The Beatrice Interview

Tim Winton

"You never actually finish a novel; there's just a point at which you leave off."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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The title of Tim Winton's latest novel, Dirt Music, refers to a type of roots music that cuts across cultural and ethnic identifications, the simple musical forms that can be played with the most basic instruments-- even, as Winton enthused during a chat in the lobby of New York's Royalton Hotel, with nothing more than a stretched-out fishing line to pluck. The novel starts off in a remote Western Australian community, where Georgie, frustrated in her marriage to Jim, a commercial fisherman, takes up with "shamateur" (local lingo for fish poacher) Luther. The chain of violence, flight, and pursuit that emerges from their initial encounters is masterfully plotted, as Winton gradually reveals the failures of his protagonists to deal with the tragedies of their pasts and the consequences of those failures for those around them.

RH: One thing that comes up a lot in articles about you is how you wrote ten novels when you were in your twenties.

TW: It's funny when you're young, full of piss and vinegar. You write as if the world could end tomorrow; mind you, the world could have ended tomorrow back then, because the Cold War was still on. I think I was just writing at my natural pace. I was thrilled, the same way a child is when he learns to ride a bicycle and then does it all the time. I had a natural glee. Plus I was married with a baby, and we were broke. I was busting my bun to make a living. I was proving a point to myself, I suppose, that I could be a writer and make a living at it. I saw myself as a tradesman, not necessarily as an artist. But you slow down as you get older. You just get older and it takes you longer to do simple things.

RH: But the writing is going well enough that you can afford to take your time now. You can take your time brooding over the characters and the story.

TW: There's that, too, no question. But if I could written Dirt Music in just two years, I would have. I just couldn't get it right that quickly. I didn't get it right until the very end, the very day of the deadline. Actually, not even then. I was literally wrapping up the package the day before it was due at my publisher's in Sydney. It was 1,200 pages and weighed six kilo. My wife left me at eight in the morning while I was wrapping the package up, and when she came back at four I was still doing it. I knew deep down that it wasn't right. It just wasn't. I had a novel inside the manuscript, but I didn't have the novel.

It was a horrible feeling. It's what I imagine it must be like on the eve of your wedding to realize she's not for you, and that you'll have to suck it up to break the news to her, to everybody, that the wedding's off. I lay awake all night sweating, woke up at two in the morning, went to my office and started from scratch, writing the story out by hand. I got home sometime the next evening, slept for four hours, and then did the same thing again. I spent fifty-five daysand nights that way. I had to get it done. The book had already been advertised at that pointe. So I found the novel that was buried in that manuscript and got it down to 600 pages.

RH: What were some of the most difficult problems you had to sort out?

TW: One of the biggest was how much information to leave out. There was a lot I had to know, a lot of which I had to withhold. I had to figure out when I could reveal certain things, how long I could withhold them. I had to figure out how much I should elaborate on Georgie and her past, Lu and his past, all that. At what point do you find out that Lu is totally bereaved? At what point do you find out what Jim's background is, how do you separate his legend from his real story? It was tricky to figure out, and it made my head ache, it really did. And you're never sure. You never actually finish a novel; there's just a point at which you leave off. After a while, you have to give in. And I don't mind that. I've given in before.

RH: One of novel's strengths is the rich detail of its Western Australian setting.

TW: I've always written out of the place. The characters come after the place for me. I'm more interested in the landscape, and the characters are sometimes just an excuse for me to indulge in bouts of landscape.

It's interesting to me what American readers will make of that setting. I know there's a long and healthy tradition of landscape writing in this country, or of "regional" writing, although people often say "regional" with their lips pursed in disapproval. But that's what inspired me when I was a kid: Faulkner, Twain, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, all those great Southern writers.

RH: Is there a similar stigma in Australia towards "Western Australian" writers?

TW: Sure, and for Tasmanian writers as well. But frankly that was an advantage to me. We're separated from the rest of the country by vast open spaces. It takes three days driving just to reach the state line, and that's the short side. When I came along as an eager beaver at twenty-one, the fact that I was too young and came from the wrong side of the country made me a bizarre novelty. People were interested in me. I was glad I didn't have to leave Western Australia and move to Sydney to do what I wanted to do. I would have cut myself from what I wanted to write about. I suppose I could write in that state of exile; it wouldn't be completely impossible. Joyce wrote Ulysses far from Dublin, and you think of all those emigrated writers living in Paris, writing about their homeland... But I think it would have been a waste of time. I'd have gotten sucked into that whole world of parties and obligations. I'm glad to have avoided that, even if it's just by naive, provincial instinct. The isolation was very useful to me.

I was in Oxford, Mississippi, a few days ago, and I could recognize the love they had for their community there, their strong sense of place. I believe that's truly important, especially now, maybe even especially here. There's so few places now. America is such a franchise culture, with outlets in almost every town, and fake, nostalgic museum versions of the way things used to be. I even hear Americans complaining that you don't hear regional accents as much anymore, that it's somewhat discouraged. And that's sad. It's a dreary way of life. That's the nasty side of globalization and capitalism triumphant, this flattening out or "Californication" of the whole world.

RH: The novel opens up with Georgie surfing the Internet, so the culture spreads even to her remote corner of the world.

TW: Oh, sure. When I was growing up, it was American music, American films. You didn't have any choice. People from my generation are probably less interested in becoming successful on American terms, though. My generation, for better or for worse, was more nationalistic. When the Australian movies started coming out, we were pretty defiantly in your face about it; there was a real sense that we were doing our own thing and couldn't give a toss what anybody else wanted. I know the publishing world is run from New York, but I don't feel that I have to be read in America as a sign of ultimate success. To have a reader anywhere is a success to rejoice in and be grateful for.

RH: You got to do a very fun side project to the novel, putting together a soundtrack of sorts. How did that come about?

TW: It was a bit of a mad accident. I decided to make a tape for myself to play in the car, something to remind me of what I'd just written, really a "Goodbye to All That" sort of thing after I'd finished the novel. I had a friend in common with Lucky Oceans, who used to be in the band Asleep at the Wheel and played with Chet Atkins and Willie Nelson, then he married an Australian, moved to Fremantle., and produces a daily radio show. I thought Lucky would be a good person to ask about the sort of music I was looking for. It was just supposed to be a conversation, my asking him about the music, and then he asked to look at the manuscript. So I gave it to him, and he got all excited and told me, "Let's make a CD." He wrote some original tunes, made a few calls, put together a band for the studio, guys who'd been playing roots music for years. And since he knows everybody in Australian music, he called up a bunch of musicians and got permission for us to use their songs on the CD.

RH: I think almost every writer dreams at some point of having a soundtrack to his or her novel...

TW: I'd never even thought of it in my life, really. There's been times that I regretted having thought about it this time, because it just felt like it was spiralling out of control. Like when the record label decided to have two CDs, one with classical music, and they had the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in the recording studio to perform songs mentioned in the novel. But it was fun, a nice little surprise. It's not really a soundtrack. You don't have to read the book while you're listening to it. It's just a happy accident, really.

RH: You've also had your books adapted for the theater and movies, most notably a play based on your novel Cloudstreet.

TW: It was an against-all-odds thing. A very well known theater director in Sydney made a four and a half hour play out of Cloudstreet--huge cast of characters, twenty-year span--and people actually went to go see it. They loved it. They ended up doing a national tour, then two international tours.

I enjoyed seeing it when I finally went. I had avoided it for a long time. I never even looked at the script. I couldn't even bear to read my own book again; why would I look at somebody else's version of it? I knew that everybody involved knew what they were doing and had done lots of good work before. So what's the point of hanging around like the ghost of Christmas Past? It's the same with the movies they've made: sometimes they'll ask me questions, and I'll answer them, but that's it.

I could spend the rest of my life assing around with other people's versions of my work, but I've got other books to write. I can only do the one thing; it's all I've ever done and I'll just stick to that. I can't be bothered with anything else. I was ten when I made the decision to be a writer. It's been more of a blessing than a curse. I had one idea in my life, and I've stuck with it. The more people told me it was impossible, the more I liked it, the more I decided to tough it out. And I've been very lucky; it could have gone the other way. I could have been thwarted like one of my characters. Instead, they're thwarted for me, God bless them.

RH: What have you read recently that you've liked?

TW: I just read Tom McGuane's new book, and finally met him after several years of almost meeting. We've actually been in the same building and not been able to find each other. But he came to my reading in San Francisco, which was very nice of him. The new book has that classic wry satirical stuff he does so well, along with the over the top landscape writing. And I just discovered William Gay, a Southern writer whose collected stories are about to come out. It's not just that this guy has the chops; he's on fire. I think he's an older writer, but I'd just never heard of him. I thought I'd combed Southern literature through, but he was a new one for me.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Chloe Hooper | Complete Interview Index | William T. Vollmann

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