Tim Winton, 57, won the Vogel in 1981 when he was 24, for his book An Open Swimmer.
Tim, did you set out to be a fiction writer in the literary tradition before or after the Vogel?
‘I was determined to be a literary novelist, and a professional writer, well before that. This was first and always my only idea of a working life—it’s all I ever wanted to do.’
So you did wish to write full time?
‘Yes, of course. Right from the get-go. I told myself I’d do it part-time if forced, but to my mind that scenario didn’t match my idea of either a career or a vocation. Of course, I was very young (a teenager) and idealistic. And everyone said that there was no way you could live this writing life full time in Australia. I guess that was the “common sense” view. But all the various compromises seemed like different ways of taking the king’s shilling. I was afraid I’d never be able to find my way back once I started down that track.
‘And let’s face it, if you’ve been safe and tenured, on a regular wage and seen as a regular, dependable sort, it’s hard to give that security and validation up and return to the vagaries of the freelance life and be something nobody quite gets or believes in.
‘I’ve watched people trying to make that transition—from safety and conventional living to the contingent life of the independent arts worker—and it’s not pretty.
‘Looking back, though, I am amazed and slightly horrified about how hardline I was in this matter. I was pretty absolute about it. I think a part of me thought that those who looked for a safety net just lacked courage. The certainties of youth, eh? A bit mortified by this.
‘I had some very lean years financially in the first decade, but I never seriously considered the possibility that it might not work out. Some of this, no doubt, was arrogance. But a lot of it was just terror. I worked incredibly hard in my 20s—nine books, I think. And not much of that energy and labour came from confidence —it was a combination of youthful exuberance and suppressed panic. I had a wife, Denise, and a kid (we now have three)—I’d put all my chips on this literary caper, and I had no fallback position.’
How did you conceive the ‘life of an author’—romantically, if so how? Or were you tough-minded about the challenges of it? Or both at the same time perhaps?
‘Initially I think I was drinking the Kool Aid along with all the other romantics. It’s the vision that’s always peddled to the readers and perpetuated by the literary media.
‘I was chowing down on A Moveable Feast. School and university had given us all these florid and tragic notions that were just rocks in our pockets. That romantic mindset was one of the chief obstacles to the Australian writer achieving a decent living. You’re a self-employed worker in an industry. It’s a trade, a business, not a lifestyle.
‘So I think that from about the age of 23 I’d become pretty tough-minded about the gig. That first decade I spent time learning how the business works. It had no impact on the work on the page. The work itself was completely independent of industrial reality. But once the book was done I wasn’t going to be anybody’s tame romantic. That’s for dabblers. Coming over all meek and fey as many of us were culturally trained to do, that just ensures the writer remains safely subservient. Being romantic is being industrially incompetent. It guarantees poverty. If you’ve done good, hard work, why give it away? Especially to a multinational corporation that, if it pays any tax at all, is paying a far smaller proportion than you.
‘I guess I started paying attention to industrial details. That stuff isn’t intrinsically interesting; but I saw these details were pertinent to the viability of my operation. It’s a parched environment we live in, so when you finally get your rag wet you may as well squeeze every bit of moisture out of it. I needed the help of agents and lawyers over many years to figure some of this stuff out. There’s a cohort of younger writers coming along who are pretty damn savvy about the PR part of the equation, but I’m not sure they’ve paid nearly as much attention to how the business works in an industrial sense. Getting famous is easier than staying liquid. A little of both will buy you time to write, but the former ends up being pretty soft currency. So there’s a cultural imperative hand in hand with an industrial reality. Both need attending to and to pretend otherwise is to be flaky.
‘Mind you, an Australian writer who says things like this will be frowned upon. Especially by the tenured and safe. They like their writers poor and indigent. If you’re not broke you must be mercenary. The romantic trope is harder to extinguish than Patterson’s curse. And that weed looks so harmless and purple-pretty at a distance.’
Has it worked out the way you wanted it to? How long did it take to become a full-time writer?
‘Yes, I have to say it has. In many ways it well and truly exceeded my expectations. My one ambition in life was to be a full time literary writer. That is, to write from a literary tradition without compromise and make a living from it. Also to choose where I lived while I did so. That happened to mean staying put, which is its own bit of good fortune in my case. I suppose the only thing I didn’t count on was the public aspect, having to be something of a public figure along the way. Something a more modest success might have relieved me of, perhaps. But nobody’s going to weep for me over that one, and neither should they. I’ve always been very upfront about how lucky I was. I caught a few breaks early on and am fortunate in that my natural style on the page is accessible to punters outside the literary clique. Not everyone is lucky enough to appeal to a broad or even mass readership. I think I know what the odds were and that my own trajectory is not very likely, let alone common. What I didn’t say, for fear of looking like a bit of a cock, was that I worked bloody hard, harder than many, particularly those still caught up in the romantic mindset, and I learnt the business in a way I think few in the literary stream of the writing community have. All the same, lots of writers work their ring gears out and few get the breaks I got. Even fewer get them at the kind of distance I’ve worked from inside my own country.
‘And I guess I should point out I might not have been able to keep things going as I entered my 30s if I hadn’t had what they love to call a “break out book” in 1991. So I was an overnight success after ten books. Also, I was lucky to come of age at a time of growing confidence in Australian culture. Publishing wasn’t very sophisticated, or even very good a lot of the time, but there was real enthusiasm.
‘Also better and more optimistic funding from the govt. I count myself lucky, too, to be a native of the analogue republic. The attention span was longer. My own included. The kind of indifference we wrote into was simpler. Since then, the culture has become meaner and lower. I wonder if it’s possible now for a younger writer to have a trajectory like mine. Not without being a camp follower and kissing hell’s own amount of arse.’
What were the obstacles, if any, that interfered with the aspiration to be part of a literary tradition?
‘Well, we’ve always made a lot of the philistinism of the culture and although it’s overblown to some extent there’s still some truth in it. I have to say that in my lifetime it’s been interesting to note a kind of shy but enduring hunger for something beyond the suburban verities. Australians are keener readers than we used to let ourselves think.
‘So, yeah, there’s the indifference any artist must contend with (though sometimes I think a little indifference is useful) a kind of inertia to overcome. Of course we have the weirdly Australian problem of massive size and low population, a scale problem that raises the odds.
‘As I said, I think the tyranny of suburban common sense is an issue. As is the noxious romanticism that produces a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Within romanticism there’s a contempt for the uninitiated that I find pretty unappealing.
‘In some ways this relates to the often under-examined received idea that our country is especially unwelcoming and philistine. Another excuse, often enough. In my case there was a geographical disadvantage. All publishing power resides in Sydney and Melbourne. A writer’s odds of making her or his way from the inner reaches of those cities are increased.
‘But it was my choice to stay in the west. My initial reasons for staying might have been naive and even bloody-minded, but I’m convinced that my staying increased my own chances of staying afloat. Why? Because I was living more cheaply than those paying Sydney or Melbourne rents. And look, I know not everyone wants to live in an asbestos house in the provinces, but it meant my advances and royalties went further.
‘I got more books written and generated more of both. I had a couple of grants early on and managed to save enough grant money to buy a house. Somehow we lived cheaply enough, growing our own veggies and living on fish we caught ourselves … massive step of consolidation. Maybe the biggest of our lives. And don’t let some beardy kid think that sounds romantic, it was a bloody grind. And the house was a shack.
‘It’s tough being a full-time writer for 10 years, or 20. But 30 or 40 or 50? Few careers go on so long.
‘And with duration most conventional careers offer consolidation and some safety, a retirement plan at the very least. How to make this life go on well past the usual parameters? Or perhaps the idea that it can, or should, is an obstacle in itself?
‘Having started so early I’m coming up on 40 years in the gig, and I might live another 20 or 30 years. I might need a second career after all!’
As an irrelevant question how do you describe your occupation when asked? Writer? Author? Do you ever lie?
‘I say I’m a writer. Or yes, I’m that writer. It’s a job, so a writer sounds jobbier. I can’t always come at author. And, yes, sometimes I pretend I’m neither a writer or that writer, though it often ends badly. Best to own up.’
Is writing a way of life?
‘Well, it has been for me. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. Which makes it sound a bit touched by fairy dust, I know, but it’s also the job I fought all my life to keep. Because I value it. Nothing else looked enough like a life to me.
‘Yes, it’s a way of life. Which happens to be a way of making a living. A trade, not a hobby. A way of life, but not a lifestyle. It’s not something you don seasonally and cast off when the fashion changes. For me, it’s all in.’
- An Open Swimmer (1982)
- Shallows (1984)
- That Eye, The Sky (1986)
- In the Winter Dark (1988)
- Cloudstreet (1991)
- The Riders (1994)
- Blueback (1997)
- Dirt Music (2001)
- Breath (2008)
- Lockie Leonard (1990-1997)
- Eyrie (2013)
Short story collections
- Scission (1985)
- Minimum Of Two (1987)
- A Blow, A Kiss (1985)
- The Collected Short Novels of Tim Winton (1995)
- The Turning (2005)
- Small Mercies (2006)
- Rising Water (2011)
- Signs of Life (2012)
- Shrine (2013)
- Jesse (1988)
- Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo (1990)
- The Bugalugs Bum Thief (1991)
- Lockie Leonard, Scumbuster (1993)
- Lockie Leonard, Legend (1997)
- The Deep (1998) – picture book illustrated by Karen Louise
- Land’s Edge (1993) – with Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood
- Local Colour: Travels in the Other Australia (1994), republished in the U.S. as Australian Colors: Images of the Outback (1998) – photography and text by Bill Bachman, additional text by Tim Winton
- Down to Earth (1999) – text by Tim Winton and photographs by Richard Woldendorp
- Smalltown (2009) – text by Tim Winton and photographs by Martin Mischkulnig
- Island Home (2015)
- Tide-Lands – Idris Murphy (2015) text by Tim Winton and art by Idris Murphy
- The Boy Behind the Curtain (2016)