Christos Tsiolkas, whether as novelist, playwright or scriptwriter, has always been fearless. His first novel Loaded (1995) explored identity; racial, sexual, familial and social over one 24-hour drug-fuelled session in Melbourne. In 1998, it was filmed as Head On by Ana Kokkinos.
In 1999 Christos worked on the theatrical collaboration, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? which marked the start of a long professional relationship with the Melbourne Workers Theatre. The same year, he published The Jesus Man and in 2002, The Devil’s Playground.
His third novel Dead Europe won The Age Fiction Book of the Year prize and also the Melbourne Prize in 2006. In 2008, The Slap upset myriad book clubs and won numerous awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Pacific Region), the ASA medal and the NSW Premier’s Award, and was longlisted for the Man Booker.
Barracuda comes out in November 2013. Watch the trailer here.
He lives in Melbourne with his partner of 27 years, Wayne.
Christos came to Zürich as part of a brief European tour. He gave a public reading and answered questions on his work to an appreciative crowd. On Sunday morning, he met me to talk about writing. Despite his previous treatment by the British press, he was friendly, thoughtful, articulate and damn good company at breakfast time.
Tell me a bit about your writers’ group. The other members are women?
Yes. There’s four of us and we get together every two weeks. Jenna’s 50, I’m 46, Jess has just turned forty and Jeana is in her late twenties. We do two pieces of writing each fortnight. As writers, they ask questions that concern me as a writer; about narrative, style, intent. They also have a long-term understanding of the novel I’m working on. They were there right from the early stages of The Slap. There’s also another writer and old friend, Angela Savage, who writes crime. We don’t have a formal structure, but she’s been a fabulous critic.
You’re very lucky.
I know (touches wood). And my partner, Wayne, is a terrific reader. He’s not shy of being honest with me, but he’s my partner so is very tender in his criticism. I gave him the second draft of the novel I’m working on at the moment,Barracuda. (Barracuda is out Nov 2013.) He spotted the mistakes almost instinctually. I’ve just finished the third draft and I’m still climbing the mountain, but it works much better and a lot of that’s come from Wayne. He knows me so well. You know, we had our 27th anniversary on the flight over.
Let’s talk about the books. I’ve just finished Dead Europe.
That’s a hard book.
It is, but I really enjoyed it. You wrote it before The Slap and the structure in terms of voices, points-of-view and tone are very different. Didn’t you have 13 different voices in the first version of The Slap?
Yes. Part of getting to the narrative voices in The Slap came from the experience of doing Dead Europe. That novel works by alternating between Isaac’s story and an almost fable-like structure, which come from my father’s storytelling. He has a vampire, for example, in his village. Those wonderful stories used to terrify me as a child. As I tried to find a voice to communicate these stories, I simply discovered the pleasure of writing outside my narcissistic self.
And that informed The Slap?
That informed The Slap. I became interested in writing different points of view. And I think I came from a student and cultural generation which was very nervous about writing outside one’s own experience; gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and cultural space. I think The Slap is my attempt to resist that. Not to say those considerations aren’t important, but if I can’t write as a woman, a black person, an old man or a young girl, what the hell am I doing writing at all?
At Friday’s reading, you said you were unable to write a paternal character like Manolis (from The Slap) while you were in your twenties. Why?
Growing up in a migrant community, there was a lot of fear about the outside world. And part of the migrant dream is for the child to be successful. So I remember talking to my mother about writing and she said, ‘You’re going to die poor and on the streets’. There were real fears about the choices I was making and about my sexuality, so I had to make a very necessary rebellion and leave home. I had a fractured relationship with Mum and Dad, but they never cut me off. And I never cut them off either. My father, and my mother too, had grown up with a sense of honour. I’m not sure our generation has that. But in those days, I was defining myself by the difference to my father; his conservatism, his patriarchal attitudes. With age and experience, I can see my father’s courage, his kindness. I remember berating him for the safety of his choices and I am so ashamed of that now.
I asked another Melbourne author, Steven Conte (The Zookeeper’s War) what distinguishes Australian fiction. He said that nowadays, it looks away from Europe and towards Asia. Do you agree?
I’ve realised that the world is vertical not horizontal. I can travel to Beijing, Bangkok, Singapore and my body is not exhausted. I come to Europe and it takes me four days, even physically, to adjust. The migrant waves into Australia since WWII have altered our outlook. We used to be so fixated on London. That’s why you have Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries in Britain; people who couldn’t bear to live so far away. But my romantic centre was Athens. Dead Europe was an exorcism of that, in a way. I love being an observer in Europe. You’re going through a tremendous, tumultuous time and I love listening to you talk about what that means, but I’m not part of that conversation.
Colonialism dictates so much about how Australia works, but I’ve realised we are the New World and there’s an opportunity to change what ‘English’, as a language, means.
So where do your influences come from?
In my middle adolescence, I read Philip Roth and Norman Mailer and Carson McCullers. They, along with Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote’s short stories, have a quality which is not so different to growing up in Australia. A sense of huge open spaces and the centre being so far away. The relationship to landscape in American writing is something I responded to. And, I realise in hindsight, I’m responding to the Jewish immigrant tradition. Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint I read and re-read as they seemed to be detailing my life. There’s a vigour in American writing. A young man in Hannover asked me a really good question about vulgarity. I tried to explain Australian English; the convict history, the Irish and Scots and the deliberate use of coarseness and vulgarity to stick it up the English. In detailing that, I realised where my own language has come from. And I need to absorb myself again in European writing, because I see it through blinkered eyes, as a little effete and intellectually cool.
And you made a comment about a collection of short stories you called dry and academic?
It felt like they were all written from within some writing class in a post-modern department of a university. That kind of writing – post September 11, post the economic crisis – unless you are someone of immense creative talent, that is so spent now.
Changing your work for another medium intrigues me. Can you explain how you worked with the screenwriters on the television adaptation of The Slap?
The model we took was from HBO. As someone who grew up with cinema, it’s actually television which has been the most out there in the last 10-15 years. I’m talking about the Anglophone world, of course; Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. We got as many people as possible involved in the creative writing process to discuss how the story worked, how narrative works, how characters work and I found that collaborative process really exciting. As a novelist, you work often in isolation. We worked Monday to Friday for a fortnight, separated for a three-week period and came back together. I was there with Tony Ayres, one of the producers, who was also a director on two episodes. I’ve known Tony a long time, as a film-maker and now a friend.
Some writers find the process of collaboration more frustrating than exciting, because you’re not in full control of the decisions made.
But I’d done it before when working in theatre. Although I’d been going to the cinema two, three times a week since I was this high (indicates his knee), I came to theatre later in life. So getting involved in writing for the stage, I really had to think hard about the writing process. I learnt a lot from rehearsals and working with actors. I’m not scared of that process, but I can’t imagine a collaborative novel. Working that way, I would bite someone’s head off. But in other media, I enjoy it. You’ve got more freedom for collaboration in television. It’s not bound to the auteur, in the way that film is. At least in Australia. There the auteur still rules.
Your work has polarised opinion and provoked some strong reactions. How do you react to criticism? Does it bother you? Are you able to ignore it?
The best way to read criticism is to let some time pass. You can never completely let go of the ego, but hopefully, you’ll have more clarity about the mistakes. I’ve worked as a critic and I think criticism is really important, but sometimes, we need criticism of critics. There’s a lot of lazy reviewing. I’ve just been reading François Truffaut’s The films in my life. His introduction is a wonderful justification of criticism. But a bad review really feels like someone has punched me in the neck. Still, if you’re going to accept the best, you have to accept the worst.
In your shoes, I’d find the accusations of misogyny the most offensive. It’s as if people wilfully want to misunderstand.
Yes. That really annoyed me. The cavalier way that word was used, especially in the English press, really appalled me. If you use terms such as ‘misogynist’, or ‘racist’, you need to be very careful and define exactly why you come to that conclusion. Only a fool would use language like that in such a light way.
Thank you! When I wrote Dead Europe, I’d just finished a play in Melbourne, Non Parlo di Salo, about Paolo Pasolini. I’d just re-read all his poetry, watched all his films and tried to understand what that man was doing with his last work, Salò (or 120 Days of Sodom), one of the most powerful and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. He used sex to interrogate power. That influence affected what I tried to do with Dead Europe. I could not put myself in his league, but as he used de Sade to reveal a truth about Fascism, I wanted to use pornography to reveal what I thought was a truth about contemporary Europe.
You must have seen the inherent risk.
Of course. Whenever you walk such a fine line, there’s the risk of failing; it just becomes the banal pornography or regurgitating the same racism you’re trying to highlight. It’s a book I will keep asking questions about because the more I understand, the more I want to rewrite and revisit. But I thought and I still think it’s important to do. I’ve just been through Germany. The way Europe is defining itself is in relation to that history of anti-semitism.
Do you write with a certain kind of reader in mind?
Literature is a gift, so I write for the most intelligent, sensitive, enquiring, open-minded reader there is.