A chat with Christos Tsiolkas

Christos TsiolkasRichard Liddicoat discusses controversy, writing and libraries with Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner Christos Tsiolkas at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

When two men meet, there’s always a moment of sizing up - mental notes taken as to height, weight, strength, that sort of thing. We can’t help it, it’s programmed deep in us as a fight or flee reflex. As we rode the lift to the 28th floor of the Crowne Plaza, I noticed writer Christos Tsiolkas is a tall, broad and solidly-built man, the sort of fellow who could, if push came to shove, crush a ping pong ball between his eyebrows.

The Greek Australian also had a bright, winning smile. It got even bigger after his novel The Slap won best book at the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Controversial critique

As I fumbled round with the microphones to get everything ready for our chat, I was a little hesitant about my first statement. I didn’t know what the reaction would be. In the end, as I have a pretty sturdy set of eyebrows myself, I decided to risk it:

One blog has described The Slap as the satanic version of Neighbours,” I begin.

I saw his shoulders lift, his back straighten. I leaned back in my chair instinctively, tilting my head and narrowing my eyes in the classic spaghetti-western manner. Somewhere, a tumbleweed got the urge to roll. Tisolkas’s reaction was lightning-fast - a deep, heartfelt belly laugh. I thought the roar might rip the roof off the swanky atrium. It certainly strained some neck cartilage in nearby guests.

“Which makes me very happy,” he beams.

Me too, as comparisons like that can often rub people up the wrong way. I went on, asking if the controversy surrounding the book had surprised him. Initially, he says, it did.

“When you get passionate about an idea or a character, there’s various ways you find your way into a novel. You’re not actually thinking about how people are going to respond to it.”

“I did want to write about middle class life. I thought that in my country, Australia, there had been a change in what class looked like and sounded like, that there was, particularly in a time of great prosperity like the 90s, a middle class that used to be an older Irish working class, a migrant working class that have now, in the next generation become quite wealthy, quite content. But also in lots of ways quite selfish.

The Slap“The Neighbours thing is funny, because one thing that has really struck me is a sense of relief that finally there are characters that represent the reality of how we live in places like Melbourne, that have never been on the pages of our books before. That have never been on our screens before.

“Neighbours, in that way, is the uber-white version of Australia and it doesn’t really exist in any form, except in this silly little programme. I’m quite happy about that. I know the book is confronting, but I meant it to be confronting on the level of ideas, and about assumptions of what a middle-class life is like in a city like Melbourne.”

One of the characters in the book writes for a show “not dissimilar” to Neighbours, Tsiolkas says, and is based on a composite of women friends, one of whom developed scripts for the show in Eastern European countries.

“It was fascinating to talk to her. She told me that there was an attempt in the soapie to introduce a Vietnamese Australian family. They got written out - not because the Australians didn’t want to watch it, but because the English didn’t want to see that representation of Australia. I thought that was really interesting. They wanted to see beaches and white people,” he laughs.

The slap – a demonstration

The events described at the beginning of the book – where a child is slapped at a suburban barbeque – were based on real-life incident.

“It had nowhere near the gravity or the drama of the situation I create in the book. It came from a small humorous incident. My mum and dad were having a barbeque – there were family, friends, we were all over there. Mum was in the kitchen, working so hard, feeding an army really, and this little boy, who was the three-year-old son of friends of mine. He was getting under her feet – getting out the pans, wanting to build some kind of structure. Lovely little kid, and mum was just getting a little bit agitated because she was tripping over him. At one point, she’d been telling him to stop, and he took out the pan and all these other pans fell from the cupboard. She turned him around and …

He breaks off, saying… “I will have to describe it”.

Being an old hack with a thick skin but a keen sense of story, I assure him it’s okay and hold out my arm. He demonstrates, I survive, and the story continues.

“It was the lightest tap on his buttocks. There was nothing violent, nothing aggressive in the act, but it was a tap on his buttocks.

“This little boy turned around, put his hands on his hips and says: ‘No-one is allowed to touch my body without my permission’. I’ll never forget the outrage on his face.

“My mum was just like [Greek accent]: ‘You naughty, I hit you’.”

“It was really funny - my parents laughed and mum picked Jack up and gave him a cuddle. Heading back home, I was musing on that incident, and thinking it’s an interesting example of how things have changed in a generation.

“In a city like Melbourne, this woman who grew up in a rural, peasant environment in Europe, where she was bashed if she looked at a boy directly. Girls were not supposed to do that, or get educated. And yet she’s surrounded by her children’s friends who have a completely different experience of the world. That became the kernel of an idea for this novel.”

Tsiolkas says that although Australia doesn’t have specific legislation around discipline, it is one of the prickly issues the country faces in terms of how relationships and responsibilities between adults and children are talked about.

While studying for a teaching diploma, Tsiolkas says he was surprised at the difficulty people were having talking about discipline, how fiery the debates about behaviour were, and how scared people were to be honest about the issue.

“The experience came into the writing of the book.”

Structure key to writing

What also helped him write the book was his keen sense of plot and an ability to tell stories from different perspectives.

“I always begin with a structure. Even with my first novel there were ideas that had been going on and off for years, but when I thought of a 24-hour frame – something as simple as that … I knew it was going to be in the first person, and it was going to be divided into the four points of the compass … as soon as I got the structure it allowed me to write the novel.

“So when I started the Slap I had that initial incident. I knew that I wanted it to be multi-voiced. Speaking of film, Rashomon [by Akira Kurosawa] – a classic film that sees an event from four different perspectives - I wanted an element of that Rashomon structure in the book. Although we don’t always return to the barbeque, the book does move on chronologically, what I intended, and I don’t know how successful I am, I wanted the reader to keep reading because they were being challenged by the different voices. You had an opinion when you first started the book in that first chapter and that opinion radically changed when you got a shift in perspective.

“Initially I had 13 characters – the idea was much bigger I wanted everyone’s point of view. Of course what happens in the writing is that some voices become stronger than others – some voices just didn’t get through. And I had to structure it. If it had of remained 13 characters it would have been too long; it would have been too difficult a book.”

Libraries ‘saved my life’

Reading has never been difficult for Tsiolkas though. He said that wandering the shelves at libraries saved his life.

“In the sense that, it was through the public libraries that …

His eyes look down, but he opens up his life to explain:

“In my early adolescence I was not a very happy young man, dealing with issues of sexuality, dislocation – I’d gone from a heavily migrant school to a quite Anglo, what we call skip in Australia, school. I felt quite displaced.

“I used to escape both to the library at school, but also to the public library near my home and just wander the shelves. I picked up everything. I spent hours in the film section and got introduced to the writings of Pauline Kael, the writings of Jim Agee – and then I would go and discover literature. That’s one of the things about the space of a library. You can go and do that wandering. There’s something about the solidity of the space and the communality of the space is really important to me.

Tsiolkas also sees the value of libraries as a place for community.

“I love that you see the young students – a lot of them are Muslims, because it’s a heavily Arab area where I live, but they may be Vietnamese, they may be Anglo, they may be Greek. They’re using the computers and you realise not every home has that access that a lot of us take for granted. You see old men reading the newspapers in their community language, you see young kids wandering the shelves like I did and picking up ideas and picking up new discoveries – that’s exciting.

Even in the digital age, libraries have an important role, he says.

“You can do that kind of searching on the internet, but you can’t do it in that communal way that the public library represents. In an incredibly globalised, rationalised world it’s a kind of a small miracle that we hold on to them. It’s important that we do.”

More information

May 2009