Tim Winton is arguably Australia’s greatest living writer. Born in Perth in 1960, he has written novels, short story collections, non-fiction, books for children, plays and television scripts.
He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice — for The Riders (1995) and Dirt Music (2002) — and has won Australia's Miles Franklin Award a record four times — for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1991), Dirt Music (2002) and Breath (2009). His latest novel, Eyrie, which I reviewed yesterday, has just been shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin.
I was fortunate enough to meet him last week during his whirlwind tour of London. I asked him lots of questions about Eyrie, which you will be able to read on Shiny New Books at a later date, but I also asked him about literary prizes and his much-loved classic Cloudstreet...
Can I take you right back to when you won your very first prize, The Australian/Vogel Literary Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of 35) for your novel An Open Swimmer. What did it mean to win that award?
It was huge. Until that time I’d published a few short stories in magazines. I was still a student. It was my first novel, I’d written most of another novel before I submitted it to the Vogel prize. Winning meant it got published, as that was part of the prize. It was on the front page of The Australian newspaper. I got this phonecall, at my mum and dad’s house, from Sydney telling me I’d won the prize and told ‘you need to come to Sydney next week’. And I got all offended. 'What do you mean? I can’t afford to go to Sydney, how can you ask me that?' I hadn’t even figured out that they were going to pay. I’d never been in a plane before, never been in a taxi, never been in a hotel. I was 20, just going on 21. It said on the invitation ‘lounge suit’. I didn’t even know what that was, you know. I didn’t own a suit. A mate of mine who’d just got a job as an insurance clerk lent me his beige flared suit.
This was 1981, right?
Yea, we were still still living the 70s obviously. In fact, we’d hardly even begun the 70s in 1981! [Laughs] I climbed into that suit with my cowboy boots on and went to Sydney. So you go to this thing and there are all these people from the newspaper and TV, all these people you’d seen on TV for half your life. Don Dunstan, the ex-premier of South Australia — a real visionary, gay, interesting, progressive guy — did the speech and presented the award, and he was wearing a batik suit. Have you ever seen that famous photograph of him in his pink shorts with the long white socks? I was a bit bummed out he wasn’t wearing the pink shorts but we did get a batik suit and this enormous bouffant hair that he had. [Laughs]
He was a bit of a character, wasn’t he?
Oh, absolutely! And he had an amazing tan. But, anyway, so, there you are, in this room, and all this stuff happens, and then they expect you to get up and give a speech. And I just said [tiny voice] ‘thanks’. And the thing goes on for so long. And Robert Drewe was one of the judges and he was sort of one of my heroes, so you go off and have drinks with Robert Drewe and his wife, Candy, who was, and still is, a big journo. So by the time you get back to the hotel room the papers are already out because we’d partied half the night and there you are in your beige suit, looking startled, on the front page of The Australian. So it was a huge thing. It was the second year of the prize, it was a big novelty. It was like the sky broke open and a hand came down and picked me.
Obviously since then you’ve won loads of awards — you’ve been shortlisted for the Booker twice, won the Miles Franklin a record four times. How important are prizes to you?
They’re not personally important. Some of them now and again appear to be professionally useful. But I kind of dread the whole prize season. People seem to see literature through the lens of the prizes. When Eyrie was published in Australia, [the media said] I was beginning 'the hunt for his fifth Miles Franklin prize'. It never even occurred to me that I was mounting my challenge to further my record. It’s just absurd and a bit obscene really.
I’m sure you don’t sit down with a blank piece of paper and say, right I’m now going to write my next Miles Franklin winner!
Yea, that’s why I’m doing it [sarcastic tone]. I’m doing it [writing] for money; that’s how I make my living. But I’m not stupid, I’m not a gambler. Prizes are a chook raffle and most of us know that. And I guess the more of those you win, the more you begin to realise there’s a lot of raffle and not much chook.
Can I ask you about Cloudstreet? That’s arguably your best known/most loved novel and it’s one that most people hold close to their hearts. Why do you think so many people love it?
I don’t know why. People, I think, mistakenly seem to have settled upon the idea of the book as some kind of sunny, sentimental romp. But when they go back and read it they often say they didn’t realize how dark and sad it was. After they’ve finished it and got a certain distance from it, there seems to be a fuzzy memory of what the book’s about. So I can’t really account for why people love it.
It was [an] instantaneous [success]. It was very modestly published, right in the guts of a recession of the 1990s, when the publishing house was going down the tubes. It came out as a paperback, just 4,000 copies, and for some reason it sold before the end of the week and it kept getting reprinted and it just went nutty.
I wonder whether people love it so much because it was published during a recession, that they identified with it because it was a kind of comfort to know that we’ve been through these dark times before?
Interesting… maybe. Of course, I wrote it during the 1980s, when we were all riding high. So that wasn’t my intention, but maybe the timing was right. But if the book hadn’t gone on and continued to sell, then that would be a perfectly reasonable explanation, but it still sells like a new book — even today. It put my kids through school; it kept the wolf from the door for years. I’m fond of the book because it’s kept us afloat, but I don’t know if it’s my best book or not — I’m not the person to judge that. I enjoyed writing it and I don’t think it's like many other Australian or even European books. It’s a peculiar beast, something I didn't quite realise until I had to go back and re-read it for the first time in 20 years to do the TV adaptation...
I'd like to thank Tim Winton for graciously giving his time to talk with me, and to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for helping to arrange the interview. Note that I will post a link to the Shiny New Books piece when it goes live.
NB: The picture is from Wikipedia reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.