Indian English, Australian Tigers and How to Write:
Neil Boyack speaks with Christos Tsiolkas
Christos Tsiolkas only really started speaking English when he went to school. Growing up in a traditional Greek family in Richmond, until about age 13, and then moving to Box Hill, his father was influential over his son’s journey into words and literature. Christos says he “loves telling the story” of his father buying him two books to read every payday and considering the skill and stature of Christos Tsiolkas, this detail adds myth and fable to his journey. Knowing he was Gay from a very early age, Christsos states reading was his “solace” and his “joy”. A steady diet of Gough Whitlam, “a hero” in the Tsiolkas household, sat neatly alongside the encouragement into words and stories, offering Christos a strong intellectual base, and a powerful path for someone as interested in writing and expression as Christos. First we saw Loaded, the explosive, frenetic, raw “Grunge” novel. Then we race forward to Dead Europe, (via Jump Cuts, The Jesus Man, The Devil’s Playground) his most important book he states (in some senses), as it convinced Christos he could do it, convinced him he was “a writer”. Since this release of course we have watched his journey, and the rise and rise of Australia’s greatest living author unfold with powerhouse titles like The Slap, which reassured long-time readers of his work, simultaneously gaining him a whole batch of new readers, and then Barracuda, lauded by Australian critics, and to be released in the US this year. We arrive at what I would call an “almost return” to Loaded, in tone and language, with his latest short story collection Merciless Gods. Merciless Gods is a collection of stories made up over twenty years of writing, and we see here, the brash, raw, vulnerable Christos. Christos tells me he “loves the short story form”, and he has worked on short stories ever since he started writing. Talking structure raises intricate, intra-technical questions for writers about writing. Structure and form cut to the heart of what a writer sees as the vehicle for their ideas and vision. Christos states he has never created a structure for the purpose of facilitating a message, political or other; moreover he states his writing, and fiction in general is a powerful vehicle to “pose questions”. Connected to structure is of course the writing process; the way in which a two second encounter, thought, smell, flash, can transpose itself into the seed for a novel or a story. “Treating writing as work has helped me” Christos says. Treating the process “seriously” and being disciplined about committing to the process has helped build the work, but “it helps to be supported by good readers”. Honest feedback helps the creation of good work. Here Christos talks about Wayne, his partner, being a source of honesty to his writing, as well as trusted publisher and long-time supporter and “literary minder” Jane Palfreyman. I suggest to Christos, he has always been good at vulnerability, always been good at putting himself on the page; a thing that writers of fiction and literature must do and we agree, it’s one of those habits writers need to practice. Another one of Christos’s habits is switching off from the “digital world.” This of course, assists the writer, the thinker, the imaginer, to access the peace and clarity that supports the order of words, wringing the most out of ideas and inspirations. We talk more on inspiration and Christos tells me of his recent travels to Japan and India. In India Christos describes his experience of lecturing to writing students, and how in India, fiction is written in English, and much of the discourse for writers and writing students is around finding an “Indian English”. Christos and I agree that the Australian journey is not dissimilar, and that debate had raged for a long time relating to what an “Australian English” really is. We reminisce a little and recall this debate well and truly firing at the time of shortest lived Australia literary genre “Grunge” (early nineties) where many respected critics felt that their time as literary gatekeepers was under threat as they lost control of their “Australian English” to young punks like Christos Tsiolkas through the release of books like Loaded. Back to India, and inspiration, Christos talks of how affected he was when by the ancient religious and cultural neighbourhoods he visited; how these experiences have offered some seed, some fundamental thought-layers for his new book which is based on the life of St Paul. Back to Australia, and “Australian English” we talk Tigers; Richmond Football Club that is. Christos is a paid up member. I ask him if he has ever written a footy story, and he confirms that he has, although it has never been published but he was considering it for Merciless Gods. We talk of how the game of Australia Rules Football with its theatre, its colour, its mythology, its domesticity should have inspired the delivery of fiction or poetry that transcends low brow “footy culture” yet, it never really has. We agree however that the proposition is immense and probably best left as a meditation for another day. Christos Tsiolkas is reading from his latest short story collection Merciless Gods at Newstead Short Story Tattoo, in the Masters and Apprentices session, Sunday May 3, Newstead Community Centre, get your tickets now and check www.newsteadtattoo.org for full event details.