Winton was just 25-years-old and in “the full flush of youth” when he wrote That Eye, The Sky – a moving coming-of-age drama about a family left fractured by a serious car accident.
The author’s previous two works, An Open Swimmer and Shallows, had garnered him national recognition, but Winton says it wasn’t until he started writing That Eye, The Sky in 1985 that he “unashamedly and almost defiantly” embraced the Australian demotic in his writing.
“There had always been this impulse in Australian letters to sort of tuck our shirts in and tidy ourselves up a bit so we didn’t let the side down and didn’t embarrass ourselves in front of the big people from New York and London,” Winton tells InDaily.
“By that stage I’d had a gut-full of it and it became my own post-colonial pushback. It unleashed me in a way and I look back at That Eye, The Sky and I think it was almost a dress rehearsal for Cloudstreet where I pushed it even further and didn’t know what to expect.
“From there on I’d gone hard in that direction of thinking, claiming my place, claiming my sound, claiming our lingo as I understood it and as I’d known it as a young person.
“I don’t know if that came from confidence or desperation of just a fit of naughtiness – I felt naughty just writing ordinary, silly, daggy words and there was a bit of fun in that.”
That Eye, The Sky is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Morton ‘Ort’ Flack, whose vision of the world is blurred between the natural and metaphysical.
Stuck on his family’s remote homestead with a paralysed father, helpless mother and loathing sister, Ort begins to question everything he knows about life and death.
Winton says the character was inspired by “an oblique angle” of his own childhood, particularly his reaction to his father’s real-life involvement in a car accident, and from observing his younger siblings traverse the journey from childhood to adulthood.
“At that stage (of writing That Eye, The Sky) I had a brother the same age as Ort – he is 12 years younger than me and my wife’s youngest brother is 15 years younger than her.
“Both of us, before we’d got together and had our own kids, we’d grown up with kids on our hips.
“I guess I was still in that world of observing children and just watching them go from being children to teenagers to adults. I was curious to watch how strange that transition was, especially around the age of 11, 12, when you’re in this no-person’s land, you’re in unchartered territory and you’re neither a fish nor a fowl.”
Winton is accustomed to having his work adapted for the stage and screen.
That Eye, The Sky was made into a film in 1994 under the direction of John Ruane and adapted for the stage by actor Richard Roxburgh and writer Justin Monjo for Burning House Theatre in the same year.
“I can’t tell if it was just something in the natural structure of the book and the fact that it only has a few characters and it seemed short enough to conceive of it as an adaptation,” Winton says.
“Maybe it was about energy – there’s a simplicity to the story and the rest of it might have come from verbal energy.”
Winton describes himself as a “distant uncle” when attending the opening nights for plays and films adapted from his work.
My hope is when I show up in Adelaide, I’ll recognise some of my sound when it plays out on the stage
He doesn’t involve himself in the production of the works (“I don’t even read the scripts – I can’t tell if that’s just arrogance or being busy”), but admits it’s a peculiar feeling to see his stories played out on screen and on stage.
“It’s like going to a school concert – you hope everyone gets their lines right and it works out for them. You can’t claim any credit, but you feel proud and happy for them.
“I’ve never really had an adaptation where I’ve felt that the work had been traduced, that they’d gone against the spirit of the work.
“You just prepare for all kinds of changes and all kinds of reinterpretations.”
State Theatre Company’s take on the Roxburgh and Monjo adaptation will be directed by Kate Champion, who choreographed Neil Armfield’s stage production of Cloudstreet.
“I understood why they were doing it when I saw Kate Champion was directing it, because I remember the original stage production being very physical (and) very much about movement and Kate’s background is in choreography,” Winton says.
“It is a story about this kind of physical reality and feeling the limits of physicality so it makes sense that someone would take a very corporeal movement-based approach.
“My hope is when I show up in Adelaide, I’ll recognise some of my sound when it plays out on the stage.”
State Theatre Company will present That Eye, The Sky at Dunstan Playhouse from August 24 to September 16.
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