Big Waves, Short Stories, and Everything in Between
Tim Winton and Ron Rash Talk Craft, Voice, Landscape, and More
Tim Winton is the author of 29 books for both adults and children and has won Australia’s preeminent literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, four times. His latest book, The Shepherd’s Hut, is available now from FSG. Here, he talks with the American writer Ron Rash about the new novel, the differences between short- and longform writing, surfing and running, and between the landscapes of Western Australia and North Carolina.
Ron Rash: You’re an excellent short story writer as well as novelist. Can you talk a bit about the challenges of each form. I’ve always felt short stories are closer to poems than to novels. Do you agree?
Tim Winton: I think stories are harder, so much less forgiving. And yes, closer to poems than to novels. This sharp, concentrated burst of energy that so often doesn’t take form on the page with anything like the momentum and focus with which they’re read and experienced. All that flapping and flailing and jury-rigging beneath the surface—it’s hilarious, the difference in how they’re wrought and how they appear on the page. Not a smudge or a bloodstain in sight!
There’s something about the austerity of the short story that appeals to me. The submission to limits, I guess. I can remember reading Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain when I was still in my teens. And maybe it was just the way the book was set, surely also the gaps and silences within the stories, but I remember that being an early landmark for me. The sense of a lot going on, a lot not being said, and all these potent silences and spaces on the page. Thinking “this really shouldn’t work.” That’s what I love about a good short story, the very unlikeliness of it, the fact of it being so much more than the sum of its few parts.
I like writing stories, but you really have to be in training for that. In my experience, only the writing of them can help with the writing of them. The novel is more an endurance gig. It’s the holding of all that information in your head at once, all those balls in the air. It’s less exciting, that’s for sure. But you do get something from the sheer duration that the novel affords. The emotional attrition, I guess, the way you can grind away surreptitiously at the reader over days or weeks. Symphonics, I suppose. The world as opposed to the moment.
RR: Another Australian writer I admire is A.D. Hope. I have the last eight lines of his poem “Australia” taped on my fridge. I think they are a good way to sum up what we were discussing about writing outside of the cultural pale. (The American journalist H.L. Mencken once called the South “the Sahara of the Bozart.”) I also believe Hope’s lines apply to The Shepherd’s Hut, your new novel. Jaxie may not be a prophet, certainly not a conventional one, but as he tells of his trials in the desert, we know he has encountered something more profound than what “civilization” has taught him.
Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.
TW: Hell, I’d hate to see what’s inside your fridge!
Yeah, poor old Jaxie… What rough beast he must appear, slouching toward Bethlehem. Actually hurtling rather than slouching, and his Bethlehem is the tiny town of Mount Magnet (pop. 470) where he hopes his girlfriend Lee is waiting for him. He’s been through something savage and profound out there in the saltlands. As he says, “I been through fire to get here” and he’s still seething with hurt and violence, but there’s hope in him now, something that has enlarged him.
All his life he’s been either dismissed or humiliated. He’s been told he’s rubbish. But the desert has surprised him, it’s offered him company and succor in several forms, not least of which is human kindness. Big things happen to Jaxie out there even as he tries to retreat from all things human. In his obscurity someone finally sees him, notices the spark of decency in him, and finally goes to the wall for him. That kind of rearranges his furniture. I guess I’ve written a lot about people in extremis, and Jaxie is another one of them. The country burns him into a different shape, and the love of another human scorches him as well.“Even now that I’m not broke and anxious the way I was when I was younger, I still don’t feel the need to understand the origins of the work.”
While I was writing it those lines from my late friend Liam Rector came to mind: “Change is slow and hope is violent.” Hope wreaks havoc, it breaks and rends the established order. It’s dangerous, hope, and how easily we forget that, how quick we are to tamp it down in ourselves and others. I don’t know if Jaxie’s a prophet or a ticking bomb. Although you could say that to some extent every prophet is a piece of unexploded ordinance. He’s a piece of work, that’s for sure.
RR: One aspect I find especially remarkable in the new novel is Jaxie’s voice. You achieve what Twain did in Huck Finn and Salinger in Catcher in the Rye—you create an adolescent’s voice so convincing that the reader completely forgets that someone much older is creating this language. Can you talk a bit about how you achieve this voice?
TW: I’m not sure how to answer. Mostly because I’m not exactly sure how I do pull off Jaxie’s voice. Because his “sound” just showed up with the imagery. It was immediately there, as if the little bugger was whispering hoarsely in my ear, all bad breath and stewing hormones. So, in one sense finding that voice was no effort at all. But as a specialist in voice yourself, you won’t be surprised to know that the challenge lay in sustaining it, keeping it real, which of course is to say seemingly real, given that this whole enterprise is make-believe.
I come from the working class and I’ve spent many years in small, remote communities, so I know people like this 15-year-old borderline sociopath, Jaxie Clackton. I went to school with kids like him. As did my kids. And I see and hear kids like him often enough here in regional Western Australia. But I’m middle aged and middle class now. Was lucky enough to get a university education. And for more than 35 years I’ve made a living from the careful arrangement of words, half drunk on high language. So, it’s kinda weird spending a couple of those years willfully encumbered—indentured, more like—to the mind of a kid whose lexicon is as mean and narrow as Jaxie’s.
Part of the challenge, and I have to say some of the fun, was in seeing how far I could travel on those linguistic fumes. It’s like setting out on a road trip with the gauge close to empty. Yeah, it can be nerve-wracking keeping the pitch right, keeping yourself out of the way, but in the end, when the character feels utterly real to you, his voice feels right. Most of the work lies in a form of surrender, letting the kid stand and deliver on his own terms. So, I guess the short answer should have been “I got out of the way.”
RR: Denzel Washington gave a similar answer when asked about his acting: “I stay out of the way of the character.” A reader once asked me if I knew where the voices in my novels came from. I said no, and she answered, “They’re the stories the dead want told.” I wouldn’t say I believe that, but often it does feel as if we’re more transmitters than creators. Perhaps we’re getting into Jungian territory here. Anyway, the more I write, the more mysterious the how and why of it. And I don’t want or need to understand; I sense your experience is similar.
TW: Yeah, to be frank, I never felt I could afford the time to be curious—or particularly articulate or convincing—about where this stuff comes from. That was just time management, I guess, part of being broke and forever needing to crack on and get work done to keep the wolf from the door. When I was younger, especially. That’s the freelancer in me, the self-employed tradesman. Maybe if I’d taught and had another source of income, with the space and respite from which to reflect on this stuff, I’d have a different attitude about this. I notice that writers who teach are very articulate and, well, practiced at this stuff. Even now that I’m not broke and anxious the way I was when I was younger, I still don’t feel the need to understand the origins of the work. And I am a bit resistant to romantic notions in this regard.
Having said that, what I have come to understand in the past 15 years or so is that my stories depend upon a kind of ecological logic. The voice, the story, the characters, they all emerge from the place I’m writing about. The place, or the landscape, sets the terms. The kinds of lives people are leading, the specific problems that generate their story, these are largely determined by the physical world. These are the terms of trade. My characters bubble up out of the ground, in a sense. I start with the place. Everything else comes later.
RR: Yes, In The Shepherd’s Hut, landscape and destiny are, for me, inextricable. It’s as if the landscape has drawn both characters—Jaxie and your other lead character, Fintan—into this place so that their lives will be forever altered. In North Carolina, where I live, the landscape can feel protective, almost womblike, yet the mountains are also a reminder of human insignificance, limitation, entrapment. Can you talk about your landscape in particular, how both ocean and desert have affected you and your work?
TW: I’ve never been to the Carolinas, but from the images and films I’ve seen it looks a little more in tune with the European imagination than Australia. With some notable exceptions that’s probably true of most of the US. Much of Australia is more discordant. It can certainly appear strange and bewildering to the visitor. So our experience of it, even as natives, is complex and messy, and has taken two centuries to begin to come to terms with. Mostly by being schooled by it, and often harshly.
But, yeah, landscape is central for me. It must be how I’m built as well as what I’ve become attuned to or obsessed by. As I said, I start with a place. My kids have occasionally suggested I’m more interested in places than people, though I’m not sure that’s true. But I am curious about the relations (and disproportions) between humans and their environment.
My sense is that Australians are shaped by their physical natural world in a way that might not be typical of first-world folks. Landscape still acts upon us, impinges upon our lives in ways that probably aren’t matched in Britain, Western Europe or most of the US. Here it’s often a matter of scale. There’s so few of us and so much of it. There’s still much more nature than culture, more space than enclosure. And humans on this continent will never be at ease here the way they are elsewhere. Because the island is so damned unaccommodating (if that’s even a word). No water; ancient, sterile soils; weird seasons, and getting weirder by the year. That’s one reason Australians are so often less instinctively enthusiastic and optimistic than Americans. Beneath the bluff exterior there’s a wariness, an instinctive acknowledgement of contingency that’s coming from the ground beneath our feet. We’re like fleas the dog is liable to shake off at any moment. No manifest destiny for us. Lots of big egos, yeah, but a lot of brittle superstructure from the secret knowledge that we don’t really count. The ecosystems we’ve attached ourselves to have a politics we can’t even read. As white folks we’re raised to see ourselves as masters of the universe, but this land has obviously not got the memo yet.
RR: I was a competitive runner (800 meters) from the time I was 15 until I tore a hamstring at 23. I found that the sport was great training to be a writer, teaching discipline, patience, self-motivation, at times self-flagellation. Have you found surfing to do much the same for you?
TW: Surfing is unlike running in one sense in particular. It involves so much less self-discipline; it has far less of a straitening impulse. It’s almost all pleasure and indulgence and involves very little discipline. When I was a kid most surfers were in flight from team sports or structured sports. A lot of us refused to even acknowledge it as a sport—for us it was art or lifestyle. Such was our idea of ourselves.
But with the benefit of hindsight, not to mention arthritis, I can see plenty of parallels to running, though instead of enduring there’s waiting (which can be a form of endurance, or at least persistence). And of course there’re the endorphins. In surfing that endorphin rush tends to come after the fact, in the wake of each brief explosion of adrenaline. In that sense surfers should be more like short story writers and distance runners like novelists. The weird thing is we’re out in the water for hours. The only flagellation involved tends to be solar (as my dermatologist can attest). What a surfer has in place of discipline is obsession. But then I gather there’s a truly addictive element to distance running, too.
What I’ve learnt from surfing is how to wait. That’s one sense in which writing is like surfing. As a surfer sits and waits for the energy from some event across the horizon to come to meet her or him, the writer must wait and attend in readiness for some wave of energy to show up. In each case, the source of energy is often an event or series of events already in the past but still resonating.
In my experience, the waiting and the holding of one’s nerve is the thing. Nearly every day I go to work and face a calm sea. I figure it’s best to stick around as long as I can (bobbing around in my own oceanic murk) in case something shows up. The trick is to be there when it does, to turn and match its speed and ride that momentum while it lasts. Some of this might be discipline, but I suspect that after all these years it’s mostly habit.