Talking to Tim Winton, one of Australia's most lauded contemporary novelists, isn't like talking to other writers. While his conversation ranges, typically enough, across the seminal writers who have influenced him – Twain, Stevenson, Wordsworth, Faulkner – there's also much conversation devoted to less typically writerish pursuits: surfing, swimming, wave breaks and reefs.
His preoccupation with the minutiae of surfing might be seen as characteristically Australian, but there's little that's typical with what he achieves with such raw material: to fashion a literature that makes the everyday experience of his country and society a vivid subject for serious and artistic fiction.
It's quickly obvious, too, just how deeply Winton has drawn on his own experiences in his latest novel, Breath. If his last novel, the Booker-nominated Dirt Music, was a hymn to the towering and brooding presence of the Australian landscape, Breath is a book that swaps earth for water. It is a short, fresh work, full of fizz and a vital poetry of sun, sand, sea and air. Yet, typically for Winton, there is also a weight that pulls on its central character, Bruce Pike, aka Pikelet, a young boy who comes of age risking extreme dangers in the pursuit of his addiction: surfing. Winton's devotion to the ocean, its ever-present influence on and in his life, is put to great use in its evocation of the primal presence of the sea in all its beauty and peril.
"Yeah," he says, thinking back to his first experiences on a surfboard, "I remember paddling out when I was a kid. I shot my first wave when I was five or six, y'know, and it was addictive. It was partly adrenaline, partly being completely enveloped by the elements. A lot of the time you'd be alone in the water and it was great – physically draining, but I probably would have done a lot more drugs and a lot more crazy things that were no less physically dangerous than some of the things we did do. It was enormously liberating."
Breath is a recollection of the youthful exploits of Pikelet and his wayward best mate Ivan Loon, named as such characters inevitably are in Australia, as Loonie. Loonie, it is quickly apparent, is the sort of fearless madman who is both hero and fool and who is driven to take ever-crazier risks in pursuit of an end that is never entirely clear.
As the novel develops, the two friends fall in with a mentor figure, the older Sando, a former surfing champion, who leads them into increasingly frightening situations as they pursue the ultimate in challenging breaks. It is a rite-of-passage novel without any pat conclusion, as Pikelet is led into a wisdom based on loss as much as enlightenment. It is a novel that captures the comedy of adolescence, as the boys blunder into and through unlikely situations, but there's a deep poignancy, too, as Pikelet comes to the painful realisation that he is, both figuratively and literally, out of his depth among the company he keeps.
As well as drawing on deep personal experience to create his novel, it is apparent that Winton is making an argument on behalf of his native country – so often patronisingly and erroneously accused of lacking "culture".
"When I grew up, surfing was our culture," he says. "It defined us, was the lens, however distorted, through which we saw ourselves. I was around when surfing was going through its hippie phase: it was all kids in Kombi vans, women who were earth mothers, and us just driving round, smoking heaps of pot. It was an innocent time, like San Francisco with salt. A lot of it was bollocks as well, but – and it's hard to say this without people curling their lip – I felt nurtured by it. I'm grateful to it as it got me though adolescence relatively unscathed and a part of me has always had a foot in that culture."
The soft lines around Winton's eyes are testament to long exposure to sun and salt, and he continues to wear his hair in a ponytail, a mark of loyalty, perhaps, to that 1970s surfing hippie culture. Growing up in Perth, western Australia, as the son of a policeman, writing was not the most obvious of career choices, but Winton began composing poetry at school, and once he decided to be a writer, pursued his ambition singlemindedly.
Although in recent years his literary production has slowed greatly (Dirt Music was published back in 2002), he has an impressively long bibliography from his early years, when he was publishing a novel a year to support himself and his family. It's the only job he has ever known. "It's really strange how an idea can get hold of you and won't let you go. I decided that I was going to be a writer to the point that I academically disqualified myself from doing anything else. There was no plan B, y'know. When I look back, I think, 'How did I ever have the confidence to do what I've done?' I never had a trade, I married young, had children and had all these responsibilities and I was doing it as a writer!"
His fourth novel, That Eye, the Sky, narrated from the point of view of a none-too-bright 12-year-old, received warm critical praise on its release in 1986, but it wasn't until the publication of Cloudstreet in 1991 that he scored significant popular success not only in Australia but in America, the UK and Europe. Further success followed with The Riders in 1996, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Yet, outside of The Riders, set in Ireland and continental Europe, Winton has remained stubbornly loyal to his home patch of western Australia in his fiction, a region which, despite its enormous size and the economic importance of its vast mineral wealth, is notable for its invisibility to much of the outside world. Did he ever doubt that his locality and experiences might not be fit subjects for the ambitious fiction he has come to realise?
"When I was younger I had that feeling that all the interesting stuff happened elsewhere," he says. "Although I came of age at a time of confidence [in Australia], there was still a sense that there was a conscious trying to overcome this sense that the real world was in London or New York, elsewhere, y'know? Plus, I lived on the west coast: I was on the wrong side of the wrong country in the wrong hemisphere. But the confidence of that time came also when my reading developed and I realised the stuff I loved – Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain – were writers who relentlessly stayed on their patch. I recognised that that was what I really loved about them, their particularity, their vernacular, their confident regionalism that wasn't tugging a forelock or in any way anxious. It was what empowered me."
Winton's body of work is impressive: he has won Australia's prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, three times, has been shortlisted for the Booker twice and his collection of short stories, The Turning, contains examples that stand as models of what can be achieved in the form.
Looking back further, he muses on what prompted him to attempt to write in the first place: an experience of estrangement when he had to leave his native Perth and move down the south coast when he was 12.
"My old man was a cop and he got transferred," he says, "so my adolescence was pretty much spent on the south coast. It's granite country, not so hot, parts sort of English in a way, but wild coast with beautiful lonely beaches. It had a big impact on me because I felt exiled to the country, in a small town. I was from the city, and everyone was very defensive, but not only that, [because] my dad was a cop, he would know everything about my friends, their parents, their family and their dirty problems. I felt this weight of knowledge. In my first year at school I didn't know anyone and I had to reinvent myself out of desperation. I had to find some sort of survival persona to talk my way out of being beaten up. I tried to amuse people by telling them stories. The only trouble was, if the stories were good enough, you had to do it again the next day, and they'd want more, only better."
He smiles. Stories and surfing saw him through. "Within a year," he says, "I was swept up by the place, by the physical beauty." He grins again. "That," he says, "and I was in the sea. I survived that traumatic part of my adolescence by being in the water."
Breath, By Tim Winton (Picador £14.99)
'...There wasn't time to go looking for help. I was it. I felt myself rise to the moment – taller all of a sudden – and before I could embark upon my mission, or even pull my shirt off, Ivan Loon burst from the water. He came up so close to shore with such a feral shriek the woman fell back on the mud as if shot'