If asked to name Australia’s three most important contemporary fiction writers then Tim Winton is one of the first names that springs to mind. It’s no wonder. Author of 29 books, his first novel An Open Swimmer won The AustralianVogel Award. Since then he’s won the Miles Franklin Award four times and twice been shortlisted for the Booker prize.
It’s been five years since Winton’s last narrative offering. His latest book The Shepherd’s Hut is a stunning meditation on masculinity and power, violence and self -restraint, and on forgiveness and kindness as ultimate acts of love.
‘This is a story of a teen formed by a violent past and faced with a more violent present,’ say’s Winton. His deeper motivation in writing his new novel was exploring what he refers to as ‘toxic masculinity’ while at the same time unravelling a story with an anti-hero raw with emotion.
‘It’s about a damaged boy who wishes he were an orphan and then discovers he is and has to run away,’ says Winton.
‘He comes home one day to find his old man (who is a shocking drunk and beats him up all the time) has been working on the car and it’s fallen on him. His mum has just died of cancer, he left school at 14, he’s apprenticed to his dad as a butcher. Everyone knows what he has suffered at his father’s hand, so he panics because they are going to think he killed his dad by kicking the jack out from under the car and so he bolts with the rifle and some ammo and walks into the goldfields and into the salt country.’
This is Jaxie Clackton. A damaged boy looking to the bush for salvation. His story is a hard one, and echoes the challenges many face when breaking free of intergenerational trauma.
‘There is no question that the book is about intergenerational trauma,’ says Winton.
‘It’s like a quest. A rite of passage. He has to find himself – find the adult in the boy.How do you do that when all the models of manhood that he has been exposed to are poisonous?
‘Damage just radiates and travels through families, and there are two great engines of intergenerational trauma; the first is racism and the second is misogyny and then male violence. We know now it doesn’t just enter our brains, it enters our DNA and we pass it on. Slavery has taught us that, and the stolen generations.’
Winton believes that for too long men have used toxic masculinity as the default for their survival. Ironically it’s the very thing that threatened them in the first place, and then in turn it threatens everyone around them.
‘Toxic masculinity in my view are ways of being a man that aren’t good for women and aren’t good for men, the perpetuation of unhelpful, unsafe patterns,’ say Wintonreflecting on a time when he found himself drifting towards that sort of masculinity.
‘I was a country boy myself, and I had my periods of confusion. At 13 I used to go to my parents’ bedroom when no-one was in the house, get the rifle and point it at people from behind the curtain. It horrifies me in retrospect; things could have happened that would have changed my life. It’s a serious offence to be going armed in public so as to cause fear.
‘I had access to a means of ultimate violence and I was obsessed by it. The rifle possessed me for a while, and people have often asked me why I didn’t put a bullet in or put a bolt in the rifle?
‘I think in retrospect I must have been testing myself. I could control my emotions and my fear, and I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.
‘In the end, everything my parents had taught me, the things they hadn’t said – the way they treated me with love and affection took hold. I think that was the stuff that kept me from the precipice, whereas a boy like Jaxie who has no nurturing to fall back on and no reservoir of attention or affection – well there is no reason not to go that extra step.
‘When the reader meets Jaxie we realise he’s in a world of trouble and he is a world of trouble.’
Winton is passionate about the need to change, and to recognise our societal male violence which he believes has been minimised by associating it as a normal attribute of masculinity.
‘We are a country obsessed with terror. The biggest form of terror is male violence. Eighty-eight Australians died in the Bali bombings and that had a massive impact. That many women die every year from male violence. If you add that number up [since the bombimg] (1,408) then tell me that is not terrorism?
‘What is so disheartening,’ says Winton, ‘is to see these toxic patterns endlessly replicated.
‘I have been observing boys for a long time. I am a grandfather now, I have seen boys become men and girls become women, and it disheartens me that all the tenderness and kindness that little boys have is systematically shamed or beaten out of them so they adopt one narrow form of masculinity and manhood – men are pressed into service, dragooned into an army of misogyny.
‘I don’t have any grand theories about masculinity. Generalisations make my skin crawl a bit, but I don’t think there is necessarily any inherent difference between boys and girls.’
Winton believes that boys and girls are born wild. ‘They are wonderful feral creatures when they are little, but some do turn into savages, mainly when they are boys and they are valorised. Men have been trained to grasp and grab and fight. That is the worst part of masculinity, the belief that life is a fight. It’s not a fight, life is not a race, and things won’t turn around until men realise that in life it’s not about winning; you have to join the dance.’
♦ The Shepherd’s Hut is in all bookshops now.