Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Meeting Kate Grenville and Tim Winton

Overdue blog on my meeting with the Australian authors Tim Winton and Kate Grenville last week. Have to write the profiles now so thought I’d blog on it first and then structure/formalise it for the magazine.

Winton and Grenville – along with a third author, Peter Goldsworthy - were in town as part of a literary tour; since we only had space for two profiles I had to choose, and Goldsworthy drew the short straw. The interviews were being held at the Imperial and my appointment was scheduled alongside that of at least three other journos (each with their own photographers) – which meant there was much chaos in the Imperial’s stately corridors. I went for the appo feeling sorry for myself -- much of the joy of reading vanishes when one has to speed-read books because of deadline constraints – but watching the three Aussies being shepherded hither and thither by hassled Penguin Books staff ("Tim! The HT reporter needs 15 minutes to ask you what it’s like to not live in Sydney, after which the Week photographer wants you beaming by the deckchairs." "Oilright, mate!"), I reflected that authors don’t exactly have it easy.

I spoke to Kate first. She was a pleasant, schoolteacherly sort (she does, in fact, teach creative writing) with a prim, birdlike expression -- very un-Australian, I thought. Her face lit up within three minutes of our chat when she realised that I actually knew something about her Orange Prize-winning novel The Idea of Perfection. "Such a relief to finally meet someone who’s actually read the book!" she exclaimed, while I tsk-tsked sympathetically. "You have no idea the kinds of questions I’ve been subjected to in the last two days."

We spoke mainly about her country’s ambivalent attitude to its past. "Perhaps because of our dodgy history and the continuing perceptions about our ‘convict ancestry’, we have this hunger to put our past behind us and focus on being modern and world-class," explained Kate. "But that’s an escapist attitude, and most leading Australian novelists caution their readers that we must come to terms with our history." Incidentally, Kate’s next book, already complete, is based on the true story of her own convict ancestor, who rose to the position of nobleman after coming from England to Australia. "I was intrigued by the nature of his relationship with the Aborigines, whose land he might have usurped, and I took up the story from there," she said.

Very interestingly, Kate mentioned a phenomenon known in Australia as the ‘cultural cringe’ – the attitude that anything that comes from overseas is good, anything homegrown not as worthy of appreciation. (She brought this up in the context of her Orange Prize win and the subsequent recognition she got in her own country.) Ring a bell? It seems such an Indian phenomenon and I couldn’t reconcile it with the brash, cocksure Australian image – but then brashness and braggadocio often conceal insecurity.

The conversation had just begun to flow when the Penguin girl blew the whistle and I had to scramble to Tim Winton’s side. He was surprisingly subdued, which probably had something to do with having to perform for the benefit of journalists. From Winton’s reputation as a maverick and from my cursory reading of his rude, rambunctious novel Cloudstreet -- a cult classic, written in chapterettes and full of earthy colloquialisms -- I had expected the archetypal swaggering Aussie. Here, instead, was a quiet, tired-looking author who, when I conversationally asked how much of Delhi he had seen on his first visit here, replied ruefully, "The inside of the Oberoi, Intercontinental and Imperial hotels, mate."

In an attempt at politeness, he hastened to add that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. "They are very different from New York hotels or London hotels; despite their best attempts at replicating the international experience, the Indianness does come across." Though he meant it as a compliment, I reflected that the Raj-worshipping Imperial management would probably not see it as such.

As we chatted on, Tim began to show his famed irreverence. He writes, he said, in a way intended to "evoke the sound of the people I come from. Western Australia and Tasmania are marginalised, no-account places that have a distinct voice of their own – we even have our own equivalent for your Hinglish." He joked about the sound of typical Aussie speech: "Indians, and the Irish, sing the English language – your dialect is very musical – but get a bunch of Aussies talking in a room together and it’ll sound like crows singing. Our speech mimics the harshness of the landscape."

"Much of Australian writing," he drawled, "including the kind I do myself, has an animus that comes from years of being condescended to." Tim clearly feels contempt for much of current-day British writing, which, he memorably says, "is the colour of tweed – it’s written as if everyone in that bugger-all country has been to either Oxford or Cambridge." It’s certainly true that there is such a thing as the anti-British novel in Australia, built on a style of writing that consciously tries to overturn the rules set down by the colonisers. Even a writer as cosmopolitan as Peter Carey wrote Jack Maggs, which took a revisionist look at the character of Magwitch, from Dickens’ Great Expectations. (Of course, that doesn’t apply only to literature: the attempt to subvert the propah British way of doing things can be seen even in, for instance, the Australian way of recording cricket scores -- 0 for 7 in place of 7 for no loss.)

About the acclaimed Cloudstreet -- which is a cult classic in Australia – Tim was reticent, except to say that he wanted to achieve the tone "of someone whispering in your ear". "Fun comes in short bursts, and music and poetry can be found in coarse speech," he said of the novel’s staccato style.

Cloudstreet ranked number one on a list of most popular Australian novels compiled by the Australian Society of Authors a few years ago. Tim’s response, as my photographer ordered him off the porch and to the poolside: "I’d like to know what those guys were drinking when they cast the votes."

Leaving, I overheard – I swear this is true – a young reporter ask Peter Goldsworthy "Sir, do you note various things around you before you begin a book?" Without waiting to hear his reply, or wail of anguish, I dashed right out.


  1. i'm very, very late on this one, and don't really have much to say either, but i thought i'd ask--did you read grenville's joan makes history?
    it's a little unsettling to the image of her that's largely perceived: the white female australian novelist sympathetic of the subaltern histories of the australian minorities-- aboriginals and women.

    and i thought, though i could be wrong, that the cultural cringe was a thing australia was getting over? say, 1960s or so onwards, it has had it's own readership, and slowly, the anxiety of western acceptance is (supposed to be) receding. oh well.

  2. What do you mean she was very "un australian"? what is it with people and that expression? What is it with Australians and that expression? It all comes back to all that "Australian Identity" (meaning WHITE identity) twaddle from upper class north shore conservatives. (i know this comment is slightly unrelated to your very intellectual recount but arrgh!)

  3. "Cultural Cringe", I like that word. I am an Asian immigrant living in so-called posh Sydney North Shore suburbs for only 20 years and I was already infected with that disease.(I rather read Gosh or Roy or Rushdie than Winton or Grenville.)

    Though, I think that could be the pleasant side effect of living in a society with a disreputable background and a genocidal history, and which was only 200 years old.(It is absolutely impossible to be part of 60,000 years old Aboriginal society here as they are more strictly race-based than mainstream white society here.)

    But it's nice here, for we, only 20 millions, collectively owned the whole massive continent. We do need to do nothing else, but just dig the earth beneath and sell the dirt to the rest of the world.

    My proof is based on the fact that the Australia's richest man is the chief dirt digger called Andrew "Twiggy" Forest, the CEO of Fortescue Iron Ore.