The first page of Tim Winton’s new essay collection, The Boy Behind the Curtain, sets a disturbing scene. A 13-year-old boy stands at the window of a suburban street, behind a terylene curtain, training a rifle on passersby.
“He was a fraught little thing,” says Winton of that boy – the boy he used to be. “I feel related to him but I’m no longer completely him, thank god.”
The passage opens a surprisingly intimate essay about the role of guns in Australian life, setting the tone for a collection being billed as Winton’s most personal yet.
In spite of his inclination for solitude, Winton has spent much of his life in the spotlight. His first novel, An Open Swimmer, catapulted him into the public eye when it won the Vogel literary award in 1981, but it was his 1991 novel, Cloudstreet, that cemented his place in Australian letters. Winton has won the Miles Franklin award four times and been shortlisted twice for the Booker. His books have been adapted for film, TV and even opera.
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The contradictions of having such a high-profile career while working in a quintessentially solitary artform are not lost on him. “I spend all day in a room with people who don’t exist, and I’m not thinking about any public – but once the thing’s done it goes out there and it has a public life over which I have no, or very little, control,” he says.
On one reading, the boy with the rifle lurking out of sight, watching the world go by, could be a metaphor for the life of a reclusive writer. But Winton is quick to distinguish himself from such a reading. “I wouldn’t like to see myself as somebody who was just cruelly observing the world behind the terylene curtain of art.”
For Winton, the perceived lives of other writers always seemed completely unrelated to his own experience. “I grew up with a kind of modernist romantic idea of the writer as some kind of high priest, someone who saw themselves as separate and better, which I now find a bit repellent,” he says. “I think that was something that was sold to us at school and certainly at university … that writers were somehow aloof from the ordinary business of life; they didn’t have to abide by the same rules as other people. The worse their behaviour off the page, the more we were supposed to cheer them on. Once I woke up to that idea as a teenager, I think I consciously resisted it.”
Winton’s own background was characterised by a working class sensibility and evangelical religion. His parents converted to the Church of Christ when he was a small boy, the circumstances and his experiences of which form the basis of a number of the previously unpublished essays in The Boy Behind the Curtain. As a result, when he finally did start writing, it was with a particularly industrious work ethic.
“I approached it like I was a tradesperson,” he says. “It didn’t necessarily involve FM radio played very loudly on a worksite; it didn’t always require plumbers’ crack or a hard hat and there was certainly no catcalling, but for the rest of it I went a different route. There wasn’t a lot of romance in my view of what writing was about.”
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Yet it was finding words, what Winton calls “the enormous luxury of language”, that took him from being a 13-year-old boy who watched strangers through the eye of a rifle – a boy who was “obviously insecure and feeling threatened and probably not quite one with the world” – to a well-adjusted adult.
The “emotional infancy of men” has a lot to answer for, he says, suggesting that it’s something society would do well to pay more attention to in its early stages. “The lumpiness and surly silence of boys is not something we’re sufficiently interested in. They’re not sufficiently attractive to us until they become victims or dangerous brutes and bullies.”
I think it’s a mistake to think someone who doesn’t say much doesn’t have strong feelingsTim Winton
Conflicted masculinity is recurring theme throughout Winton’s fiction, and his characters often suffer as a result of their inability to articulate their feelings. “I think it’s a mistake to think someone who doesn’t say much doesn’t have strong feelings,” he says. “I think we stifle people’s expression or we ignore people’s signals of wanting to express things at our peril.”
The distinct tenor of Winton’s prose, a lyricism which manages to turn even the Australian vernacular into a kind of rough poetry, lends itself to the intimacy of the personal essay. The Boy Behind the Curtain contains a number of vignettes that reflect the imagery and landscape that characterises his fiction: hot bitumen roads through the desert; the churning ocean.
But there is also a clear political streak to Winton’s nonfiction, and the inclusion of a number of more direct essays in this collection mean it’s difficult to collapse the work under the category of memoir. Stones for Bread, for example, calls for a return to empathy and humanity in Australia’s approach to asylum seekers. The Battle for Ningaloo Reef is a clear-eyed account of the activism that prevented a major commercial development from destroying a stretch of the Western Australian coastline. And Using the C-Word concerns that other dirty word that Winton believes we are avoiding: class.
“I think there are people talking about class but they’re having to do that against the flow,” Winton says. “We’re living in a dispensation that is endlessly reinforcing the idea that we are not citizens but economic players. And under that dispensation it’s in nobody’s interest, especially those in power, to encourage or foster the idea that there’s any class difference.”
The market doesn’t care about people, Winton argues, and neither is there any genius in it. “There’s no invisible hand,” he says. “And if there is one, it’s scratching its arse.”
It’s clear to Winton that neoliberalism is failing, but not without casualties, two of which are very close to his heart: the arts and the environment.
“People in the arts are basically paying the price for this new regime where we pay no tax and where we get less public service and more privatised service,” he says. “The arts are last on, first off in people’s minds and I think that’s not just sad, it’s corrosive. They’re just seen as fluff, as fripperies, as indulgence, as add-ons and luxury. And I don’t think the arts are luxury; I think they’re fundamental to civilisation. It’s just that under our current dispensation, civilisation is not the point; civilisation is something that commerce has to negotiate and traduce if necessary.”
Winton is one of a number of high-profile critics of the Productivity Commission’s proposals to allow the parallel importation of books, and a signatory to petitions opposing funding cuts to the Australia Council. But he has also been a grassroots activist in the area of marine conservation for over 15 years.
“I don’t know if I’m an activist writer or just a writer who has an activist life on the side,” he says.
I don’t know if I’m an activist writer or just a writer who has an activist life on the sideTim Winton
Years of lobbying by conservation groups and the general public contributed to the Labor government announcement in 2012 of 42 marine reserves in Australian waters, including over the entire Coral Sea. The Abbott government, however, implemented a review which, in September this year, recommended significantly scaling back those reservations. It was, says Winton, an act of cowardice.
“The Abbott review was basically all about applying inertia to imminent progress,” Winton says. “We’ve gone from world leaders [in conservation] to being too frightened to lead.”
When asked what role writing fiction plays in his activist work, Winton says it comes back to the idea of “keeping people’s imaginations awake”.
“Imagination is the fundamental virtue of civilisation. If people can’t imagine then they can’t live an ethical life.”
•The Boy Behind the Curtain is published by Penguin Books and is available now
Lyn McCredden and Nathanael O'Reilly
In Tim Winton: Critical Essays, the editors have brought together an international lineup of scholars—new voices and established—to consider the work of Australia’s most celebrated and loved contemporary novelist.
From Shallows to Eyrie, this book extends beyond Winton’s singular novels and short stories, into thematics identified across his body of work, thinking through his place and reception in Australian and world literature.
Exploring themes in Winton’s fictional works such as childhood, masculinity, fatherhood, beauty, love, death, water and landscape, the contributors explore, question and debate their contexts in order to understand more fully what is appealing, or unconsciously submerged, or worthy of celebration or interrogation.
Tim Winton is both a popular and literary success, and this volume has been conceived for a critical audience of professionals and students, as well as for the readers who have made Tim Winton a household name.
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Praise for Tim Winton: Critical Essays:
It is...the thematic richness of Winton's fiction that emerges most strongly from this handsomely produced volume. The editors are to be congratulated for having assembled such a diverse and knowledgeable range of contributors. Together, their views make a welcome contribution to our appreciation of a novelist whose place in the pantheon of Australian writers is unassailable.JAMES LEY, THE WEST AUSTRALIAN
[A] pleasure to read, with essays that not only address topics and issues familiar to readers of Winton’s work, but explore them in often surprising ways, both extending and deepening appreciation of that work while at the same time opening it up to truly critical examination...[a] very fine volume."DELYS BIRD, AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW