First published in The Age on May 27, 1992
‘Cloudstreet’ has a silver lining for prize-winning author
The shifty shadow of fate has smiled on the Western Australian writer Tim Winton. At the age of 31, he has won Australia’s top fiction prize, the $25,000 Miles Franklin award, for the second time.
Winton’s winning novel is ‘Cloudstreet’ (McPhee Gribble), a huge saga of the Lamb and Pickles families, classic Aussie battlers who share a house in Perth. Being a Winton work, however, it’s a highly unconventional saga where the shifty shadow brings spectacularly good and bad luck. Ghosts intrude, a pig talks and one character hovers constantly between life and afterlife.
As the Miles Franklin judges put it yesterday, the book is leisurely in the telling but punctuated by moments of astonishing terror, beauty, tenderness and laughter. . . the romantic imagination takes flight and soars. Turning his back on restraint. . . Winton has produced a wonderfully comprehensive study of the role of luck and chance in men’s lives, of the human capacity for what seems like a limitless range of feeling, of how the totally unexpected comes to be seen as the completely necessary. . .
Winton said by phone this week that he was again turning his back on restraint and looking at the totally unexpected. He was, in fact, sitting in the Candy Cane Inn in Anaheim, California, and gazing at the Matterhorn.
It was the Disneyland version, of course, not the real Swiss mountain. Winton couldn’t attend the Miles Franklin award presentation in Sydney yesterday because he was in the middle of a tour promoting the release of ‘Cloudstreet’ in the United States. But he was delighted to hear of his second win (his first Miles Franklin went to his novel ‘Shallows’ in 1984).
‘Cloudstreet’ is dedicated to Sam and Sadie Mifflin and Olive and Les Winton, his two sets of grandparents, whose stories went into generating ‘Cloudstreet’ (one grandparent retired to the backyard to live in a tent, like his character Oriel Lamb). The novel came out of a collection of incidents, a few little images and a vague idea. . . things I overheard as a kid. A lot of it was lies or big fibs, and what better basis for a book than lies?
He had wanted to write the story for a long time. But I didn’t have the nerve. I thought it was beyond my abilities. Finally he started, and once I got to 500 pages I realised it was going to be a big book. Every hundred or so pages I kept thinking, sooner or later there has to be a final episode, like ‘Neighbours’. Oops — I shouldn’t have made that comparison.
Much of the book was written Paris, in a castle gatehouse in Ireland, and on a Greek island. Winton won the Marten Bequest in 1987, which paid for a visit to Europe with his family. The exotic locations added an extra dimension to the book, he thinks. It was the work of a homesick boy. All those environments were good for my work: Ireland was a damp place where it didn’t stop raining for six months, Paris was a strange place where I didn’t have enough of the language to be a nuisance to myself, so I just worked.
‘Cloudstreet’ very nearly didn’t see the light of day. On his way back from Europe, Winton accidentally left his only copy of the manuscript on a bus to Rome Airport. Fortunately a helpful man caught up with him with the cry Is this your bag?
Although Winton has been successful from a very early age — he won the ‘Australian’ Vogel award for his book ‘An Open Swimmer’ when he was just 21 – he regards all his work so far as a long apprenticeship. There are other ideas, other books he has in mind but doesn’t think he is yet ready to tackle. Meanwhile, he is working on a screenplay of his novel That Eye The Sky’ and on his next novel and a collection of short stories.
‘Cloudstreet’ beat four other books shortlisted for the 1992 award: ‘Double-Wolf’ by Brian Castro; ‘Our Sunshine’ by Robert Drewe; ‘To The Burning City’ by Alan Gould; and ‘The Second Bridegroom’ by Rodney Hall.
The celebrations yesterday had a note of sadness because one of the Miles Franklin judges, Beatrice Davis, died at the weekend. Miss Davis, who had a long and distinguished career as an editor with Angus & Robertson, had been a Miles Franklin judge since 1957. Her fellow judges this year were the New South Wales State Librarian, Alison Crook; Professor Harry Heseltine; Professor Dame Leonie Kramer; and Professor Adrian Mitchell.