Tim Winton is "The Boy Behind the Curtain"

Tim Winton – we all know the name; many of us can list his triumphs without trying. We have read his books, enjoyed their adaptations and pondered his thoughts on life, the environment and conservation.

Now we are given the opportunity to know more about the man from a collection of 22 essays, many never before published, in his recent book The Boy Behind the Curtain.

Here is a sample: “When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people … Lurking there behind my parents’ curtain I put a gun between myself and the world. I reduced my neighbours to objects, made targets of them. Anything could have happened, none of it good. And just in time, it would seem before anything irreparable could come of this impulse, I found words. God knows I was a happier, safer boy since I did.”

Boy behind the curtain

Recently I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Tim and speaking with him about this collection. After we laughed about the perils of recording interviews and unreliable memories, I asked him why he chose these particular essays for the collection:

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Tim: “I’m not sure, maybe these were the ones which seemed to lean against one another, inform one another, related in a sense. … The ones about my childhood were pivotal in my formation, especially the ones about the guns, the accidents, the hospital … what a serious little boy I was.”

We discussed the outcomes in today’s world of Tim’s actions with the gun, even in a small and friendly town like Albany. This lead Tim to reflect on how differently this could have turned out:

Tim “I look back and think wow this could have gone horribly wrong and my life could have been very different. My life could have ended there too – the combination of the adolescent together with a gun – male suicide in this country is traditionally high and higher every year. You add a firearm into the mix and as I say in the essay, we have this idea, through entertainment, that the gun gets the job done, but it almost always gets the wrong job done…”

In the book, Tim tells us of his hatred of hospitals, brought about initially by the time he spent visiting his father. Tim’s dad was a country policeman who was not expected to survive a dreadful accident and the times Tim visited stayed with him so strongly, that to this day he hates even visiting someone in hospital. Ironically his wife is a nurse.  It is not just unhappy visits to hospitals which strike fear into Tim’s heart; when he became a grandfather, the baby was brought to him outside the hospital – Tim’s wife just “rolled her eyes”!

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For sheer delight do not miss reading Barefoot in the Temple of Art, about the Winton family’s visit to the National Gallery of Victoria.  Refused entry as the kids weren’t wearing shoes, Tim’s Dad told the security person “Don’t worry mate we’re from Queensland” and they immediately gained entry.

Although I knew some of the stories in The Boy behind the Curtain were commissioned by various publications, I asked Tim whether they are “the basis of something else, are they getting something off your chest”.

Tim : “Yes I suppose they must be in the sense that many of them I’ve written about … I’ve drawn upon some of those events for fiction. But I’m always writing obliquely, fiction is a different game. I’m not really writing about myself, I’m just using some of those events as a launching pad into a story I suppose. … Maybe I’m just getting to an age when I can look back over my shoulder  …   I don’t think I could write that way in my 20s and 30s – I don’t think I would have dared to; I don’t think I’d lived enough to understand these events in a deep enough way. I would have had a younger person’s slightly more facile interpretation of things that were happening.”

I could not speak with Tim Winton without asking him about his work with various environmental organisations, including marine conservation.

Tim: “I think the natural world has been very central to my work and my life. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from it, gotten ideas from it and been nourished by it as much as a person as a writer.   …   I think we are changing the way we think of the natural world and our place in it.”

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A particularly funny yet poignant essay is Twice on Sundays and tells us about Tim’s beliefs and the faith in which he was raised.

Tim: “I still identify as a Christian … that’s where I go my sense of social justice, the reverence for kindness, the importance of forgiveness and the ethic of service and sacrifice …   I’m still quite moved by that, but I’m just not interested in the labels   …  One thing I did learn from my parents, what they responded to in the faith, what they  made manifest in our lives was love with its sleeves rolled up.”

As Tim expressed these thoughts, the bells of Brisbane City Hall began to toll the hour and our time was at an end. Tim Winton’s books have struck a chord in me and now having the great pleasure of meeting this articulate, intelligent, funny and humble man, I am even more of a fan.

I strongly recommend The Boy Behind the Curtainwhich is available from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.

Tim’s last words in our conversation will have the last word here: “If it’s not about love I’m not interested”.