Dirt Smart

Dirt Music
Published by Scribner

Tim Winton makes his way into the cozy foyer of Hazlitt’s, a boutique hotel in [London’s] Soho favored by writers. He has just arrived on the red-eye from the United States, where he spent 10 days promoting his latest novel, Dirt Music. He’s a little bleary-eyed and sports the beginnings of a cold sore and says, “I feel like shit.”

Chunkily built with the low gravitational center of a surfer, fisherman’s hands, and trademark ponytail, piercing hazel eyes, straight white teeth, and salt- and sun-ripened complexion, Winton, 41, looks healthier, fitter, and more facially contoured than most photographs would portray. Dressed in battered, kneeless Levi’s, gym shoes, and a baggy windcheater, he gives no concession to vanity, in contrast to the black-clad, Wayfarer-wearing hipsters who are cruising Soho looking for double espressos.

Amid such London chic, Winton looks—well, there’s no other adjective for it really—“Australian.” Strangers—waiters and waitresses, hotel clerks—quickly warm to him. He calls everyone “mate.” He seems genuinely without pretense when he talks about his literary successes and the accolades his work attracts.

In the space of a week, Dirt Music has won both the New South Wales and Western Australia (WA) Premier’s literary prizes. It’s also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, which he’s already won twice, with Shallows in 1984 and Cloudstreet in 1992. He sparked a minor rumpus back home in Perth by donating the $25,000 (US$14,045) purse from the WA award to a fund for the campaign he is heading against “a hideous white-shoe development” planned for the pristine whale shark breeding ground at Ningaloo Reef in WA.

“You know, you get a little bit of affirmation (from literary awards), which is nice, but you can’t take it too seriously because if you win it doesn’t mean necessarily that yours is the best book,” Winton says. “If you lose, it doesn’t mean yours isn’t the best book. I’ve been doing it long enough to know that it’s a bit of a can’t take it too seriously. Otherwise you’ll give yourself a broken heart, you know.

“So, I don’t worry about ’em very much. In terms of the WA prize, it was great—it gave me the chance to promote the project to save the reef. So I gave the money away.”

Winton’s novel, The Riders, with its vistas of the Netherlands, Greece, Ireland, and Paris, is a story that many observers consider to be his most “European work.”  That it was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1995, where his earlier works, especially Cloudstreet—perhaps his most quintessentially Australian novel—were not, has fired up the Booker’s critics. The literary media and the British publishing grapevine is already aflutter with speculation that Dirt Music could be short-listed for the Booker this year.

Winton, against his better judgment, lets it be known he couldn’t give a toss. “Mate, if there’s anything I couldn’t care less about, it’s the Booker....It’s just a feeding frenzy for a start...and they’re merciless. It’s a meat market,” he says.

Asked if The Riders was the novel of his most deserving of a Booker shortlist, he says: “I don’t think I should answer that; I think a lot of people thought Cloudstreet should have been the one.”

Dirt Music is an Australian novel. Family dysfunction, loneliness, and alcoholism in Winton’s part of the world—the harsh, beautiful Western Australian coast—are among the elements of this raw, tender, and disquieting love story.

Like The Riders, which left unfulfilled those with a thirst for the neat ending, Dirt Music also has its disturbing, dark, and unsettling moments. Like those in Cloudstreet, the characters in Dirt Music are known to Winton—fishermen, ex-bikies, musicians, coastal mums, dads, and children who view the world with irony and talk about it laconically. But this time they’re darker, more complex. Once again, Winton’s eye for geographic and physical landscapes, and his highly attuned ear for the Australian vernacular, have weaved an emotionally complex and compelling story.

As evidenced by the hundreds of people who turned up to hear him read from Dirt Music, from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., Winton is hugely popular in the United States. But do the Americans really understand what he’s trying to say? “Yeah, they do get it. They also have a very big tradition of regional writing. They respond to it emotionally and in terms of what they call the music of the prose.”

Dirt Music is Winton’s seventh novel in a career that began when he left university 20 years ago; he’s also published seven children’s books and two works of nonfiction—roughly one book a year. Why, then, did it take him seven years to finish Dirt Music, a story that began with “a couple of scraps of imagery...a naked man embracing a boab tree...a woman stepping into the body of a guitar”?

“It’s a long time for me. I wrote one a year for 10 years. You know, I was a lot younger then. I had a lot more energy. You chew up your ideas pretty fast when you’re young. You’re full of piss and vinegar,” he says.

“I don’t start with a plan or a plot or anything. I just start with a few little flickers, you know, and just wait and see what they end up being.” Perhaps, he says, it is a symptom of his working-class background that he has taken a utilitarian approach to his writing by essentially working “union hours” for nonunion pay.

But these days, if he wants to take time off for a cause such as saving Ningaloo Reef, or for his children, aged 18, 14, and 11, he does so without a second thought. If the swell is up, he might also decide to go for a surf near Fremantle, where he now lives most of the time. Winton remains a committed longboard rider, and he counts among his heroes one of modern surfing’s Australian pioneers, the Victorian big-wave rider, Wayne Lynch.

He eschews the Australian literary lifestyle and its Sydney-centric axis. “When you come from where I do, you know when you get published you’re good. When you’re from the wrong hemisphere, wrong country, wrong part of the wrong country, then you know you haven’t kissed any boots to get published,” he says.

Winton’s best friend is a psychiatric nurse. His other mates include social workers and tradesmen and only two writers—Helen Garner and Richard Flanagan, who is also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. “I want to meet other people. When writers get together, they just sit around and moan about their publishers and moan about reviews. Life is just too short for that....Do you want to go to your deathbed wishing you’d got a better review in The New Yorker, or do you want to be thinking about what sort of parent you’ve been to your kids?”

Before we part, he reflects a moment. “I’m just an ordinary bloke who wears tracky dacks [warm-up pants] and all that. I’m nothing special.”