Myke Bartlett on Tim Winton...
Tim Winton comes bounding across the room, his hand out to shake mine. “How’s your mum?” Realising this makes for a surreal start to an interview, he builds a joke of it, insisting it’s his standard opener for every publicity meet and greet. The truth is, I’ve actually interviewed Tim before, and we discovered then that he and Mum used to go to the same church. That was three years ago, when he was slogging through a hectic touring schedule; one he’s now repeating for his memoir The Boy Behind The Curtain.
Last time we met, I got the feeling Tim would rather have been anywhere else than on the publicity circuit. I don’t mean to suggest he was your clichéd difficult author. Far from it. He wasn’t unfriendly or uncooperative so much as squinting hard into the light at the end of the tunnel. It was only when our chat was over that he seemed to realise it wasn’t half as painful as he feared. This time, he seems far more comfortable—and I probably am too. He slouches back in his chair, draping a jacket across himself to fend off the room’s aggressive air-conditioning. If you were watching from across the room (nobody is), you might think he was readying himself for a doze. But Tim likes to talk. In person, he’s as funny, direct, clever and, yeah, down-to-earth as you’d hope. He doesn’t look like a Living Treasure (the National Trust recently declared him so) and maybe he doesn’t sound like one either.
We talk a little about the liminal space Tim has always occupied as an author. He’s from a place—and a class—where authors and intellectuals didn’t exist. Where, as he puts it, “nobody knew any $10 words.” Yet there can be few Australians who use words so well and to such acclaim. Just as there can be few Australians who so acutely map the connections between our nation’s mythology (the way we see ourselves) and its character (the way we are). Consider the legendary Cloudstreet, which intricately ties the biographies of two families to the spirit of the land they inhabit.
Tim has written plenty about the importance of land, not least in his previous memoir Island Home. I’m curious to know where he feels most comfortable these days, as an exile from the working class, as a Living Treasure. We meet in a hotel lobby in Melbourne, and while there’s something wholly artificial about sitting down with a stranger who has their half of the conversation written down (for what it’s worth, I largely ignore the questions I have on paper), I get the feeling that it’s here, not quite in the real world, where Tim really needs to be.