Tim Winton on the 'sorry lives of blokes' in the #metoo era
Author Tim Winton worries about young Aussie men grappling with the pressures of being male in the #metoo era. He speaks with journalist SHERELE MOODY.
THIRTY-SEVEN years, one marriage, three children, 27 books, four movies, a TV series and a swag of awards fill the decades between Tim Winton's debut novel and his latest release, yet the subject of toxic masculinity seamlessly crosses space and time for the iconic Aussie author.
Winton's first book - An Open Swimmer - earned wide-spread critical claim on its release in 1981, with the coming-of-age tale steeped in male violence and self-discovery scoring that year's Vogel Literary Award.
Fast-forward to now and Winton is busy criss-crossing Australia promoting his 29th release - The Shepherd's Hut.
Sitting patiently outside a Sydney TV studio, a make-up artist preparing his craggy face and long sun-bleached sandy-brown hair for the waiting cameras, Winton settles into a lengthy phone chat about the book's key character - Jaxie Clackton.
Jaxie is a 15-year-old lad on the precipice of adulthood. He is juggling the normal stressors of adolescence while coping with the rages of his violent alcoholic father, the grief of losing his much-loved mother to cancer, the hunt for his somewhat idealised girlfriend (who happens to be his cousin and yes, they are doing the horizontal tango), the motivations of a kind stranger and an anger that knows few bounds.
Describing Jaxie as a "spiky, sulky threatening boy that you'd cross the street to avoid", Winton muses the youngster is a reflection of many young, angry and volatile Aussie males struggling to find their place in the post-#metoo world.
"The lives of young men aren't doing so well - the suicide rates of boys and men in the regions are higher than in metropolitan areas," Winton says.
"They are having to adapt to so much change and that is quite tough."
A major part of the struggle to survive, the father-of-three explains, revolves around what it means to be male in a modern Australia where strong feminist discourse on violence and equality permeates the vernacular.
"I've been writing about the sorry lives of blokes for 30-something years," Winton points out before stressing: "I'm not an expert on masculinity though - I'm just a story-teller."
"The term 'toxic masculinity' sounds very important and technical but it's not," he says.
"It means that if your role as a bloke makes women afraid, if it limits women's freedom and is bad for women then you are poisonous.
"Toxic masculinity is also bad for blokes - it limits their horizons, it limits their own lives."
How The Shepherd's Hut slots into the debate around #metoo
RELEASED hot on the tail of the #metoo movement, The Shepherd's Hut fits snugly into the current - and often controversial and heated - debates about gender inequality, power imbalances, rape culture, male sexual harassment of women, men's rights, misogyny and misandry.
Winton spent two years writing the book which means its release date - while perfectly timed - was purely coincidental.
"I've been holding this book back for a while," he says.
"It's not that I wanted to write a book about blokes and masculinity because I sniffed something in the zeitgeist with the #metoo movement and all that - it was just an accident.
"The Shepherd's Hut is just an extension of what I've done before but once I realised the timing of the release I decided to address the issues it raises head on when speaking to the media.
"If this can do something useful in the current debate - that's a great thing."
Winton believes women voicing their experiences of harassment, violence and inequality is a good thing for masculinity, but at the end of the day, he says, men need to own these issues as well.
"We have this weird underlying assumption that it's a woman's job to give and a man's job to take - and women are raging against this," Winton says.
"Men need to do their part and that means letting go, owning up to our unexamined privilege and it means being prepared to give and not just take."
Winton prefers the solitary life
FOR a man who occupies significant space in the public eye, Winton is surprisingly shy and solitary.
A keen surfer with a strong love of nature, the 58-year-old author has a close-knit family and a steady group of friends in his home-town of Perth.
"When I write a book I spend most of my days in a room with people who don't exist," he says.
"This morning I've seen more people than I would see in a month in my normal life.
"I can shake hands with someone and in 20 minutes I won't recognise them - there are just so many faces.
"I'm sitting here with studio make-up on my face and I don't know whether I'm Arthur or Martha."
The launch of a book means Winton needs to step out of the shadows to talk to journalists, speak at forums and meet with fans.
"People are really taking the book to heart - they love the character and they like the book," he says.
"When you find out that people love it, that's great and the reviews have been excellent - I can't quite believe it."
Winton also shuns social media, preferring to speak to others in real life.
"I've got friends, I have my family, I have my life - so I don't need a friends on Facebook," he says.
"I do see the value of it in terms of politics and the power of it for things like charities but I don't feel any need to be friended and I don't need likes."
How Winton became an 'overnight success' - after 10 decades and 10 books
WITH four Miles Franklin awards under his belt, Winton is one of Australia's most recognised and prolific authors.
Winton was born in the Perth suburb of Karrinyup in August of 1960.
He moved to the port city of Albany - some five hours from the capital of Western Australia - with his parents when he was 12 years old.
A lot of his writing reflects his experience of being an adolescent maturing into an adult in regional Australia.
Winton attended Curtin University of Technology and lived overseas before settling in Perth with wife Denise and their children.
A keen writer throughout his childhood and young adulthood, Winton began to make his mark on the literary world - and on Australian readers - when An Open Swimmer picked up the Vogel Literary Award in 1981.
His next novel - Shallows - earned the prestigious Miles Franklin three years later and in 1991 he released the unforgettable Cloudstreet - another Miles Franklin winner.
Dirt Music and Breath also scored Australia's most prestigious literary prize, which is named after the female author of iconic Australian novel My Brilliant Career.
Winton has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and in 2007 he was named a National Living Treasury - one of just 100 Australians on the National Trust of Australia's list.
While Winton excelled critically, he actually endured a decade-long financial slog during which he earned a $1000 advance for each of his books.
"There were many many years of struggle," Winton says.
The book that "saved his bacon" financially was Cloudstreet.
"Everyone thought I was an overnight success, but the commercial success came after 10 books," he says.
The 1991 release follows the very Aussie trials and tribulations of two working class families living in the same large house on a regular suburban street.
Cloudstreet's initial print run was 4000 but it proved immensely popular and has been reprinted over and over again with more than 500,000 copies sold.
Winton says he will always be grateful for Cloudstreet but he refuses to remain in its shadow.
"I don't feel the burden of Cloudstreet - I am grateful for it," he says.
"It saved our bacon as a family when we were struggling and it liberated us from a certain kind of anxiety that lots of people in Australia feel at certain times.
"You know - when the landlord breathing down your neck and you're one week away from destitution."
Cloudstreet has since been adapted into a six-part television series, a five-and-half-hour stage play and even an opera.
Of Winton's other novels, four of them - Breath, The Turning, In the Winter Dark and That Eye, the Sky - have been made into films.
Breath will be released in cinemas across the country on May 3.
Directed by, and starring, Australian actor Simon Baker of the Mentalist fame, the film was shot in Denmark and it tells the coming-of-age story of two teenage lads growing up in remote WA.
Winton expects The Shepherd's Hut to follow suite, with the film rights already sold.
"Someone bought the rights a few months before it was published," he says.
"They got in early this time."
Winton says the film will be made in Australia, most likely in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia where The Shepherd's Hut is set.
"I know the producers are already looking around for some spiky surly little 15-year-old to play Jaxie," he says
"I think we need an untrained actor, a young man who is raw.
"It will make a nice film - it needs to be made in Australia.
"It's about Australia, it's about Australian people and it's about he Australian landscape.
"You can't get that red dirt or the gums anywhere else."
IF you love Tim Winton's novels, SHERELE MOODY recommends turning the cover on the work of these Aussie writers.
CHARLOTTE WOOD: Wood paints a darkly disturbing dystopian Australia in her beautifully heart-breaking The Natural Way of Things. Wood's tale of misogyny and corporate greed echoes Margaret Atwood's astounding The Handmaid's Tale and William Golding's terrifying Lord of the Flies.
THEA ASTLEY: Like Winton, Astley won the Miles Franklin Award four times with The Well Dressed Explorer, The Slow Natives, The Acolyte and Drylands. She also won a range of awards for a slew of titles before she died in August of 2004 at the age of 79.
MILES FRANKLIN: If you read one Australian novel in your lifetime, Miles Franklin's stunning My Brilliant Career should be it. A woman ahead of her time, the passionate feminist worked as a nurse, a secretary and even a housemaid while pursuing her craft.
PATRICK WHITE: White released 12 novels, two short story collections, eight plays and a range on non-fiction titles before he died at the age of 78. Considered a giant of Australia's literary history, White's novel Voss - based on Prussian naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt who explored Australia's interior in the mid-1840s - is his stand-out work. He won Australia's first Miles Franklin Award for Voss. - NewsRegional