Interview with Tim Winton

Tim Winton talks about his latest novel, Dirt Music, Australian literature, the films of his work, the writing process, and more.


Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: How did Dirt Music come about?

Tim: Like all books, I guess by accident. I was just starting to get these insistent images in my head, and I would write them down and see what happened. There was an image of a boab tree, and an emaciated man, and I just couldn’t get them out of my mind, so I thought hmmm. What’s this about? I built the story around that. There was an upturned car, and a man stepping into the guts of a guitar. I just wrote them down, and I suppose it is like the process of throwing bits of paint at the canvas and at first it seems even more baffling, and then a pattern; a picture starts to emerge. Most of my writing is like that.

Magdalena: Is it a natural follow up from some of the work you’ve done in collaboration with photographers, eg Land’s End and Down to Earth? 

Tim: I guess you could say that. The Photographers approached me and asked if I wanted to do a book with them, so I was following their visions. Naturally I’m interested in painting and photography, and thought it would be interesting and fun. I guess they saw some visual elements in my work which they thought would work with their images. I don’t know if there is a connection. Probably not. My work has always been visual, and the collaborations probably came about as a result of the fiction, rather than the other way around. 

Magdalena: What kind of research did you have to do to write Dirt Music? Did you walk in Lu Fox’s footsteps? Shipwreck yourself? Eat green ants?

Tim: I eat green ants often enough. They are wonderful. The trick is to squash them before you eat them, otherwise they bite your tongue and it ruins the experience. I’ve been to the Kimberly Region a number of times. I went to a place like Fox’s island many times. So the images, and memory of place were strong, and present before I began writing the book. After I had a few ideas I went back and jotted a few things down. There is only so much a coffee table book on boab trees can tell you. You have to go there. But most of the time I was writing from memory. My diary is usually a journal about things like how much my back aches. I love being in landscape in general and liked being in that particular landscape. The Sharks, manta rays, fishing, were all things that I saw, and experienced.

Magdalena: What would you say are the big themes of the novel?

Tim: Regret. Grief. Coming to terms with self. It is hard for me to speak of themes. I like the reader to do that. Otherwise it feels like writing a 3rd grade essay on someone else’s work. But those are the big ones. 

Magdalena: Tell me why you used first person for Lu’s chapters, and 3rd for Georgie’s?

Tim: Different tenses and perspectives offer you different things. It helps to distinguish the world that they are in. I used the different tenses to make them seem to be inhabiting worlds of their own – a voice, or tool that they could use to express their personalities, and experiences. Past tense offers authority, distance, and present tense offers emotional immediacy. This technique isn’t new. People have been doing that since long before the birth of modernity. It was just a means for allowing the reader to experience these characters from their own perspective.

Magdalena: What are some of the parallels between Lu and Georgie’s lives?

Tim: Well on the one hand their lives are completely parallel. They follow each other’s footsteps. They are in the same place at the same time. Then the same places at different times. She is running away from a kind of loss of confidence in what sustains her, and her self-image. How she sees herself as a nurse. She has lost her momentum in life. She has lost faith in that sense of a life skill, but also she’s lost faith in herself. She’s fallen out of love with her bloke and her life. Lu has also lost confidence in what he does and his music, because of grief. You know I guess they are both in flight and in denial. They are both closing their eyes. Both are pretty messed up. 

Magdalena: Tell me about Jim. Is he every bully you went to school with?

Tim: He is probably a bit more scarey than every bully I went to school with. I certainly know people like him. They are in politics, and they run companies. It isn’t just fishing people. There is a form of that in all kinds of commercial culture in particular. He is kind of omnipotent; that barely supressed violence. Of course he is also like me. Georgie is like me. All writers use aspects of themselves. Jim is also somebody in denial as well. He can’t forgive himself. Jim does try to change, but I suspect he is disappointed by how little he is able to. He just wants to make things right. It is a deeper thing than he is able to deal with. He uses sacrificial gesture. People can make symbolic gestures but doesn’t mean their life changes. One philanthropic moment doesn’t make a life of renewal; of change. Jim is still a control freak.

Magdalena: Do you think that there can be a solely “Australian novel”?

Tim: Here is what I know. Is there an Australian potato? We live in specific places. We are marked by a place. I love Twain and O’ Conner and Faulkner because you are never going to mistake their work for anyone else’s work. When you read Les Murray you are in no doubt as to where you are. For a while Australians were desperately trying to be cosmopolitan. I think it is a pointless exercise. Australian novels are those rooted in Australia, with Australian landscapes and colours. My work has always had bits of Western Australia in it. It is always here. The world comes to us.

Magdalena: Dirt Music will be published shortly in the UK and USA. Do you think that English and American will be able to relate to the wide open Western Australian landscape as well as an Australian readership?

Tim: They have so many times before. I get better reviews in the US than anywhere. People respond. I don’t have too many doubts. Cloudstreet was more provincial than Dirt Music and it was very popular in the US and UK. It is always amusing to me and delightful of course that the books sell so well in America and other parts of the world. I can’t imagine what people must think as they read my books in Poland. Or in Hebrew and Greek. People are reading all the stories which are about bits of Western Australia. That’s it. We are all part of that global traffic and I think that the effort to make yourself understood and to be not a problem for anyone or to hide your own particuarly is a mistake. I think people will and do value individuality. 

Magdalena: Tell me about the process of watching your books become films and plays. Are you happy with the films of That Eye, the Sky, and In the Winter Dark .

Tim: Sure. I’m happy. I don’t think anybody took my name in vain, and if they did I got paid for it, so it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m always curious to see how people interpret these things in their own way. It is a riff on my work though of course – it’s not my work. I never get involved other than in handing over the book. You have to go out and bat for the team, which isn’t my style.

Magdalena: Any talk of filming Dirt Music?

Tim: I’ve had some calls. I’m talking to someone at the moment. I think I can say that much. 

Magdalena: Talk to me about the CD. How does listening to the CD enhance the experience of reading the book.

Tim: I don’t really know about that. There are two CDs. One is roots, and blues, and Celtic sounding music from around the world. Some of it is compiled from previously existing recordings, and some of it is referred to in the novel by the musicians. The music might have been played by Fox and his band. The classical music evokes landscapes, is meant to be evocative. I didn’t set out to do it. It was just a happy accident that I bumped into Lucky [Oceans – co producer]. It’s always lucky when you bump into Lucky. His real name is Rubin incidentally. It was a nice little thing. The book was finished, and it seemed like a fun thing to do. 

Magdalena: Have you begun working on something new?

Tim: Getting home is my major project at the moment. I’m working on some short stories, and a couple of other novels are on the backburner, fermenting.