and all of the internal design and layout. And that was like really, really important to me. And just as you say, Alice, makes such a difference, yeah.
Beejay Silcox: Do we have any other questions for Michael?
Audience member 2: Where does the title come from? It's a great title.
Michael Winkler: Yeah, it wasn't called that until very late in the piece. And so simply it's a play on his name and it suggests that it's only an ish version of his actual story, I suppose. And it perhaps also describes the level of violence and unpleasantness.
Beejay Silcox: I always thought it was a play on grimace.
Michael Winkler: Did you?
Beejay Silcox: Yeah.
Michael Winkler: Hmm, it's not, but from now on it is, I'll claim that.
Beejay Silcox: Any other questions?
Audience member 3: Obviously writing historical fiction, you've written this amazing character of Joe Grim. Do you see the character that you've written as separate from the real person or in your mind is this, you know, the one entity?
Michael Winkler: Sorry, did I see it as separate from?
Audience member 3: As separate people. So Joe Grim, the reality that's written about in newspapers and history books versus the Joe Grim that you have crafted and you know, breathed life into as a creation of yours. Are they the same in your mind or are they two separate people almost?
Michael Winkler: Yeah, that's a great question. They're the same in my mind because I've spent so long with it, but I'm still intellectually aware that it is completely, and I try to make this explicit in the book that it's completely a set of decisions that I'm making about him. So I was working a lot from newspaper reports from that time, and you had to factor in the racism of the time, which towards Italians was quite virulent at that point. You had to factor in just journalists getting things wrong. You had to factor in journalists trying to drum up a good story and make things good. You had to even factor in him telling lies or other people telling lies on his behalf to try to build up crowds for the next fight. So there's already this sort of very similar to problem there.
And you know, there were certain things that I sort of intuited about him that I didn't include in the personality that I created, for example. And it mentions that in the book there's, I found one mention in a US newspaper of him having a gambling problem, but it just didn't interest me, if I'd gone down that path, it would've taken me away from the actual thing that interested me, which is him as this eater of pain.
Library staff member: We have one online question.
Beejay Silcox: Oh, fabulous.
Library staff member: From Martin. Okay, so you've made some comments about the state of Aus Lit. What are the books that we should be reading right now? What are the books that inspire the awe that Beejay referred to at the beginning?
Michael Winkler: I'd probably defer to the artistic director of the Canberra Writers Festival/Chair of the Stellar Prize to answer that one.
Beejay Silcox: Well, the Chair of the Stellar Prize has their hands tied and that I'm reading for the Stellar at the moment. And I can tell you that you will find out what I think is really exciting next year when we announce the winner of the Stellar Prize. I think Australian women are writing extraordinary things at the moment. I think young Australian women are writing extraordinary things. And if you need a sort of barometer of what's exciting, you should absolutely look at the long list and short list of the Stellar Prize as a good place to start, not because I've judged it last year in judging it this year that has nothing to do with it. But no, I think Australian women are doing just extraordinary things.
I really love what some short story writers are doing at the moment, and I think it's a deeply underloved form. I think there are some really extraordinary short forms out there that's something I would love to put in a bit of a thing for. I've just read a wonderful story collection by Laura Jean McKay, which was just fabulous. So I think there's just amazing short story writers in this country at the moment. Firelight is a new one by a First Nations-
Michael Winkler: John Maloney, is it?
Beejay Silcox: Yep, really fantastic. Just really alive. And there are things that you can do in the short form that you can't do in a novel that's really exciting to me. So that's where I'd start, what about you?
Michael Winkler: A couple of weeks ago, I chaired a panel with Josephine Rowe, Ben Walter and Katerina Gibson, who are all writing or have all written a short fiction. And I think those three are a great place to start for the most extraordinary writers in the country. Puncher and Wattmann who publish Grimmish, a publisher who have got a really interesting list and they've got some pretty interesting authors writing for them at the moment.
Beejay Silcox: Australia is actually very lucky in terms of its indie publishing. Like we have a far more vibrant indie publishing scene than you would expect. And our small publishers are doing pretty extraordinary things like Magabala Books that did Deb Dana's book, which is just an extraordinary, not like it's a sort of, again, between forms. She doesn't like to call it a memoir. It's more of a hymn to place. That's a really extraordinary book. So yeah, Affirm Press, they're doing amazing things. Puncher and Wattmann are doing amazing things. They're great indie publishers in the country.
Michael Winkler: And they're gonna name the Nobel Prize on Thursday and I would love to see Alexis Wright get it.
Beejay Silcox: Yes, big... Yeah, that would be my pick too, please. Yeah, absolutely deserves it too. Deeply deserves it. That would be exciting.
Before we finish up, we are here because of the National Library's amazing exhibition on sport. If we didn't have the resources that this building and others like it have, would we have this book?
Michael Winkler: No, no, no. Not remotely, we wouldn't have this book. You wouldn't have a lot of books. And I mentioned the Grit & Gold exhibition and I think pretty much the first thing you see as you walk in there is a lithograph of Johnny Day, the Child Pedestrian. And just around the corner from that is a sketch by Adam Lindsay Gordon. And both those things are in Robert Drewe's recent book, "Nimblefoot." He, you know, I think that book started with that lithograph and the character ends up working at Adam Lindsey Gordon's stable.
No, I mean, this is the deep soil, you know? This is the stuff that has to compost. This is the organic substrate where all of the Australian imagining comes from. And it's possible to sit in a room and imagine something and write it, and it have no connection to anything. And some of those books are great, but so much of Australian literature and obviously, Australian nonfiction is rooted in the work of places like the National Library and especially Trove, which it's so great that it is that the funding's come through, but I would love to see the funding expanded. I'd love to see every publication that's ever been in Australia digitised. And the equity that comes with that accessibility means that you don't have to live in Melbourne or Sydney, you can actually live in small towns in regional Australia and have the same access as everyone else if you've got an internet connection, or you can come here and access the collection and-
Beejay Silcox: It's as close as we have to democratise in the Australian imaginary.
Michael Winkler: Yes, exactly, Beejay.
Beejay Silcox: Yeah, no, I'm passionate.
Michael Winkler: What you said. Yeah.
Beejay Silcox: I think that's a really amazing point to make, and we were sort of joking outside before we came in that my knowledge of the Australian boxing scene before Grimmish came entirely from Colleen McCullough, "The Thorn Birds" that, you know, Frank, the Prize Fighter. So the link we have between the way in which we understand this country and narrative is so entwined. But I think understanding that when you take resources like this away, you basically cut Australian creativity off at the knees.
You did say before that this might be the last time you talk in public about this book because it's been on a grand world tour and now, we're at the end of that journey. A couple of questions to end, how does it feel to be at the end of it?
Michael Winkler: Great.
Beejay Silcox: Yeah? You done with it? Like you ready to let Joe Grim go?
Michael Winkler: I have to because otherwise, I won't move on to whatever comes next, but that doesn't mean that I'm not incredibly grateful for every opportunity that I've had. And it's just, you know, I mean, it was sold out of two bookshops initially, one in my suburb and one that my friend runs in a small country town. And yeah, here I am in the National Library and I've just been over in Edinburgh in the UK talking to people about it. And it's out in the US and Canada. And it's coming out in Spain in translation in a couple of months and, you know-
Beejay Silcox: Fantastic.
Michael Winkler: -it's incomprehensible really.
Beejay Silcox: And if you wanted to send a piece of advice to an author who feels like Joe Grim who's getting knocked down again and again or banging their head against a wall, what would that be?
Michael Winkler: I don't know, Beejay, that's interesting question because potentially, the best advice for me 20 years ago would've been give up, you know? I would've might've had a better 20 years because yeah, everyone says, don't give up, keep going. I don't know, I don't know. Is that true? Try to create something in whatever your endeavour is that doesn't exist elsewhere, and that feels indispensable rather than mimicking what's already there.
Beejay Silcox: I think that's a wonderful way to end because I think you have created something that is indispensable. I will use my last chance to sing from the rooftops, that I think that this is an extraordinary book, and it has been, and I mean it, the great honour of my critical career to be involved even the tiniest bit in the journey of this story. Thank you very much for coming today, but thank you for doing that, for having the courage of your convictions for this book.
Michael Winkler: Thanks.
Beejay Silcox: Please join me in thanking Michael.
Lauren Smith: Hello, I just wanted to also say thank you for the sincerity and the quality of that conversation. I really appreciate it. The image that kept coming to my mind, a very imperfect metaphor was the deliciousness of pressing on a bruise when it's new. And I thought about that as a tiny imperfect metaphor for the quality that you were talking about, the ennobling quality of interrogating our pain. It was really beautiful conversation. Thank you. Very generously, Michael has agreed to sign copies of the book, so there are copies for purchase in the bookshop, which is still open. So please linger, get your copy signed and say hello. Thank you so much for attending here in person and also online. We'll see you again sometime soon.
Join Michael Winkler as he discusses his latest book Grimmish with local Canberra author Beejay Silcox.
Pain was Joe Grim's self-expression, his livelihood and reason for being. In 1908-09 the Italian-American boxer toured Australia, losing fights but amazing crowds with his showmanship and extraordinary physical resilience. On the east coast Grim played a supporting role in the Jack Johnson-Tommy Burns 'Fight of the Century'; on the west coast he was committed to an insane asylum. In between he played with the concept and reality of pain in a shocking manner not witnessed before or since. Award-winning writer Michael Winkler braids the story of Grim in Australia, meditations on pain, thoughts on masculinity and vulnerability, plus questionable jokes into a highly creative haymaker.
About Michael Winkler
Michael Winkler is a writer from Melbourne, Australia, living on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. He is the author, co-author and editor of numerous books, and won the Calibre Essay Prize for ‘The Great Red Whale’. His journalism, shortfiction, reviews and essays have been widely published and anthologised.
About Beejay Silcox
Beejay Silcox is an Australian writer and critic, and the recipient of Australian Book Review’s Fortieth Birthday Fellowship. Her literary criticism and cultural commentary regularly appears in national arts publications, and is increasingly finding an international audience, including in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and The New York Times. Her award-winning short stories have been published at home and abroad, and have been selected for a number of Australian anthologies.