I was asked to interview the famous Australian writer Tim Winton for a literary event. With the release of his latest book, a memoir called The Boy Behind the Curtain, he was hitting the road on a book tour. The request came through months before the event and I jumped at the chance, after all it was Tim Winton.
I was given a pre-release copy of the book (an uncorrected proof) to read and loved it – it’s poetic, heartbreaking, funny, informative and gives a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of his writing life and his writing disasters. Yes, even Tim Winton has writing disasters.
As the weeks rolled by and the date of the event grew closer I became increasingly nervous. Tim is known to be a very private person. It’s also a fact that he’s not all that fond of the spruiking that needs to be done when a new book is released. I’d heard reports of him being taciturn during interviews and a rumour that he once said to a journalist, ‘I’m so sick of talking about this book.’ What would I do if he gave me one-word answers or even worse, didn’t answer my questions at all?
I was also nervous because it was Tim Winton. The Tim Winton. Four-time winner of the Miles Franklin, 28 books and 3 plays to his name, Australia’s best loved literary novelist. And then there was the note from his publicist, the first of many, saying that Tim preferred an interlocutor to an interviewer. An interlocutor? Quick, find me a dictionary. Turns out an interlocutor is someone who takes part in dialogue or conversation. Okay. So I wouldn’t be asking him questions, we’d be having a chat instead. My nervousness grew.
When I was in radio I’d get asked all the time what the secret was to a great interview. I’d always say, ‘Do your research and then listen.’ As my apprehension increased my research began in earnest. I read the book again, I read reviews and interviews, I read and reread many of his novels and his coastal and landscape memoirs. I wrote pages of questions, re-wrote them and then re-wrote them again. And then, because he doesn’t like being interviewed and prefers to have a chat, I condensed them to dot points.
The chain of emails from his publicist grew longer. The list of do’s and don’t’s. What Tim liked and what he didn’t. It was like dealing with a major rock star. For someone who was already nervous, it was a tad intimidating. And I’ll mention here that I used to interview people for a living. Eighteen years in radio, fifteen of those with the ABC. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, politicians, pundits and yes, authors. Sometimes I’d be nervous but not often, in fact hardly ever. It was my job. I did my research, I asked questions and most importantly I listened. But the momentum around Tim’s book tour was growing. He was on the front page of The Australian, The Review and the Australian Magazine. He is a major star, there’s no escaping it. And I was going to interlocutor with him, in front of a sold out audience. (The event sold out in three days.)
The big day arrived. At that point I probably knew more about Tim Winton than his own mother. I decided I wasn’t nervous. No, not at all. I was excited. I was about to have a chat with an Australian literary legend. I was greeted at the venue by people I knew and liked; the team from Noosa Libraries, Annie and Rachel from Annie’s Books, a member of my book club and a fellow writer from my writing group. I began to relax. And then I met Tim.
I was given the opportunity to sit and talk with him away from everyone else before the event. I gave him a rundown of what we’d be interlocutoring about. (By the way, interlocutoring is not in the dictionary.) I was amazed when he told me I could ask him anything and he’d be okay with it. As we talked I discovered he was down to earth, friendly and funny as all get out. I mentioned how hectic his tour schedule was and he told me he’d rather be busy than melancholy, and he would be melancholy if left to his own devices. I added ‘honest’ to his list of heart-warming attributes.
The actual event was brilliant. He was witty and wise, erudite and earthy. He had the audience laughing uproariously one minute and nodding their heads solemnly the next. And as for me? I had done my research and now my job was to listen. So I listened. And we chatted. I didn’t even need to refer to my notes. I was an interlocutor extraordinaire. The crowd loved it, Tim enjoyed himself and I think even the publicist was happy.
So, here’s the truth about Tim Winton. He may be a private person and he may be Australia’s most acclaimed literary author but this I know for certain – Tim Winton, the boy behind the curtain, is a lovely, lovely bloke.