Critic Jules Smith writes in the British Council Writers Directory that “Tim Winton is a kind of environmentalist writer. The Australian outback of small settlements, farmlands, forests, mountains, desert landscapes, as well as shoreline towns, are not only locations but also subjects in his work” . Fascinated by how the Australian landscape dominates Winton’s novels and influences his characters, I wanted to know more about this strong relationship with his homeland. He kindly agreed to answer to some of my questions and what came out is the amazing interview that follows, in which one of the most famous Australian contemporary authors discusses literature as a journey and defines his characters as people who “always seem to have the horizon in view and the sky on their shoulders”.
R: Most of your books are set in Australia. This said, reading them made me see them as journeys: would you describe them as journeys? If so, do you feel you have a destination, as a writer, or not?
TW: Yes, I suppose my stories are journeys. Many of them literally involve treks and journeys, but they are often quests in a broader sense, too. I’m more conscious of this as a reader than as a writer, to be honest. Reading is a very cheap form of travel – a good book transports me to somewhere else, another state, another mindset, another era or country or gender or class. I don’t think so much in terms of destinations – just than sense of lifting the reader up into a different space, a new territory. When you’re from a continent as large and sparsely populated as ours, every movement is a bit of a trek. All the spaces are wider, the journeys between towns longer. Maybe this alters the way you view things.
R: You clearly have a strong relationship with your country, which readers from across the world can perceive by reading your books. Did this relationship change when you traveled and lived in Europe? How?
TW: I think I’ve always loved this place, but I enjoy the chance to be elsewhere. I lived in France and Ireland and Greece in 1987 and 1988 and had a great time, but I was surprised by how homesick I became. For the first time I could understand how those old Russian émigrés and exiles could be so morose! Pining for your own place really can be an illness. But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m uncritical of my own culture. I feel that I belong here but I’m conscious that I’m not always a comfortable fit. I don’t think living abroad changed me, although it did educate me. I still travel, so I’m often confronted by how complex the world is and what a mystery humans are – especially to themselves.
R: The presence of a country in a novel is not a “compulsory” element. Why does the Australian environment play such an important part in your novels and short stories?
TW: For those of us who live on continents where there are more spaces than people, the landscape does impinge on your consciousness in a more obvious way than would be the case for someone from a more completely built and populated region. I guess my stories feature human habits and behaviours that seem to have been influenced by nature. Perhaps I share this with some Canadian writers and writers from the American west – and from some Latin American regions. A story is about people, but my characters always seem to have the horizon in view and the sky on their shoulders.
R: Unfortunately for the earth, the environment has been shaped by the presence of human beings. Do you think the opposite is true as well? Are we shaped by the environment that surrounds us? Were you shaped by the environment in which you grew up and how?
TW: Yes, I think many of us are shaped by our environment. In my case there was a sense of openness and space that felt liberating (although I suspect that a New Yorker, for instance, might find those elements oppressive and isolating). I grew up on the Western Australian coast and my mental habits and my physical passions seem to relate to the daily patterns of weather. Certain times of the day are more suited to being outdoors and in the physical realm – in my childhood that meant being in the water, surfing, diving, fishing – and because we get strong cooling winds after the heat every afternoon there was an opportunity, sometimes a necessity to be indoors doing ‘interior’ things. This is when I used to read and daydream and think. So I guess where I lived as a child helped to form my dual self, the complimentary parts of my life, the outdoor life and the life of the mind. Neither is sufficient on its own. As a result I need plenty of physical space, plenty of privacy, and I guess I’m no different in this to many Australians.
R: Do you feel that over the past decades our relationship with Nature has changed? If so, do you think this change is affecting us as human beings?
TW: Yes, I think the natural world has made it clear to us that we are participants and dependents, not simply beneficiaries. My fear is that we are learning and responding to this reality too slowly to guarantee a future for our heirs, but I do think that governments and businesses are no longer able to completely ignore the deeper economy, the costs to our finite system that are bound up in the way we live. In Australia of course we have always had anxieties about water security but droughts are becoming permanent and anxiety gives way to desperation. Also we are the world’s quarry. Think of all the coal, iron, gold, diamonds and so on dug from the soil here every day. We are deeply entwined in the carbon economy and struggling with how to reduce our footprint. On a more literal note, we suffer more skin cancer from sun exposure than any other nation, so nature is definitely affecting us! More seriously, I think the realization that the earth is finite and fragile and its ecosystems strained by exploitation is beginning to have a psychological impact. Not all of this comes out as anxiety, some of it is expressed in idealism, spiritual yearning, technical innovation. Hopefully it will make us smarter, more sensitive, more responsive. But maybe I’m dreaming. I just hope the fear doesn’t make us crazy (or, just as bad, paralysed by denial).
R: You have been and I suppose still are a strong advocate for the protection of the environment. Do you feel that travelling could help to raise awareness on the condition of the earth or do you see it as an activity that causes more damage than benefits?
TW: A lot of travel is simply another consumer activity. Everything costs the earth something. My hope is that travellers at least attempt to learn something, to take something home besides a hangover and a sexually transmitted disease. It’s a little depressing to see wealthy folks travel to the Third World in order to exploit the poverty of others and return home with all their prejudices intact. It’s weird to see how little moral imagination people carry with them sometimes. But I do think travel can expand your mental horizons; it can change your life and I’m encouraged when I see this happening to young people. Travel should excite us, inspire us, enrage us a little more than shopping.
R: If you had to describe your country to somebody who’s never heard about it, what would you say?
TW: Well, it’s the world’s biggest island, thinly populated by a strange hybrid culture that is English speaking but not European. It has the world’s weirdest animals, best beaches, most open roads and most flies. The people are more casual than Brits but not as optimistic as Americans. They might be stuck at the bottom of the world and live in some of the most isolated cities on the globe, but most of them have travelled extensively. A large proportion of Australians are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. It’s a big, strange place full of big strange people and it takes time to travel though, so don’t imagine you’ll see much in a single weekend.
R: You published Breath in 2008, are you working on a new project at the moment? If so, can you tell us more?
TW: I’m working on a couple of novels and I’ve recently finished three plays, the first of which – RISING WATER – was recently performed in Perth and Melbourne. I wrote the screen adaptation of my novel CLOUDSTREET which came out earlier this year. The rest of the time I’m campaigning for marine parks, working to stop the trade in sharkfin and other eco projects for the Australian Marine Conservation Society for whom I am Patron.
Tim Winton’s photo courtesy of Hank Kordas.