An interview with Tim Winton about State Theatre Company’s production of That Eye, The Sky quickly turns to religion, unexamined privilege, environmentalism, and family life. Strap yourselves in.
Tim Winton phones me bang on twelve o’clock. He says he’s ‘timed like a toaster’, and I feel some sympathy with that—I’m primed like a toaster too, if only in the agitated sense. My hands are shaking a little, to be talking to one of Australia’s most treasured authors. I ask him where he’s calling from; he says somewhere up in the Pilbara, standing on a hill.
‘I won’t even bother explaining how and why, but this is where I’m found. The dirt’s red and the sky’s blue.’ It appears, then, that Winton is calling me from one of his novels.
I’m talking to Winton about That Eye, The Sky, the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s upcoming production of Richard Roxburgh’s and Justin Monjo’s play adaptation of his book. He states he didn’t travel to Sydney to see it when it premiered in 1994, but he did manage to catch it later in Perth. What he does remember is the people involved—he talks about Roxburgh and Monjo with clear affection, as well as the supporting cast including then-relative unknowns David Wenham and Hugo Weaving. I ask him if it’s odd at all to think back on where such people have developed from since then.
‘Yeah. Well, even me, you know. I only just figured it out this morning, when I wrote [That Eye, the Sky], I was younger than my youngest child is now. So my youngest is 27, and I wrote this book when I was 25.’
I ask what he thought of the book’s translation to stage. ‘They took a really physical element of it, which works. […] I’m imagining that there’ll be a really physical element to this adaptation. I was intrigued and enchanted by it when I saw it. There’s things you can do on stage with such economy, that when you experience them, they’re actually hard to describe.’
He continues, turning to the language he used in the book. ‘I just thought Bugger it, I’m just gonna have these people talk like, you know, my people talk. Rather than feeling that need to smarten everybody up.’
‘The funny thing is, it was the first work to be translated into other languages, it did really well in New York and London, it got the best reviews I’d ever got.’
Tim then discloses that he didn’t think the book was going to be well received in Australia. Published in 1986, Winton’s book of a young boy embracing religion—or more generally, spiritualism—was at odds with the time period.
‘[…] the mid-80s were really the high point of the baby boomers taking ownership of a culture. And the prejudices of the baby boomers—all of which were understandable—but they were pretty fixed. They were… well, really hostile to religion, technical about family, and fresh off the back of the revolution […] where we were remaking the world! And it was all gonna be different. That was before they all just gave up and became stockbrokers. So yeah, I expected the book was gonna get a kicking, and it didn’t turn out that way. People embraced the book in a really surprising way.’
It’s a natural transition here to talk about the history of religion in this country. ‘Australians have always historically had a bit of a problem with introspection, and part of our ghastly machismo is about shielding ourselves from feeling deeply, or expressing emotion, or acknowledging wonder.’
This sentence sticks with me. If That Eye, The Sky is “about” anything, it is seeing beyond our natural world to the unexplored beyond. Part of that is, as Winton puts it, “acknowledging wonder”. ‘I think [shielding ourselves has] been a huge drag on us culturally, and politically. And you can see that in the boardrooms, you know. It’s big swinging dicks. […] It’s just a kind of rigidity there that’s taken us a long time to let go of.’
I ask Winton about Henry, a stranger who embraces as well as discards a lot of aspects of organised religion. Would he consider Henry to be a more modern vision of religious adherents?
‘I think he’s a very flawed vessel. And like anyone, he’s 50% passion and 50% bullshit. And he gets to the point where he can’t disentangle one from the other. But he’s definitely a searcher. Now, he says, ‘we’re extremely skeptical of clerical figures, and in a way that is extremely healthy. We should’ve been much skeptical much earlier on.’
Does this mean, I ask, that you’re skeptical of aspects of religion in Australia now? ‘Yeah. I think skepticism is necessary. Even if you’re a person of faith, doubt is faith’s underbelly. You can’t believe in anything—or you can’t search for belief in anything—without ballast.’
I bring the conversation back to Ort, the unreliable narrator of That Eye, The Sky. Ort doesn’t take anything at face value, but rather interprets things as he sees them through his own understanding of the world.
‘No, he’s a mystic. And he doesn’t even know what that means. He feels some inspiration from the natural world, he feels that the world is alive. And he doesn’t know that he shares this instinct with 60,000 years of Australian human experience on this continent. […] But he’s not worried about the institutional stuff, that just bewilders him as it does any of us.’
I ask if maybe this is why That Eye, The Sky has resonated with so many people, it stretches between the two worlds of skeptics and believers. Winton has his own term, one I prefer: “searchers”.
‘I think this is the great conundrum […] I think we’ve realised, a lot of us, that science and language often fall short of giving a full account of human experience. I think human experience is not completely reflected in science, and it’s not completely reflected in art—these are attempts to codify and describe our human experience.’
It’s an interesting statement from someone many would consider to be Australia’s finest author; even he admits that ‘often words and numbers fall short. We feel things more deeply than we can account for.’ He says that ‘eventually, you just have to bow before that fact. Words’ll only get you so far.’ I ask if this limit, and Winton’s own views of religion, relate to his views on environmentalism, another topic the author is outspoken on.
‘Yeah. I wrote somewhere in another book that our relationship to the natural world is a familial relationship. You know, we belong to it, and it has claims on us. And in the same way, whichever your model of the family is, family is about mutual relationships and obligations, and giving.
‘Up until very recently, we’ve just had this idea that the world is ours to take, and we don’t give back. It’s not a relationship. If it’s a relationship, it’s a dysfunctional relationship, it’s an abusive relationship.
‘I think if there’s any strength in religious thinking, it’s about community and family and relationships. And I think this is where first peoples all over the world have got it all over us. They still see the relationship with the world as a family thing. That it owns you, you don’t own it, and you have a relationship and a responsibility to it.
‘The less connected you are to the natural world, the more susceptible you are to the black dog. The spreadsheet looks pretty grim when you take in the whole time [of the planet]—you are literally poisoning your own home.’
At this point I say thank you, not because I’m ending the interview, but just because the conversation ended up going far deeper than I’d intended. Not that I’m complaining; it’s hard not to let yourself be swept up as Winton talks. It seems to me that if faith can give us anything, it’s a sense of family and community; a theme that resounds with That Eye, The Sky. I ask Winton about the family presented in the play—alongside protagonist Ort is his mother and father Alice and Sam, sister Tegwyn, his “Grammar”, and his rooster Errol.
‘Ort is living in a fractured family, where there’s love. Regardless of if he knows his mum’s struggle to cope, or he knows his sister is in turmoil, or he knows his father is stuck in this diminished state, one thing he can trust is that they love him. He’s the beneficiary of their nurture, and his outlook is the fruit of their nurture and their love.’
I ask if this reflects his own views on family. ‘I definitely had a very warm loving family, and I feel like I’ve been the beneficiary of that. I’ve felt the impulse to pay that back, I suppose.
‘But I was always aware, from teenage life onwards, that other people were living different kinds of lives to what I was experiencing—it wasn’t necessarily the norm. I’m not sure if my view of family life is different.
‘I do think we are so often at the mercy of our origins. I don’t think we give enough credit to that. […] Whether they’re poor, or whether they’re addicted, whether they’re functional or not functional, you look back on their lives and think, half the time these poor buggers never got to make a seriously free choice. [You’ve] only got limited agency, in terms of the poverty of your origins. The postcode you file, the family you grew up in. A lot of people are just lucky to survive being in a family.’
It’s an interesting statement, and one that can be found in That Eye, The Sky. Aware that we’re running out of time, I ask him one final question—if there’s anything about the original book that surprises or shocks him now.
‘I think maybe there was some confidence in it that might’ve surprised me. […] I look back and think Whoa, I did a lot of work in my twenties! And it can’t have all been work that was generated just from terror, or being poor. Some of it must’ve just been exuberance.
‘It’s a bit like, when you’re a kid and you realise you can actually stay up on a two-wheeler, on a bicycle, and you just wanna get riding ‘cos you can. I think that probably accounts for me, and my ten books in my twenties. I did it partly because I had to, and partly because I realized that I could—and I couldn’t believe it.’
Tim Winton has published twenty-nine books for adults and children, and his work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. Since his first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the Australian Vogel Award in 1981, he has won the Miles Franklin Award four times (for Shallows, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and Breath) and twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for The Riders and Dirt Music). He lives in Western Australia.
To find out more about Tim Winton’s latest book The Shepherd’s Hut, please visit www.theshepherdshut.com.au/
STC’s production of That Eye, The Sky starts previewing on Friday 24th August, and opens Tuesday 28th August. To find out more and book tickets, visit