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Christos Tsiolkas

September 28 / 2020

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TONGUES editor Alexander Matthews sat down with acclaimed Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas in Melbourne while he was working on his most recent novel, “Damascus, which was published late last year.

Over coffee and white wine in a Fitzroy cafe’s courtyard, Tsiolkas generously shared insights on the creative process, writing as surgery, and the importance of being both fearless and heretical.

 

Christos Tsiolkas — Photo by John Tsiavis

Although Christos Tsiolkas studied political science at university – and not English or literature – “I had read from really, really young and knew that I wanted to write,” he says. “For a while it battled with dreams of being a filmmaker because my love for cinema is equal to my love for words.”

His first published pieces were reviews and interviews he did for music publications and the leftist press.

“That was like a training ground for me,” he says. “They were unpaid, but they gave me that confidence I think you need as a writer to have your name attached to something.”

In his mid-20s, with heaps of reviews and a number of short stories already in print, “I got this voice in my head.” It was that of Ari, the 19-year-old Greek-Australian protagonist of his first novel, Loaded. Tsiolkas tried to write Ari as a short story but “that didn’t really successfully go anywhere”; nevertheless, he “became obsessed with the voice” and wanting to get what was in his head onto the page. “It felt really important that I did that,” he says.

Back then, he was working in a film archive – “a fantastic job” for a cinema buff like him. But the voice of Ari was too compelling to ignore; he felt like he needed to carve out more time to write. And so, with the blessing of his partner, Wayne, he started working part-time to be able to complete the novel.

“I discovered something about what it is to write a novel by doing it,” he muses. “There’s this dream you have of doing this thing – to write a novel – because you love books, but you don’t know if you’ve got it in you and you don’t know if you can do it. And so, the writing of Loaded was one of the most exciting times of my life [because] it was like, ‘Oh fuck, I can do this.’”

Set over the course of 24-hours in Melbourne, Loaded exhilaratingly portrays Ari’s love of cinema and music, and his struggle to reconcile being gay with both his own masculinity and with the patriarchal, working class Greek orthodox milieu he’s grown up in (an upbringing shared by his creator).

In writing about these struggles – both in Loaded and his second novel, The Jesus Man – Tsiolkas was able to work through “the clash and confusion I had about my sexuality, about my masculinity, about my place in the world, about family, about class, all those things.”

The “tendency to self-destruction” caused by that questioning and confusion, he says, “I was able to channel into writing.” Writing was like “doing surgery on myself and taking out some pain and confusion.” Although most significant in his first two works, writing continues to have a surgical quality, “and trying to make sense of something in here”, he says, tapping his head: through putting words on the page, a clarity emerges about what he’s thinking.

Tsiolkas says that to be a writer from a working class, migrant world, “in the very act of doing what you’re doing, you are separating yourself”; “you are digging that chasm that will make you exiled from that world forever”.

“It’s been incredibly important to me that I have not betrayed a loyalty and love to the world that I came from, but it was equally as important that I resisted and allowed myself to challenge that [world] a little bit as well,” he says.

He’s glad that coming from that background has allowed him to write and think in particular ways but says a “radical break” was necessary “in order to assert my will”.

“Otherwise I could not live as I am now, I could not write as I am now, as a gay man, [and write the] kind of work I do,” he says.

Although coming out was difficult and painful both for himself and his parents, he stresses that “they never abandoned me and vice versa”. He recalls fondly his father attending the Melbourne launch of Loaded at Hares & Hyenas, knowing full well this was a queer bookshop – a space he couldn’t relate to – but coming regardless because he wanted to support his son. He says he knows of authors from bourgeois backgrounds whose parents would not have attended “because they won’t accept what their children are writing”. “So, I think I’ve been fortunate,” he says.

While his parents were happy that Tsiolkas had found a vocation he loved, he says, “They were really fearful that I was going to die poor.” He’s glad that, before his passing, his dad was able to see him being able to make a living from his writing — which, in addition to his novels and short stories, has included essays, plays, film scripts and reviews.

*

While working on his early books Tsiolkas discovered he loved the craft of writing. Increasingly, he wanted “to be the best craftsperson I can be” – which doesn’t make the writing process necessarily any easier: “the more you become concerned about craft and how you use language sometimes the less confident you become about what you’re doing, because the stakes are so much higher”. That’s one reason why he prefers using the unshowy term “craft” rather than the loftier “art”: it’s less intimidating. 

For many years, Tsiolkas has kept his home and writing life separate: “there is a selfish space that is necessary I think you need to get into as a writer,” he says. Early on, he wrote in a studio shared with friends — other creatives, writers and filmmakers among them. Later, the financial freedom gained from his bestselling 2008 novel, The Slap, enabled him to get a studio of his own.

He answers emails at home in the morning because he doesn’t have email at the studio. Then he walks to it (it takes 25 minutes) and starts writing. First drafts are typically handwritten. It’s a “different kind of process”, he says, to writing on screen: “it feels like a geography, a landscape on the page”. “You make these marks, indentations notes, sometimes even a diagram, that are part of your process of writing it,” he says – which he can’t do on a screen. “And then when it comes to putting it on the computer, you’ve almost begun the editing work.” 

I mention that I really enjoyed his collection of short stories, Merciless Gods.

“I always was really nervous with short stories because it feels almost like a different medium that you’re working in [compared] to a novel – and I feel much more confident, in a way, with the workings of a novel. But I absolutely love the short story.” 

Many of his short stories started out as writing exercises – he’s “a firm believer” in practising craft, that one should “just keep writing — even if it’s shit, and often it is shit”.

He loves that, with a short story, “you can begin with an image [or] a moment” and says there is an elegance to the form “because you have to be economical with the way you tell a story and it forces you to also be aware in the writing of how you’re using language”.

*

Throughout his oeuvre, Tsiolkas has unflinchingly – and often beautifully – portrayed sex. Writers that were hugely influential when he was young man included the likes of Henry Miller and Jean Genet, he says, “so wanting to write about sex honestly has always been” one of things that has spurred his writing.

A publisher in England suggested that two sex scenes in Barracuda (2013) should be excised as he felt they were gratuitous. Tsiolkas demurred, telling him they were “absolutely necessary”: the scenes were an important element in his exploration of shame.

He sees this kind of skittishness as one of the symptoms of a “growing sexual puritanism” that “makes us fearful when we write”. For example, he says authors dread being nominated for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award which tend to get widespread coverage, globally, in the English language press.

“It’s interesting that we have that award,” he says. “It is a way of sequestering what we can write about.”

* 

I ask him how he’s changed as a writer since penning his early work.

“‘Shame’ is a really important word because it captures some of the experience of what I was struggling with as a queer man, as someone who feels that chasm I talked about — between the world I came from and the world I exist in now. When I was writing Loaded and The Jesus Man, I had no ability to be objective about shame. I was writing from within shame and from within rage.”

He says Barracuda (the story of a talented, working class swimmer at a wealthy private school who experiences meltdown and redemption) in some ways felt like a first novel again – a rewriting of Loaded, almost, but from a perspective of someone in their late forties who has some distance and is able to feel tenderness.

“I think tenderness has always been a really important quality in writing,” he adds. “If you can’t understand tenderness or you can’t bestow that on your characters then, for me, I fail in terms of what I want to do.”

As he worked on his first three novels, he was determined not to be sentimental; he thought “that would be the most awful thing that I could do as a writer”. “In that fear of being sentimental it was almost that I didn’t want to allow any notion of hope to poison what I thought was the integrity of the writing.” By the time he had reached Barracuda, he still could understand the rage and the shame – and was still able to get angry – but by now there was distance from it, and he was no longer afraid of using language that’s hopeful.

If his first two novels portrayed a second generation migrant’s experience in Australia, then Dead Europe, his third, was about exploring his Greek roots. Written over seven difficult years, the novel traverses contemporary Greece and post-communist central Europe as well as World War Two and the vicious Greek Civil War, which his parents had experienced before their migration to Australia.

“The notion of you being not quite white, not being quite Australian was part of how I grew up,” he says. In the school-ground, he and his migrant mates from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe would be jeered at by those with British ancestry, who called them “wogs”. Their retort? “Your grandparents were fucking convicts, you cunts!” 

Before going to Europe he had a “huge romance for the continent”. An eight-month visit in his 20s soon disabused him: “I went to Europe and realised that I wasn’t European. I was actually something else.”

“I came back from Europe – particularly from the UK – going, ‘I don’t want to be an English writer. I want to be an Australian writer. And I want to use a language that has a cadence and a rhythm that comes from the Greeks and the Vietnamese and the Aborigines and all who we are.”

What defines an Australian writer? I ask.

“I think the sense of colonial history marks all of us when we write, even if it’s not necessarily the theme or the subject of what we do,” he says. One aspect of this is the need to prove oneself to the places where you claim ancestry from – whether Britain, Europe or Asia; the fear “we’re never quite good enough”.

“I think that we still haven’t dealt with the consequences of the violent dispossession of the aboriginal peoples of this country,” he adds. But in spite of this, “you can actually come to a sense of the deep Aboriginal history and presence in this land” – not just in Australia’s hinterland, but, for example, in the suburb in which he lives, which has a large Aboriginal community. “I think that some of the most exciting writing, films and music is coming from Aboriginal culture in this country,” he says.

Geography permeates Australian literature too: being an island far away from much of the world; “even with the internet, travel and communications, that sense of distance, I think, informs all our writing,” he says. “I think there’s the push-pull of wanting to go into the world and then retreating from the world,” he says – moments of “absolute pleasure” in living there punctured by anxieties he’s becoming “parochial” – that he’s “losing sense of the greater world”. It helps that, thanks to migration over the last several decades, Melbourne has shed its staid, establishment reputation to become Australia’s most diverse city; a vibrant Babel with a rich and varied cultural ecosystem.

*

Following Dead Europe, when it was time to begin working on his fourth novel, “I just wanted to write for the fun of it. And I wanted to just tell stories.” That was how The Slap came about, the desire “to write as these different people” – among them, a woman, an old man, an Aborigine. He had decided: “I don’t fucking care – I just want to try voices because that’s what I am. This is what I do.”

“A notion of the multiculture is that you can’t speak from different positions,” he says – a position he disagrees with. “I don’t want to be part of a culture that says this is permissible and this isn’t. Even if, at times, that may make me have to defend writing that I find abhorrent.”

He says that, with there being more and more critics of colour and from outside of the Anglo Celtic world (still “not enough”, he admits), “we, as writers, are going to be challenged on what we do” – “a positive thing”. Simultaneously, though, he is nervous about “an increasing conservatism, a fear about what we can do as writers” – which can lead to self-censorship – that wasn’t present in Australia 15 or 20 years ago.

It was from the works of one of his great heroes, the controversial filmmaker and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, that he realised the importance of blasphemy. “The heretical position is the important one to maintain as a writer, as an artist,” he says. “Orthodoxies are not only of the right, they’re also of the left, and if you become chained to those orthodoxies, then I think your writing suffers.”

“Fearlessness has always been important to me as a reader and as a writer,” he says. “Often I am critical of myself for failing to meet the expectations of that desire, but I worry that there’s not enough fearless writing at the moment… it’s almost like we’re so conscious of someone looking over our shoulder.” 

*

“I had two great losses of faith: first was Christianity and then Communism,” says Tsiolkas.

“It would make me a really unwise person to not have learned from that experience. I’m absolutely glad that I had an ethical grounding in both those traditions. But I would be an absolute fool to believe that Das Kapital could save the world any more than the Bible could save the world. I am very, very suspicious now of books that purport to be the truth.”

He suggests that, unlike political tracts, novels can ask questions – and therein lies their value. “The moment the question slides into an answer – that’s when I get concerned.”

When we meet – in 2017 – Tsiolkas has already spent three years working on Damascus, a historical novel (his first) about the Apostle Paul (it was published late last year). He spent the first of those three years researching – reading theological history and philosophy, texts written between 250-odd years before the Common Era to 150 after it.

His father, a Christian, had passed away shortly before he began working on it: “a very confronting, hard experience” which left him with “a real sense of wanting to understand what I owed the man”. He says: “It felt like a real luxury that I was able to give myself to actually go back 2000 years, which didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what clearly is occurring here in my country and globally [including the rise of Trump and resurgent right-wing populism], but it also protected me a little bit from spinning out of control.” 

Although he hasn’t been a believer for many years, he describes himself as a “a critical friend of Christianity”; forgiveness and compassion are the things about the religion he loves the most. He has vivid memories of being told, as a young boy, the story of the first stone: when Jesus invited those who hadn’t sinned sin to stone an adulterer (everyone had sinned, so her life was spared). 

“It’s almost like that has been lost in the culture: the internet is full of people throwing stones,” he says.

*

Before we wrap up our nearly two-hour conversation, I ask Tsiolkas to share a few of his favourite Australian authors. They include:

  • The “terrific” poet and rapper Omar Musa, author of the novel Here Come the Dogs
  • Anthony Macris, author of “one of my favourite novels of all time” – Capital Volume One; “I just want to extol the beauty, and intellectual rigor and writing of that book”
  • Emily Maguire – “a really beautiful writer”
  • “Even though he’d lived most of his life away from Australia, Randolph Stow is one of our great writers; The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is one of my favourite novels”
  • Ellen van Neerven – “a great poet and her short stories are lovely”

 

Tsiolkas’s most recent novel, Damascus, was published in 2019.