Surfer, Environmentalist, Novelist. Australia’s Living Legend.
Posted June 12, 2018 6:47 p.m. EDT
SYDNEY — In the remote Western Australian fishing town he calls home, Tim Winton, one of this country’s most talented writers, says many residents for years assumed he was selling weed.
“You’re either a fisherman or on the dole,” said Winton, whose novel “The Shepherd’s Hut” is out in the United States next week. “I was the only person not working on the boats. And I had an extensive veggie garden and long hair.”
It was only when Winton appeared on “60 Minutes,” a popular current affairs program here, to discuss his 1991 best-seller “Cloudstreet” that his neighbors realized he was famous. One remarked: “Oh, I always thought you had ‘herbal’ interests.”
Declared a “living treasure” by the National Trust in 1997, Winton is one of Australia’s most beloved literary figures. Since publishing his first novel, “An Open Swimmer,” in 1982, when he was 22, Winton has won has the country’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award four times, been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice (“The Riders” in 1994 and “Dirt Music” in 2001) and appeared on a postage stamp once (in 2010).
We met for lunch in late April before the Sydney premiere of “Breath,” directed by and starring Simon Baker and based on Winton’s 2008 novel of the same name. (“Breath” opened in the United States last week. ) Winton, 57,wrote a draft screenplay of the coming-of-age surfing film and performs the main character’s voice-over.
Winton, however, remains ill at ease with his stature (visiting the set he felt like “some foreign dignitary — about as useful as Prince Charles”). At Icebergs, the iconic Sydney restaurant overlooking the sweeping sands of Bondi Beach, he scuttles in furtively, sinking behind the table with visible relief no one has recognized him.
For almost three decades, Winton has taken care not to divulge where he lives. Largely, this is so that his three children and wife of 36 years, Denise, could “have a normal life” — something that extends now to his two grandchildren.
Winton is cognizant of his near-celebrity status in a country that rarely lionizes its literary authors. Yet he has carved a voice that is uniquely Australian, finding poetry and an austere beauty in local vernacular and landscape. As Baker put it at the premiere, his is a celebration of “Australian plain-speak.”
“The Shepherd’s Hut” is no different. A fable about acceptance and forgiveness, teenager Jaxie Clackton is a victim of domestic violence. Orphaned when his father dies, and afraid he’ll be blamed, he flees on foot from his small town to the northern wheat belt. In a desperate quest that mirrors both “Huckleberry Finn” and the knights from the tales of King Arthur, he must overcome physical deprivation to reach the girl he loves. Along the way, he finds a different intimacy: friendship with exiled Irish priest Fintan MacGillis who lives in a shepherd’s hut with only the kangaroos for company.
Most of Winton’s books have been set along the wild coastline, which he calls home, or the suburbs of waterside Perth, where he grew up. “The Shepherd’s Hut” takes place far from the ocean, in Western Australia’s vast interior saltlands where “the dirt was baked hard” and the earth is all “salt bush and low mulga, red dirt and pebbles.”
Jaxie Clackton, too, is a boy hardened: a kid with an “elbows-out walk like a scorpion all burred up for a fight.” Winton initially tried writing “The Shepherd’s Hut” from multiple perspectives, predicting scant sympathy for the “foul-mouthed hypermasculine” Jaxie. Looking back, he sees this aborted dilution of Jaxie’s voice, which now dominates the novel, as “a failure of nerve,” he said. Writers need “to take risks and to do stuff that is awkward.”
Over a meal of fish and wine, Winton is soft and modest, if shy. He clasps his hands as he talks, peppers his conversation with “mate,” and rarely makes eye contact. With his long hair cascading down his shoulders he comes across as a faintly disheveled surfer dude for whom, refreshingly, airs and graces don’t matter. (When I ask what he is wearing to the movie premiere, he gives a bemused shrug, points to his blue T-shirt and replies, “this?”) Raised in a working-class evangelical Christian family, Winton was the first of his close kin to ever finish high school (some of his relatives remain functionally illiterate). Reading became a form of “transport, in almost that religious sense,” he said.
Today Winton is no longer the “God botherer I was,” but he still counts himself as a Christian of sorts. “I’m tired of all the cataloging and all the hair splitting,” he sighed. “For me, if it’s not about love, if it’s not about mercy, if it’s not about kindness, if it’s not about liberation then I’m just not that interested.”
Many of Winton’s books highlight what he calls “the secret, deep hurting cause of men.” It is a subject matter that has touched a nerve: When he is out surfing, boys have paddled up, bashfully, to confide his books “had spoken to them and for them.”
In a recent public talk held in Sydney, Winton tackled a larger problem: “the terror generated by toxic masculinity.” “I worry about our revulsion for them, our desire to banish them,” he said. “Boys need help. And men need fixing. I’m mindful of that.”
When asked to expand, Winton provides an analogy: All children are born with a rich palette of colored pencils. By the time many boys reach 18, however, they are so emotionally stunted they only have brown, black and purple left. They’re living a “monochrome life and they don’t even realize they’re colorblind.” Toxic masculinity, Winton argued, mutates in settler societies; it is no accident that in “The Shepherd’s Hut” Jaxie is referred to as a “wild colonial boy.” Enclosing his fist into a tight ball, Winton stated: “You show up, you seize” and “you dig in, you enclose, you consolidate, you defend.”
Such settler instinct vanquished not just Australia’s indigenous peoples, but the very land itself, Winton asserted. Alongside his wife, Denise, a nurse turned marine scientist, the couple are staunch environmental activists.
In March, Winton donated 15,000 Australian dollars ($11,350) in prize money for his memoir “The Boy Behind the Curtain” toward the protection of Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. “Eyrie,” his 2013 novel about an alcoholic environmental activist, was conceived when Winton witnessed activists beaten down like “returned veterans.”
That Winton can use his own vibrant palette of pencils to fight back, depicting Australia in all its raw, unvarnished ugliness and beauty, makes him rich, he believes, despite his modest upbringing. “The Shepherd’s Hut” in many ways is a nod toward those boys he grew up with who have no similar luxury.
“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”