Mark Rubbo interviews Tim Winton

Mark Rubbo interviews Tim Winton about his new memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain.

Mark Rubbo: Some of the pieces that appear in your new memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain, have appeared in various journals, but some, like the title piece, only appear now for the first time. What prompted you to collect these often very personal pieces in one volume?

Tim Winton: Well they’ve been written over quite a while, but they felt as if they belonged together. And I guess it must be a time-of-life thing, looking back and trying to make some sense of who I am and where I’ve been. It’s a weird thing, having to give an account of yourself, to try to make sense of yourself for yourself. I’m not that old, but I have been writing fiction professionally for a long time now. I started so young and went so hard for so long. And I guess it was about feeling I had the space to look over my shoulder.

MR: Are you someone who naturally keeps a mental notebook – do you file moments from real life away for later use in your writing? Do people close to you notice you doing this? How do they respond?

TW: No, I don’t consciously watch and file lived moments for my work. I have a couple of writer friends who do that and it creeps me out, to be honest. I know people think I must do that too, but I don’t. But I do have a long memory. People close to me aren’t afraid of being used or exposed, I don’t think. But they do notice a certain abstraction about me quite often. I guess I’m wandering – ‘thinking’ might be too flash a word for that sort of vagueing-out. I doubt it’s a writerly thing, though.

MR: Do you ever find yourself responding to confronting moments in real life first as a writer – for example looking at a moment as a potentially revealing or interesting plot twist or ethical conundrum for the people involved – by processing an event analytically and creatively before the meaning of the event begins to resonate for you as an individual?

TW: Life events are mostly only interesting after the fact. I’m not that analytical in the moment. I can’t make something ‘useful’ to me in a writing sense for a very long time. I don’t have any journalistic instinct. And I do keep a journal, but it’s neither very revealing nor fruitful for work. Stuff just bubbles up from the swamp later.

MR: You are known for exploring important issues in your fiction and nonfiction – some of which you return to often, including class and conservation – how do the experiences of writing about issues you are passionate about differ in each medium?

TW: In fiction ‘issues’ are accidental, sometimes incidental. The place and the people it creates are paramount. I never start with what lots of people think of as a subject or a theme. They’re school words, not art words. So, writing essays busts my arse because the art is in addressing the subject. I find it really difficult and monstrously time-consuming. In an essay I need to employ my imagination but it’s indentured in a way it’s not when I’m free to make everything up.

MR: In The Boy Behind the Curtain, you write about the ambition that drove you to become a writer. Can you share a little about what inspired this vision for yourself, and how your feelings about it have evolved in the years since you first discovered your vocation?

TW: I wanted to be a writer all my life. Since I was 10. And then at a certain point I began to assume I was one, which is rich, I know. I didn’t meet a writer until I was nearly an adult, so I had no idea what I’d bet the farm on. There was no backup plan. I get queasy looking back at the presumption of it, but I’m slightly in awe of the dopey conviction, the running-straight-at-the-ball courage of it. Thing is, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know enough to flinch and back down. I’m not boasting about this – the boy who did this is still with me somewhere, but I doubt I’m still him.

MR: You also write about the tough times writers inevitably experience, including the self-doubt and loneliness that come with spending a lot of time alone and in your head. Can you offer any advice to other writers about how to go on in times of doubt?

TW: I don’t think I’m qualified to give that sort of advice, any more than I have the nerve to give parenting advice. I’ve been a writer and a parent since adolescence, it feels like, and I’m still making both gigs up as I go along. I did both in different forms of isolation – too young by conventional standards, too far off-grid culturally and geographically. So my experience is probably too specific to be useful. None of us do this stuff the same way. We just try to endure and press on, I guess.

MR: Unexpected events feature in your life and your work – what interests you about the way people respond to havoc? How have your own feelings about surprises changed over time?

TW: I suppose I’m interested in how domesticated life seems to be in this little pocket of post-modernity. Of course most of that safety and order is illusory, or at least highly contingent. Life is wild by definition. And organic existence is violent. Though I find this hard to accept. And I know it goes against the cultural grain of therapeutic smoothing so dominant in what we like to call ‘cultural discourse’. The kind of thinking that clogs the arteries of critics as much as columnists and bloggers. I don’t think this denatured squeamishness does art any favours. I guessI look back and see how pivotal certain random and very unwelcome passages of violence have shaped me. And not just road accidents or beatings, either. I’m talking about the physical facts of life. I went to school for 12 years, and uni for four, but I learnt more about human existence in the 30 hours it took my first child to be born than I did in all those years of study. (Could be I was paying more attention, true.) What I’m saying so badly is we’re bred now to believe we’re in control and should be in control. It’s when we’re not… well, that’s when it’s interesting. And I don’t mean that in any Rimbaud-deliberate disordering of the senses way, either. True, I’m not keen on surprises nowadays. I tell myself my thrillseeking days are behind me. But I frightened the tripe out of myself twice this week alone – for fun – so I suspect there’s some self-deception at work here.

MR: Which is more intimidating: the blank page at the beginning of a new work of fiction or nonfiction? Why?

TW: The blank page doesn’t bother me. It’s the voice in my head (not always my own) that gives me the yips. It’s worse when I’m not making stuff up.

MR: Your father’s terrible accident prompted a spiritual awakening for him and your mother and, by default, your whole family. You write about this in the book. To what extent does faith inform your writing?

TW: Yeah, I think my parents were delivered from the conventional world of surfaces. Firstly by a terrible event. Secondly by what the bumper sticker would call ‘a random act of kindness’. Actually, it was a concerted act of compassion. So I grew up in a family that believed love was at work in the world. I guess that’s a religious idea, though of course it needn’t be. Whatever you believe, you need faith to get through the day. The notion that love is abroad in the world has shaped my life. I guess it could have distorted my work, too.

MR: In your new essay collection there is a splendid breadth of tone – from serious to reflective, deeply compassionate to energising, and beyond. Some of your stories are hilarious. How important is the humour in life to you?

TW: Humour’s the pay-off for all that existential horror. My kelpie is not burdened by the certainty of death and loss. Neither is she subject to low emotions like schadenfreude. But when she farts it’s just… well, ‘atmos’ as we say in the movies. It’s deep background. She doesn’t find it funny, and that’s tragic. Humour is God’s special gift to humanity. Handy, because it turns out to be necessary.

Tim Winton has published 28 books for adults and children, and his work has been translated into 28 languages. Since his first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the Australian Vogel Award in 1981, he has won the Miles Franklin Award four times (for Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath) and twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for The Riders and Dirt Music). He lives in Western Australia.

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The Boy Behind the Curtain

The Boy Behind the Curtain

Tim Winton

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