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Friday 20 July 2018

'I'm surrounded by that strange hyper masculinity all the time' - Tim Winton

Some have claimed his novels' focus on the male condition is at the expense of women - but misogyny is a tragedy for men, too, Australian author Tim Winton tells Hilary A White

Gatekeeper: Tim Winton wrote his breakthrough novel while living in Co Offaly. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Gatekeeper: Tim Winton wrote his breakthrough novel while living in Co Offaly. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Tim Winton can spot the morality police a mile off. "If you've come out of a fundamentalist religious world as I did," says this son of evangelical convert parents, "you knew what political correctness was. It was a closed system - lovely in the sense that you're in a village and you know you belong, but there's hard boundaries. And if you've fought your way out of that closed world, you're always going to be resistant to someone else's version of coercive righteousness."

It's a strange world we live in, as Winton's dry smile attests. Western Australia's great laureate, a writer who has sat at the Antipodean pantheon alongside Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey et al, has consistently highlighted the evolutionary tar the male psyche has been slow to crawl free from. In the vast parched nothingness of WA, where change - geological and cultural - can take time, masculinity can appear like something out of a vaudeville comic strip, all brawny arm wrestles, beer chugging and wolf whistling. Winton has long cried foul and urged his fellow men to elevate themselves.

And yet, quite recently, there have been claims of misogyny from those who feel his novels' focus on the male condition is at the expense of women. He concedes it only came from a "dark academic stream of critical response" in Australia, where his ubiquity (countless novels, short story collections, plays and non-fiction works, four Miles Franklin awards and two Booker nominations) makes him ripe for potshots.

"It's part of being too big a fish for some people's comfort," the 57-year-old says. "That slur is only a minor and recent thing, but shit sticks and finds its way into the file. But it's something that I'm genuinely interested in addressing. I'm surrounded by that strange hyper masculinity all the time. And it's absolutely a tragedy for men too because it narrows their lives and range of emotion and their possibilities of output. It's a joy to see women making gains, but frustrating how hard they have to fight to get there and how far behind men are lagging in making that change. It's about being civil and fair so that there's open skies and no fences. No one saying you can't do this and you can't do that. But in the same token, no one saying you can't say that."

Any doubts about Winton's concern should be directed to his 12th novel, The Shepherd's Hut. Pitched somewhere between dark frontier survival adventure, chalk-and-cheese comedy, and coming-of-age tale, it tells of 15-year-old Jaxie. Filled with aggression, defensiveness and the cowardice of the school bully, Jaxie has forever been the brunt of his brutish one-eyed father's wrath. His mother dead and his beloved cousin Lee living far away, he is left with hatred for his dad, and is less than distraught when he arrives home to find the man dead. Jaxie flees into the wilderness, however, convinced everyone will peg the death on him.

The cyclops fallen, Jaxie's odyssey takes him to the salt flats of the baked interior where the tale hinges on a chance encounter with a defrocked Irish priest, one Fintan MacGillis. Survival is at stake but also a new male dialectic that Jaxie has never encountered before.

"They're both isolated in their way," Winton says. "You get out into these remote places and people have attitudes that are pre-industrial and yet post-modern. Jaxie's language is a strange mash-up of wartime male slang from another generation that he's received from men in his life, like 'this is how males are meant to speak'. He's deprived of language and culture, whereas Fintan is from the Great World and is full of language. Naturally, it had to be an Irish person because who else is so incontinent with language except an Irish person?"

Sitting here in a hotel lobby in Dublin 4, Winton is anxious that the character of Fintan has passed local muster ("I wanted him to be strange enough to the kid but not insulting to an Irish reader, not a caricature and I suppose reflect changes in the culture and Church post the enquiries").

A sincere affection and familiarity is detectable, one that transcends his fandom of Donal Ryan and Anne Enright. Ireland is a country he's visited regularly since first coming here in 1987 to live in the gate lodge of Leap Castle, Co Offaly, under the invitation of then-owner, the Australian Peter Bartlett.

They do things differently Down Under, and that goes for their writers as well. A plain T-shirt, a pair of jeans that owe him no favours, and lank hair lounging over his shoulders give more the impression of a well-seasoned roadie, albeit one with a faintly shamanic air about him. Knotted up in all this are proud working-class roots as the son of a policeman in the port town of Albany.

This blue-collar ethic along with a car accident at 18 that excluded him from manual labour meant a "get-on-with-it" approach to writing. What's more, he married Denise, the nurse who helped him recuperate in hospital, and very soon there were little mouths to feed. The pram in the hallway wasn't the enemy - it was the making of him, he agrees.

While in Offaly all those years ago, he was writing his fifth novel, Cloudstreet, the one that would change everything for him and his family. A steady curve of acclaim, awards and, most importantly, sales greeted its 1991 release, elevating Winton to Aussie literature's uppermost tier. Key to everything, he feels, was his refusal to leave the geography or vernacular of WA and flock to a metropolis like compatriots Germaine Greer or Clive James. "Any time I published a story or a book," he laughs, "it had to be about the quality of the work, because it wasn't about the quality of my schmoozing - I didn't meet anybody!

"You've been told all your life you live on the wrong side of the wrong country in the wrong hemisphere," he says. "The pressure that there was to 'get serious' and leave and go somewhere 'proper' - it's an Irish story, too. The community I was in, there was no point buying into this sort of bogus modernist idea that the artist was some kind of high priest, an exception, and the rules didn't apply. I saw myself as a tradesman. What started out as a huge disadvantage in a mighty headwind of isolation, I got to make myself up as I went along."

The Shepherd's Hut is published by Picador, priced €15.99

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