“All you need is a story and to find the best way to reach the person reading it”: An Interview with Michael Winkler — Tobias Ryan

After an arduous process of trying, and failing, to find a publisher, in 2021 Melbourne-based writer Michael Winkler decided to self-publish his novel Grimmish. Two years later, having cultivated a committed readership and become the first self-published novel to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, not only does the book have an Australian publisher, it has also been released in the US and UK. I spoke to Michael over Zoom about Joe Grim, how his novel developed, and the pugilistic tenacity of the lifetime writer.

I want to begin with your interest in combat sports. The way boxing and the writing life run parallel throughout the novel is intriguing.

Joe Grim’s was a story I first saw in a book when I was a child, and it lodged in my mind that he was a person who, if not impervious to pain, was capable of enduring extraordinary physical abuse. I grew up in a little town and growing up I didn’t have a television, so I hadn’t seen much combat sport, but the local Australian rules football matches could be extremely physical. I sort of lost my way in my late teens and early 20s, but I had always wanted to be a writer. I thought: what’s the lowest barrier to participation for someone who is an outsider to that world? So I went into a newsagent’s, and looked at the magazines and tried to think which would have the lowest bar for participation. I picked up a boxing magazine and thought: maybe if I write something for them they might be interested, if I don’t ask for payment. So I started writing about boxing, attending fights and visiting gyms. I didn’t have any expertise or specialist knowledge, but it interested me as a phenomenon, and it was a way to get into writing.

Originally Grimmish was conceived as a non-fiction piece about his Australian tour, right?

I’d written other non-fiction books, and I thought this would be an interesting project. But having put in a lot of research, I realised that I’d found everything that I could, and there wasn’t enough to sustain a book. By that time, though, I was captivated by the story. I was working at the time, in parallel, on some writing about pain, the phenomenon of pain, how we experience it, and how we make sense of it within our lives. There was a lightbulb moment where I realised I could put the two projects together, and turn it into a novel rather than non-fiction.

The book uses the term “exploded non-fiction”. Is that something you came up with yourself?

I came up with that as a way of describing what I was trying to do. I could see that it wasn’t non-fiction – I don’t love the term creative non-fiction, but I didn’t feel that it fell under creative non-fiction anyway – and calling it fiction didn’t quite seem right. The exploded conceit is because I wanted to show the fictional decisions I was making, to explain where they came from. That’s why there are scraps of memoir or reflections on my own experiences. I’m writing about someone who lived, and there is some sort of moral responsibility, I suppose. I wanted to be explicit about the fact I was making things up about him, that I was making choices about how I would present him, and the fairest way seemed to be to put myself into that frame as well.

One moment I particularly enjoyed, which really opens up the text and highlights the ways in which narratives get constructed, is the footnote disclaimer about Grim speaking like a “tweedy don”, an explicit rejection of the pidgin that appeared in contemporaneous newspaper reports. It really compounds notions of accurate portrayal: is the “tweedy don” any less correct than how he was presented during his life …  

Exactly. I mean, he was a theatrical phenomenon, so he was presenting a persona; he was trying to get people through the gates to make money. Then you’ve got the overlay of what the journalists think will sell papers, and then, of course, the overt racism, but also even just cultural misunderstandings about what his motivations might have been.

There are so many layers. But that’s something else I really appreciated: despite spending all this time with Grim, and how strong the characterisation is, he remains impenetrable; it never all adds up in a in a way which would be, I guess, “unsatisfyingly satisfying.”

That’s right, there’s nothing glib, ultimately, about our conclusions about Grim. We know that he existed, but we don’t even know exactly why he did what he did. Certainly, we don’t know how he managed to do it.

In terms of the process was it written in different sections and collaged together or, once you had that lightbulb moment, was there a fresh start out of which it developed more chronologically?

It became clear that the project needed some sort of organising principle, and chronology provided that. I was aware of a certain number of fights he had in Australia, and so could move him from place to place accordingly. And then in the research I discovered that one of the fights on his record had never happened, and there were a couple not on the official record at all. So that fight chronology became the structure but within that there was a lot of pre-existing stuff that got shifted around, patchworked and collaged in.

A few years before, I had written an essay that was a breakthrough for me, called ‘The Great Red Whale’. It was sort of me arguing with myself, a way to put that uncertainty and self-loathing, all the questions I had about process and the morality of what we do, up against the things I was writing. That unlocked the way forward for Grimmish.

The novel includes an impressive range of styles. There are the clippings and quotations, but it also goes from the more realistic to the fantastical, especially in the sections with the talking goat and nightmarish Pig Thug. At what stage of the writing did those elements start to emerge?

The goat fairly early on, and there’s a very boring, mechanistic reason behind it, which was that I had two people in the desert and it was going to be a really dull dialogue; I needed a third character. Originally it was going to be a donkey because there are a lot of feral donkeys in the Australian desert, but a big part of Australia’s war mythology surrounds a donkey, so it was the wrong animal. The character of Pig Thug – and I think there are probably clues in the text – is based in appearance and demeanour on someone who was a bully when I started high school, a terrifying creature who has remained in the back of my mind ever since. When I wanted to come up with the figure of a malevolent grotesque, my mind instantly went back to that person.

And that was a later development?

Yeah. The book was originally more extreme. I pruned it back to take out some of the sections that were pushing a bit hard. There was one scene that I tried to write as a Balinese shadow play, while also referring to Plato in his in his cave, and that was just too much. Also some of the memoir and self-reflective stuff, which depending on your taste you could say is self-indulgent. But it used to be a lot more so.

I didn’t find it indulgent at all. The type of novel where writers write about writing can often be frustrating as the degree of self-awareness often ends up being too arch or snarky. That was completely absent in Grimmish. I found it very sincere.

Sincerity is a really interesting word because I think the book is sincere, and it’s one of the most exposing things you can do. There’s an enormous temptation to fudge or try to make things a little bit cooler, a little bit quirky for its own sake, and that’s a lot safer than sincerity. I wonder if it’s cultural?

I had wanted to ask a horrifically broad question about Australian culture …

Have you ever been?

I haven’t, no.

It’s an enormously diverse place, particularly now, but in the culture I grew up in, I think there was a lot of self-doubt and insecurity about where we belong. About the worst thing you could be in that Australia was a big head or a bragger. It’s always been that the socially appropriate thing is to play yourself down. I guess there’s some of that.

Do you think Grimmish is a particularly Australian book?

I do. But ‘Australia’ is very tricky to talk about. The great story of Australia is the invasion and the dispossession of First Nations people. Most of the really interesting visual art made in Australia in the last 50 years has been made by First Nations people. The most important writer in Australia at the moment is Alexis Wright, whose latest book, Praiseworthy, came out a couple of weeks ago. There’s no way that I would steal from Alexis Wright, but it’s impossible not to be influenced or aware of what she’s doing. I think there may be some elements of her novel Carpentaria which have echoes in this novel.

If you write about the desert in Australia, you have to be aware of what Patrick White has written. That’s in the cultural substrate. And then there are more contemporary writers like Wayne Macauley, Wayne Marshall or Shaun Prescott; the Australian sensibility they bring to their writing, I think, might be present in this book.

How long did it take you to write? In your Beyond the Zero interview you mentioned you were quite a slow writer.

The whole thing was really only four or five years, but, as you will have seen in the book, it includes a short story that I found which I’d written twenty years earlier, and little bits of research I’ve kept for thirty years or longer.

The reason I ask is that the book’s publication and success is a story in itself. Now with it out in the US and UK, how does it feel to keep coming back to it and be brought back into that world?

It is a bit strange. You can’t step in the river twice. The person I am now, I think of myself as successful and included in the discussion, a person with readers, which is what any writer most wants. But being in this new context, it can feel disingenuous to talk about Grimmish when an important aspect of that book is the perspective of being written by someone who was unsuccessful, on the outside, who felt dislocated from the literary community.

The entire process has been unexpected and perhaps the most unexpected thing is that it’s been picked up by so many people as their little underdog. A lot of people seem personally invested in it doing well – I can’t believe everyone isn’t sick of me because I’m sick of me! But people have been so supportive, of two things, I think. One is what the book tries to do, that it sort of loosens the shackles a little bit. A woman I was talking to at the weekend said “your book has given me the freedom I needed for my own novel,” and that’s weird but also of course lovely. And the other side of it is, yeah, the origin story, I suppose. It was hawked around to every likely Australian publisher, and no one wanted it. And then, with great reluctance, I self-published and some fantastic literary people, mainly in Australia but also overseas – which is the extraordinary thing about Twitter – took it up. For all that Twitter can be a sewer, Grimmish would never have been published in the US and UK without that online generosity.

I was curious about whether when you were writing it, you intended it to be a quote-unquote experimental text? A lot of the guys I saw tweeting about Grimmish first were people who are very invested in, I would say, “capital L” literary culture.

No, it was a conscious effort to find the best way tell the story with all the angles and facets that I wanted to include, all the caveats. So that’s how that form came about. But also, you know, I think the mainstream contemporary novel has been so slow to pick up on this stuff, a bit slow and sluggish and trapped in the past. 15-year-olds are listening to hip hop, and they understand quotation, adaptation, flow, the variation and changes within one song, the pulling of influences and actual pieces of sound from other places: this pastiche idea of putting a whole lot of different things together to make something new. Of course it’s going on in parts of literature, but not most of it. It seemed an obvious way to work, but it was about finding room for all the contradictory things I wanted to say, not a conscious attempt to progress the literary form.

You include a quote from George Orwell about the “gumming together of words” which seems to perfectly encapsulate that idea, and gives me the chance to ask about others you included. The variety of references is really interesting; you go from Nietzsche to Mick Foley getting a mention, to Hilary Mantel to Heraclitus. What was the thought process behind a quote’s inclusion?

I’m pretty old, Tobias. I’ve been writing down quotes as I read for a lot of years and I’ve got a storehouse of different things where I thought: that’s interesting, I’ll put that down to think about later. So I guess I’m trawling back through that a lot. And once again, I was trying to show where my thinking was coming from. I was reading as widely as I could, especially around pain – about which there is a lot less written than you’d think, seeing as it’s a universal, often quite dramatic human experience – wanting to show that, and sometimes to use those people to disagree with what I was doing or put forward another point of view. The book is an invention, the Joe Grim in the book is very clearly an invention, and I wanted to make it as obvious as possible that all sorts of things could be true.

You mentioned some of the Australian writers whose work informed the book, are there any other key influences?

The form of the book owes everything to Moby Dick. That sense of being able to change register from chapter to chapter, to go off and do this over here for a bit and then come back, ‘Oh, the plot’s still going along, but now I just want to give you some long lists of things about cetology’ … The importance of Moby Dick trumps everything. Also, The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly, writing under the pseudonym Palinurus, a very fragmented book with long sections in French and Latin, was another helpful book in terms of form. I’ve also written about how a visual artist unlocked my ideas, the Chilean-Australian painter Juan Davila. His paintings, especially his work from the 1990s, are incredible things: very political, very sexually explicit, and he would cram everything into his frame. Even more than Moby Dick, looking at his paintings made me see: OK, that’s how I’m going to structure it. And perhaps he also gave me the courage, even though I don’t go remotely as hard as he does.

Kind of a big, fluffy question, but considering the road it took to get here, has the reception to and success of Grimmish changed your life?

The answer, of course, is yes and no, like the answer to everything. I’ve met a lot of writers, and that’s been lovely, and I’ve been asked to do a few writing-adjacent things. It’s tricky. We’re talking about something that I’ve been hoping for, working towards, for 40 years, and now it has happened, and where does that leave you? I think that self-publishing a book requires a certain level of ego. At some level you’re saying: I believe there is something here that is worth people reading. That’s a little bit of arrogance; there are millions of books in the world, and you are claiming that people should use their precious allocation of reading time on yours. But that is bracketed with a sense of unworthiness, which is fed by decades of rejections, so what you’ve got is an ego on tilt. Then when Grimmish started to receive favourable attention, suddenly I’m walking around, and the truth is I feel more important than I used to, which is its own danger, because it’s bullshit. And it’s probably also inhibiting the next project that I’m working on.

I was going to ask if you were writing anything, and if the response to Grimmish had changed how you work.

Yeah, it has. I feel a bit hemmed in by what I’ve done and what I’ve said, every proclamation about how boring the traditional novel is … I feel like I’ve got to be “clever clever” rather than writing something simply sturdy and worthwhile. And once again, that’s stupid. All you need is a story and to find the best way to reach across somehow to the person reading it, and tell them what it is you’re thinking and feeling.

I’m working on something at the moment, but it’s painfully slow. All these things I’ve mentioned – ego and noise and burgeoning self-mythologisation – get in the way of a really honest attempt to connect with whoever is reading.

In terms of those connections being made, what are things that work for you when reading?

Just looking at my reading from this year, there was a book by James Hannaham called Don’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, which electrified me with the strength of the voice.  Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy – someone has called it Australia’s Finnegans Wake, and I’m not sure yet what to make of it. I really liked God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena by James Kelman.

As well as the power of voice, there’s one other thing I read for and that is just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful sentences, magnificently balanced writing. There’s a Tasmanian writer called Ben Walter, whose book What Fear Was came out last year, and what I revere about this book is just how much work has gone into getting every sentence exactly right. He’s got extraordinary command of rhythm. I want my writers to care that much. I want writers to work harder, that’s what I admire. Australian writers Michelle de Kretser and Josephine Rowe, they just write some of the most gorgeous sentences in the world, the balance and brilliance, perfect sentences containing everything, like a drop of water. So I’m always seeking superb poetic prose and an irresistible voice. I’m not that interested in plot, and I’m often not that interested in character.

I think if the writer nails the voice, the character becomes obvious. You’re in the headspace. And that’s true of Grimmish, it absolutely has this sense of voice, even when you’re not entirely sure who’s speaking! I think it’s very interesting that you used the word “sturdy” because it definitely feels like a sturdy book. For all its variety, it has an incredible sense of coherence.

Yeah, I think that’s right. And of course it does, because, of course, they’re all me. I’m there putting on a puppet show. I sometimes feel funny about people pretending that novels aren’t just puppet shows.

That’s a perfect excuse to go back to the question I started with, about the connection between writing and, let’s say, pugilism. To what extent do you identify with Joe Grim?

I think his forbearance is an aspiration. The literal thing about physical pain and physical punishment linked a lot to my childhood and being frightened of everything, wanting not to suffer. My life has been shaped, or in fact dominated, by unreliable mental health. Certainly, that has tested my forbearance, and the countless others who endure this will see parallels with Grim in the ring. And the link to my writing – what I wrote in Grimmish about this is all true; there really are that many words, and that many novels and play scripts and poems and so on, things that I drafted and redrafted that were rejected, written and rejected, written and rejected. I’m not someone for whom writing is a joy. I don’t do it because I love it or whatever. I do it because it is the way in which I can express myself best and express my creativity best, and that ego I’ve mentioned convinces me that I’ve got something to tell people that I think it might be worth them reading. But if I could have been a painter or a dancer, I would have preferred that.

Grimmish is now available from Coach House Books in the US and Peninsula Press in the UK.

You can read an excerpt here.

Michael Winkler is a writer from Melbourne, Australia, living on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. He is the author, co-author and editor of numerous books. He won the Calibre Essay Prize for ‘The Great Red Whale’, and his novel Grimmish, was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Franklin Award. Twitter: @micwink

Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator. He lives in France. Twitter: @tobiasvryan