Belonging and Sacrifice Part I

The first part of our interview with Tim Winton on his novel Eyrie (includes transcript).

Tim Winton is the author of over twenty-five books including Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, The Riders and The Turning. He came into CPX to discuss his writing including his latest novel, Eyrie.

SIMON SMART: Tim Winton is the author of over 25 books. He’s known for much-loved novels like Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, The Riders and Breath. His latest book is Eyrie, the story of a jaded and broken-down environmentalist who just when you think might be giving up and slipping away from life finds a reason to keep on living, to keep on fighting. Tim Winton came in to CPX to talk about the book.

Tim Winton, so good to have you in, congratulations on the new book.


SIMON SMART: The key character in the story, in a sense, is a little boy, Kai, who’s captured the heart of this sort of burnt-out environmentalist. The boy’s a bit odd, he’s seen too much, and he’s very vulnerable. There’s a sense in my reading of this where he gives life to this guy who’s falling, and my sense is the brutality of life is present in this book as it is in many of your books, and yet there are moments of tender grace. Is that a fair summary of this book?

TIM WINTON: Yes, I think it is. I think this little boy, Kai, is an unwitting agent of grace, I think he’s sort of…he’s a sort of presence in this bloke’s life after this guy Keely is more or less taking out divorce proceedings against his fellow humans, and he’s trying to prove the poet John Donne wrong. You know, Donne says ‘No man is an island’ and Keely just…he wants to be, he’s had a gutful, he wants to be an island, but the, you know, the logic and the truth of the poem kicks in and he finds that he is involved with mankind, and Kai is the means by which that happens; he, just by his presence, all he really has to do is stand there before this bloke and not even mean to confront him, but as soon as he gets this…as soon as this kid notices the man, the man notices the boy and he…by his presence he’s signifying that he needs help? So he doesn’t…he doesn’t know he’s doing it, he’s a six-year-old kid who’s got problems, but he’s…in a way he’s rescuing Keely from himself and he requires rescuing.

SIMON SMART: Because he’s on his own in this flat, and as you say, pushing life away, it comes back to him in really a surprising, unexpected fashion.

TIM WINTON: Yes, in a sense, he’s a guy who’s been ejected from the middle class, he’s sort of collateral damage, if you like, and he’s surrounded by people who have fewer choices than him socially, and in this building that he’s in, this kind of seedy high rise, and this woman and this boy who are living a few doors away, they’re…they seem quite powerless compared to him, and yet they’re…the provocation if you like of their powerlessness is something that is powerful in his life, that he can’t account for. So it’s a…they’re kind of burrs in his blanket.

SIMON SMART: Bring him back to life. Now, he’s been…this Tom Keely character has been a bit of a warrior for the environment, and he’s really burnt out by that, he comes to a spectacular fall from grace. Does he…he seemed to me at least to represent the forces of society or the people in our society who want to do good but they’re powerless before the economic machine of progress and so on.

TIM WINTON: Yes, I think there are people who have that kind of prophetic role in our society who have to get up every day and say unpalatable things that speak to power, basically. You know, whether that’s…whether they’re people who are trying to spare the environment or whether they’re people who are trying to get social housing or attention paid to mental health, some attention to the poor. And the culture at large, the power in politics and media, is looking elsewhere, studiously looking elsewhere. They’re after the riches, they’re after the…they’re speaking easy, the speaking easy stuff, and after easy stuff, and I’m sort of full of admiration for those people who are the voices in the wilderness crying out, saying, ‘But what about this, what about that?’ They get up every day and they swim against the current, and they burn out? A lot of them burn out, and I’m…I guess having observed that, and also just having, for those who don’t burn out, I just wonder how they…how do they keep going, what feeds their spirit? What’s…what shores up their stubbornness? And yes, Keely’s one of those guys who’s crashed and burned, and as you say, he’s said something at a demo which is true, but is catastrophic to his prospects, and he’s unemployed, and his marriage has gone south, and he’s lost the…he’s lost the nice, renovated house with the righteous Prius out the front.

SIMON SMART: He’s been beaten up by life, hasn’t he? What’s your sense of this sort of seduction and triumph of consumerism and the many costs to that? Now, there’s the environmental costs to that, but there are others as well.

TIM WINTON: Probably the most disheartening outcome of the booms that we’ve lived through and the prosperity that we are all, or many of us are experiencing is that it’s brought about some kind of moral idiocy where we’ve just got this sort of tunnel vision, we’re all looking at one thing, and it’s almost as though, we’re in some game show, and we don’t realise that we could step off the set at any time and get on with, a whole lot of other things in real life. So I think it’s the kind of smugness and narrowness and tone-deafness that’s so appalling and you like to flatter yourself that you’re kind of aware and conscious and you know, righteous in your own way, but it’s so easy to forget that there’s people all around you whose lives you aren’t noticing, who aren’t getting the benefits of the boom, who aren’t at the forefront of the prosperity that our culture is talking about all the time and obsessed with.

SIMON SMART: Now, I want to ask you about the ethic of sacrifice. In Keely’s parents you see that very much, and certainly him by the end as well. Are we too cynical these days for that sort of commitment?

TIM WINTON: Well, I think…yes, I’m not sure, but I sometimes wonder if sacrifice even is part of people’s moral imagination anymore, whether it’s almost a redundant idea, or such a…now actually a strange idea. At a time in our history when our future as a species might be determined by the size and scope of the sacrifices that we might be prepared to make for each other and for our children and their unborn children, it’s a kind of a pressing concern, really. I mean, if, if we’re going to eat ourselves out of existence and burn ourselves out of existence and drive ourselves out of existence and consume ourselves out of existence, and perhaps the only way out is just to sort of restrain our appetites and retrain ourselves to give up a few things for the common good. You can appeal to that, but it’s…it feels harder to appeal to that higher spirit in people at the moment.

I think somebody elsewhere said Australians do adversity really well, and perhaps we don’t do prosperity quite as well. We just seem to lose our compass now and again. It’s interesting, in a fictional setting to write about sacrifice and someone to have to find in themselves some…some moral force, something…something that they can draw upon to…as Keely finds, he has to give up things for these people who aren’t his family, who are an irritant in his life, who he hasn’t invited into his life. But they are the means by which he finds himself again and by which he is restored to himself.

I mean, the book starts with the quote from the prophet Isaiah about they that wait on the Lord or they that fear the Lord will rise on wings as eagles, and they will run and not be weary and walk and not faint, and whether you’re a religious person or a spiritual person or not, that’s kind of about keeping faith with whatever it is that you keep faith with, even if it’s just your faith in yourself or your faith in human nature or your faith in the future. If once you step away from that you’re into the realms of despair. What Les Murray says in a great poem, you’ll be shopping in despair’s boutiques, which I think is a fabulous, fabulous line from a fabulous poem, and in a sense Keely is rescued and wrenched out of his death spiral, if you like. He does find a certain pleasure after a while in falling; it’s easier to fall than it is to climb, and this little boy and this rather squalid situation that Keely finds himself in, are the means by which he is restored to himself and the last words of the book sort of attest to that.

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