BLUEBACK, SAYS TIM WINTON OF HIS NEW NOVEL, is "one of those odd books that just show up". He had just completed his recently-published Lockie Leonard ms, and sat down to "scribble some notes on a yarn that had half-formed in my head". After a few days, he had "a pile of papers, so I popped them in the package for my publishers, more for fun than anything else." That yarn about a boy called Abel Jackson, his sea-loving mother, a giant blue groper and the fight to preserve their idyllic Longboat Bay environment has been released in separately packaged adult and children's editions in Australia. In the US, it will be published for adults, in the UK for children. "Go figure," laughs Winton.
He was particularly surprised by the American interest. "They had no idea about the world I came from, yet were so enthusiastic for the story. I was moved by how moved they were by it.." Moved too by the money they offered, "far more than for other fatter books".
And after others told him they were moved to tears by the tale, he thought he'd better have another look at it. He would have discovered an unpretentious 150 pages of deceptive subtlety, sentimental at times, sure, but never cloying. It should be required reading in creative writing classes: Winton is a master of language who writes unadorned sentences that build in power and persuasive effect.
The book is also strongly reflective of the inner man: it's all here - idyllic childhood, a strong matriarchal figure, deeply-held values amid a secular cesspool, environmentalism. And more. "I had enormous pleasure writing it," he allows, "probably more fun than anything I've written for years. And it is about things close to my heart."
Nevertheless, Blueback may disconcert some. After the ambition of The Riders, which itself disconcerted many, it looks ... somewhat slight. Tempting to dismiss as Winton Peter Pan-ing on again about his lost childhood. He's unabashed. "It's certainly a celebration of all that feral freedom I had as a kid, a sense of wide-open spaces, the kind of Australian childhood once available to us.
"I was brought up in the suburbs, but it seems in retrospect as if I spent all my time on, around or under the water. I felt surrounded by nature. My three children have enjoyed the same, mainly because I was lucky enough to be mobile and not have to get into a working rut. But I fear my grandchildren and their children will have to experience nature in a virtual sense - landscapes and species have been eroded this century at an unimaginable rate."
Blueback is subtitled "a fable for all ages", a marketing cover-awkward-bases tactic. Winton is philosophic about that: "I guess it is awkward in that I don't know who it's for. But then I've always hated the idea that people are seen as writing either for children or adults - and that children's literature is the little league, adults the big. Really, it's the other way round. The big readers are the kids. And they are the most responsive. So why should I be anxious about categorisation?"
Why indeed? Few writers have been as welcomed or as sought after. Yet, at 37, the Fremantle-based author has always been an enigmatic figure in Ozlit. A full-time writer since 1982, he has remained trenchantly suspicious of the seductions of fame. And there have been plenty of those: his 15 books (including five prize-winning children's novels) have been critically and commercially feted, from the first, An Open Swimmer, which was joint winner of the 1981 The Australian/Vogel Award. His second novel, Shallows, won the Miles Franklin Award, as did Cloudstreet later. And The Riders, a finalist for the 1995 Booker Prize, won the South-East Asian section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
Throughout the inevitable rise in interest in him, he has guarded his family's - and his own - privacy with zeal. By instinct an outspoken man of strongly-held views, he has restricted his public utterances to reluctant, sometimes sulkily terse communiques. Which has tended to obscure the real Winton: an affable, plain-speaking man of unaffected intelligence and deep emotions.
Over time, he has mellowed a little - he's just returned from a three-month promote-and-negotiate overseas tour - but he remains at best a diffident field-worker in literature's pr harvest. For Blueback, he agreed to give only this print interview. "I never had a desire for a public life, never expected to be read by more than a couple of thousand people, and when you get the mass audience I seem to have stumbled upon, the public exposure is very disconcerting. I have a need for a fairly big margin of privacy to feel that I am who I am, and not an abstraction or a marketing tool. If I had my way, I'd lead a Pynchon or a Salinger existence and become completely anonymous.
"There's an uneasy encounter between art and commerce which I don't know personally how to resolve. When I look back and see how hard I worked when I was younger and how badly I was paid for my labour - I got $1000 advance for each of my first three books, and that was for years and years of my life, for the kind of money most people toss aside for their drinks bill. The money came in later but at the time it was very, very hard. And now I see people being paid $50,000 for second books ..."
That's the professional shaking his head in disbelief. Later he tells me that writing is (a) "essentially a tedious occupation I spend scads of time avoiding or recovering from" and (b) "something I do for myself and because I can". Later still, he mentions magic moments "when it's happening, when you finally get pen to paper, you exist only in that present tense - you don't have an age, a heartbeat, you're just in this squeezed-down narrow focus which is timeless."
The focus of Blueback is unequivocal - a call to environmental and moral arms. "There are accumulated losses we have suffered in Australia over the past few decades. If you live your life with your gaze vigorously averted, you may be able to proceed without disturbance ... but I can't. People are waking up, but it's a question of whether it's fast enough to maintain the historic contract we have between ourselves and the future. We have an obligation of stewardship, which requires sacrifice."
His religious - and social - faith sustains him, he admits, "although at times I'm not sure whether it's a balm or just another prickle under the skin." Talk of sacrifice and faith seem curiously old-fashioned, an idealist's yearning for yesteryear perhaps? He laughs, denies he's a romantic. "I am more a pragmatist than anything, but I believe these things in the face of pretty tough opposition. If you weren't aware of the realities of what you held to, you be a fool to discuss such ideas. I have some ideals, even if these days 'idealist' is a perjorative term - a lifetime of journeying in a religious faith against the current in the least religious country in the world has been good training.
"Our culture is obsessed about belonging, but people haven't grasped the notion that you have to earn belonging, to earn some kind of comfort and ease of familiarity with yourself. A lot of that has to be done by giving things up; talk about sacred links and the New Age is just so much baloney if it doesn't involve sacrifice.
"Australians became connected to their country and to each other after World War I and the Depression, but I don't believe we need some hideous cataclysm to learn the value of sacrifice. If there's something ahead that requires sacrifice to save it, we'll do it.
"One area is the environment, in giving up certain liberties to deliver something to the future, to define limits on what we'll exploit and how we'll behave; the other is in terms of community - what are we prepared to give up so that people in need will be clothed and fed?"
He holds little hope for a Canberra-led revival. "It's a period of oily self-interest in Government, in terms of reconciliation, and the environment ... everything is about balancing the books, of looking after ourselves. I don't know whether books like Blueback make a difference, but in an innocent way, it's discussing these things - we have been taking from the sea and the land for so long, it's time for us to give something back. "I feel very specifically that I benefited from growing up where I did, where so much revolved around the sea - in a way, it was a gift and I owe it something. If the sea is ultimately where we come from, and it seems we did, then it's our source, our ancestral life and we are obliged to nourish it."
* Blueback is published by Macmillan as a hardback, by Pan as a paperback.
This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1997
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