Author Christos Tsiolkas recently made a stopover in Beijing to promote his latest novel The Slap. E-mails were sent, literary festival organisers were contacted and I was granted a 30-minute interview. I’m going to be honest: Editing this interview was tough for me. In fact, I wouldn’t call this an interview as much as a really interesting conversation. Everything Tsiolkas said was worth discussing over at least two bottles of wine. Of course, me being me, I had to stamp my own brand of clumsiness on the experience. There we were, sitting in a small café that had been transformed into a lecture theatre for the evening, and I just had to sit on the stage. Not on one of the 100 seats that filled the room, no, I had to sit on the floor. Tsiolkas, the lovely man that he is, quickly moved himself from his comfy chair to sit on the grubby stage next to me. I had managed to get a very well known, well-respected Australian author to sit in grime because I couldn’t sit down like a normal person. Realising what I’d done, I apologised and told him that he didn’t have to come down to my level (both literally and metaphorically speaking). But Tsiolkas seemed more than happy to relinquish his comfort for a close-up view of the stage platform’s chipboard surface. I mentioned that my penchant for dusty floors must be an old Melbourne habit developed over years of sitting on tram steps. We both shared a silent moment, reminiscing about our beloved trams, then I fiddled with my voice recorder and began the interview.
Middle-class Australia is a reoccurring theme in a lot of your work. What is it about this topic that interests you so much?
Class is still important for me in the way that I understand the world. There’s a consciousness in that becoming educated, in becoming a writer, I have become middle-class. When I came to The Slap I asked: What is the class I live in, what is the world I live in? And it’s a very bourgeois, very middle-class world. It’s a generalisation — and like all generalisations you have to be wary — but in the main, I still felt like we were talking about an Australian middle-class that was largely Anglo Celtic. And the middle-class that I know is very, very different. So I wanted to write a book that had those characters, had those voices [and] those expressions. Australia has generated so much wealth in the last two decades. We’ve become so fat, in the moral sense — it feels like we’ve squandered possibilities. We’ve become more selfish and we’ve become more xenophobic and we’ve become a harsher people, and I wanted The Slap to reflect that.
The Slap is very much about modern parenting. As someone without children, what makes you feel qualified to comment on this?
I am not a biological parent but I am an uncle many times over. I am also a godfather to three children as well as having great relationships with many of my friends’ children. I think the novel is partly about the responsibilities we as adults have towards young children. I think there is something constructive in the uncle/aunt role that we in the Western world have forgotten or do not respect as much as we could — that sense of being a mentor. I’m often asked why don’t I think about having children as a “gay parent” and I wonder if that is a reflection of the incessant need for us to “have it all.” Struggling for my family and community to accept me and my relationship — isn’t that enough? Also, not having children of my own means that I have the position of an observer, which I think is useful. In the end, the notion of “being qualified” is one that I challenge as a writer.
When writing The Slap, did you want readers to be critical of themselves?
Yes. I also wanted to do that with myself, as the writer. The Slap is a novel I started when I was 40. It emerged from a point when I no longer had the surety that I had as a young man, I no longer felt that self-righteousness. And I thought, “How do you create a novel that can convey some of that doubt?” It seemed to me that a really constructive way of doing that was to follow a story through different voices. If I could surprise you and upset some of the sureties you have, I would be very happy. A lot of people have reacted furiously to the book and have said these characters are incredibly un-likeable, are deceitful and dishonest and narcissistic. And yes, I think my generation is all those things.
You’ve said that you wouldn’t know how to write a positive book. Is that because you can’t see any hope for modern Australia?
In the early 90s, I had come back from travelling in Europe and the United States and I was quite optimistic about Australia. I found in Europe such an entrenchment of class that coming back to Australia felt like a relief. It was a time when it seemed possible that we would become a republic. It seemed possible that we were all enjoying something called “multiculturalism” — that we could create an idea of citizenship, of nationhood, that wasn’t bound to archaic, traditional notions. But the last 20 years have really shaken that for me, to be honest, and I feel something has been unleashed in the Australian character that is quite ugly. I think we have become more materialistic, more xenophobic and racist. And I think we’ve become less kind. What frustrates me about that is that we are spoilt with the resources we have, the space we have, the standard of living we have. Look at where we are with our politics, our indigenous settler relationships, at the kind of cities we’re living in. I don’t see positive things happening.
Do you think multiculturalism has failed in Australia?
I think to say that to say multiculturalism has failed is to say that I have failed. Having said all these things that sound so negative, let me say something that is positive. I was having conversations with Chinese students at The People’s University [in Beijing], and I made a distinction between the New World and the Old World (those are very fraught categories anyway). Australia is an Old World country — just think of the indigenous history — but it’s a country formed through a colonial relationship. And it took one generation, just one generation, for me to be here in Beijing talking as an Australian writer. Not a Greek writer, as an Australian writer. That’s something important for me to focus on. I don’t think it would take a generation for a young Pakistani kid born in Athens to Pakistani parents to be considered Greek. And I don’t think that it would take a generation for that same child to be considered Chinese in China. There is something about the Old World — this entrenched notion of culture. I think there are greater possibilities in the New World.
The character of Manoulis pities the loss of respect and tradition in Australian youth. How much of that was Manoulis, and how much of that was your own voice?
I guess I’m part of every character. That was part of the pleasure of what I was aiming to do. I was very conscious that this migrant generation had been instrumental in creating contemporary Australia but we haven’t heard their voice. There’s a complexity of how a migrant of Manoulis’ age looks on the world, and I wanted to see if I could find a way of inhabiting that voice. And what was startling for me was that I responded to so much of that voice. I think Manoulis, as a character, talks about questions of honour and responsibility. I feel like the Left [in Australia] has dropped the ball on those kind of questions. That’s why you get those vacuums in contemporary politics where the Right dominates the debate about morality. Us progressives are left floundering because we’ve lost the language about which to speak about those issues.
Do you think being Australian, as opposed to being British for example, has given you more freedom as a writer?
By not feeling that I am imbedded in one heritage, yes, I do feel freer. I feel that Melbourne is actually a much more liberating place to write than London. To be a writer in London is to be in the middle of the whirlpool and I’m kind of glad that I’m not there. For me, my heritage is the English-language novel. But it’s the English-language novel from Scotland, from Ireland, for the United States, from Canada. The French and the Russians feel as much a part of my heritage as the English do. When I was growing up, I loved reading but so much Australian literature just didn’t touch me, it didn’t describe my world. I was a migrant, working-class kid so hungry for words and then I stumbled across the writing of people like Henry Miller, Norman Maylor, Phillip Roth and I devoured them. With hindsight, it’s no accident that I was responding to the writings of second- and third-generation Jewish writers who’d also grown up with that migrant heritage.
Do you feel a sense of duty as an author to be brave, to shake things up?
The writers who I loved were brave and fearless. That’s what I want to emulate and I am always burdened by the knowledge of how far I have failed. I think the best work comes out of fearlessness. The best work emerges from not only how I see society, but also how I see myself. To write some of my characters, it could be very easy to pretend that I don’t have these terrible racist thoughts, that I’m not unfaithful, that I don’t do horrible, shameful things, but I do. I feel that if my work is going to have any legitimacy I have to be honest about that. But the reader has to be brave too. And I’m worried that readers are becoming less brave. Writers have to be fearless but we also need fearless readers.
Loaded was adapted for the screen in Head On. Now The Slap is being adapted for television in an ABC1 series that’s currently underway. What is it about your novels that lend them to the screen?
Cinema was my first passion. I think I write cinematically. This is not about writing with an intent for the work to eventually become adapted to the screen — it is a much more unconscious process. I learnt about editing — the power of the jump cut, for example. The question of the subjective and objective eye. I also think in musical terms when I write: I think about rhythm, I think about sound. I think this visceral energy in my writing is something filmmakers respond to (I hope).
Alex Dimitriades was in Head On and has just been cast in The Slap ABC1 series. What is it about Dimitriades that suits your characters?
I really wanted Alex to be involved in The Slap, because I respect him greatly as an actor. I think he can embody that sense of aggression and containment in masculinity that so many of my male characters have. He is an actor who always excites me when I see him on the screen. He is playing Harry in the adaptation and I think he gets that character. I am excited to see what he does with the role.
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