Author Tim Winton: 'If there’s no trouble, there’s no story'

We speak to the award-winning Australian writer about the dark characters that drive his novels and how he feels ‘duty bound’ to defend the earth

Tim Winton. Photo by Hank Kordas
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Tim Winton's Cloudstreet is a scintillating saga about two families thrown together and finding common ground in "a big, old, rundown eyesore" of a house. Published in 1991 when the author was 31, it has the distinction of being his breakthrough novel and his most famous. For many, it also has the honour of being the great Australian novel. It isn't an accolade Winton takes seriously.

“I still can’t understand why that book worked,” he tells me. “It’s a big, baggy novel. It doesn’t have many conventional ­characters and it isn’t conventionally punctuated. I certainly didn’t set out to write the great Australian novel. I was just enjoying myself and seeing if I could get away with it.”

'Unapologetic about being an artist'

Winton has continued to get away with it, and deservedly so. His varied output – novels, plays, short stories, children’s books – has earned him popular appeal and literary acclaim. He has won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award four times and has been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize. In 1991, he was made a National Living Treasure. He knew at the age of ten that he wanted to be a writer. However, he could have been steered into doing something else.

“I came from a family of tradespeople. You honoured labour and the artefact. I had to somehow match the sensibility of the artist with that of the artisan. I’m unapologetic about being an artist, but I’m also in touch with my working class origins.” Winton’s novels unfold in prose that is both smooth-planed lyrical and rough-edged visceral. All but one play out in the wilds of his native Western Australia. “The books always start with place for me,” he says, “and then the people bubble up.” Many of those people are underdogs and black sheep who have been dealt hard knocks.

“That’s literature, isn’t it?” he says. “Broken people. If there’s no trouble, there’s no story. Whether it’s the more civilised problems of divorce or adultery in the Bloomsbury novel, or it’s Huck Finn and Jim trying to make their way down the river, or it’s a character in Faulkner trying to fight their way through the fog of history and the toxic manners of the South – it’s all people trying to negotiate trouble.”

On his new novel

Winton has come to London from Down Under to promote his latest novel. Like much of his work, The Shepherd's Hut begins with an upheaval: teenager Jaxie Clackton comes across the crushed body of his violent father. Fearing he will be blamed for it, and desperate to be reunited with the love of his life, he packs up and heads out across the vast backcountry's harsh saltlands – stopping only when he encounters a defrocked priest whose dwelling happens to be "refuge as much as exile".

It is an exhilarating tale of friendship and survival, one powered by a character so ­vividly realised that he doesn’t so much bubble up as spill over. This time around it wasn’t place that came to Winton first.

“I started with Jaxie’s voice and just followed it,” he reveals. “I was fond of this foul-mouthed, racist, sociopathic urchin. In the first draft, I wrote from the perspective of some other characters, but then I thought I was being evasive and just bottling out. I realised it had to be in Jaxie’s mind, and I had to be brave enough to try that on.”

It was a gamble. The ­character’s raw, abrasive ­vernacular and tough, uncompromising outlook is not for the faint-hearted. “You wouldn’t give him a lift or have him in your house,” Winton says. “And he was in my life for two years!” But the more time we spend in Jaxie’s company, the more we champion him. “The book is about the odds of surpassing your own past and exceeding the world you’re from. The world he is from is constrained. He wants it to be better for this girl that he loves. He wants there to be room enough in it for some tenderness or decency. Once you realise there is more to him you start to buy into his yearning,” Winton explains.

Finding inspiration 

Jaxie's voice is an arresting mix of crude diction, broad slang and warped grammar. Equally vivid – and savage – is the landscape around him. "Once you go to the interior of Australia, or even along the coast, it gives you an ­impression of savagery," the author admits. It is no coincidence that Winton's literary heroes include landscape artists such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy. The city rarely features in Winton's work. The closest we get are the forays into Fremantle from the ugly high-rise at the heart of his ninth novel Eyrie – and yet, as the author argues, "even then the natural world is leaning in."

His only novel to be set outside Australia was Booker finalist The Riders, which charted a father and daughter's frantic journey across Europe. It was a book he never planned to write, but after prolonged stays in Ireland, France and Greece, he found them "strong places which live in your mind."

Winton capitalised on his status as an outsider looking in to delineate his ­protagonist’s struggle. “If you’re going to make somebody miserable and uncomfortable, you might as well do it in alien ­circumstances. It was almost like a cruel science experiment – you take everything away from the guy, you make it happen in a strange place where he’s got no resources, no safety or familiarity.”

In his later novel, Breath, Winton drew on his love of the ocean and his passion for surfing – an activity he finds analogous to his other lifelong pursuit, writing. "Most of surfing is bobbing about in the ocean like a tea bag, waiting for a swell to come. Something shows up and as a surfer your job is to try to match its speed and ride its energy to the shore. That's like writing. You also wait, and when something shows up, even before you understand what it is, you have to match its momentum and catch up, keep up and milk it."


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Making a change in the world

When not enjoying the great outdoors or having his characters explore it, Winton fights hard to preserve it by raising environmental ­awareness. "I don't go there in my novels," he says. However, in his "­civilian life" he uses his ­influence to lobby ­policymakers, unite disparate groups, build bridges and change culture. He donated the prize money for his novel Dirt Music to a campaign to save Ningaloo Reef.

In one sobering section of his memoir The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton explains how trees have been "­exterminated" in parts of Western Australia, making the region "a land scraped naked". Are we seeing change? "People's minds are ­changing," he concedes, "but at the same time their leaders are turning into infantile bombastic morons undercutting that popular change and traducing the aspirations of ordinary people.

“I love the world, especially my part of it,” he adds. “I feel duty-bound to defend it. I’m trying to find a way for people to be in touch with their own love of their own place and their own family. Because it’s not just an ideological thing any more, it’s an existential thing. We’re at a time in our history when we know our ­behaviour is changing the planet, and what we do in the next 30 years will affect not just our children and their children but people we’ll never meet,” he adds.

I take my leave of this committed activist and compelling novelist, hoping that he will continue to tirelessly speak out – but also calmly sit still, waiting for those waves to come.

The Shepher’s Hut is published by Picador