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Lyn McCredden's The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred explores Winton's work from multiple angles. She considers his treatment of class, gender, place, transcendence and belonging, and shows how his engagement with these themes has deepened and changed over time. She also argues that he occupies a highly unusual place in the Australian literary landscape: he is a popular novelist who is also taken seriously by critics, and a religious man in a country that is often suspicious of religious faith. We talked to Lyn about these complexities and more.

Tim Winton won the Vogel Award when he was just 21, and for much of his career has been one of Australia’s best-known and best-loved novelists. Does this level of popularity affect how we read his work? Do you think it changes how critics approach his books?

While Winton’s work is popular, and has been set on school curricula, he also has his fair share of detractors. They have questions to ask about his concentration on male characters, his representation of women, his use of vernacular language etc. But this just makes discussion of his work all the more interesting. As a critic I am interested in the works themselves, and the ideas and discussions they foster.

The subtitle of your book is “Earthed and Sacred”. What do you mean by “the earthed” and “the sacred” in the context of Winton’s work, and how can this help us to understand his fiction?

I chose those terms very particularly. They reflect the complex and informing weave of earthy (watery, surfing, embodied, sexual) and sacred (lyrical, transcendent, spiritual, meaning-making) elements in his work. Winton is a religious man, and a surfer. These elements, and their relationship with each other, inform his work constantly. In a sense, this relationship is Winton’s great theme, I would argue. It’s an amazing contribution to readers in Australia, which possibly sees itself as secular to its back teeth.

Australia is a relatively secular country (some might even say an irreligious one!). Do you think Australian readers are uncomfortable with discussions of the sacred? Does this affect how critics and readers understand Winton’s writing?

Yes, I think there are a lot of readers “out there” who are uncomfortable about notions of sacredness. And many are quite hostile. They have perhaps had negative relations with religion, or none at all. But this is a volatile, changing cultural landscape. Indigenous Australians are teaching us a lot about sacred understandings of land, place, history and our ancestors. I don’t see how anyone can be interested in Indigenous peoples, and their relationship to this nation and to its white inhabitants, without being engaged by these questions of sacredness

You write interestingly in the book about how Winton moves between, and subverts, the categories of the “popular” and the “literary”. Do these same categories pose a challenge for critics? As a scholar writing about a hugely popular writer, how do you navigate these distinctions? Do you think about Winton’s popular audience when you write, or are you writing chiefly for other scholars and critics?

I think this makes Winton quite distinctive, if not unique. Yes, he’s popular, but certainly not in the sense of popular authors who sell ten times more than Winton does. Many of the biggest sellers in Australia write a book a year, and their sales are huge. Winton is a long way back in this pack, and his books on average take three to four years to write and publish. His writing uses many of the tools of popular fiction – knowable characters, down-to-earth language, sex, etc. – but they also reach another register, where language is highly lyrical, even transcendent. Plot is secondary to the nuanced, evocative qualities of language. And then, as we have already said, his work delves into sacred issues, probably not a popular pastime.

I wrote this book for lovers of Winton, for students, scholars, teachers, critics, and anyone interested in taking their focus on Winton’s work to the next level of discussion and thought. It’s also a book which opens up critical dialogues which are not only academic, about relations to the land, sexuality and gender, religion, selfhood.

This might not be a very scholarly question! But do you have a favourite Winton book?

No – I appreciate many of them. Maybe a sly, early favourite is That Eye the Sky, because it was one of the first of his works I read. I love the way the book is focalised through the child narrator. And it’s about some of my keenest interests – family, childhood, hope. It’s an earthy and a sacred read.

Do you prefer silence, music, or something else when you’re writing? Do you have any writing rituals?

Silence. I gorge on writing. Once I get started at my desk, I can’t stop. Very bad habit for the health of one’s shoulders, hunching over the computer. But it’s an exhilarating experience. Nothing like it. And I always feel the pull of responsibility to the author – not necessarily to agree with them, or simply praise them, but to fully work with their ideas and the power of their writing, even as I often critique them too.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just finished a wonderful novel by Zoe Morrison called Music and Freedom, set in Oxford and outback New South Wales. And I’ve rediscovered the poetry of Theodore Roethke after a long absence. Wonderful poetry of earth and spirit. Immense! Existential food.

Lyn McCredden is Professor of Australian Literature and Literary Studies at Deakin University in Melbourne.

The Fiction of Tim Winton: Earthed and Sacred is available now.

"The Fiction of Tim Winton is an intelligent and exhaustively researched contribution to studies of Winton’s writing. This book is also an example of sophisticated and immensely readable literary analysis." -- The Australian

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