An interview with Tim Winton

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 Book Prize twice — for The Riders (1995) and Dirt Music (2002) — and has won Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award a record four times. Kim Forrester, a fellow Australian, met him on his recent whirlwind tour of London to chat about his latest novel.

Tim WintonCongratulations on Eyrie, your 11th novel, which has already been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award [to be announced on 26 June]. Can you perhaps explain what the story is about?

It’s about a man in freefall; he’s fallen out of love with life, he’s lost faith in what he does, he’s lost faith in himself, he’s lost faith in humans. He’s been an environmental activist all his life but he’s burnt out. He’s lost his job, his marriage and his house, and he’s hiding in a seedy high rise in the unglamorous end of town. He’s like [Herman Melville’s] Bartleby, the Scrivener, and is refusing to take part any more — and then he bumps into a woman, Gemma, and a boy, Kai. For all his self-pity and despite all his resistance to them, he recognises that these people are more powerless than he is and they are in jeopardy, they need help, but he’s quite reluctant to do anything about that.

He’s quite damaged, isn’t he? He’s angry, increasingly reliant on alcohol and goes to his knife drawer a lot — god knows what’s in there — and is popping the odd Valium, Panadeine Forte, Mersyndol…

Yes, the drawer seems to be a sort of pharmacopeia. It’s full of all sorts of prescription drugs. Like any man, he goes to the doctor when he’s forced to, the prescription is made out and he mostly never takes the pills. But he’s kept them around and when his life falls apart he thinks, ‘oh, look, I’ll try that.’ And he’s also ill. He’s undiagnosed, but he doesn’t want to deal with it.

I know you should never try to medically diagnose characters, but if you were his doctor what would you say?

I’d say he needs a scan! [Laughs] Or he needs to stop drinking and clean his life up. But I think his blackouts and everything else can’t really be explained by his alcohol consumption. He gets plastered, but he doesn’t drink until he blacks out; he’s not that kind of alcoholic — he’s too functional in that sense. So I suspect he’s got a brain tumour. But I didn’t want to over-medicalise it and make it a distraction.

You don’t fully explain Keely’s back-story in a succinct paragraph or chapter. Instead, you provide a steady drip feed of clues so that the reader has to figure it out for themselves. Was that deliberate? 

Yea, because if you go for the full frontal approach then it becomes kind of procedural and people get too hooked on the actual detail and then it becomes a kind of conventional story — it’s a bit more like television. If things are still a little bit murky and a bit like his world, then you’re in his head and it’s more about what he’s experiencing as he experiences it rather than being drawn into some kind of forensic portrayal of the past. It’s more psychological. And also you’re trying to get the reader to read quickly enough so they don’t get it all at once. If it’s slow and plodding and the person feels like they’re getting every proper detail it’s just another excuse not to keep reading.

Can you perhaps explain a little bit about the relationship between Keely and Kai? The relationship between him and Gemma is a bit more explicable, but a relationship between a middle-aged man and a 6-year-old boy is a little less straightforward, and perhaps more dangerous, isn’t it?

In retrospect I didn’t really think about it at the time, but two generations ago Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring, came up with the perfectly valid idea that you can measure the health of an ecosystem by the state of its birds — that you wake up one morning and there are no birds singing because the ecosystem has collapsed. There’s a social corollary to that: you can measure the health of a society by how its children are doing. And Kai’s one of those lost children who’ve grown up in disordered families with addiction and trauma. He’s seen too many things and all the men in his life have been malevolent. His mother’s in prison and his grandmother’s been the constant force in his life. So it was interesting — and I only find out these things as I write — to put Keely in a lift with this kid and his grandmother on his way back from the shops [to see what happens]. He doesn’t want to deal with the kid’s attention because he’s uncomfortable with it. If you put a man and a child in a lift or a balcony or a room together and they pay each other any attention at all, you’re already alert and alarmed. Keely knows that. Despite the fact Keely thinks of himself as a failure and a screw up, the little boy instinctively recognises something benign in Keely, that he’s a good person. In a sense, he chooses him. It’s that strange wisdom of children, if you like. He assesses him in the ride in the lift and has somehow decided by the end of that, ‘I choose you; I choose you to rescue me, to look after me, to look out for us.’

There’s a lot of symbolism in this book revolving around birds: Keely takes Kai to see an osprey; Kai issues some dire warnings about birds falling from the skies; even the title — Eyrie — is the name of a nest for a bird of prey. Again, were you conscious of that?

Not at all [laughs]. I don’t think, ‘right, let’s put some symbols in this book!’ But Kai does see this image of all these birds dead on the beach and then he makes some kind of connection that one day the world’s going to end. We all have this realisation eventually; he’s somehow sensing the approach of death and Keely thinks this kid’s intonations are about Kai, but as we discover later in the book Kai’s somehow forseen Keely’s death. But I guess if you live up high in a vertical environment, at bird’s height, and you have no garden, then birds are the only connection you have with nature.

I’ve never been to Fremantle, but I got a real feel for it from the way you describe it. How important is place in this novel? 

Place is always important to me. The setting is what generates the characters, but there are people who can set their story anywhere. I’m not one of those people.

What about the time period? It’s clearly set in 2008 as most of the world is going into economic meltdown — Keely’s sister is a banker flying all around the world trying to sort out various issues — but Australia’s economy didn’t suffer. Is Australia’s prosperity, on the back of the mining boom, something you wanted to explore in this novel? 

Yea, it’s a peculiar time in history and it’s still a peculiar time. We were the only economy that didn’t have a recession, unemployment was only about 4% and we were in this strange position of unprecedented prosperity — a very small population making lots and lots of money. It’s absurd that you can make $150,000-$200,000 driving a bus in the Pilbara! And making that kind of money does strange things to people.

But that prosperity doesn’t come without collateral damage in the sense that it creates a peculiar moral blindness that comes from being just so successful that you get a kind of tunnel vision. As Keely dyspeptically says, we confuse good fortune with virtue, as though we deserve it, as though it’s all from good management that we’ve woken up on the world’s biggest deposit of iron ore, coal and diamonds and whatever else, as though we planted it. The down side of all of that is that everyone thinks that everyone is in the same position. But the big mining boom has also produced an underbelly of dysfunction and misery — there’s been a massive boom in amphetamine addiction, disordered families, children who are abused and neglected. In a high-rise building like Keely’s you can put all those people together — there’ll be the yuppie doing the reno[vations] and will have an ironic take on their seedy 1960s flat, and there’ll be other people who are just there on the pension because it’s a welfare-subsidised space. And everyone’s in there together and it’s inescapable.

In a horizontal suburban environment of wealth and luxury — not that different to Jo’burg except the gated communities aren’t armed — you can be two doors from someone and never know who they are. But in a vertical environment you don’t get that cordon sanitaire. Putting Keely in this building, in this situation, was a way of trying to pick over this strange conundrum of this rich, smug, brittle culture of prosperity where everyone’s obsessed about the economy as if the economy is the only register of a health of a society.

It’s interesting that Keely has gone from having it all — a high-flying job, a lovely house by the river, a Prius in the driveway — to now living as he does.

He’s gone from the top of the heap, and despite the fact he owns the flat, he’s crashed out of the major league. But granted all that, he’s still more powerful  and in a position of more privilege and power and mobility than the people around him. The trajectory of the story is about him coming to some kind of moral accounting about that: if there is something you can do, you have to do something. It’s indulgent to do nothing.

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Kim has reviewed Eyrie in our Fiction section.

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