Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, most of which have been adapted for the screen. Christos's novels are:
- Loaded (1995), which became the movie Head On in 1998
- The Jesus Man (1999)
- Dead Europe (2005), which won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize and the 2006 Melbourne Best Writing Award, and was adapted into a film in 2012
- The Slap (2008), which won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, was shortlisted for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, and won the 2009 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal and the 2009 Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Book Industry Awards Books of the Year; and was also turned into both an Australian and U.S. television miniseries
- Barracuda (2013), which was adapted for television in 2016.
He is also a playwright, essayist, screen writer and film critic. His other published works include his first short story collection Merciless Gods (2014), his reflective essay Tolerance, Prejudice and Fear (1997) for PEN Sydney, and his examination of Fred Schepisi's 1976 film The Devil's Playground (2002). Christos is also a regular contributor to The Monthly.
- Christos cites Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and David Copperfield, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, and Peter Benchley’s Jaws as influences from an early age. He is also a fan of C. S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
- At the time of this interview, Christos had been watching the documentary about David Stratton, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life.
- Christos identifies with the Left of the political spectrum, and near the end of this interview muses on the impact the intellectual tradition of the Left had on his writing, and the responsibility he feels writers on the Left now have.
- The structure of Rashomon, the 1950 Japanese period film directed by Akira Kurosawa, inspired Christos when writing (and structuring) his first novel, Loaded.
- Christos would save the first edition of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood if his home were on fire. He also loves the works of Carson McCullers, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Ralph Ellison.
Nic Brasch: Christos Tsiolkas is a writer of strength and courage. He burst on to the literary scene with his debut novel Loaded. The Slap solidified his place as one of the top writers writing today, and he followed it up with another critical and commercial success, Barracuda. He has written novels, short stories, plays, essays and film reviews. I spent more than an hour with Christos at the State Library of Victoria. His experience and his love of writing began with the books his parents gave him.
Christos Tsiolkas: It’s something I talk about a lot because it’s very true, I really admire my parents. They started me on reading, because they were very excited when I took to books really early on. Their dreams as migrants was to educate their children, really. And so my father would buy me – starting from about eight years old, eight or nine – there was a little newsagent-come-bookshop on Bridge Road in Richmond, and he would stop every Thursday night, which was after pay day, and pick me up a book or a couple of books, from the little stall or trestle table there. So, from Dad I got Dickens. And I remember reading Great Expectations and David Copperfield, they were two really early books. Like you know, was I ten, was I nine, was I eleven?
Nic: Sure, but even so, those are not easy books for a nine or a ten year old.
Christos: The other one I really remember was Jaws, the Peter Benchley novel.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Christos: I don’t know if that had an influence on my writing but that, you know, just because of the fear, the fears with the sharks, and because it’ was such a big cultural moment as a kid, that memory remains. He also got me Henry Miller, which I love. He got me Tropic of Capricorn, which was impenetrable really, but I’ve gone back to that book all my life. And in saying that I am also a huge lover of the magic of C.S. Lewis.
Nic: Right, sure.
Christos: I kind of think, those books just opened up another way of reading for me as well. As a child, you immerse yourself completely in Narnia and the world that Lewis created, and you started imagining that world as well. So I would read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I’d read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I would lie out on the backyard and look up on the clouds and kind of imagine my own worlds. And I think I’m marking those books as important because I think they urged me to write as well.
Nic: Okay, I totally get C.S. Lewis for a young boy. Dickens is not easy for a ten year-old, and it’s not just the writing. I’m just wondering how you, a young boy growing up in Richmond of Greek heritage, connected to Charles Dickens, a writer about London in the 1800s, what was it that…
Christos: Probably because I didn’t have those kind of thoughts.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Christos: It was just that you were reading for the pleasure of reading. I mean look, yes, Miller was… I had to put down, it just didn’t make sense. Because Dad couldn’t read English to me, he gave me those books. He would just pick up something. So that was why I got Miller at a very inappropriate age. Dickens … It’s so hard to go back Nic, I think he is such a wonderful storyteller, and wrote the best novels of that period, I mean that late nineteenth century, kind of birth-of-the-novel if you like. Those writers – even earlier, somebody like Austen – you can’t do that kind of divide that we do now between young adults and adults.
Nic: No, that’s right.
Christos: Someone like Dickens, I think, someone like Austen, are writing for a kind of general public we don’t have anymore.
Nic: And to learn how to tell stories there is probably no one better than Dickens to learn how to tell stories, how to reach a certain point where you want the reader to read on. You know, that sort of thing, to structure.
Christos: Yeah look, it’s a really good question. I’m trying to think, I mean I’m sure that there were things that I was reading that didn’t quite make sense, but I don’t have a memory of finding Dickens difficult in that way, and I think it was just being swept away by the power of the story.
Nic: So, at what point did you start writing or thinking that there’s possibly… There even was such a thing as being able to be a writer? Did you write throughout your teens?
Christos: I did write through, I just don’t… Two things I remember that I feel like mark this almost naïve wish – because you know, you’re so young, you have no idea what writing is – but I did keep all these exercise books, and I would write out ideas for stories, and for films too actually, because I was completely in love with cinema. I’m of that age where… This is before video, and a long, long time before the digital age, so going to the cinema was part of your weekly life. And because growing up in Richmond, you were very close to cinemas in the city, and so I would actually write down ideas for films, and write down ideas for stories. And the other thing I kept… Probably from a little bit later, maybe eleven or twelve, I would cut out film reviews of films I had seen, and keep them in these exercise books and maybe a line or two of just my own comment… So maybe there was a desire to be a critic from really early on as well. I got very excited recently, just because I admire him so much, I was watching this documentary about David Stratton, and he was doing the same thing. He was much more meticulous than I was, he actually kept files.
Christos: But yeah, it’s just that… I think there’s something in that obsessive collecting of information to do with film and with writing that pointed towards me being a writer even before I was able to even think of expressing that as a desire.
Nic: A lot of writers start their careers doing reviews, particularly in film and music, and I know music plays an important part I’m assuming in your life because it’s certainly referenced a lot in your work. Did you start actually – I know you write film reviews now for The Saturday Paper – did you write any reviews? Was that a way to being published?
Christos: I think they were probably the first published… My first published work were reviews. And again, largely film but a little bit of music as well, though I think I’ve always been aware that I’m not a musician, I’m not a film… I mean, I have worked in films, I feel a greater confidence in talking about that as art, but music, I didn’t. I wrote a few music reviews on concerts I’d seen, and that was in the student press, that was where I first got published. And I use to write reviews for some of what was, I mean, the street press. I’m from the left really.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Christos: They were just… And some of the political newspapers that were going on at the time. I joined People for Nuclear Disarmament, for example, and they had a – I remember writing a film review for them. It was very worthy, it was very earnest!
Nic: Of course, of course.
Christos: Just, you know, no payment, nothing like that, but just having your name appear under a piece of text that you had written, I think, was a real confidence booster.
Nic: Tell me, the lead up to writing Loaded. Well, let’s go tertiary studies, and then further interests in to writing, and then, deciding to write Loaded…
Christos: I am forever grateful for the opportunities that going to university gave me. Just opening up the world of literature and opening up the world of politics, in ways that hadn’t been visible to me before. I hadn’t had access to them before. But I think also that world was quite also a confronting time as well, because it really did do that displacement from a world I’d grown up in, which was a migrant, working-class world, and suddenly entering this world of the academy…
So, the positives were it brought me in to contact with ideas, people, concepts, opportunities again that I would never have had if I hadn’t have gone to that world, but it also felt like it’d had caused a massive rift between myself, and primarily and most importantly I think my family.
Friends too. And even years later. So Barracuda I wrote when I was in my late forties, and there is a moment in that where one of the characters, Danny, he’s talking to a friend who says to him, ‘God, you’re voice has changed’. And I remember that happening within a few months of going to Melbourne Uni. It was almost like you entered this world and your voice changes, particularly back at that time, this was the early 80s.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, in terms of your question, I’d been writing short pieces, short stories, some of which I finished, some of which I didn’t. Like I had you know, as I think so many of us do starting off as writers, I basically had shoeboxes of fragments. That was my filing system back then. And one of those fragments… I had I’d started this short story, and it was in the voice of the character who eventually became Ari in Loaded. The short story didn’t end up going anywhere, but I was really interested in that voice, and I think part of why I was interested in that voice was I thought I had created this character who was me-not-me, and I think that was how I began as a novelist, going ‘Ah, ok. I can write about this reef that I’m talking about, and write it from this character that is fictional that I have created’. And it’s almost like Ari is Christos Tsiolkas before he made that leap into to Melbourne Uni, and had that experience. And I think that’s why Ari can confidently say ‘I’m not left I’m not right, I’m not this I’m not that’, because he’s another voice, but it is certainly a part of the thinking that was going on in my head at that time.
Nic: What I find most fascinating about Loaded, is to me it’s more about character study than a traditional narrative, and most writers, particularly those who’ve done creative writing stories, they start with understanding the notion of the story…
Christos: Well that’s because I did communist political theory, rather than study writing.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Nic: But more…
Christos: No, seriously, that’s what I majored in. So, you know that was a very… it brought me out ready for big employment in the world!
Nic: I can tell you hadn’t done creative writing, because if you were a creative writing student you start with a story, and only later on when you start experimenting, writers then go back to going away from the traditional narrative. But you started in that way, and I found that absolutely fascinating, and without knowing nothing about you, I could’ve gone ‘he didn’t study creative writing’.
Christos: Look, I think there is you know, going back to what is over twenty years ago now, I think there is… I mean, clearly, clearly I had the love of writing and clearly I had the love of literature. That was already there, and I’ve got to thank my parents for that. I’ve also got to thank a teacher in high school, Mr. Javier, Jan Javier, who was a Czech refugee, who ended up teaching at a suburban public school largely to kids who were not interested in the world he wanted to introduce them to. But he just gave me the great European novels, because he could see that I loved reading and that I loved literature. And so I had that in my arsenal if you like … It was like I had read, it wasn’t like the novel or literature were things I didn’t care about passionately, but I didn’t have any of those skills I guess, I didn’t know, I hadn’t studied writing.
Nic: You weren’t given the rules, either, and so there’s a freedom…
Christos: Exactly! And so, when I was writing Loaded, it was like ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to fucking do this again’. Am I allowed to swear on this?
Christos: So, if this is going to… You know, I’m just going to pour blood, sweat, tears, guts, piss, shit, everything in this novel, because I don’t know if I’m ever going to do this again. But what I discovered in writing Loaded was how much I loved doing this. You know, I’ll never have that again. You don’t, you know, ever have that rawness… That’s what a great first, I’m not saying that about Loaded, but you know…
Nic: Absolutely, great first novels are that raw, and there’s that somewhat autobiographical feel, and you just getting everything out, and at the end of it, you go ‘I don’t think I could write another book as everything has come out’. And then you realise, there are ways to do it.
Christos: I don’t know if it’s helpful, and when I talk to writers, you know, who are starting off or starting out, and they want some advice, and they say, ‘How did you come to Loaded?’ It was a complete accident about the structure. That short story I told you about was going nowhere, and then trying to make it into a novel… And I just thought, ‘Why don’t I do it in twenty-four hours?’ That was just one day at the typewriter – it was still had a typewriter then – going ‘Why don’t I see what happens if I tell this story through that?’ That’s how I discovered something about structure, and how important it is.
Nic: I wonder, are you the type of person who friends need to be wary of, are you a continual observer and note-taker of characteristics?
Christos: I think there is always that danger of knowing that people know you’re a writer, and they know that means… You know, there is an element of the thief that is part of being a writer, that you are going to take stories. I try to be… Every writer has to make her or his own decision about where the line is, I mean, so for example, I will say to fellow writers or artists if they tell me an idea, I go ‘You have ten years’, which I think is fair, right?
Nic: Very fair, very generous.
Christos: Yeah, I did that just in January. So, you’ve got ten years. Now, if you don’t use it, that’s fair game…
Nic: We should put that in the copyright act. We’ll rewrite copyright!
Christos: There is that danger always of… You know, you try and change the characters, you give them different characteristics… But we steal, that’s an inevitable part of being a writer. So I think most of my circle would think that I’m fair on how I do that, and people will say to me, ‘You can’t use this’. And that’s fair, I honour that.
Nic: That’s really interesting. Place plays an important role in your stories, and particularly specifically Melbourne in most of them. Would you have been a different writer if you’d been brought up somewhere else?
Christos: Yeah of course. You think there must be a kernel – in a secular world we don’t have a language for it – but is there something of my soul that would be a writer anywhere I lived? You know, the fantasy is that, or the belief or the solace is that of course! But I don’t know that. But it’s undoubtedly true… Melbourne, growing up here has been pivotal to how I write. For one, the Australian experience means I write in the English language, even though it wasn’t the first language that I spoke. Being Australian means I write the English language in a different way to the way an Irish person writes English or a Scottish person, or an English person or a Jamaican person, or a person from the USA. Right? So, the migrant experience in Australia is very different to the migrant experience in all those place I just mentioned. So, all of those factors have… Play a part in how I write and the kind of stories I’m telling.
And then just the specifics… I came of age and started writing at a really… You look back on it now, and didn’t seemed like it at the time, but actually it was quite a golden period when you think about Australian culture, in some ways. Because I was born into the Whitlam era, so free education, public health, all these things we now take for granted were there. Then the 80s and early 90s were the Keating period, where you had a kind of confidence about Australian identity, that I think we’ve lost it, it’s kind of regressed.
A real example, I’m a gay man. So, I came of age – like sexual age – just two years before HIV/AIDS became something that was killing off so many people across the globe, and Australia had the most progressive AIDS policy in the world at that time.
Nic: You wonder what that would be like today.
Christos: So that also gave me a certain confidence. You know, the nascent queer politics. They were really powerful, and that gave me an armour, as well in terms of being a writer. All those things are part of the cultural landscape that made me feel confident that I could produce a book like Loaded, and give it to publishers. And the fact that a book like Loaded could be given to publishers in the early nineties – like Jane Palfreyman or Sophie Cunningham, or Nikki Christer – so we’re talking about a generation of young women who are coming into publishing, who are looking at a book like Loaded and aren’t going, ‘That’s only for gays and lesbians’, they’re going, ‘We can publish this’. That is the history I’m part of. I’m not saying that it isn’t got something to do with my writing or the way I’m telling a story, but I think you have to plot all of that to understand how you come to being published at that particular space and time.
Nic: You had to be recognised by people who had similar experiences or grown up at the same time, and were of the same mindset.
Christos: It’s something I often say about Loaded, because I think it does indicate something about how shifts happen in history and in culture, you know that five years earlier I would have only thought a gay/lesbian elective publisher that would’ve done it. I did actually give to a gay/lesbian publisher, but they thought it was too racist and homophobic…
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Nic: You can’t have everything!
Christos: But again, that’s part of a shift that the book, you know… It’s not just from Christos Tsiolkas’ head, it’s a part of a shift in the kind of ways we were talking about sexuality.
Nic: Let’s talk for a minute about one of my favourite Australian novels, that’s The Slap, probably my favourite except maybe just behind Power Without Glory. I haven’t quite decided.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Nic: I absolutely adore The Slap. Was there a slap? What was the impetus for the story?
Christos: Look, the real impetus Nic… I don’t think you can separate, it’s not like you finish a novel, or a work, and then it’s a clean break, and you’re starting the next one. So, the novel before The Slap, Dead Europe… Which was a real hard mother to write. It took me a long time, it was a very difficult and very dark book, dark in thematics, dark in what I was trying to do with it. And it was really, you know – that’s the book that was about exorcising my European ghost if you like – that idea, that culture, I mean you know, it was like a sense of there is another aspect, another side to Europe that is the antithesis of the romantic myth, and that is what that book is about. So, I’d finished that book, and kind of wanted to take a deep breath after that book and just find joy in writing again. And also, I kind of had come to this… there was 'Okay, this felt like this was a major work. This is maybe what I want to say. This is my space, this is a little patch of green that I have in the world that is Melbourne, Australia.' I knew that I was going to write for the rest of my life, I was working part-time, initially in the city at Federation Square at ACMI, and then kind of after that – well actually Dead Europe was so hard to write that I gave up that job and started working part-time as a vet – so this was my patch of green I was really happy with that patch of green. And I thought, ‘No, you know what I’m going to write? I’m going to write a novel about my place. Like, my place is not Athens, Europe it’s Melbourne, Australia.
Christos: I had started in Hector’s voice, the opening character in The Slap, but it wasn’t until… This is what happened. I was at Mum and Dad’s barbeque, my partner Wayne was there, our families were there, our friends were there.. A little boy, a lovely little boy who’s three, three and a half, he’s playing around my mum’s feet, she’s trying to make the biggest damn feast in the world, he’s upsetting pots and pans, she keeps saying, ‘No, no Jack, stop, stop’. He doesn’t stop and so she just you know, takes him, gives him the lightest pat, like that on his bum, and says ‘Stop!’ And that’s when he turned to her and said, ‘No one has the right to touch my body without my permission’. I just still remember…
Christos: It was almost like when time is relative, it just felt like the clock had stopped for a moment, because everyone’s faces were puzzled, and then we all burst out laughing, because it’s funny you know, and Mum just said, ‘Well if you’re naughty, I hit you’. It was so benign a moment. And then it was that I’d gone, ‘Mum…’ As I was driving back home and musing on it. When I said that thing about the look on the face it was trying to capture something between my mother’s expression and the little boy’s expression… So, Mum comes from a really harsh, rural European culture, peasant culture, where she’s grown up at the tale end of WWII and a really terrible civil war and comes to Australia… I mean with absolute, not allowed to… she’s a girl, it means no education. She starts working at a textile factory in Athens from fifteen. She decides to migrate because she’s the youngest girl, there’s no money for dowry. I mean that’s her history. And then this little boy is growing up with a completely different idea of what the world is, and what the world is going to give you. And both their perspectives are valid and both of their perspectives are true, and both of their perspectives are part of what it is to be Australian. And that was like the gift from heaven, in that I just thought ‘I’m going to call this novel The Slap’.
Nic: That’s fantastic.
Christos: Initially I thought well I’ll do Rashomon, the Japanese film from all different perspectives. I said that it was about rediscovering joy in writing, and it was like, thinking about structure, and that was joyous! I just thought with The Slap I’m going to take every voice and continue it along. And that was a really good instinct, I think.
Nic: Was the success of The Slap a surprise for you?
Christos: Yeah, because as I said I thought I’d had my patch, and I was really happy there, and then The Slap, the success kind of blindsided me. Again, because in a way… And maybe this is an aspect of the cultural cringe that is still part of us as Australians, I thought… I was so shocked that this novel had a readership outside of Australia, because it feels really – it just feels like a Melbourne story. And we’re use to reading Paris stories, and we’re use to reading New York stories and London stories, but the idea that Melbourne stories…
Nic: But every culture is dealing with those things of different perspectives, and different expectations, and older people falling back on older ways, and young people expecting different boundaries, that sort of thing. So you say it’s a Melbourne story, but in many ways it’s not. In many ways it speaks a universal truth.
Christos: Look, there was a period initially with The Slap, that was… I mean, look I’m so grateful to that novel and what it’s given me, but it wasn’t certainly… One of the opportunities it gave me was to travel large parts of the world, and I think that’s true Nic. You realise that we talk a lot about the growing middle class in places like China, India, Indonesia, across the globe really, across Latin America as well, and that that middle class is similar the world over, and that’s what I think The Slap… It resonated with that experience. The other thing too – countries are different with this – but also that notion of migrant cultures becoming so integral to what the idea of the country or the nation is. That’s an experience across the globe now as well.
Nic: Sure, sure. And The Slap certainly reflected a lot of different cultures. Did the success of The Slap then make it more difficult to start your next one, Barracuda? Was there that extra pressure, or were you still just ‘I’m going to enjoy the craft of writing, and I’m just going to move on to the next one?’
Christos: No. Look it feels like it was the closest I’ve come to that experience of writer’s block – touchwood – that I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, and I think that was the sense of ‘Wow’. It was really just that. There are two responses I had as a writer to that, and one was ‘Fuck it’s really nice having money and it’s really nice having all this acclaim, and it’s really nice being invited to festivals, and why don’t I write Slap II, and keep that going?’ And there’s the other part of you that’s goes, ‘This is all bullshit, I’m just selling out’. Because I’ve got that element of the Left in me, that if the bourgeois like you then you’re doing something wrong, all that stuff. So, I thought, to write a book that is completely unreadable, you know, maybe that’s what I should do. It wasn’t… I think there sound like two, they sound like very different paths, but I actually think they are mirrors of each other, those two paths.
I am very fortunate in my partner Wayne, we’ve been together since we were 19, so we’ve loved each other for a long time and that love hasn’t ended, and he’s been through that whole experience with me, and he was the one who kind of suggested those two paths are really similar.
And then again, being lucky because the experience The Slap I got a residency for three months in Scotland. I’d been to Glasgow in my youth when I first travelled overseas, and had loved it then. This was a place on the west coast, an hour and a half from Glasgow, and it was like three months where I just got healthy again, and in terms of… I found the rush to write again. I’d been thinking about Barracuda, but it was in Scotland that I started writing it, at this place called Cove Park, and I think that’s why Scotland is part of the terrain of that novel.
You can’t really be a critic of your own work, but maybe… Even as I say that I’ll take a step back and maybe you can after a few years, and it’s been a few years since Barracuda. You certainly can’t be a critic straight after writing it, you’ve got no perspective! But I think it is still… For me that novel and Loaded are also a kind of a mirror of each other, in the sense that because of the success of The Slap and whatever that means, writing Barracuda felt the closest I’ve come with any of the books to being a young writer again, to starting out again as a writer. And you know, Danny and Ari are not the same people, but there is a similarity.
Nic: Similarities, there definitely are.
Christos: And I think it was like the middle aged man coming back to the well, if you like. And also, what I think is really true Nic, is the way I solved the question of ‘Do I write and unreadable book or do I write The Slap II?’ is to just go, ‘Well, when I was writing Loaded I wasn’t writing for you, I wasn’t writing for anyone in this room, I wasn’t writing for anyone except myself’.
Nic: That’s a great place to start from, isn’t it?
Christos: I think that’s the only place you can… For me, the kind of writer I am, that’s really the only place that makes sense. As a fiction writer you are asked to do a lot of things. Sometimes you write because of the imperative of a subject, that’s particularly true with essays, but with fiction, for me, the only time it doesn’t feel false is when I know that I’m not writing it for anyone else.
Nic: When I interviewed Tony Birch he described you as a very courageous writer, in fact he bemoaned the fact he wasn’t courageous like you.
Christos: Ah that’s bullshit, Tony come on.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Nic: What do you think he meant? Do you agree? Are you a courageous writer? What do you think he meant by that?
Christos: The reason I’m hesitating is because you’re always… I mean you’ve got the danger of ego.
Nic: Just go for it.
Christos: Alright, look, I think the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was to go, ‘Look, I am a gay man, and this is the way I want to live’ – and this is to my mum and dad, and to the whole extended family – ‘This is how I need to live, and I want to be able to still be part of this family, but if it means I can’t live in this way, I am going to have to leave this family’. And I did that at a really early age when I look back on it now, and I can understand completely why my parents were terrified when I see it through their eyes now. But that moment feels so more potent and difficult, and complex, and painful, then what comes through in the writing in a way. Because once I’ve done that, there’s like, I mean… I do battle, like I think the majority of us do, the wanting to be liked. But there is a… One of the freedoms for me about writing, is that’s the one place where I don’t do that, I don’t have that demon on my back. That monkey, you know, it is a demon.
When it comes to writing, I don’t give a fuck about what people think… In the moment of writing. Once it goes to the publisher, and then you go ‘Oh, they are going to read it’, it’s different. But in that moment it’s like, ‘This is what I want to say’. I don’t know if that’s what Tony meant by courageous, but I think that’s where it comes from.
I’m going to say this because it’s been playing on my mind a lot too. When you come from the Left tradition, when you come through communism and socialism, those Marxist politics, which are so fundamental in terms of shaping your world view, and they still shape my worldview… They were also really didactic and almost akin to fundamentalism in the way the politics were expressed.
You know, we use PC and politically correctness now with this abandon, but that term came from that kind of Left. It was that you were not allowed to say certain things or express certain ways of thinking that were not part of the acceptable political canon of ideas. And then communism crashed against the wall of history in the late 80s, and I think that realisation… It’s not as strong as what I was talking about before, the coming out stuff, but in terms of the kind of thinking, I think there’s a greater responsibility for writers from the Left to be fearless, and I think there’s a greater responsibility for writers of the Left to be suspicious of cant, and be suspicious of ideological conformity and that kind of fundamentalism. And I worry that that’s not happening now. It’s almost like the opposite is happening, it’s almost like a return to what the mid-70s were like in terms of those political fears and orthodoxies.
Nic: I know you’re a very disciplined writer. Do you have a daily work process, set times, do you always work from home? What’s your routine?
Christos: I work from home. But over a decade ago now, I realised it was unfair to Wayne where that became the primary workplace in that you can’t switch off when your partner comes home from work and do the… You know. They’re just asking you if you want a tea and you blow up, ‘You’ve just…! This story is ruined!’ You’re just such a selfish git. So, I got a studio, I started renting a studio in Brunswick with a group of other writers and largely filmmakers, and that was fantastic. And now I have a studio space, which is a 25 minute walk from my home, so that’s how I begin the day. That’s really… I mean, I just think that notion of going to work is for me part of how I understand what I do as a writer. And I do, I mean, discipline you know, you’re always fighting that, you’re always fighting discipline. Any writer who tells you that they don’t –
Nic: Of course, but you say that, leaving the house and walking 25 minutes and then being somewhere, and then doing that, that is the start of discipline, isn’t it?
Christos: When I was in a shared space with other writers, I was probably working harder, because you know your very conscious you don’t want to be on YouTube, because they’re all… You don’t want your mates to know you’re looking up whatever you’re looking up. But I decided not to have Internet at the studio, and I think that’s been a really wise decision. Maybe every once in three months I go, ‘God it would be helpful if I had the Internet’. But you’ve got your phone, and I just think in terms of making you write…
Nic: Because it’s too easy not write, isn’t it?
Nic: It’s so easy not to write, and it’s so damn hard to keep writing.
Christos: This is something I just talk about all the time, but I do love the Doris Lessing notion of ‘fugging time’. That there is a time, she calls it that time where you just daydream, and you think, and you walk, and… I don’t know, you have a wank or whatever you do. But that’s actually part of trying to get the ideas to become words, to become character, and voice, and story on the page.
Nic: In what ways do you think you’re a better writer or different writer then you were a while ago? In what ways perhaps comparing Barracuda with Loaded, could you do with Barracuda that you couldn’t have done with Loaded?
Christos: Oh, my vocabulary is better. The more you read, the better you are as a writer. I have read twenty years worth of books in between writing Loaded and writing Barracuda, so that is the main reason that I feel that there is a difference in how I write. Having said that… I wasn’t trained as a creative writer, but through the work I’m doing… As I said earlier, it’s like I stumbled into a notion of structure through writing Loaded, but that as soon as I got the 24 hour frame and then the kind of points on the compass that structure that book, it made me think about structure with every subsequent book.
Christos: So, there is things about the craft… The other thing I often say is what we are involved in is a never-ending apprenticeship. There isn’t actually a point where you become, I think, the writer. So, you’re learning with every book you write, with every piece you write really.
Nic: I heard Tim Winton once say, ‘It just gets harder’. And I was relieved to hear that, because I find that as well, it was really nice to hear someone like Tim Winton go, ‘No, it doesn’t become easier, it becomes harder’.
Christos: I think I understand what Tim means, in that every time you begin you go, ‘Have I got it in me to do this again? Can I pull this one off? Have I got the energy for it? Have I got the intellectual chops for it, or the talent for it?’ Yes, in that way, yes, it’s gets harder.
Nic: Are you raising the bar every time with a new novel, do you think?
Christos: Yeah, there must be, I mean there is a sense where you think, ‘I don’t want to repeat myself, I don’t want to…’
Nic: Take it easy? You don’t want to cruise.
Christos: Yeah. I think the other thing that happens to you with middle-age is that – not wanting to get into facile generational stuff, but in my experience what’s been happening with me over the last half decade – partly I think because I lost my father too, like four years ago, and I think that loss of someone you love, and who has been your first model of how to be a man, you know, and also your first person you’ve reacted against, in terms of defining your understanding of what it means to be a man, has gone. So, I’m middle-aged, and what I mean is that I am now realising that I have lived. I can look back on my life, and I’ve lived more years – the past is longer than my future’s going to be. And I’m not interested in keeping it going forever.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Christos: And so, you wonder about the finiteness of your talent and the finiteness of the stories you have to tell, so I think maybe…
Nic: Wow, a finiteness. Surely not.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Christos: If you’d interviewed me ten years ago I would not have been talking about this at all. And you know – touch wood – if we talk about this in ten years time, I’ll probably have a very different perspective. But at this moment, I wonder about the cup of imagination.
Nic: Sure. What role or roles did you have if any in the writing, production of the film and TV versions of your works?
Christos: Oh look, that’s completely dependent on the graciousness, really, of the filmmakers. But in the main I’ve been really lucky. So, with The Slap and Barracuda, Matchbox and the ABC, Matchbox – the people there are friends really, and I knew Tony Ayres and Michael McMahon for example, right back from the 80s from the queer scene and from the art scene. So, it’s good having those really long term relationships, I think that’s really important, just as important as concentrating on your writing when you’re a writer, just getting… Just listening to your friends who are filmmakers or artists, or musicians, and think about what they do, and the similarities and the difference. That’s… I don’t think we do enough of that in the creative writing courses, and we don’t do enough of that in the film courses, and you know, kind of think about those relationships.
Anyway, to your point, because I know those people – Tony, Michael – people at Matchbox knew that I loved film, they felt confidant having me in for three weeks with the writers of The Slap, the TV series. You know, I was very clear that I had written the book, I didn’t want to write the script. And those three weeks were some of the most pleasurable of my professional life in that, it was just being with incredibly talented people and talking ideas of adaption, and how does film work, how does a novel work, and what’s difference, and what are the similarities, and how do you tell a story… And so I did that for three weeks, and then I pissed off.
Nic: So why didn’t you want to write the script?
Christos: I am very clear in every… You know, I’ve written a book, I’ve spent you know, is it two years, three years, seven years? However long it is with this story, and I’ve wanted to write it in this particular way, and I think what will be most interesting is to have someone else… I just didn’t want to go back there, to be really honest. I was already starting, you know I just…
Nic: Moved on.
Christos: Yeah, I’d just moved on from it, that’s really why. And you know I do love film, I mean what excites me is writing a script of my own, because then it’s my own, and then being able…
Christos: And also to think of it as a film and not a novel, because they’re very different things.
Nic: Absolutely. What are the best and worst things that you recall a critic saying about your work?
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]
Christos: Look, there’s been some really… I don’t think anybody has said, ‘He can’t write’, but they’ve come close. For me, I think, to survive in doing what I’m doing in this way, it’s like trying to ignore the memory of any review really.
Nic: Of course. Just finally now, last question. Scenario: your house is burning down, your home’s burning down, you’ve got time to run in and grab one book and take it out again, which book are you going to take out from your burning house so that you’ve got it forever?
Christos: A friend of mine gave me years ago a first edition of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and she’s… I haven’t spoken about how much the mid twentieth century American writers have influenced me, but that’s… I’ve spoken about it elsewhere, but they were… Not at 10 or 11, but when I started pursuing literature the people like O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, those writers, they were pivotal to me making me a writer, and making me think about language. So that… Because I loved Wise Blood from that age, that was a wonderful gift, so when you ask that question, that’s the first thing I would go and save.
Nic: I’d like to thank you for spending the last hour or so chatting away, it’s be an absolute joy, pleasure and wonderful.
Christos: Thank you, and thank you for letting me swear.
Nic and Christos: [Laughter]