Tim Winton is an Australian literary legend. His writing career (which has produced twenty-eight books, as well as numerous essays and short stories) began with winning the Australian Vogel Award in 1981 for his first published book, An Open Swimmer. In 1984, his second novel, Shallows, won the Miles Franklin Award. In fact, he has won the Miles Franklin Award (arguably Australia’s most prestigious literature prize) a record four times. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice and among other accolades, The National Trust has named him a Living Treasure.
The first thing that struck me when I met Tim Winton late last year was his self-effacing, almost humble, presence. Dressed in jeans and a comfy surf-branded t-shirt, with his greying hair pulled back in a ponytail, this luminary would have blended easily into a crowd. The second thing that struck me was his spoken style. Intelligent, articulate and possessing a vocabulary that made me think of a Thesaurus – peppering his conversation naturally with the most extraordinary words. Words that writers of commercial fiction are advised to steer away from. But Tim Winton is not a writer of commercial fiction; he said himself at the book launch for The Boy Behind The Curtain that he ‘doesn’t do genre’.
His breathtaking lexicon is employed masterfully in his latest book. Yet the memoir reads like a chat between friends – at times disarming as he shares insights his personal self, such as his fear of hospitals, where he writes, ‘Eventually my long suffering wife relented and took me out to an astroturfed courtyard where the air was real and the open sky merciful. And that’s where he found us, our eldest son, the colicky boy we’d nursed in the hospital carpark all those nights a lifetime ago, holding his tiny squinting daughter in the sunshine.’ He also shares his religious beliefs throughout the book, saying ‘it was church that taught me the beauty and power of language.’
At other times he is scathing about mindless attitudes towards controversial issues such as shark demonization, class, politics, and environmental damage. Regarding the refugee crisis, he argues that Australian society is ‘afraid of strangers and their traumatized children’. And that ‘this fear has deranged us. It overturns all our civic standards, our pity, our tradition of decency, to the extent that we do everything in our power to deny these people their legal right to seek asylum.’ His arguments throughout the book are always thought provoking.
The choice of book title, The Boy Behind The Curtain, becomes clear from the very first line. Tim Winton describes himself as a thirteen year old with a secret habit of standing behind a terylene curtain with a .22 single-shot Lithgow rifle, holding passers-by in it’s sights. It introduces us to his adolescent state of mind, and the effect puberty and his family’s move from suburban Perth to the regional town of Albany had on him at the time. ‘I didn’t just treat the rifle as a source of talismanic power – it was a stilling point, a centering locus, like a religious icon.’ He shares various childhood gun experiences, which segue nicely into his adult position on gun violence and laws, and his decision not to own a gun now, even though ‘the awkward fact is I could really do with a rifle’ – he lives in the bush on a property ‘overrun with rabbits and feral cats’.
Having been lucky enough to attend Tim Winton’s book signing and author talk (held at Beaufort Street Books in Mt Lawley, Perth) an added delight for me was hearing Tim’s voice in my head as I was reading the book, especially the verses he read aloud at the book launch. The chapter named Betsy is especially entertaining, where Tim shares his memories of the family car, a 1954 Hillman Minx named Betsy, which was originally owned by his grandfather. Hearing him read the passage out loud about the day his family moved back to Perth from Albany was hilarious. His voice, expression and timing of punch lines suited the passage perfectly. He writes, ‘From boyhood I had known my father to be a man of kindly nature but irritable bowel’. He and his brother were ‘hostages as much as passengers in the dreaded Minx’ during the several-hour trip that summer’s day. Tim Winton read about his father finally pulling over and stopping at the side of the road, ‘A rapid examination of his person – conducted, of course, in full view of the rural motoring public – established the unpalatable facts, the finer details of which needn’t be gone into here. Suffice to say that in the event of an unscheduled roadside comfort stop, a long and saggy singlet is not helpful attire. Dad had brought a stowaway aboard.’ As you could probably imagine, the audience erupted in laughter. As I read this chapter to myself later, I could picture Tim Winton chuckling to himself as he wrote it.
A potential weakness of the book is that some of the book’s material has been previously published. This may be disappointing for those who have read Tim Winton widely, however the ‘Acknowledgements’ page at the rear of the book clearly discloses this fact.
Tim’s personality truly shines throughout the whole book. I had no pre-conception of what to expect at the launch of Tim Winton’s memoir (other than knowing he was a best selling Western Australian author). I was captivated. There’s no doubt this influenced my reading of the book.
A few words of advice he gave in response to questions put to him that day:
The writing industry is ever changing. His 20 year apprenticeship is just as hard now as it was when he started – ‘abandon ye all hope’ he said, tongue-in-cheek.
The pressure of taking an advance for one of his books (I believe it was Dirt Music) was too great. He would never do that again.
He had interesting things to say about social media algorithms and how people were being feed more of the stuff they ‘liked’, therefore being given a much narrower view of the world and less opportunity for their opinions and beliefs to be opposed.
He thanked the bookstore for hosting authors and helping to keep the Australian book industry alive.
How about you? Do you have a favourite Tim Winton novel? Have you read The Boy Behind The Curtain? If so, what did you think of it?