Christos Tsiolkas on writing sex, middle age and the importance of criticism

Christos Tsiolkas on writing sex, middle age and the importance of criticism

Christos Tsiolkas is one of Australia's most accomplished writers. His latest novel, In-Between, is an exploration of class, family and love in middle age.

Christos is the author of eight novels, including Loaded (which was made into the feature film Head-On) and the international bestseller The Slap (which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, among many other honours). His work of historical fiction, Damascus, won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction.

In 2021 Christos won the Melbourne Prize for Literature. He has appeared on The Garret before. Listen to Christos discuss his previous novel, Damascus, here.

Christos Tsiolkas on writing sex, middle age and the importance of criticism


ASTRID: Christos, welcome back to The Garret. It is such a pleasure to be talking to you again.

CHRISTOS: Absolutely, Astrid. Yes. Thank you for being a supporter of all of us. It means a lot. It is meaningful too in the contemporary world. Publishing is going through, I think, quite a seismic shift in terms of audiences and the reception of the novel. So having people like you, in our corner, even being critical in our corner, it's important,

ASTRID: You are lovely, Christos. I would love to talk to you about what is happening in publishing. But before we do that, I would like to talk to you about your new novel, The In-Between, which I am holding in my hot little hands here. Now, as listeners of The Garret will know, we've spoken a few times, but we did not talk about and we did not meet via Zoom or any other way for your previous novel, 7 1/2. So, we can weave both into this discussion, if you would like. The In-Between is a lovely, lovely read, as I was just telling you off-mic, it deeply relaxed me and made me think about my own middle age, Christos.

CHRISTOS: The title is, of course, a reference to where I am, Astrid, in my time in the world. You know, I'm in my, well, I'm in my late 50s, and in my mid 50s when I started writing the novel. The two characters at the heart of it, a man Perry or Pericles and a man Ivan, are also in their 50s. And the book opens with a chapter which is their first date, and Perry, as he's getting ready, can't work out if you can call it a day at 53, 54? What is it then? It's about two people falling in love over the course of the book, but also having been in love before and having been in difficult relationships.

I've always wanted to write about love. And I think love is one of the hardest topics to write about. There is the obvious danger of sentimentality, which is one of those words that I've always been fearful of as a writer. Because there is a bit of fear about how you write about it, it felt quite exciting to begin, because I felt like I didn't quite have any rules in terms of how I was going to write this story. But it did come out of 7 1/2, I think. For me it was a novel… to explain to listeners, I started as an exercise over Covid. I started in quarantine. My partner and I were in the UK. We were meant to begin a six-week driving trip to celebrate what was then 35 years together, and within a week we had to fly home. I'm grateful that we managed to get a flight. It was March 2020. And I'm grateful that we were able to go into quarantine at home. It was before hotel quarantine in Melbourne. And the second day I woke up, jetlagged, and I sat at the computer and started writing a novel about what it meant to write a novel. And it was an absolute pleasure. I’d worked for so long on my novel Damascus, which is about the early Church. That was really eight years of my life, and one of the most exciting periods of my life. And I knew that I wanted to come back to write about family and love.

I'd started this novel that was about three siblings who are at different points. They live in different parts of the world and they come back to a place on the south coast of New South Wales for seven and a half… for the father's 90th birthday. The reason I started that novel was that the three of them have very, very different politics and beliefs in the world, and I wanted to write about this crazy moment we're in, that is shouting at each other. We don't know how to listen to each other.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, the fires happened, Covid happened, and I didn't want to write it. I feel like with history, you need a little bit of time to be able to enter it as a fiction writer. But wanting to write again and I suddenly had a voice come to me. It was a voice of this character Perry going through his wardrobe absolutely agitated because he has to go on a date at 53, and that's where the book I started. I do think Ivan and Perry are very different people, and that trace of the previous novel that I'd started and didn't finish about how people who don't necessarily think the same way form a bond was really important for me to pursue in the novel.

ASTRID: It feels very of the moment without being a novel that delves deeply into politics, or any of the conflicts that we are witnessing at the moment. Ivan and Perry are not only very different characters, but they represent different worlds. They're from different educational backgrounds and class backgrounds. When Ivan and Perry… I guess I'm going to ask this in terms of a technical writing craft question, Christos, you distinguish Ivan and Perry so carefully, in terms of little nuance, you know, a glance here a silence there, one character not answering the other one. How do you depict those differences of? Well, perhaps a better question is why do you use these little human moments to depict differences of class?

CHRISTOS: My feeling, both as a person in the world but also as a reader, is it's actually in those small moments that we reveal so much about where we are from and what we think. So the thing with dialogue, for example, in the characters – and I think one of the great things that you can do in fiction, I've always loved this about great fiction – is that in dialogue you hear what a person says to the other, but you're also able to be in their thoughts, too. And that's a truth of how we live, you know, it's not that we censor ourselves, but you know, especially when you are beginning friendships or you're beginning relationships, you're cautious. And these are two people who have been really… they've had betrayals in their lives, so they're going to be cautious. So that was how I built up the characters by thinking about what silence means.

I think Perry is, he's more like me, actually, then it appears he is. He's going to try and fill in as people listening, he will, you know, chatter, whereas Ivan is someone who is much more reserved, and that's partly the class that is his background, that is his experiences of the world. One of the things to explain, you know, that element of when does a novel feel like it's becoming a novel? I started the book, and the first chapter is, as I said, the first meeting between these two men, and it takes place over a day in a night. And then I just thought, I liked this structure. Because you think as a writer, how am I going to move this relationship forward? How am I going to move this story forward? And I thought, I'm going to do it in chapters, and each chapter is a day and a night. But it's quite a lot. That's how we chronologically go forward. It's five chapters and we're going through five years of a relationship.

And then the other thing, because it's called The In-Between, there are these cameos, I'll call them, of these characters who might live across the street from Ivan or Perry, or there's someone on a train or a tram. And we enter their world for a small moment. That was another way for me to say, actually, these people are living in history and in time, and there are different experiences happening all around. That's what modern life is like. I think why that became important as I was writing was instinct, you know, I really enjoyed writing those cameos if I can call them that. And then it came to a thought that I want to have the voice of a woman in this book, because this is a book about men. That's important. I mean, we need men to write about love. But I also wanted a woman's voice, and Lena is a French woman living in Athens with her girlfriend, who is the daughter of one of the ex-lovers of one of the men, and that felt right, it felt right that we, I hope you, get a sense of the form of Ivan and Perry’s relationship, but that you also get a sense of how it exists in the perceptions of other people around them.

ASTRID: Absolutely Christos. Not only do these other characters, some of whom are very substantial like Lena, but others who are ephemeral and literally a person being passed on the street. It showcases Ivan and Perry, but it gives depth to their history, and it gives depth to the pain and the betrayal and the life experience they have accrued over decades before this relationship came into being.

I had a question about the craft of introducing these characters. And I mean, there's not really any spoilers here. We're talking about a relationship and that is the focus of the plot and the narrative. But suddenly, when I got to the very last cameo that you bring in, the title took on a whole new meaning for me, the older viewpoint, right at the very end. And just I guess, technically, when you sit back and you, you know, to riff off a phrase that you said a few minutes ago, when a novel becomes a novel, like when a novel is complete, how did you choose? And even to have the courage to end on characters we've never seen before?

CHRISTOS: Well, again, Astrid, there is that, you know, I'm being a bit hesitant because there's an instinctual element to what we do. I think it was coming out of the pleasure of suddenly breaking out of Ivan’s imperious world, and Perry’s world as well. They were pleasurable to write. I talked about myself being in the in-between age, and I think there is something in the novel for me. There's something in my practice, which is about saying, even though this book, like migration is not a theme of this book, but so many of the characters have a relationship to migration, including the cameos, the people we see, they're not necessarily born into the country they live in. And a lot of the book too, is for me about what are the different forms of relationships?

I've been lucky, I've been in a long-term relationship with someone I love and continue to love very deeply. But I've also got friends who have had a series of relationships which have been important, and there's not a competition about what form of love is better than the other. And the other form of love that I grew up in, and it's comes from growing up in the migrant world, is fidelity and a loyalty that comes from sacrifice, which is what my parents did, and my partner’ parents are very similar. And that ending is about saying, this form of love and hope, it has echoes with some of the other characters in the book, this form of love is important. It's not the grand passion. It's something else, but it is loyal, and it is loving, and it is built on sacrifice. I mean, I think that is something that we don't do very well in the modern world.

ASTRID: I would agree with that. There's also an amazing scene with six characters at a dinner party.

CHRISTOS: I may never get invited to a dinner party again.

ASTRID: But this is an exceptional scene to read. It goes on for quite a while. And as I was reading it, I'm like how is Christos doing this? This is like I imagined it, it's an honour and a pleasure to read. But I imagined it was quite difficult to get on the page. To set it up for the listeners, there are three couples at this dinner party. Perry is introducing Ivan and has already been in a relationship with Ivan for about two years, if I remember correctly, but you know, Pandemic, living abroad. These are very close, intimate friends, but they don't know much about each other's current life. And there's, you know, jealousies and competition and secrets and class barriers, and it all sizzles below the surface. It's a delight.

CHRISTOS: Thank you.

ASTRID: But how did you do it?

CHRISTOS: That chapter, that is where the importance of drafting and redrafting and redrafting is essential. It was very shambolic in the first draft, because I was still trying to find out the right expressions, the right voices… it's like, and I'm going to use the metaphor of theatre because one of the ways I've learned to be able to do a scene like that is experience in theatre with actors. The first play I ever did was for a company called Melbourne Workers Theatre and it was a collaborative play, Who's Afraid of the Working Class, and I remember I was absolutely astounded by working with actors and the process they got into. The process, actually, the technical skill in terms of how do I make this character real? How do I convince you, sitting in row eight, that this is this person? This is not the actor, this is someone else. And since then – and that was around the time of The Slap – I have used it. I'm not an actor, but with that dinner party scene I tried to... you know, sitting in my little study, embody physically the six people in the in the room, how they talked, how they moved. And that was the process of building it up.

I mean, you know, as I said to you right at the beginning of this interview, there was an element coming from previous sketches of something I was working on that was about how do we talk to each other across difference, and not any political difference, ideological difference. And Ivan, I think Ivan's a good man, but he is not me. He has certain attitudes that I certainly don't share. And, you know, I think we talk a lot these days about populism, and we talk about this partisanship that's happening. I wanted to bring one of those characters into this world, and also reveal, I think, because I'm the middle-class guy in the room, right? That there are a lot of assumptions we make about my tribe, my group, about what other people are like. And Ivan, I think, Ivan rises to the challenge in that dinner party scene. But again, it's not a competition.

I think there is something for me as a reader, and I'll talk as a reader now, about being immersed in worlds of argument. Ali Smith, I think, can do that brilliantly. I think Garner can do that brilliantly. I reread all those two last year, which was an absolute pleasure. Now, that is a writer who can do that very, very brilliantly. And it's like, you know, to create a space for the importance of fiction, this is an autobiography, or a conversation, and hopefully it allows the reader to reflect on where they sit at that dinner party, just as I physically worked to be each of those characters, you as a reader can be each of those characters.

ASTRID: That's making me remember The Slap, my first reading of The Slap, Christos.

CHRISTOS: I mean… I'm not, I think a lot of people often say to me, Astrid, that, you know, you write such different books. But I think as you know that there is a consistency that comes from a multi narrative perspective that I really enjoyed doing. And that I think that apart from my first novel, is probably an aspect of all my books.

ASTRID: I have a question about Loaded written here. But it needs a little bit of a prequel. In The In-Between, you know, as we've said, we're talking about middle age, the 50s, there's a lot of sex. There is a lot of description of bodies, aging bodies. And it sounds so respectful. You know, I read a lot, and most sex scenes are terrible, yours are not terrible, Christos, I would like to put on the record. And the descriptions of the bodies are very tender. And I don't know, I think everybody wants to feel respected in that way, if they ever make it onto the page, but this is, you know, Christos in his mid-50s writing it. What do you think a much younger writer, you know, Christos of the early 1990s, would think of The In-Between. I mean, the Christos who wrote Loaded, what would he think about The In-Between?

CHRISTOS: I mean, I am so glad that the Christos who wrote Loaded did not have social media because I'd be so worried. Charlotte Wood and I laugh about this all the time, that we will be this horrible people cancelling left, right and centre. What's really interesting about that question for me, Astrid, is that what I learned was really important to the writing of this book, The In-Between and to do with the body, to do with sex, because I was very fortunate to work on a stage adaptation a few years ago, with a wonderful director, Steve Nicol, which was an adaptation of Loaded bringing it into 2020. What we started in 2019, Covid, we were very fortunate to do a radio play, and then had the great fortune of being able to stage it this year at the Malthouse in Melbourne. Danny Ball, who played Ari, he was phenomenal. It was such a wonderful collaboration. And what he reminded me was that there was a time when I wasn't scared about sex and the body. I thought this writing, both as a reader and as a writer, has been important to me. The erotic space, and I know it's a difficult space and complex space, but it was one of the spurs to make me a writer was reading the bravery of someone like that. You know, how important that right is for me, for example, and it also made me think, I don't want to be scared because that voice telling me not to write those things wasn't my voice. It wasn't coming from on – I'm touching my abdomen here – but it wasn't coming from inside here. It was the noise of the world at the moment, and I just wanted… I'm going to, I want to do this in this book. I think it's important to do in this book and to also, to say that we shouldn't be scared about writing about love. We shouldn't be scared to write about sex, you know, either. And, yeah, so I'm grateful to that theatrical experience with Loaded and all the people I worked with, because it reminded me to be a little bit braver than I've been for a while.

ASTRID: I think it's being recognized Christos. Since we spoke last you received the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2021. Now that has a lovely name, but for those listening, it only is awarded every three years. I looked up the previous winners, and it is quite the list. Helen Garner, Alex Miller, Alison Lester. And now Christos Tsiolkas. You strike me, if I can say this down the barrel of Zoom, Christos – as an emotional person. What does being on the same list as those kinds of writers mean to you?

CHRISTOS: With every sincerity, Astrid, an absolute honour. That's what I would say. I may have even spoken to you on The Garret about this. You know, I remember the 15-year-old boy in a suburban bookshop sitting down cross legged, and really, thank God for indie bookshops. The wonderful couple who ran that bookshop let me read Monkey Grip, and thinking two things like one absolutely immediately, oh, my God, this is my city, you can do this, you don't have to write about elsewhere, you can write about now. And the other thing was, and that was only the beginning, it took years for me to feel the confidence to do this, maybe I can do this one day.

ASTRID: We opened this interview with a mention of publishing and what gets published and the state of publishing at the moment. Everything feels a little bit difficult. But I would like to kind of open it up here, Christos and ask your thoughts in term, particularly in terms of fiction and the novel form?

CHRISTOS: Look, I think that there is a really important role for criticism that is not being done very well in this country. I think, and again, to draw from personal experience, the way I got directed, you know, you don't just find books as a teenager, you don't just find your way to something like Bertolucci's that could form us, which I saw as a very young person. It was because I started reading criticism. There was great criticism, and there is still great criticism. Thoughtful, careful, unafraid, knowledgeable criticism is essential for a thriving culture. Now, we can go into questions of economics and publishing. And, you know, what is being public, all those. If I've got this opportunity to be here with you, I'm going to say that I think that that there needs to be people from across the media world stepping up and saying, not only are we going to give diverse voices a chance to be critics, but we're also going to give people with knowledge a chance to be critics. And we, you know, we're going to pry… you know, I would love to open up the pages or open up the link to one of the newspapers, with someone writing carefully about why Dostoevsky is still important, for example. I think we need that and because that's how you're going to bring people into reading.

ASTRID: I just got shivers when you that would be so exciting. Everyone reading Dostoevsky. But it's not the point, right? Like I mean, exactly. I confess I have not read very much Dostoyevsky, but the idea of placing contemporary literature written on this continent in English in the tradition of centuries of works written in English and works translated into English and how they speak to each other. Yes, exactly. Esther that's

So for example, I just interviewed recently Tyson Yunkaporta, and his new book Right Story Wrong Story actually must have like 50 references to Dante's Inferno and the journey descending into hell. It is built around the first volume of Dante’s classic, and I bet my soul that that is not going to be deeply interrogated in the kind of literary criticism sense of what Yunkaporta was doing with Dante.

CHRISTOS: My friend, thank you for saying very lovely things about it. So, The In-Between, is inspired, in a way, by an understanding of Dante and of Virgil’s classic myth. I remember years ago after taking a class at university, which was creative writing, I said, if I was taking your class, I would not be writing for a year, I would be reading the Greek myths, I would be reading the Bible, I would be reading Shakespeare… and I was playing, but I actually think that's what we should be studying when we're studying literature and making the connections between how we write now and where we write from theories, such great beauty and power in those myths that we can use as writers still. You know, I was talking the other day with a friend of my husbands, her background is Persian, and she was telling me some of the Persian myths, and they are astounding. You know, they have that echo of the hero's journey, of the great archetypes in those stories. And it's like, you know, I just said to her, of course, you're going write a story that comes from one of these myths, because putting that in our contemporary world will be so powerful. It's not some nostalgic thing we're talking about. It's something very, very crucial, you know, and essential in terms of being able to keep telling stories, because that's how we learn what a story is, from those great stories.

ASTRID: My last question to you is about reading. During your previous book, Damascus, you didn't read anything else apart from literature in the first century AD for quite a while, if I remember correctly, in order to feed into that novel and your thoughts around it. You previously mentioned a few minutes ago that you know, you reread all of Dostoyevsky last year. What are you reading now?

CHRISTOS: Okay, so I'm reading – just because I was reading it this morning, so I know exactly what it was – it's a biography of Justinian. I also have got into a habit over years of keeping a book of poetry by my bed to start the morning. And I've got a collection of Ezra Pound, whose art I don't know very well, but I'm absolutely thrilled to be discovering. Over the weekend in two sittings I gulped down Charlotte Wood's Stone Yard Devotional, which I think is a work of great beauty. That's what I will say.

ASTRID: I just read Stone Yard Devotional and I would agree Christos.

CHRISTOS: I think Charlotte, I mean, I've always admired and loved Charlotte's writing, and this book, there is a confidence to it. There's an eloquence to it. Yeah, it's about grace. I think it's a wonderful work.

ASTRID: Christos, I want to come and visit your library that you have there. Congratulations on The In-Between and thank you.

CHRISTOS: It's always a pleasure. Astrid, all the best for you, my friend. All right. Take care.