Tim Winton’s latest book, The Shepherd’s Hut, opens with a quote from American poet Liam Rector’s Song Years — “Change is hard and hope is violent”.
The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Jaxie Clackton. Orphaned and flung onto the salt flats of Western Australia, his world is changing and filled with violence.
“I always start my work with a place,” the four-time Miles Franklin Award winner said.
While many of his novels unfurl on Australia’s coastline (particularly the coast of his home state, West Australia), The Shepherd’s Hut pitches its camp in Western Australia’s Northern Wheatbelt and Goldfields.
“I’ve always loved that kind of country… where the salt country sort of bleeds into the interior and the desert.”
Even inland, Winton has managed to find the ocean within those “great expanses of salt”.
“There’s something very oceanic about the inland of Australia, that people don’t quite realise,” he said.
The scum that bubbles out
“I don’t set out to write a novel about anything,” Winton explained.
“I don’t do themes or issues, I just write about a place and the scum that bubbles up out of it, which is the humans. I just follow them and see what gives.”
The scum that bubbles up in The Shepherd’s Hut is Jaxie.
“He’s basically just the fruit of misogyny,” Winton said.
The child of an abusive father, Jaxie has developed a rough and bullish exterior.
“There are always those boys — the spiky boys, the dirty boys, the threatening boys that you cross the street to avoid,” he said.
Jaxie is one of those boys, but his creator thinks that “every character, every kind of person, is worth listening to and being curious about”.
“I think we are all trapped in our mask.”
Writing Jaxie meant “having a think about what it’s like to be on the inside of that, to be on the other side of the mask — because everybody’s projecting. A boy like Jaxie, he’s acting, he’s rehearsing his version of being a boy and a sort of proto man.”
While Winton might not set out to explore a theme, this is far from his first fumble into the world of boys and proto-men.
The relationships between men and boys, and toxic masculinity, are threads that run throughout much of his work — from short story collection The Turning to the coming-of-age novel Breath.
He said he is “interested in the way in which men are trapped within these narrow models of masculinity,” observing that “in the last generation or two, women have made a lot of advances, even if a lot of that time it’s seizing control from the deathly grip of men. But at the same time, men haven’t moved on much.”
The reason for this stasis is clear to Winton: “I think in order to change, men need to let go, they need to surrender things, they need to accept and give up some privilege. I think [with] any power relationship, whether it’s slavery or patriarchy, the people that find it the hardest are those who have the most to lose.”
“I think men aren’t moving on because they feel safe where they are and feel scared of giving things up.”
Deep pockets of emotion
In The Shepherd’s Hut, Jaxie meets a different kind of man, Fintan MacGillis.
“Every man in his [Jaxie’s] life up until this point has been a brute, a monster, somebody who just lives by force, who intimidates all those around him into silence, where there are no conversations, just declarations and fraught silence,” Winton explained.
But Fintan is an exiled priest, a man both verbal and musical.
Fintan and Jaxie are suspicious of each other, but their encounter hums with possibility.
To Fintan, Jaxie might offer redemption, but what Fintan offers Jaxie is a living, breathing, example of a different kind of man.
In his own life, Winton experienced this more expansive idea of manhood.
“I was very lucky to have a gentle, thoughtful, father. I was definitely conscious as a kid that other boys weren’t as lucky. I mean their dads might have had more money but they didn’t have deep pockets emotionally,” he said.
Winton has raised two sons and is now a grandfather, and observes that “we are often massively derelict in taking responsibility for the young men in our lives… and I think men have a grave responsibility that they don’t take seriously when it comes to boys.”
“I think it’s incumbent upon men to be conscious of what kind of modelling and what kind of example they set to young people.”
The Shepherd’s Hut is published by Penguin Random House.