Thursday, October 24, 2013

Christos Tsiolkas: Living with high expectations

Author Christos Tsiolkas.

Author Christos Tsiolkas. Photo: Simon Schluter

Christos Tsiolkas has been out early. We were to meet in a cafe not far from his home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, but as I'm on my way, I get a call. He has gone to check it out and decided it's too noisy. It's back to his place instead.

So here I am sitting on the wall as he ambles down the road. Tsiolkas is a generous and genial man, ready with one of his characteristic enveloping hugs and a wide smile.

His home matches his persona: warm and welcoming. Out back there's a verdant garden full of plants and vegetables.

<i>Barracuda</i>, by Christos Tsiolkas.

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas.

''That's not me. That's Wayne,'' he says, crediting his long-time partner with the green fingers.

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What's more, Wayne even built and lined the brick tank for the water that nurtures it all.

''But,'' Tsiolkas points out, ''I am the cook.'' And it's clear from the long shelf of cookbooks that he takes his role pretty seriously.

He worries briefly about the absence of napkins to accompany the Turkish delight.

Tsiolkas has a new book out, a book in which there is bound to be massive interest. That's because his last one, The Slap, was a significant success, critically and commercially, even before the ABC TV adaptation refuelled its engines.

It was the sort of book that got people talking and arguing over the rights and wrongs of the issue at its heart - a badly behaved little boy is slapped by someone who is not a family member - whether they had actually read it or not.

Plenty had. It sold more than 300,000 copies in Australia and a further 1.2 million around the world. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2009, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and longlisted for the Man Booker.

It was also shortlisted for Britain's Galaxy National Book awards, when he found himself up against friend and fellow novelist Colm Toibin, who originally published The Slap in Britain under his small Tuskar Rock imprint.

Tsiolkas admits there was a period when he wondered whether he had to follow The Slap with something that equalled or even bettered its success, but he realised quickly that wasn't the real issue.

''I was saying right when The Slap started to take off, saying to my family and friends, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I'm very fortunate it's happened, but I can never assume that it will happen again.''

That's what he was saying when he was out and about, but he admits it took a long while before he believed it, before he could free himself of what he calls the ''white noise'' that accompanied the book's success. He had to be sure he was writing the new book for himself. ''You have to do it for yourself.''

Barracuda is about Danny Kelly, the child of working-class Scottish and Greek parents, whose talent in the swimming pool gets him a scholarship to a posh Melbourne private school that he refers to as ''C---s College''.

It's tough for him. The boys sneer at him, and only his speed in the water gets him begrudging acceptance. He is both mesmerised and appalled by the wealth and snobbery he encounters.

Danny has his obsession, swimming, which dominates his life, but when things go dramatically awry in the pool, it begins a downward turn that ends in violence and prison.

Barracuda is classic Tsiolkas: impassioned, at times brutal, blunt in its depiction of gay sex, and written with a riveting honesty.

It will no doubt divide readers in much the same way as his other novels, Loaded, The Jesus Man, Dead Europe and

The Slap.

Tsiolkas talks about the tributaries that fed into Barracuda - a fascination with family, the weight of expectation placed on athletes and problems with success and failure, but it was only during a writing residency in Scotland, at Cove Park on the Rosneath peninsula, that he managed to shake off his ''neurotic self-obsessions'' and focus on the novel.

That fascination with success and failure came from personal experience and simply growing up in sports-obsessed Australia.

''I felt incredibly grateful for the success of The Slap, but what astonished me was that I didn't feel any more sure about being a writer.

''That self-doubt was still there and in some moments it was greater than before, that fear of - and it's going to sound a little bit neurotic again - but have I sold out because it's been so successful?

''Is it too soap opera-ish? Is it too melodramatic? Have I got the skills, the chops? Am I fake? Am I going to be exposed as someone who is no good at his craft?''

He has always envied the surety of the outcome in most sport - unlike with books, where prize judging is largely subjective - but also been horrified at the weight of expectation placed on athletes.

''And the way we idolise them and we can go just really ugly because of one mistake.''

Tsiolkas wanted Danny to be a swimmer, because it is not a team sport, because he swims regularly and because when he first heard about the Nick D'Arcy story, he erroneously assumed that D'Arcy was a working-class boy who didn't fit into the sport. Danny's mistake allows Tsiolkas to get to the nub of Barracuda, which is how someone who has gone wrong can still live a good life.

Can he make atonement for his one shameful act?

The novel is dedicated to Angela Savage, the crime novelist and old friend, to whom Tsiolkas showed his early work on the book.

''She said to me, 'You know, Christos, humanism is really important to you, the question of how to be good, but you haven't dealt with it upfront in your writing'. I thought that was a really good challenge.''

There is something of the 19th-century novel about Barracuda, and Danny has something of a Pip (from Great Expectations) about him - unexpected opportunities, things going pear-shaped and having to rethink his life and re-form his character. Tsiolkas doesn't entirely agree, although he points out that David Copperfield is one of Danny's favourite books.

But the 19th-century novel is important to him.

When he went to Melbourne University, postmodernism was all the go and he's no postmodernist.

''I do actually want to centre my life, my living life, on some universals. And I want to centre my writing life on the idea of the individual, and I think that's what the novel can do best - give us the emotional truth of an individual. That's what the literary novel does.''

He's also interested in the place of the individual in society and has always been a political beast.

I still recall a fearsome rant he delivered against the government of then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett at the Next Wave Festival about 20 years ago.

It was a no-holds-barred sort of performance and characterised the passion that has long been associated with him.

Today, Tsiolkas is more measured, but no less concerned.

He wrote the cover story for a recent edition of The Monthly, a questioning piece about our attitudes to refugees. ''That was an attempt to try to answer why we have lost, why we haven't been able to convince most of our fellow country-people that a humane solution is possible.''

Tsiolkas, who turns 48 this week, says for all the importance of feminism, queer politics, race and post-colonial politics, class is the fundamental.

''That's where I've come to. Class has been transformed over my life and I think part of what I wanted to write - and I don't know how effective I was in The Monthly - is that class has changed and part of what we're not talking about as progressive people is class … Barracuda is a novel

about class.''

During our conversation, he makes several references to his age. Perhaps it's because towards the end of the writing, his father, George, was diagnosed with cancer and died less than a year ago. The coda to the book is a tenderly written picture of a young boy in the ocean with his father.

''I don't think I nailed that until towards the very end [of the writing], because I was thinking of what I owed my father.

''That sense of gratitude I feel to both my parents is where I feel most fortunate as a man. And I feel really fortunate that dad died at a point where that selfishness of the younger Christos [was] still there, but not as arrogant and not as myopic as it was when I was in my early 20s. I feel very fortunate to have had that time with my father.''

Did he make atonement to his parents for his youthful aberrations?

''There wasn't one act … but I feel I'm fortunate that I had the space, the time and the moment to apologise.''

Last month Tsiolkas was in Scandinavia. ''I'm full of f---ing trepidation about the reception of Barracuda, but in a way, the last few weeks being away from here, I'm saying a big goodbye to the book.''

And there was a bonus. On his second night in Copenhagen, he realised he had his next novel.

He's too close to Barracuda to be objective about it yet, but with The Slap he can see things that he could have done better. Such as? He wishes now that he had written Sandi's story as one of the voices.

She is married to Harry, who is responsible for the slap and other egregious behaviour. It's a question, again, of atonement, of coming back from something shameful.

''That's Harry's struggle, but we don't see Sandi and the choice she made. I wish I'd written that now.''

Returning to Barracuda, Tsiolkas talks about the obsession that provided Danny with a discipline in which to focus his energy and rage.

What about him?

''Fortunately, I discovered it through writing and I think that's where I have channelled a lot of that rage. But again, that question of how you deal with that aggression and anger still pursues me. It still troubles me. It's still part of what I'm trying to work out as not a writer but as a man.''

Christos Tsolkias will speak at the National Library of Australia at Parkes Place on October 31 at 6pm as part of a Canberra Times/ANU event. Tickets $10 from nla.gov.au


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