Winton's World

30 November 2013 Alan Attwood

Winton's World

Alan Attwood, Ed#444, November 2013

Talking with Tim Winton about the overlap between his new novel, Eyrie, and the personal stories of Big Issue vendors.

Tim Winton talks of himself as a tradesman. Writing is what he does. And he works at it, writing in longhand in pencil in this era of laptops and tablets. He likes the way a manuscript in pencil looks unfinished and, he says, “The longer you let things stay provisional, the longer you are open to how unfinished it is. It slows you up; keeps you honest.”

He can’t imagine not working, though he respects the decision taken last year by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth, now 80, to retire from fiction. Winton, 53, says that one thing he admires about Roth is that, “unlike many Australian writers of his generation, he’s a guy who is still able to write about the present”. Instead of retreating into the past, Roth has written about his own time. And this is also what Winton has done in his new novel, Eyrie, set mainly in Fremantle just a few years ago, with the early stages of the Global Financial Crisis an unsettling shadow in the background.

Because of Winton’s status as one of Australia’s pre-eminent writers – his last novel, Breath (2009), won him his fourth Miles Franklin Award – much of the discussion about Eyrie will be couched in literary terms. But its central concern, a man losing control of his life and spiralling into trouble, is close to the world of The Big Issue. Because of Eyrie’s themes, and his regard for vendors he sees in his home state of Western Australia, Winton was keen to talk to the magazine.

The genesis of Eyrie, paradoxically, coincided with the writing of Breath. As he explains it, “the house was a bit crowded and I needed a bit of space and I [got] an apartment in a tower block. I went there every day to work – it was a single bedroom… So there I was, writing this novel about country boys and risk-taking and all that sort of stuff, while I’m marinating in a totally different world.”

He cheerfully admits to getting distracted by the view; he even brought in a pair of binoculars. He could see islands, ships coming into port, industrial areas. He was conscious both of his vantage-point on humanity and also his social isolation up there in a tower, which became the Mirador building in Eyrie, where his protagonist, Keely, is coming unstuck.

Winton talks of people becoming isolated, “atomised”. He explains: “In suburban Australia the fences have got bigger, the houses have got bigger, we lock ourselves away from each other. We don’t hear others anymore because our air-conditioners are all going and our big plasmas are pounding away. It’s every man in his castle or in his car on his way to work in a kind of social silence. People have become separated from one another and quarantined from one another’s lives.”

Keely observes life around him but resists engagement with it. One morning in Fremantle, he notes “quite a crew of idlers like himself who seemed to have nowhere to be and nothing to produce… He couldn’t help but think of all the charity kitchens only a few blocks away, the underclass gathered alfresco for a sandwich and an industrial brew. Invalid pensioners, denizens of the dosshouses, park sleepers, wharf rats, outpatients of the failing mental health service. At this rate he’d be joining their number soon enough…”

Eyrie charts Keely’s reluctant withdrawal from self-destructive isolation after losing his job and sense of self. A key milestone on his road back is when he starts to see other tower-dwellers in a different light: “That was the Mirador for you. Ten floors of architectural uniformity. And within it, all those folks resisting replication. The thought gave him a stab of fondness, for people, for shambling, ordinary folks...”

Winton has always written about ordinary people. And when Keely reluctantly starts to help Gemma, a childhood friend, and her young son, Kai, he gradually rediscovers a sense of purpose – as do vendors when they start selling The Big Issue. Winton writes: “The idea [of making Kai feel safe] was intoxicating. It made a man feel enormous and substantial. That he might be necessary.”

Behind his narrative there is also the bigger picture: contemporary Australia. Winton says:
“It is a prosperous country and a rich culture, but
we are remarkably incurious about those that get left behind in prosperity’s wake. As Keely discovers, the working class of his childhood has gone, in the same way that any expatriate has to cope with the fact that the country they left behind is a foreign place that has gone on without them… So he thinks he speaks fluent working class but of course he doesn’t – there is no working class, there is the wealthier class and there is the working poor.”

He continues: “It is the working poor who undergird all the prosperous middle class. For every mobile wealthy couple…who’s looking after their ancient mum and dad, who are the shadows in the halls of the five-star hotels, who’s in the hospitality industry, who’s washing the dishes?”

In the book, and also in the community, there is a fine and fragile line between doing okay and things going wrong. “This is where we find ourselves,” Winton says. “It’s interesting that with the success of market culture the new imperium is the idea that people who are wealthy are wealthy because of acts of will, and people are poor because of acts of will or failures of character. There’s never any circumstantial argument for being poor in the new dispensation, and the only form of political correctness that the Right will ever pander to, or even entertain, is the notion that there is no class. Because if you mention class then that basically means that the people who are rich are lucky, and the people who are poor are unlucky and they have robbed them of their will and you are pandering to the politics of envy.

“In a sense, I think it’s toxic – it’s stripping people of humanity and imagination to think that Australia’s prosperity is a result of good management rather than good fortune. Particularly in WA, from reading people’s profiles and their public utterances you would think they invented iron ore – that they planted the seed and they watered it and now they are harvesting the fruits of their hard labour.”

There are glimpses in Eyrie of affluent WA: the mansions, receptions and sundrenched beaches. But Keely is also exposed to a frightening underside. When it is suggested that it is not a very affectionate view of Fremantle, Winton responds: “Well it is. But, as in anything, you are hardest on the things you love the most.” It is, he concludes, a view of Fremantle and Australia on the cusp of the GFC – “an interesting time to write about a bloke and his situation, hurling himself against the current”.

Suddenly he’s back in the present. “We just went through a federal election where the people on welfare and the working poor were absent from the debate,” he says. “Part of the frustration behind the book was watching those people hurl themselves against the great walls of indifference in politics and in the media.”

» Alan Attwood is The Big Issue's Editor.

This article first appeared in Ed#444 of The Big Issue magazine.