In a nutshell, what would you say The Shepherd’s Hut is about?
It’s about a lonely, abused teenager who flees his home and tries to cross the vast salt lands of WA to reach the only person who cares about him. At one level it’s a survival story – what this kid, Jaxie Clackton, has to do to keep himself and his hopes alive – but really it’s about the search for love and hope.
Where did you first get the idea for this novel?
I was in the middle of writing a different book when the first, rather violent, scene came to mind. I didn’t know what it was, what it meant. All I knew was it had nothing at all to do with what I was working on. I was at the desk, staring out at the red ranges and the spinifex and I thought ‘What the hell is this?’ I took some notes, then I went back to it a few weeks later and realized I had this very strong voice in my head, Jaxie’s voice, and I knew I had a book. It was actually inconvenient. I dropped what I was doing and followed him into the wilderness.
A sense of place has always been crucial in your novels. What made you decide to set The Shepherd’s Hut in salt country at the edge of the desert?
Well, I actually love that sort of country and I’d spent a fair bit of time out there over the years. Characters and situations always arise from place – that’s just how it works for me. I’ve written essays about that kind of transitional country, where eucalypts give way to mulga and saltbush, and I suppose I had nursed faint hopes of writing a novel set out there sometime, but nothing came to me until Jaxie showed up. I only waited 20 years or so!
Did you ever consider different ending for Jaxie – or was The Shepherd’s Hut always destined for that outcome from the start? Is this the case with all of your novels?
Oh, I didn’t really know where I was going. I was just following this feral presence, wondering what he’d do. And it was often a bit nerve-wracking, because Jaxie is the kind of person who could do anything if the mood takes him. And, of course, at the end of the book you’re not sure what will become of him. Will he make it to his love, will he get caught, will he stay alive long enough to become what he wants to become, which is a decent person with some peace and happiness. Sometimes I have a sense of where I’m going, often I don’t. The Shepherd’s Hut could have ended very differently. But I’m glad it went the way it did.
Who is your favourite character out of all your books?
Oh, I don’t play favourites. Parenting has taught me that much.
What do you love most about the Australian landscape and why? What do you like least?
I love the fact we still have landscape. Intact landscapes, I mean, places that are still more or less themselves. That’s rare now. We’re lucky to have access to wild nature. We should value it more and do more to protect it. The natural world is one of the most potent anti-depressants available. We probably should avail ourselves of it more.
If you could have dinner with 3 other authors living or dead who would they be?
Authors? 3 of them? That’d make 4 writers at the same table. All whingeing about their agents and their publishers and the crap covers and bad reviews they get. Nah, sorry, I don’t think I’m keen on this idea. I love books. Writers are not very interesting. Give me 3 teachers, 3 social workers, 3 nurses.
What are your top favourite books of all time? Is there a genre you are drawn to?
I still hold on to the old standbys – sorry. Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
What’s the last good book you read?
Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs. His latest, Reservoir 13, is great, too.
What does your writer’s room look like?
Like a bedroom with office furniture in it. A couple of bookshelves. And a lot of shells and rocks and animal bones on the window sill. The odd boat propeller (they make good paper weights).
If you were starting out as a young writer today, what advice would you give yourself?
Hold your nerve. Don’t bend. But don’t hold your breath. If you can imagine yourself doing something else for a living, best you chase that down, because the writing life is… well, it’s a real piece of work: great when it’s great, but it can do your head in.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton published by Hamish Hamilton, 12 March 2018, rrp $39.99