Sian Prior: Thanks Francesca and yes, welcome everyone. It’s so great to see pretty much a full house here tonight and I think it’s a real sign of the respect and the affection that Melbourne readers and writers have for Christos Tsiolkas.
So I’ll just quickly explain the format for this evening. Christos and I will talk for about half an hour and as part of that he’ll do a short reading from his new novel, give us a bit of a sneak preview and then we’ll open the conversation up to your questions for about 15 minutes. As you might have heard we are recording tonight’s session for podcast, because it was a sell-out. People were on Twitter, saying ‘oh can we hear it’, so the Library has kindly agreed to make it available as a podcast. So during the questions we really need you to ask them into a microphone so we can record them. Francesca and Richard will be on either side with their mikes so we will need you to wait until the mike gets to you, and do keep in mind that your questions will be there for posterity.
Christos Tsiolkas: [Laughs] And my answers.
Sian: And his answers. And can I just remind you to turn off your mobile phones or put them on silent if you haven’t yet.
So Christos Tsiolkas, as Francesca has already reminded us, is a genuine star. He’s won the Age Book of the Year award; the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize; he sold enough copies of his novel The slap to help buy himself a house which as you know is a rare achievement in the writing world. His novels and plays have been turned into award-winning films and I personally think the TV adaption of The slap is one of the best drama series ever made in this country. He’s made a hugely important contribution to the cultural life, not just of this city but I think of this country, and I reckon one of the reasons for that is because Christos has great courage. Not only is he unafraid to ask the hard questions in his writing, about how people behave together and about how power functions, but he seems to feel compelled to keep doing that. With The slap he made us squirm with discomfort as we read about the choices that people – quite a lot like us – made about relationships, about the direction of their moral compasses.
In Dead Europe he painted a portrait of Europe that seems to me to have been incredibly prescient when we look at what’s been happening in that continent in the last few years: a continent squirming with discomfort about its history, its economic decisions, its power structures, its colonial past, its poor. And this has been the case with Christos for a long time now. I know, because we actually first met on campus at Melbourne University, oh, years ago.
Christos: In the dark ages. [Laughs]
Sian: Thirty years ago when we were both student activists and I reckon that in a way Christos has never stopped being an activist, it’s just that he’s channeled that energy into writing. So tonight one of the things that I want to talk about is that idea of going to the difficult places as a writer. So now that I’ve made you squirm with discomfort, with all my praise, can we start with a quick catch-up of what you’ve been doing since The slap came out? Writing a new novel?
Christos: Yes I’ve been, the last two and a half years I’ve been working on the new book Barracuda. It’s interesting what you – I did squirm at that thing you said about courage because I’ve been concerned that maybe I haven’t been courageous enough. It took me a little while to … the best way to describe it is to … look I was very, very grateful with what happened with The slap, of course I was, and very grateful for the TV series that they did, because you know, I just feel very fortunate. But there was, there’s kind of confusion about what kind of writer I am, who am I writing for, and am I becoming a safe writer? I think it was just dealing with that question of success.
Sian: Because success equated with safety, somewhere in your mind?
Christos: Yes. I’ve spoken a lot, when I’ve been speaking to the students of RMIT about this, because it’s one of the things that you’ve got to take on as a writer, or I think as an artist generally. This will go back to Barracuda is that success is a very … you don’t know how to measure success. I mean success is, if you’re a writer, to write the best book that you can write, and it’s not really measured by the reviews, by criticism, by how many books you sell. What I’ve said is there’s this voice on my shoulder that says, ‘Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be – what is I think a very wonderful vocation to be – a writer?’ So not that I was you know in this dour, melancholy mood all the time, I’m just trying to explain why success is, and failure is, a difficult concept if you’re a writer. And it wasn’t until I’d had ideas and I was thinking about this, and because I’m a Melburnian and because you grow up with sport in this city, I started thinking about: how do I tell a story about success and failure? And there’s something about the sportsperson – they’re the first one who crosses the finishing line, the first one who hits the tiles, they are the fastest 200-metre freestyle swimmer in the world, they are the fastest athlete in the competition – and I thought, well, I will write a story about a sportsperson who’s dealing with the question of success and failure. And that’s where I got to Barracuda.
Sian: So success, failure, this is because you couldn’t decide in your own mind what constituted failure. I mean it’s interesting you say the one who runs the fastest is the most successful, but maybe it’s the one who takes the most drugs these days [laughs]. Maybe it isn’t quite as simple as ....
Christos: Oh look, they’re all very fascinating questions. I mean what’s happening in sports culture – and you can’t separate sports culture any more than you separate the arts from the economy and the social – and what is happening is that sports has turned into entertainment and celebrity and that is a defining characteristic of our age. And that is a fascinating story and there’s maybe a kind of a spectre of it in Barracuda, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Very, very early on I decided that I was going to put right up front in the book that this is the story of someone who fails in his dream. You know Danny is a phenomenal swimmer; he’s got a talent. He gets a scholarship to an elite school because of that talent but he doesn’t make it, he doesn’t fulfil his dream because I thought the more interesting story was, how do you come back from failure? That for any of us, you know we’ve all experienced failure, I certainly have experienced failure, how you deal with failure and how you deal with shame is something I’m still battling with. You know I wanted Danny to confront that.
Sian: What was your failure?
Christos: My professional failure I think after Loaded – my first book which had a certain success – my second book, The Jesus man was not a success and I received, you know, I had received negative feedback on Loaded as you do, that’s one of the things you have to develop the thick skin as a writer, but I had a certain cockiness after Loaded and that dissipated, you know I felt like a slap in the face after The Jesus man.
Sian: The slap.
Christos: The slap. Yes, but it was really important for me as a writer because I remember thinking about the choice of, do I continue to do this? And I thought, there is nothing else I want to do more in the world but continue to be a good writer, and I will try to be a good writer. I don’t know, I’m glad that I, in retrospect that was a really important moment in my life. There’s also, there’s failures, there’s failures, you know. I think I have betrayed people I loved and have betrayed friends. I mean it doesn’t matter what we do, we’ve all had those experiences of not being the courageous person you want to be or the loyal person you want to be.
Sian: I guess you know at best failure can give you humility and maybe as an artist that’s a really important thing to hang on to and maybe that’s what keeps the edge in your work.
Christos: You know the other thing I’ve been saying is that voice that says, ‘you’re no damn good’, there’s the other one that goes, ‘you’re a bloody genius.’
Christos: So that …
Sian: Equally wrong.
Christos: Equally wrong. Equally wrong. I think, I can’t separate that Sian, it’s a good question. I don’t think the experience of what I’ve learned as a writer and what I’ve learned as a human being in my relationships, in my love, you know within family, they’ve been equally as important as what I’ve learned as a writer. I think what I want to do with my characters is – maybe you know because this is a conversation between you and I, and I’ve talked about this – but I think it is important in terms of understanding where I’ve come from. You know we were and still are, I think both of us, we care about the politics that informed us as younger people, we really care. They were the politics around class, they were feminism, they were anti-racism, they were the environment; they’re still really important, but part of the experience was – and maybe it’s age and maybe it was something about the ‘80s – there was a certain righteousness about, you know, that we were right and everyone else is wrong. And that righteousness I’ve wanted to question in my work. I think it comes back to, because I think I acted shamefully in my life, in how I didn’t listen to people or that I assumed that I had the correct knowledge.
Sian: Yes, that’s something I definitely want to come back to a bit later in the conversation. Can you read us a little bit?
Christos: Okay, yes I will.
Sian: That would be lovely.
Christos: I’m going to, apologies to some, I know some of the people here you’ve heard me read this as students at RMIT but I do want to read from it because it gives you a sense of a young Danny. I take him from 13 to his mid-30s and this is him just before a big swimming carnival that he’s attending and it’s the night where Kieren Perkins wins the 1500 metres at the Atlanta Olympics.
[Reads from his novel]
He’s standing in the motel bathtub, his Speedos on; his arms tied across his chest, his mother shaving his legs. The lather is posted thick on his thighs, on his calves and she glides the razor, slowly, carefully, she doesn’t want to nick him. She says, ‘Don’t move Danny, stand still’. He doesn’t like looking down, down in the soapy, filthy water around his feet. His mum flicks the razor into the dirty mess. Spools of black hair swim on the surface. His legs are full of the coarse black hair. He thinks it is ugly. He is glad the hair is being shaved off, that it has gone. But now the skin on his legs is dotted with salmon-pink blotches. ‘Don’t move,’ she warns him again. He looks up at the mirror in the bathroom. He can see his brother and sister sprawled over his bed. Theo is on his back, his neck and head bent over the end of the mattress, watching the television upside down. Regan is on her belly, her elbows crooked, her knuckles pressing against her chin. Her feet are banging up, down, up, down, banging on the mattress. He can’t see the television in the mirror but he can hear the excited calls from the race broadcaster.
‘Hurry up mum, the race is going to start!’
His mother ignores him. He looks down and the razor is scraping away what seems like a wad of thick, dark fur, his fur like he’s some sort of animal she’s shearing. She flicks the razor in the water again and the wad of hair floats on the surface around his foot. ‘Okay, that’s your left leg done.’ He’s itching all over where she has just shaved him, but she rubs a lotion into her hand and then massages up and down his calf the back of his leg. The cool gel makes the prickliness go away.
‘I’m going to miss the race,’ he wails. He arches his neck trying to do the impossible, trying to glimpse a reflection of the television. All he can see is the upside-down head of his brother; his sister still rhythmically banging her legs on the bed.
‘Theo,’ his mum calls out, ‘has the race started yet?’
‘You’ll tell us when it does.’
In the mirror he can see the reflection of his brother nodding. The little boy gives him a smile but because he’s the wrong way round it looks like a frown. Effortlessly like their cat Sandra, Theo propels his body over the bed, lands on his feet and runs over to the bathroom door. He watches as the razor scrapes down the back of Danny’s thigh.
‘You’re really hairy.’
Their mother flicks some suds over to him and the little boy screams ‘Don’t!’
‘Then get out of here.’ Theo scampers back to the bed. ‘Should I close the door?’ Danny shakes his head no, he doesn’t want the door closed. It feels like it would be strange if the door was shut; his mother shaving his legs. It feels like it would be a little sick. He doesn’t want this thought in his head.
‘Stop moving or I’ll nick you.’ He can’t have a nick, then he’ll bleed, and if he bleeds a scab will be formed and if a scab will form then he will feel it under the water, he’ll sense it as he’s swimming, just a small sensation, insignificant, just a niggle but it could be enormous, like a fly alighting on his naked shoulder over summer when it becomes all you can think of. All you can think of is that small trivial thing, and before you know it in the water tomorrow it will be the scab he’ll be thinking of; the feel of it as the water rushes past it, an itch that will want to be scratched, that will make him pause for a third of a third of a third of a second, but that’s all you need. The coach says it all the time, for that third of a third of a third of a second of losing concentration or of losing sight of the end and then you slip back, fumble the stroke, and they’re quarter of a body length, then a half of a body length, then a body length behind. He can’t be nicked, he can’t dare be nicked. He stands absolutely still.
‘Lift your arm.’ He raises his right arm and she begins to lather his armpit. He calls out to his siblings, ‘Has it started?’
‘No’ Regan replies, ‘it’s boring, just stupid men talking, can’t we switch channels?’
‘Regan,’ his mother calls out sharply, ‘don’t dare change the channel.’
‘I won’t let her, Danny.’ He smiles at his brother’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. Theo grins back. Danny knows what his brother is thinking. He can read him as clear as if there are actual words coming from his brother’s brain straight to his; it’s like what telekinesis might be. Theo is thinking, it will be my brother there one day. What Perkins and Kowalski are now, that will be Danny one day.
‘Ouch.’ The razor scrapes the inside of his armpit; it’s tender there, there’s no hide there. His mother slides the razor carefully and the fine pricks of hair stubbornly refuse to be severed.
‘Sorry Danny, this will hurt more.’
‘Don’t cut me.’
‘I won’t cut you but you have to stand still, I know what I’m doing.’ Does his mother do this for the women whose hair she cuts? She’d wanted to use wax on him as she does to the women who come to the parlour but he was fearful of the wax, thought it might burn, and if it burned then it might blister and blisters are worse than nicks. Blisters niggled worse than anything.
A strong odour like meat mixed with earth is coming from his mother. He’s never been close to such a smell before and he knows just by instinct that it only belongs to women.
‘There,’ his mother announced as satisfied. The flesh under his pit is red, inflamed. She splashes the lotion over her hands and rubs him where she has just shaved, but the sting doesn’t quite go away. It hurts. She gives him a mocking smile and unexpectedly kisses him on the brow.
‘Now you know what we women go through.’
He doesn’t understand. Then he remembers as a small boy a summer picnic in Whittlesea, his mother lying on the grass smoking, a glass of wine in the other hand. She’d been wearing a short-sleeved red dress, and whenever she raised the hand with the cigarette in it, he had caught a glimpse of coarse, small, black bristles growing back under her arm. It had disgusted him; he had to turn away; like seeing stubble on an old woman’s chin. He raises his other arm for his mother to shave him there.
Christos: Thank you. I was just going to say that it’s just been edited at the moment; I’ve got the editing back of that section, so you’ll never hear it read like that again. [Laughs]
Sian: Unless you listen to the podcast. [Laughs]
Christos: Of course. [Laughs]
Sian: Something that feels – obviously deceptively – so easy and effortless about that and I remember you said to us recently at RMIT that after Dead Europe, writing The slap felt almost effortless to write. Has Barracuda been as effortless to write as The slap?
Christos: No, no, um ...
Sian: Would you like to retract that? [Laughs]
Christos: No, no [laughs]. I mean I think with Barracuda it took a long while to feel confident that the story I was telling worked and that I had a book there, so I didn’t feel confident about showing it to Jane Palfreyman, who’s my editor and publisher, until the third draft. I’m very fortunate, I’ve talked about this on campus, there’s a group of friends that I’ve been working with for years: Jeana Vithoulkas, Jessica Migotto, Anais Alada and Angela Savage. They’re all writers and we show each other’s works, we meet regularly and so they’ve had feedback on what I’ve been doing for ages. And also my partner Wayne van der Stelt is an astonishingly good reader and he read it from the first draft. But it was hard because I think two things. I said it’s about success and failure but really what I had stuck above the desk was a little note that said, ‘This is a story of how to be a good man,’ and to tell the story of how to be a good person is a really difficult story to tell and I think I had to fight that white noise that I was talking about earlier that came after The slap, you know, what are the expectations of the next book, and really I had to strip all that back. Not that readers are not important, but I really had to strip back and go ‘What is the book that I want to write?’ So I don’t think it’s a surprise that I started really writing Barracuda in Scotland. I think just being away, and not in a city, I was on the west coast of Scotland when I started writing and it was ...
Sian: What was it about that environment that inspired or helped you?
Christos: That I was absolutely astonished how much I loved Scotland. How beautiful that country is. I was living, it was a residency as well, it was a three-month residency and it was on the west coast and for those of you who have been to Scotland in the Argyle region, an hour north-west of Glasgow. You had the open sea that I could see from the little pod that I was in, and my day would begin with getting up at six in the morning and starting writing and kind of looking out onto the sea. It was great and there was this great woman there, Irene, who was one of the cleaners and she and I were the only ones up at that time and she would come in from the nearest village and you know we’d make each other coffee and just sit and talk, and then I would go and type or write depending on what I was doing. It just sounds, as I’m talking about it I can’t describe it, it sounds really banal. It was truly good for my soul. It was, that was what it was. And I like Irene and so many people I met there from Glasgow, and I just realised that I really liked that city; I like something about the tenderness and harshness in equal measure that people from that part of the world have. And so Danny’s grandfathers and grandmother are originally from Glasgow and that’s kind of a homage to both that experience there. And also because, you know, Mum used to work with Glaswegians. One of my father’s friends, who sadly passed away while I was writing the book, was a great Glaswegian character. So it’s kind of, I don’t know, am I allowed to say that I feel like I’ve been Scottish in a past life?
Sian: [Laughs] You can say whatever you like.
Christos: [Laughs] But I do think that just removing yourself away from your world –I know it’s very fortunate if you can do it – but it is … I’m hesitating because I’m thinking, ‘I think I’m becoming that middle-aged man who likes his shed!’ [Laughs] I think that’s what’s happening.
Sian: That’s a great Aussie tradition.
Sian: I wondered too if there’s something about being away that, you know, gives you that sense of perspective on your own culture, and one of the things I wanted to ask you about was, you know, it’s almost a cliché of cultural commentary that Australians worship great famous failures. You know: Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, the soldiers at Gallipoli – they rock according to us. All spectacular failures. Is there anything in what you’re exploring in Barracuda that relates to that?
Christos: Not necessarily directly. I wasn’t actually thinking about it in that great, great vast way about what is it about. But there is a lot in the novel that is about Australians’ sense of ourselves in relationship to the world. And it’s one of the struggles I had: how do you communicate that; particularly though a young man’s eyes, you know, like an adolescent man’s eyes. I mean, that question of, the other thing about using the metaphor of sports, it’s like it’s the one thing we have as Australians where we punch above our weight. And so again it was a really interesting field to mine as a writer. I was really conscious, you know you start, I wanted to write this book and it came from there. And as I was writing it, and because I was in Europe the Global Financial Crisis happened and I went over to Greece. I think what is happening there is just, it’s truly horrible to be where a generation has lost any sense of hope, or that there is a future in the world. And a part of finding my way through Barracuda is I thought ‘I must write about this, I must write about this’, and I realised that this is not the novel for it. But somewhere that has to be written about and maybe that can’t be me. Maybe it has to be a European writer.
Sian: I read an article in Meanjin today where you say that your partner Wayne suggested you needed a sequel to Dead Europe called Even deader Europe, which I thought was rather good.
Christos: [Laughs] I guess I’m saying that in relationship to that notion of failure because, yes, I think it is part of the national psyche but Australia has through our history – and because we are a colonial nation and because we have a horrific history that we still haven’t overcome, in terms of that colonial heritage and what we did to the first Australians … it’s that festering wound – and our parochialism is what frustrates me as an Australian all the time. But I think what I was trying to explain before was being in Greece, the sense of failure there is just as acute at the moment. Of course, they have a different history, they have a different series of myths that they tell themselves about who they are and their identity but so do we and I think … I’m kind of sick of Australians not being able to pass, to really deal with our history better, to accept the damage that has been done but also as a writer to think what is possible in this nation, you know, what kind of writing, what kind of art can we make possible that is not bowed down by that sense of failure or intimidated by that colonial history. I mean I’m just becoming more and more fascinated by that question.
Sian: Why are we so bad at dealing with that very embarrassing history of colonialism? I mean, is it because deep down we know that that was some terrible historical failure and we don’t really want to deal with it?
Christos: Well yeah, I think we, and I include myself here, I’m not going to separate myself. It’s very easy growing up to go, ‘Oh wait a minute, I was Greek,’ or, you know, ‘That wasn’t my –’
Sian: ‘I wasn’t here.’
Christos: Yeah, ‘That wasn’t my history’. And to understand that I am part of the settler Australian culture. Look, it’s so hard, I’ve opened up this question and it can’t be easily summed up or there’s no answers to it, but I think it has to do with some kind of difficulty we have of owning up to that history and taking, what is it, what is it that we do, we just get …
Sian: Mostly we just look away, I think.
Christos: No, we don’t just look away. It’s almost like we get angry when we’re reminded of it, when we’re told about it. Having said all that, I think some of the best work that is coming out of this country is coming from that acknowledgment and what’s been great about just thinking about this stuff, is that, you know, I read a terrific Australian novel last year called The English class by a Chinese-Australian writer called Ouyang Yu. I think that an Australian cultural expression that comes out of knowing our colonial history, dealing with a colonial history, accepting the fact that we’ve come from all over the world, that maybe we can create stories that are written from so many voices and from so many perspectives is something that will move our art forward. I just have to believe that, otherwise this country – the parochialism, the ugliness of our political debate at the moment – it will drown me. So it’s kind of why I wanted to do the RMIT residency is to be around students again and to hear ways of thinking about our world differently, thinking about Australian culture differently. You know, I’m 47, I just want to hear what a person in their early 20s, how they talk about this history and how they can do it moving beyond righteousness, moving beyond just guilt. I think that’s the problem; it’s been guilt and righteousness and they’re not good positions.
Sian: Guilt can be very paralysing. You just said stories like the Chinese writer’s novel that you read –– – and, presumably, stories like yours – you talked about them moving the art forward. Can they move the culture, the political culture forward? Can stories – I mean I don’t want to say can stories can change the world because that’s so overly simple, but maybe it’ a good question.
Christos: The best I think you can hope for is that a story, a piece of writing, a film, a painting will make you look at the world in a different way. I think if you really want to change the world you have to be an activist. I think you have to get down in the dirty, fraught arena of politics. When I was younger I used to think art could change the world. I know that art has changed me and I really believe that it still can happen, that you read a work – and I’ve said this, so sorry to the people in the classes who have heard me say this – but you come out of certain films or you read a certain book and the person who opened that book is not the same as the person who finished it. You feel transfigured; that’s the word I’m going to use. The last time that happened to me was just earlier this year. I encountered the work of the Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer, he was working in the mid-20th century but I’d never really seen his films. I’d had a terrible year with some sadness in the family and I saw his film Ordet (The word) and it allowed me to think about faith again, in a way that I hadn’t for a very long, long time; and that’s what art could do for Christos Tsiolkas at a moment: it gave me a certain hope in a period when I wasn’t feeling very hopeful. Did Ordet change the awful, do anything about the great calamities in Europe? No.
Sian: In a little while I want to open the discussion up to your questions, so maybe start thinking about putting your hand up and we can get a microphone to you. But I promised I wanted to return to this idea about activism and our youth and what you describe as the righteousness of that, and I totally agree with it, but you know one of the good things about righteousness is inside it is a belief that change is possible. A profound, sometimes way-too-unshakeable belief that change is possible. But does it become harder as we age to believe that the kind of change we imagined 30 years ago is possible? Change for the better?
Christos: It goes back to what you asked about being humbled and I think life humbles you. You just realise that you make mistakes. You are capable of the most abhorrent behaviour. You’ve done things that are incredibly shameful. A lot of The slap came from that, knowing what cruelties are possible in love, in family. So, no, you can’t be as righteous as I was back in 1985 or ‘86 where I thought the world was much more black and white. I think there is a certain righteousness that you need as an activist, of course, because you need to have that faith. I think the best activists also have generosity but I think righteousness is not very good if you are an artist. I think righteousness as an artist is a – and please argue, there may be some of you who, but I think it just means that you create works that just speak to what you already know. You create works that –
Sian: You can shut down a conversation rather than open up a conversation.
Christos: Well, what you have is that black and white world. You have the people of the good, you know, the good guys and the bad guys, and it’s a very simplistic view of the world. It doesn’t make for conflict, it doesn’t make for that great thing that art can do that can make you shudder because you see yourself in it.
Sian: Any questions that you’d like to put to Christos? Yes, Francesca’s bringing the microphone. Just put your hand up pretty regularly and we’ll get someone over to you with a mic so we’ve always got someone lined up with the next question. Yes?
Audience member: First of all, thanks a lot for a really interesting talk, and I have to apologise that this question isn’t really analytical or in-depth. But something I was really curious about – I’ve actually read two of your books and I’ve checked your biography – and the thing that I was really curious about was after your first book or between your first, second and third there has been a really great gap in between. So I guess I was curious about, like, what were you doing all this time?
Audience member: I hope it’s not too personal …
Christos: No, no.
Audience member: … but I was always curious about how you support yourself before being an established writer, I’m always curious about those things and what you did to become a great writer in that space of time? Thank you.
Christos: Look, between the second and third book Dead Europe was a very difficult book to write, partly because my confidence in my writing had been shaken, also because it dealt with themes that I wanted to take incredibly seriously and be very responsible about. A history of racism, a history of the European 20th century: I just wanted to make sure I was confident, that I was treating that as seriously as it deserved to be treated. So that took a long time to write that book. How did I support myself? I supported myself, working. When I was in Melbourne, when I started Dead Europe, I was working at the State Film Centre – which became Cinemedia – in the film archives. I worked two days a week and I had made the decision in my mid-twenties that I was not going to work full time, I was going to work part time and my main, my only vocation, my real work was going to be writing. So that’s what I did. I also worked for seven wonderful years in between in a vet clinic in Northcote, as a vet nurse. That, for those of you who have read The slap, that’s why one of the main characters is a veterinarian and another … It was a shock that The slap was so successful but I always thought that I was going to have to work. I never, ever thought that writing was going to make me money. I think you’ve got to go into it understanding that. I was very fortunate that my partner, when I made the decision to go part time, completely understood and supported me. I know it’s a harder thing to do if you’ve got children. You know, all those questions, I understand that, but I do think you have to make, you have to decide on certain compromises about the material world if you’re going to dedicate yourself to writing. I mean, you know, the serious writing.
Audience member two: Christos, you were talking a bit about how, you know, your search for a national or a moral compass has been one of your big motivations; also the activism theme’s come up, the power of hope as something which gets you starting in writing. At the moment I have a thing – which I’m hoping if I look at it enough times it’s going to rub off on me – it says ‘Motivation is what gets you started, habit is what keeps you going.’ So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the habits which keep you writing.
Christos: I am, no way do I have, discipline is not natural to me at all. Part of that decision was to say, if I’m going to treat this seriously I have to make it work. I have said that for me, writing is an apprenticeship that lasts for the rest of my life. There is no end goal to this craft. I made the decision that I would write 1500 words a day when I was writing. That I would be writing for these certain hours – that didn’t mean I didn’t wake up sometimes at three o’clock in the morning and start something – but I actually had to plan my week around the writing. I had to tell my family and friends that this was my work in the same way that when I was working – I was working for ACMI at a period that you just couldn’t come into ACMI and grab me and go off for three hours – when I was writing it was work and I don’t think there’ll be any writer that will tell you different. It’s treating it as work and treating seriously as work, as labour, then you will be a writer. It’s that simple, really, I believe.
Sian: I keep hoping there’ll just be a pill you can buy at the supermarket.
Christos: Sorry, I’m just jumping about because I was thinking of the gentleman’s question before. I do want to answer that question. What I was doing in those years too was I was also working in theatre. I started working with a wonderful photographer, Zoe Ali. I was doing a job I loved actually at ACMI for a period with a wonderful man, Spiro Economopoulos, who we still do work together. We did a play together, we did a short film together, we’re working on a script at the moment. It’s that meeting of like-minded people that’s been really important to keep me writing and to keep me engaged in the world. So you know, if you’re a student, think beyond the writing community, think about the people doing film, think about the photographers. It’s an incredible opportunity being a student, a really incredible opportunity about who you can meet and the discussions you can have and what you can explore, which doesn’t necessarily happen as easily when we get older.
Sian: I think the gentleman down here has the mic.
Audience member three: I don’t mean to gush but I love your work. You talk about subjectivity and how art has shaped you, yourself; and your characters, I’ve noticed, are so rich and so dark and so twisted. How exactly do you get inside the mind of your characters? You said before that, you know, that we’re all capable of such unspeakable things. How did you get to that place, I guess?
Christos: Um, that’s a good … I feel silly because one of my first responses is to say, partly, I don’t know, because its … I think that dark places … alright, I’ll try and approach it two ways because I think it is a serious question. I think I came from a generation, you know, I was born in 1965 where my sexuality – being a child of immigrants – that made me an outsider, in terms of, to be really frank, I was a wog poofter. So that gave me an outsider perspective that I’m really thankful for. I think things have changed now, like both that word ‘wog’ and that word ‘poofter’ have gone through transformations in our history here in Australia. That outsider vantage point drew me to a particular kind of art and made me think about writing in particular ways. I’m very, very grateful for that. No matter how hard it may have been – and it was, for periods – I’m really grateful for that. Being a male and coming through that experience there’s a rage in masculinity that was so red hot and intense and that scared me, and I wanted to explore that and I wanted to try and make sense of that. So that’s where that attraction to the darkness is – just because I could see it in myself. That rage is no longer as intense but it flares up from time to time and when I see it it’s like when you haven’t seen yourself in a mirror in a long time? You’re very frightened.
Sian: Is it also, though, about empathy and I guess the question about where do the characters come from. Empathy is about imagining what it feels like to be inside someone else so presumably you have to have bucket-loads of that to be able to create believable characters.
Christos: Oh yeah. I do understand why as writers now the whole question of how you can write in another voice, it’s still a really important question because we are aware of whole histories around subjectivity and identity and race and gender and sexuality. All those politics. But, and this was the pleasure of The slap, I just did find, you know there is a point where it’s just like after Dead Europe where I thought ‘I’m just going to write and I’m just going to play with writing, and I will be a 42-year-old woman and I will be a 69-year-old man and I will be all those things in between and I will see what happens in exploring that’, and you must work towards empathy to be able to do that. Yeah, you can have your opinions and you can look at the characters you’re creating and go, ‘You’re an idiot’, but you also must feel, ‘I can understand you, I can go there, I have been there’. I’ve been there with Rosie, I’ve been there with Ari in Loaded and I’ve been there with all my characters otherwise they would just be, and the worst ones are probably, stick figures. And you can tell as readers I think, what is a stick figure, as you can with film, what is a stick character.
Sian: That sort of brings me back to, I know we keep coming back to this, this idea of righteousness. You said you can’t be righteous and be an artist, maybe because one of the things righteousness does is it blocks empathy. You can’t, you know, if you’re feeling so determined that your view is right then you can’t allow another person’s view of the world to interfere.
Christos: That’s like a guiding principle for me. Someone said, was it in Greece, someone said to me ‘Ah yeah, wait until you get the fist in the face.’ That can happen as well and then it doesn’t matter how empathetic you are, if someone wants to annihilate you and crush you they’re going to do it.
Sian: And you want to crush them back.
Christos: But I want to believe that we can find ways to communicate across the most incredible gulfs and differences. The older I get, and this is why I was interested, you know, faith and maybe even in a secular sense, it’s a faith, in the way people who are religious believe in their god, you know, it’s not even rational. I look at the bloody world and it’s not rational to have faith in that communication. That’s what I feel but I have faith in it.
Sian: Hooray. I think we’ve probably got time for at least one more question.
Audience member four: You talked at the start about writing the book for you and not for your readers and I was interested about some of the controversial scenes that you’ve written, like graphic sex scenes and things like that. When you’re writing that, are you thinking about your mum reading it or …
Christos: [Laughs] My poor mum.
Audience member four: … and how can you be honest when you’re writing like that without maybe thinking about the consequences of people in your life reading such controversial things.
Christos: The really honest answer to that is that I think there was a certain selfishness that I made as part of the decision to write. I mean there was a period when my first book came out that I had a little reprieve because my parents can’t read English …
Christos: [Laughs] … but unfortunately they made a film of it and they’ve translated it in Greek.
Christos: For all that I think I was going to write this way, I wanted to write this way and it was not easy for my parents and for my partner and for my family. I understand that. I think I tried to explain as best as I could why this was the way I wanted to write and why I was going to continue this way to write and I was very fortunate with the Greek edition of Loaded that I asked the publishers if I could do an introduction and I basically wrote that introduction as a letter to my mum and dad, because I knew they were going to read it, trying to say ‘This is the world I grew up in, this was the anger I had as a young man, this is the book that I needed to write.’ But yeah, it was selfish. I’m not berating, I’m just saying to answer your question honestly it was to go ‘I will do that. That’s what I need to do as a writer.’ I’ve been really struck, sorry Sian, about that, I’ve been saying a few times to some of the writers I’ve been talking to in the last few weeks, ‘Don’t let the censorial voice start early in what you’re doing.’ The first draft is just getting out the story, finding the story you have to tell, and if you’re already going ‘What will my mother say, what will my partner say?’ you’re not going to write it. There will be certain decisions that you will make later, inevitably. There are things that I have cut because I have thought I actually can’t bear the thought of my mother reading this. But they’re very, very, very, very few and they’ve not been essential to what I wanted to say.
Sian: Can we sneak one more question in?
Audience member five: Can I ask one quick one – and this is probably a good way to end it because this is what you mentioned right at the start, Christos, when you said that I have to think about who I’m writing for – so I was wondering if you would be so kind as to tell us who you’re writing for.
Christos: I think if any writer’s honest, you are writing for yourself because it’s almost instinctual, that need to write. I need to do it. I’m terrible at paraphrasing but I actually did a class at RMIT on ‘Who do I write for?’ and I started with a Tobias Wolff quote from Pharoah’s army where he says, ‘I wrote to save my life.’ And that’s what I feel. But I do have an ideal reader and they are the most erudite, well-read reader I can imagine, and that’s who you have to write for. I haven’t said it enough tonight, but reading is the … who asked me earlier today, ‘what’s more important to a writer, the writing or the reading?’ If I had a gun to my head I would say the reading because that’s where you learn your craft, where you learn the words that are your tools. I can never go back to my earlier work because what I’m confronted with is the clunky word, the terrible phrasing, but really what it is is, ‘oh my God, if I’d read this person when I was writing this, it would be so much a better book.’
Sian: Okay, well we do reluctantly have to wind it up. Thanks to all of you for such insightful questions but most of all thanks to Christos …
Christos: And thanks to Sian.
Sian: … for his generosity tonight and it was so nice to get a sneak preview of the new book. October, November?
Christos: October. October, November. [Laughs]
Sian: I can’t wait. Don’t forget that the conversation will be available on podcast so spread the word and please join me in thanking Christos Tsiolkas.