is an Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction. His journalism, short fiction, reviews and essays have been widely published and anthologised. His novel Grimmish – described by Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee as ‘The strangest book you are likely to read this year’ – was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Originally self-published, Grimmish is now published by Puncher & Wattmann (Australia), Coach House Books (North America), Peninsula Press (UK) and Mutatis Mutandis (Spain, forthcoming).
Winkler won the 2016 Calibre Essay Prize for ‘The Great Red Whale’. More: michaelwinkler.com.au
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I always wanted to write books, but the books I’ve written have never been satisfying to me. I have written or co-written 10 books for commercial publishers, contributed to others and self-published three. My most recent book Grimmish is the only one I love.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve written in every form. I make the point in Grimmish that, while my short fiction is horrible, it isn’t remotely as bad as my poetry. But it’s all the one thing, whatever the form: me trying to tell you what I’m thinking or seeing or feeling.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It embarrasses me, but I make a circus out of my writing. Tear my hair. Rend my clothing. Flop about like a trout on a riverbank. The complete Woe Is Me. I can spend actual years hating myself for not getting started. The whole thing is a very slow process, my first drafts are lousy, but I have some ability as a redrafter/rewriter.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
It varies. But the first seed for Grimmish was a story I read as a little kid. The final product included years of research, plenty of fragments knitted together, scraps of found prose, plus a short story I rediscovered that I’d written 20 or more years earlier.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I take in information poorly through my ears, so I don’t get much joy from attending readings. It took me a few goes as a reader to realise that if you can provide a bit of a performance, a bit of verve, the audience is grateful.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t have any sort of academic background so I am easily baffled by anything that approaches theory. A preoccupation, however, is: what more can novels do to reward the reader?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Don’t think there’s a ‘should.’ Writing a book that is fabulously entertaining is a social good, even if it doesn’t solve the climate crisis or wealth inequality. But the writers who provide the most excitement for me, the ones who are mining and synthesising the world as it is, are performing (exceeding) the roles of journalist, seer, philosopher, psychosocial analyst. If you want the news that matters, don’t turn on the TV or open the paper – go to a bookshop.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Tricky question. With past books I’ve worked with editors, and that has always been helpful. However, with Grimmish I knew precisely what I wanted and how far I wanted to push, so I was my own editor (and even my own proofreader, which is why the chapter numbers in the original edition are screwy). Editorial intervention would have calmed and flattened the book – and thus removed its reason for existence. But I value editors, and look forward to working with them again in the future.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My dad used to say, ‘It’s easier to cut down jungles than irrigate deserts’. I’m not sure if that’s true either literally or figuratively but I think of it often.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (journalism to short fiction to essays to critical prose to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve made my living through writing for decades, but I haven’t valued many of those jobs or much of that work. I wonder if my creative writing would be enhanced if I spent my paid hours doing something completely different. I think corporate writing and even mainstream journalism can blunt your tools.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have no writing routine. Wish I did. I start every day by cursing the alarm clock, taking my pills and stepping out the back door to chat to my vegetables.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I get stalled for years at a time. And then, for no apparent reason, there will be a little dust-storm of creativity and I’ll wonder why it took so long and why I made it so hard. I don’t think it helps with stalling, but certainly reading the writers who you most admire can fuel your determination to do better, so I am always seeking great writing and rereading great writers. I’ve got a dodgy knee so I can’t go on long walks, but I think if I could that might be my answer.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My wife’s hair.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
A wonderful question, and yes – everything, really. I have written about finding the clues for how to write Grimmish through visual art, in particular the profane, poetic, prodigious mid-career work of painter Juan Davila. https://meanjin.com.au/essays/moving-on-u-p-p/
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I grew up without a television in a little country town, so from the earliest age books have been a significant part of my world. Even though I was passionate about literature, I didn’t know any writers until Grimmish came out and I was invited to some festivals and events. I think I expected grudging, competitive alphas – but with a couple of exceptions the writers I’ve met have been thoughtful, funny, good-hearted introverts. These relationships are buoying – as soon as I complete these answers I’ll drive a couple of hours up the road for a cuppa with one such writer. As for those whose work has a direct impact on my own work, the list is long. Melville is on top.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would have liked to be a clown, or a professional wrestler, or a dancer – some occupation where you use your body for storytelling and to bring joy. (Or I could steal from Francis Picabia who styled himself variously as funny guy, imbecile, pickpocket, failure, cannibal, silly willy and ‘the only complete artist’.)
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s all I can do! Believe me, it’s not the vocation I would have chosen. I would have liked to be a dancer or a singer, then my next choice would be painting or printmaking.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Hmm. Genuine greatness is rare. I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead over Christmas, and I think it’s truly great. I think For The Good Times by David Keenan which I’ve just finished is almost definitely great, but I need some time to ponder it before I can be certain.
Film: I no longer watch movies. I used to care, a lot, to the point of self-publishing the phenomenally low-selling (despite a supportive tweet from Rupaul) Fahfangoolah!: The despised and indispensable Welcome to Woop Woop, a book-length defence of one of the most hated films in our national filmography. For a range of reasons I no longer have any interest in that artform.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Gluing together the fragments of a novel about a man who disengages from the community in a very specific way. Is it going well? Thank you for asking; indeed it is not. Onwards!