Tim Winton is one of Australia’s best-loved writers, both in Australia and overseas. His new novel is Breath. Mark Rubbo spoke to him about the book for Readings.
This is your first novel for seven years, when did you start working on it?
It was probably about a year after The Turning was published. I was working on another novel altogether but got a little side-tracked. Breath was a bit of an accident, I suppose.
Breath starts off when ambulance man Bruce Pike is called to an apparent suicide of an adolescent boy. The incident triggers his memories of growing up in a small coastal town.
Yeah, the manner of the boy's death is pretty close to the bone for Pike and it sets him to recalling his own numerous flirtations with oblivion as a kid in the 70s. A lot of risk-taking, some of which has left him a damaged man.
*Breath is set mainly in the coastal town of Sawyer and the regional centre of Angelus. You've used these fictitious places in earlier books. Is there a reason you return to them?
I suppose I've been writing this fictional landscape for nearly 30 years. Many of the stories and novels are set in or about Angelus on the south coast or White Point on the central west. I don't know why I return to the place and the particular milieu. After all this time it's almost my own place and the stories become part of a broader whole, a thing of its own. I tend to view the separate pieces as parts of that landscape rather than discrete entities and the only conscious part of this has been to recognise the pattern and surrender to it. As much as I admire writers like Hardy and Faulkner and so on, this approach wasn't really intentional.
But looking back, especially considering the way a lot of Australian writers have felt the need to rescue literature from the specificity of place or region in recent years, maybe in an effort to be or seem cosmopolitan, I can't say that I regret having worked my own patch. It does relieve you of the calisthenics involved in the art of constant surprise, having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, year after year. It's a bit old-fashioned, I guess, but there is a tyranny of novelty that I don't mind side-stepping.
Bruce's nickname is Pikelet; he and his family keep to themselves, but Pikelet forms an unlikely friendship with the publican's son Loonie – a reckless competitive risk-taker. Loonie eggs Pikelet on by example; it's this recklessness that seems to give their lives purpose. You describe this almost lovingly, approvingly? Am I right?
Well, I think it's worth remembering that it's the narrator we're hearing from, not me. But, yes, there is something bittersweet in his memory of those experiences. He's recalling a youth in which he and his mate essentially invent personae and rituals for themselves in the absence of any formal rites of passage or codes of belonging. Their friendship is a weird competitive dance wherein they push each other to do mad, risky things for the buzz of it. I don't think this is something I approve of necessarily, but I do understand the impulse. Particularly in a culture like ours which is, for all its liberality, a fairly domesticated, insured and anxious affair. I guess beneath all that there is a yearning for wildness, a hunger for vivid feeling. Which often produces some pretty perverse outcomes. Egging Pikelet on … that's a bit culinary isn't it?
Surfing becomes the mutual passion and obsession of Loonie and Pikelet, the playing field they battle over. For Pikelet, watching his first surfers, it was the first time he'd seen men do something beautiful; you describe it as ‘dancing on water’; it's a feeling Pikelet can't discuss with Loonie. Do you see this as typical of male friendships?
Maybe not typical, but hardly uncommon. Despite the fact that these kids are making themselves up as they go along, they're at the mercy of those around them for role models. Pikelet naturally responds to beauty but he sublimates this in order to compete in this masculine arena of physical courage. During the story, he's lured from the meditative, aesthetic part of surfing into a gladiatorial realm. I think he's looking back and seeing this as a pivotal point where he goes awry, when later he chooses danger over beauty. There's a kind of love-dance with death that he and Loonie get into with the guidance of their guru.
The two boys meet Sando, an ex-champion surfer, who become a teacher and mentor for them. You endow Sando with dignity, grace, courage and wisdom but by pushing the boys to the limits of their skills and endurance, he exposes them to great physical danger. It almost appears as though you approve?
Not at all. But I am interested in the relationship between them. This weird mentor thing, the youthful susceptibility to gurus. Sports coaches being a prime example. It's quite common for troubled kids in particular to find meaning in sports which offer them a subculture, a codified experience, rites of passage, measurable progress. They feel nurtured and they bathe in the approval of the coach. They join a cult, in a way, one that scares their parents a little less than having them run away to join the Moonies. They join a gang or the army. They respond to structure, maybe, and their idealism and naivete can be exploited. There are sub-cultural or even cultic elements to all of them, a sense of being special, chosen, part of a misunderstood elite. Many of these groups foster a kind of Gnosticism, or even a tendency toward a kind of fascist impulse which certainly occurs with Loonie and Pikelet. This yearning for the extraordinary can, though of course it doesn't have to, lead to notions of unter and ubermenschen.
Perhaps all this says something about how arid and open our culture can be for many kids in the wake of our modernist rejection of traditions of most sorts. No, I think the reader understands how Pikelet feels by the end, that Sando is a pretty deluded character and a kind of malign influence. But even a rejected guru deserves his due.
The pressure on the boys to take on bigger and bigger challenges develops through the book; your descriptions of their surfing challenges are compellingly vivid and engrossing. Have you surfed?
Yeah, I've surfed all my life. In fact I'm more passionate about it now than I was at 10 or 16. I've always found it a kind of sensual and meditative thing. As a kid and as a grown-up I've found it enormously pleasurable, consuming and therapeutic. I can't imagine a life without it. I think, rather unlike Pikelet, that surfing and the sea saved me from self-destructive behaviours when I was young. I'm grateful for having had it as a non-verbal means of expression. Pikelet's experience is almost diametrically opposed to mine. And yes, I approve of that.
Pikelet's friendship with Loonie and then with Sando stifles his relationship with his more cautious father; is this something you see an inevitable part of growing up?
Forsaking your own, you mean? Well, it's common enough, but I don't know that it's inevitable. There's a difference between becoming your own person and betraying your own. And Pikelet finds a secret life lived long enough does put you into a kind of self-imposed exile from which it's hard to return. Pikelet doesn't get a chance to reveal himself to his father and later he feels unable to be honest and intimate with his mother. I think he feels a kind of shame he can't overcome. As a man he's massively conflicted, divided from himself in many ways, and cut off from all intimacy. He lives a managed life, monitoring himself and his impulses. A lot of this seems to be a legacy of his time with Loonie and Sando and Eva.
The boys discover that Sando has been a champion surfer and that his partner Eva was freestyle skier who injured herself so badly that can no longer compete. For Eva the risk taking has an erotic element to it – is this true?
Yes, though I think it's true for all the main characters. Perhaps with the exception of Loonie, who has a kind of buried sexuality. He's all action and no feeling, in a way. But yeah, these people want vivid sensation. They need to feel their hearts hammering; they're addicted to the rush of adrenaline, to the proximity of danger. Eva's outlook is intensified by being thwarted, of course. She's unable to do what she loves to do most and that brings a different kind of pressure.
The boys are constantly trying to prove themselves to Sando. And he encourages them. It seems in the end that Loonie is the chosen one – is Pikelet's infatuation and affair with Sando's partner Eva part of the risk-taking or some oedipal revenge?
Oh, I don't know. At one level she's simply entertaining herself. She's left behind a lot and she's bored out of her mind, getting stoned all day in this big pole house in the bush. She's in pain a lot, she's miserable. And here's this lonely kid coming by now and then on his bike. Anybody's susceptible to the kind of vanity involved in a relationship with a much younger person. Maybe she doesn't even recognize the kind of revenge she's exacting on Sando – or on Loonie or Pikelet for that matter. Once Pikelet falls for her she has a kind of power again after having been pretty powerless for quite some time. I doubt she sets out to do it. She's just a lonely, narcissistic, sporty woman with not much occupying her mind. You wonder if Sando would any different in her place. Pikelet is a victim to Sando's vanity, too.
Eva is 25 and Pikelet only 15; you describe their relationship quite explicitly. In one passage Pikelet refers to himself as jailbait, are you concerned how people will react?
Well, I assume people will be pretty uncomfortable. Well, I mean, I hope so. What she's doing with this kid is illegal and unequal and pretty damaging. He's a child. Sando's reckless with him in one way and she's reckless with him in another. And Pikelet thinks these people are grown-ups. These are the folks he thinks are cool and sophisticated. He doesn't yet see how flaky they are. He doesn't understand how fickle and self-absorbed and deluded people can be. He spends the rest of his life trying to chew on that bit of gristle, to overcome his sense of aggrieved victimhood.
Pikelet's life doesn't turn out all that well; he still hankers after the vicarious thrill. Are you implying that the ordinary, the ordered safe life is the best?
As compared to disorder and early sorrow, you mean? Not completely. There's no thesis here; this is a novel and I'm just reflecting on it after the fact like another reader. But from Pikelet's experience he probably sees virtue in the safe and ordinary, even though, rather perversely, it's more something he's had to aspire to rather than achieve. But what's safety without the proper apprehension of danger? Isn't that smugness, numbness, self-delusion? There is a kind of papering-over of chaos, danger, wildness, which fails to acknowledge the wildness and even viciousness of existence. Personally I'm a bit of a coward. But I'm also easily bored and a bored person can be a ticking bomb.
For better or worse, writers nowadays are quite public figures, you make very few public appearances; I'm sure it's not for want of invitations and I'm sure you have much to contribute – is this a conscious decision or something you've drifted into?
I don't think it's any secret that I don't much like the public stuff. I find being in front of people a bit well … corrosive. It doesn't give me anything good. Good luck to writers who like the performative side of things, in a way I probably envy them their ease. But I'm happier on the page. I've done a fair bit of public advocacy in the past decade, mostly environmental work and I don't regret it, but it does create an appetite and an expectation that can't be met. I have to remind people that I write stories. That's my area of expertise. Why should anyone need to hear my sound-bite opinion on every ephemeral political and social issue?
Breath is a wonderful book, rewarding on so many levels, are you pleased with it? If so what do you think works best?
Well, thanks Mark. I don't know what to make of it, to be honest, and if I did I'd probably keep my opinions to myself, curmudgeon that I am. I am glad it's done, though. Too late for a re-write now. We're all stuck with it.