Geraldine Brennan talks to Booker novelist Tim Winton about teenage angst
Fresh from riding the Booker waves, Tim Winton is thinking of his next project even before he's poured the ocean out of his ears.
The Australian novelist has promised a third and final title in the Lockie Leonard series about the surf-crazy high-school boy grappling with growing pains, first love and well-meaning but cringe-worthy parents. Meanwhile, the first two books have just come out in paperback in the UK.
Lockie should not be dismissed as an Adrian Mole in a wetsuit. He wallows in solitary Moleish embarrassment and ennui but is also a social being at the centre of a vividly-drawn community: a one-horse town with a toehold in south-western Australia. Winton's model for "Augusta", the setting for much of his fiction, is Albany, where he grew up. Characters from his full-length novels, such as the eco-guerrillas Queenie and Cleve from Shallows, make cameo appearances in the Lockie books.
Like Lockie, he was offended at having to move from the big city (Perth) and self-conscious at being both the new kid in town and a policeman's son. "I've told so many tales about my adolescence that in the end people told me to write about it or shut up," he said.
The books sum up the traumas of the early teenage years which Winton recognises as the ultimate awkward age, especially for boys. "They seem to go through the worst between 12 and 13. There are so many drastic changes. In a class of that age group, half will have no interest in sex at all and the other half will be like volcanoes. There's a lot of red faces and misery."
Accordingly, Lockie confronts worries about religion (doesn't mind the theory, hates the practice) and sex (much the same) and the environment. "Albany was the last land-based whaling station in the world and I saw whales being brought in and cut up from when I was 12," says Winton. "I saw the harbour being neglected. It impressed on me how fragile the environment is.
"But you can't preach at people. You have to write about what you think is important without being boring the worst sin for a writer."
Lockie has also been given Winton's obsession with surfing and the attendant culture. The tribal differences between grommets (surfies) and bogans (metal heads) are explored at length in the Lockie books, and partly resolved in Scumbuster, where Lockie teams up on an anti-pollution campaign with Egg, a formerly despised bogan whose complexion is an environmental hazard in itself.
"Tribalism is something you can't seem to eradicate," he said. "The surf culture has always been seen as a rather romantic, slightly hippy thing, while it was considered cool to think of the bogans as weird, dirty lesser beings because they had cars and listened to heavy metal. It still goes on now. It's sad when people grow up and continue their various forms of ostracism."
His mailbag about 50 letters a week from readers and his frequent school visits confirm that he reflects the preoccupations of the age of maximum discomfort and social adjustment. "Most of them tell me I've got it right. I think readers appreciate it when you show some respect for their culture and don't condescend, use the words that they use and recognise that their culture is their own world and not something trivial or puerile.
"It's important not simply to write and publish the books you think you liked to read when you were young. There's too many adult gatekeepers making decisions on behalf of children."
He is still trying to get his Australian bestseller The Buggalugs Bum Thief past the UK publishing gatekeepers. It's a comic fantasy aimed at eight to 10-year-olds "about a kid who wakes up and finds his bum's gone". An environmental nightmare to end them all.
Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo and Lockie Leonard, Scumbuster are published by Macmillan, pound;3.99 each - 0 330 34067 0 and 34068 9