Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Tim Winton is passionate about surfing. The writer from Western Australia surfed as a teenager; and at 48, he still surfs now. He looks the part, with his casual clothes and his pony tail. So it’s no surprise that his latest book Breath, should centre around the sport.
Set in a small sawmilling town, Breath tells of the friendship between teenagers Pikelet; a bookish, but adventurous boy, and the local wild boy Loonie. To escape boredom, the boys take to the surf, spurning all the limits and rules.
They are taken up by Sando; an older surfer who becomes their mentor and their hero. In pushing them to ever increasing risk, has Sando their best interests at heart? Or is he merely feeding his ego?
Breath is a dark book, showing the dangers of mixing with people whose addictive personalities rule them. Told in the first person by Pikelet, it is a mesmerising account of childhood told in language so breathtaking; so powerful, that you’re gripped from the first line until the last.
Winton is tired when we meet in a boardroom in Dublin’s new Radisson SAS Hotel. He arrived in London the morning before; has been working since, and is clearly suffering from jetlag. He suppresses yawns; but that doesn’t stop him from using the most eloquent language as he thoughtfully ponders my questions.
“I’ve always had a sense that I could write,” he says. “I’ve had it since I was 10. And in retrospect that was strange. My father was a carpenter. My family weren’t educated so writing was considered a bit weird.
“There was never a plan B for me. I look back in a kind of sweat sometimes and wonder ‘what was I thinking?’ My parents were so proud of having a kid at university; there’s this sense of saving your kids from toil; and I declare that I am going to be a writer? What did I know about it?”
Success came early. Winton wrote his first novel, An Open Swimmer when he was still at Curtin University of Technology. It won the Australian Vogel Literary Award in 1981. It was the first of a string of prestigious awards for his books both for adults and children.
Winton is a keen environmentalist. He is patron of the Marine Conservation Society of Australia, and he spent two years away from writing on a campaign to save Australia’s second great coral reef.
His novels grow from the landscape.
“If you look again at a place you love; if you look hard enough at something that doesn’t seem to be anything for long enough, you will become intimate with it; something will reveal itself to you. The stories come out of that landscape.”
The destructive Sando seemed, to me, the pivot of Winton’s latest book, but he revealed himself to Winton late on in the process.
“I started with this boy needing to find passion in his life in order to survive. In those small towns teenagers either drove fast cars took drugs or drank. I look back and everyone I knew is either dead or in goal.
“To be individual you had to find something; and it wasn’t always legal. Years later you would find out that someone had become a concert violinist or a brain surgeon, and you’d think, ‘I had no idea.’
“I was interested in people like Sando, and when I was a kid surfing, we had some interaction with older people. It was sort of tribal . We had respect for our elders that we did not feel in any other form of life.
“Old people were just gits, yet older surfers had an aura. They seemed wise. They knew about fish and birds and they knew about weather. They had travelled. We looked up to them starry eyed.”
In Breath, though, surfing is more than a way to explore taking sport to its extremes. It’s also a metaphor for writing.
“Writing is like waiting for a wave,” says Winton. “You are sitting there, confident that eventually the consequences of an event over the horizon in another time zone; another storm or disturbance is going to ripple out in the shape of energy expended as waves. You then turn and you ride that energy.
“As a writer you sit at the desk, every day; bombing around, to all intents and purposes not doing anything useful at all, in the hope that some energy will turn up and you can harness is to make it a story.”
It’s only in retrospect that Winton wonders if, in exploring physical and psychological risk, he was also, actually mulling over the risky business of being a writer.
“The whole business can be fearful and fearsome. You spend your day pulling this rabbit out of a hat, and some days you are not sure you even have the hat, let alone the rabbit in the hat.
“It is distressing. You live on your pride as well. I am not giving in. I am not going to teach in any university; and you realise, particularly when your three children are young that you have to put food on the table. You were stubbornly doing something that looked, to other people, like an indulgence.”
To say that Winton has succeeded as a writer is to understate it. He is one of Australia’s most esteemed, and loved writers, and every book he has written is still in print.
“I feel I have done indecently well,” he says. “I have written all my life for pleasure, and I have written all my adult life for a living.”
Is there a particular message in Breath?
“I don’t think I am trying to say anything; I am just trying to tell a story. I want for the reader what I treasure in reading. That is being given an experience that feels so vivid and real that you forget you have read it in a book. I want to make them feel they have lived it.”
Reading Breath certainly gives the reader an understanding of surfing.
‘In time we surfed to fool with death- but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.’
“I am more passionate about surfing than I was when I was 14,” says Winton. “It offers respite from turmoil. It’s like the world’s biggest poultice. You go to it and it sucks the worst poison off you.
“I can be in the worst frame of mind going out there, and when I get out of the water I am a different person. I am in that strange sad happy post coital kind of state and that is wonderful.
“When my eldest son was 12 we used to surf in the winter. WE used to battle up this dirt track to catch the wave. Afterwards we’d have our clothes on and our hair would be wet. We’d be bouncing back along the track and kangaroos would be jumping out. He’d have this big smile on his face.
“He’d say, ‘I’m feeling all twinkly.’ He’s 24 now and we know what Twinkly means. Twinkly will do for me.”
Breath by Tim Winton is published by Picador at 14.99 euro. © Sue Leonard. 2008.