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: I want to ask you about the characters in your writing who have some sort of faith, like Nev Keely, they’re almost heroically practical. Is that a sort of a reflection of your experience of those sorts of people?
TIM WINTON: Perhaps so, and some of my heroes as a boy who were living people and other people that I read about as sort of cultural heroes, I mean…I think Nev is a…I think it’s…Keely talks about him in the book, or remembers him as sort of…he’s part Billy Graham part Billy Jack. You know, he’s…you know, he never knows whether to get, you know, someone in a half nelson or kiss them in benediction?
I think the people who were important to me weren’t people who were orthodox, they weren’t people who had excellent theology or who were gifted with liturgical skills of correctness; they were people who in their messy lives manifested grace, whose faith was faith active in love, in a sense, as the old saying used to be, who just didn’t need to convince…who weren’t in the business of convincing you of anything; they just at certain moments in their lives they embodied what they believed, and in the end, the older I got and the less obsessed I got with theology…I mean, I grew up in a fundamentalist environment, I was the child of converts and as I left the faith of childhood, which is kind of a lot of the time a received faith, I was sort of questing the way young people do, and I was arrogant like a young man often is, and I just thought it could all be organised theologically…But I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.
SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.
TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…
SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?
TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.
SIMON SMART: Would you agree that some of the best literature is in a sense theological in nature, meaning this: it’s about kind of the human condition, about brokenness and evil and human goodness, fallibility, sorrow, hope, those sorts of big themes?
TIM WINTON: Yes, I guess, and I think, really, at its best theology isn’t really a science of knowing, as sometimes we get foxed into thinking; it’s a speculative endeavour, and when it’s at its best it’s closer to poetry and music than it is to…
SIMON SMART: To correct doctrine, or something?
TIM WINTON: Yes, yes, some sort of systematic doctrine. But yes, I think I probably have learnt as much from a novelist in a spiritual and theological sense as I have from works of so-called pure theology only because it’s theology where you get to walk the idea around the park. You know, and you put some theological cattle on the paddock, you know what I mean? The rest of it seems very abstract and I guess the…if there is an advantage for a novelist it’s…even if you’re not conscious of it all the time, I mean, I’m certainly not, is that you’re road-testing your ideas in the lives and bodies of people who might not be real, but they’re…if you’re good enough as a novelist they’re real enough to you to stay with on the page, and as a reader likewise.
SIMON SMART: When you think of Keely, he finds a reason to live, but it’s costly. Do you get a sense that anything that’s really worth fighting for will take a personal toll?
TIM WINTON: There’s no question. I mean, most of my…most of my historical religious heroes were Catholic, but the one who stands out of course is Bonhoeffer. And what does it cost a man who’s a pacifist and an intellectual and an indoors, waistcoat-wearing guy to have to climb down from his moral citadel and decide that he’s going to have to take part in the assassination of Hitler? And for that to all go horribly wrong almost in a way…in ways that were unbelievable, really, and then for him to be executed, almost when the war was over, as an act of bastardry. And I think, if what people, if people value their lives they’ll put some skin in the game, really. If they’re truly valuing what’s going on.
SIMON SMART: In this story there’s a key idea of wanting to reassure children that they’re safe. There’s a point where Keely whispers to the boy, ‘We’re okay’, willing it to be truth, and then later he says, ‘You’re safe, he whispered prayerfully, needing it to be true, wanting to believe.’ Now, eventually as adults we realise we’re not safe, so what can we truthfully tell the children, and I wonder what Nev Keely might’ve said to the children?
TIM WINTON: What else can you say to a kid is that, ‘I’ll do everything that I can to keep you safe, I’ll do what I can, and I can’t promise you it’s going to be alright, but I’ll promise you that, I’ll die making sure, I’ll die trying.’? But at certain points you end up, whether you like it or not, having to lie to kids, and if you have to lie to make them feel safe then so be it, the scene that you’re referring to is, this kid has somehow cottoned on to the fact that there are all these birds that have been poisoned in a south coast town, and it’s a real historical case, and he feels, ‘How do I reassure this kid, and how deep does the lying go before I’m actually part of what’s going on in the wider society, where I’m truly feeding this kid toxic untruths?’ And he wants to keep this kid safe, but he doesn’t… And he finds himself in this moral quandary of, ‘How do we…how do I reassure this kid without lying to him?’ He’s been lied to his whole life, he never feels that he can trust people because all the adults in his life and the men in his life have been appalling.
SIMON SMART: There’s a sense of…that…that is childhood maybe that point where you, whether it’s rightly or wrongly, have that sense of feeling safe, and it’s the childhood that’s missing for this little boy, isn’t it? Because at no point could he really feel that until he meets Keely, maybe.
TIM WINTON: Yes, I mean, and it should be every child’s right to assume without a second thought that you’ll be looked after, that you’ll be safe, that you’ll have first and foremost safety and order in your life, and that there’s someone there looking out to your best interests despite what they want themselves, and that they’ll give up something for you. And when you meet children and see children whose lives aren’t anything remotely like that, it’s so confronting, you just… And you realise that there are people all around you who are living those lives as adults who were once those children and sadly who are often replicating that for their own children or the children around them.
At a time when despite our great prosperity there are people who are…their form of shopping in despair’s boutiques is addiction, I guess, and that’s that stage that people get in their life where they’re living…they’re only living a kind of squalid version of what the broader consumer culture is doing, is living as if there are no consequences to their actions, you know? So at one level it’s fine for us to be shaking our heads at someone who’s not looking after their kid properly, who’s not living as though everything that they do doesn’t have a consequence to the young, and yet there are people at the very top of our society who are doing exactly that to millions of people, who are living as though there are no consequences to their short-term actions.