We talk to four-time Miles Franklin award winner Tim Winton ahead of his talk at Melbourne Town Hall
This rare event put on by the Wheeler Centre, in partnership with Readings, offers fans an encounter with one of Australia’s most loved and iconic authors. The $50 entry fee includes a signed first edition hard cover of his 11th novel.
Eyrie offers a portrait of Western Australia where the absurd wealth of the mining boom has seen the less fortunate forgotten about and environmental concerns hushed up. Its protagonist Tom Keeley is a disgraced do-gooder, living in exile after a very public meltdown. Cooped up in a low-rent high rise, Keeley soon discovers there is always further to fall.
Tim, I read Eyrie over the weekend and loved it. As a Perth boy myself, it felt like going back there for a holiday.
A holiday in hell!
Yeah, it’s not a terribly flattering portrait. I’ve heard you say, when you’re writing, the place always comes first. Was that the case here?
Yeah, it doesn’t matter if it’s a natural landscape or a cityscape. I don’t know why. That’s just how it works for me. The setting creates the story. It was a long time before I read any Goethe and his phenomenological idea about having to look and look and look at the same thing until eventually it reveals something of itself to you. There’s wisdom and genius in that.
Is that why you keep revisiting WA as a setting? You’re still looking at it until it reveals something new?
I don’t know. I’ve lived in Fremantle for 15 or 20 years, I suppose. I’ve got a lot invested in the community. Kids, grandkids, a footy team. In terms of the writing of this book, when I was working on [previous novel] Breath, the house was too busy, so I got a workspace in a sort of high rise. There I was…
Peering down at the city.
Yeah. When you’re a flatlander like me, a vertical environment does certain things to your head. You look down with this sort of objectifying gaze. People become creaturely from a distance. And the noise rises up. You hear these really intimate conversations, although you can’t see who’s speaking. After Breath, I realised I had all this stuff of a place and I got thinking about the way we live in this suburban, middle-class culture. We’re separated from each other by our prosperity. Every man’s in his castle in his car on his way to work. As a working class child who’s become bourgeois, it was confronting to me how insulated you can become.
I wanted to talk about the class conflict the book raises. It’s something we don’t like to think exists in Australia. Somewhere like Perth, where there’s a boom, it becomes harder to talk about the people left behind.
Class is the thing we’re not allowed to talk about. That’s the only form of political correctness the right will tolerate. To talk about class is breaking a taboo. We’re not allowed to talk about class because that might mean that people who are unsuccessful are unsuccessful possibly for reasons that are beyond their control. A lot of middle class Australians are doing well on the back of the working poor. There are people living on the streets of Fremantle who are former boat people, former merchant mariners, former unskilled labourers, for whom there’s no place in the new prosperity.
Did you feel a need to bring those people into the light with this book?
No, that makes it sound like I was writing with some purpose. I wouldn’t mind doing that, but I don’t think it would be accurate to describe my method like that.
There is a real sense of anger in Eyrie, focussed through Keeley.
I had to inoculate myself against that, because I was having to marinate in Keeley’s anger for so long. You could do your head in. There wasn’t any point in using the book to vent. I’m not Keeley. But I was watching friends in NGOs, watching people work in social housing, people helping the working poor, watching them in this doomed mission to get political and media attention on that stuff and watching them crash and burn. Here was a kind of a frustration and an opportunity to be in someone else’s shoes, someone not just on the cusp of despair, but with two feet over the edge.
When we meet him, Keeley is in free fall.
He’s in a state where he’s absolved himself from all responsibility. His ranting — that’s all the things you say when you’ve given up.
I know, like Keeley, you’re a keen environmentalist. Is it hard to keep that up in the current climate? There’s this new term: “green tape”.
Green tape is just another hate word for environmental responsibility. It’s interesting to have Keeley be a casualty of that hate, this counter reformation. For a while there, people had this idea that life could be bigger than the market, obviously that threatened power and they’re seizing it back.
I started off by saying how much I loved Eyrie’s portrait of Perth (and Fremantle), but as you said, it’s a bit hellish. How do you think Perth readers will respond to this portrait?
I think, surely people must get tired of a romanticised portrait of home. You’re always hardest on the things you love the most. I presume that people’s surprise, irritation and indignation might be tempered by certain moments of recognition.