Home Book Award Tim Winton on Blueback, Ningaloo and 40 years of writing

Tim Winton on Blueback, Ningaloo and 40 years of writing

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Tim Winton recalls a recent moment when he drove his elderly mother to the beach to help her swim. Her mother had been a swimming instructor when she was younger, but she was now too frail to swim on her own. As Winton and his wife held his mother in the ocean, they were both very aware that this was a scene Winton had imagined and written over 20 years earlier.

In one of the most moving scenes in Winton’s 1997 novel Blueback, the protagonist Abel cradles his aging mother in the water she loves. “We come from the water,” the mother whispers to her son. “We belong to him, Abel.

“I’m there in the water with my wife and my mom looking at each other like, ‘Do you remember anything?'” Winton said.

“It was weird because I think we were all aware of the connection, like we were inhabiting a fictional reality.”

Forty years into his publishing career, Winton says those odd moments — of his writing coming to life — are becoming more and more common.

“If you’re on this adventure long enough, you realize it’s inevitable that you’re going to repeat yourself, but not in a conventional way,” Winton says.

“You find yourself living through things you’ve already written; you find yourself living through scenes you’ve already imagined and released.”

“The Wrong Side of the Wrong Country”

The string of successes in Winton’s career belongs only to the most fanciful imaginations.

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Discover the 2022 Franklin Miles shortlist

At 21, he won the Vogel’s Literary Award for his first book, An Open Swimmer. Three years later, he won his first Miles Franklin Literary Award for Shallows (he has won the Miles four times to date and shares the record for most wins with the late Thea Astley).

He has written best-selling novels for adults and children, short stories, plays, essays and memoirs. His books have been adapted for stage and screen, and he has been named a Living National Treasure. There’s even a species of fish named after him – you can find the 30 centimeter ‘Hannia wintoni’ (or Winton’s Grunter) swimming in the fresh waters of the Kimberley.

It’s an unlikely story for any writer, and would have been unimaginable for a young Tim, who at age 10 decided he was going to be a writer. Growing up in a working-class family in the suburbs of Perth, Winton understood that he lived “on the wrong side of the wrong country in the wrong hemisphere”.

A career in the arts was a radical aspiration.

“The culture told us all the real Australia was somewhere else, it happened on the east coast,” Winton says.

“Everyone on TV was from the east. Skippy the bush kangaroo was from Waratah National Park, wherever it was, but that wasn’t where we were.”

Winton was the first member of his family to go to college, where he studied creative writing.

“I knew I was working hard. And I knew I knew I was determined. I thought I could be good,” Winton said.

A man with long sand-colored hair wearing thick-rimmed glasses looks directly at the camera without a smile
Winton counts Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises among his favorite books. “It really upset me when I was young,” he said.(ABC Arts: Nina Otranto)

And he was good. But when the awards started rolling in, Winton was more embarrassed than proud. He felt indebted to the teachers and mentors who had helped him succeed, who had not themselves received the same accolades.

“Art isn’t fair,” says Winton.

“I think it took me ten years to not feel bad about doing well.”

pleasure and pain

Looking back, Winton says some books were much easier to write than others.

Blueback, a heartbreaking allegory about a boy, his mother, and a blue groper, was written “in one working week,” Winton says.

“This book just dropped,” he said. “It was a great experience to write. There was almost no rewriting, it just came out formed.”

Perhaps it’s this simplicity that makes Blueback so powerful for readers young and old. Winton says he gets more fan mail about this book than anything he’s written. (A screen adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Eric Bana is set to hit theaters in January).

An underwater shot of a person wearing scuba gear touching a huge fish
The film adaptation of Blueback tells the story of Abby, a young girl who befriends a wild groper while diving into the ocean.(Supplied: Roadshow)

Cloudstreet – Miles Franklin’s award-winning novel about two families sharing a house in Perth between the 1940s and 1960s – was also a “pleasure” to write. The book was inspired by stories Winton’s grandparents told about life in Perth – a place Winton could see disappearing.

“Perth was just being bulldozed,” says Winton, referring to the many old buildings that were demolished in the 60s and 80s.

“The Perth that my grandparents knew and my parents knew was a foreign place to me, and my children have never seen it. So I guess it was a time when I was in my twenties when I first wanted to try to capture that.”

If Cloudstreet and Blueback were fun, Winton’s 2001 novel Dirt Music was something else altogether. Winton spent so many years trying to find a way to finish the story that some of his children had never seen him work on another book.

Even when the day came to submit the final manuscript, Winton was unconvinced that he had nailed it.

“My wife left for work at eight in the morning, and I was packing it up to send to my editor,” Winton explains.

“And she came home at four and I was still there unpacking it, packing it up. And I just knew something was wrong.”

That night he got up and started the book again, from scratch. For 55 days and nights, he rewrote Dirt Music, “as my wife watched, like I was a ticking time bomb,” he says.

Winton says he learned a valuable lesson from that “dark, dark time”.

“It’s just a fucking book,” he said.

“And I don’t think it’s worth going crazy or tormenting your family.”

This “damn book” earned him his third Miles Franklin and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Tim Winton, 2022
A committed conservationist, Winton donated his $25,000 Western Australian Premier’s Award to the Save Ningaloo Reef campaign in 2002. (Vee at Blue Media Exmouth)

writing and the environment

Whether it’s the majesty of the ocean in Breath or the sparse salt lakes of The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton is recognized as one of the most lyrical observers of the Western Australian landscape.

Her love for the natural world is reflected in her conservation work.

Between 2000 and 2003 he was instrumental in the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef from resort development. It was another one of those weird moments of art imitating life: in Blueback, published in 1997, Abel and his mother managed to protect their piece of coast from the developers.

Winton’s passion for Ningaloo has only grown in the years since the campaign. He is currently working on a three-part documentary on the reef, which will air on ABC TV next year.

“It’s one of the last great wilderness places in the world,” says Winton.

“And if we lose those places, we’ve lost everything.”

Winton is lucid when it comes to the urgency of environmental action, stating that a “clock is ticking” on human existence. Yet he still believes there is a place – and indeed, a very important place – for art and writing.

“I’m in the useless beauty business,” he says. “And I’m happy about that.”

“I don’t think art needs an excuse to exist. We need beauty in our lives, so we don’t go crazy.”

Tim Winton appears as part of ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books. Listen to his conversation with Claire Nichols of The Book Show.