The Monthly Book – November 2013 – Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Here’s the video and a transcript of my interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Barracuda.

The Monthly Book for November is  a big-hearted social realist novel set in Melbourne. You might have read Tsiolkas’ previous novel, 2008’s The Slap; his analysis of middle-class Australian culture and its relationship to the subcultures around it was a worldwide success.

This new novel is about success and failure, and what it means to be a good man.

Danny, a young teenager from a working-class family, has a dream of sporting success and a body that will help him achieve it. Like many young men in this position, he is given access to a great school, a passionate coach and the chance to make a heroic dash for the prize. But at what cost to his family, his friends and his sense of what is right?

Danny finds he can’t always achieve what he sets out to do, and the shame that comes with this is the subject of his struggle. He is gay in a group of straights, working class in a group of well-to-do boys, a wog in a sea of skips. Why can’t his parents be more like those of his new friends? What does it mean to be really different, when your body won’t do what you want it to do? And who do you trust in this life: your mentors, your parents, your friends? Are they all doing just what they need to do to get ahead?

As Christos Tsiolkas says in the Monthly Book interview:

“I think that ethos of ‘the winner takes it all’ – of the individual who, by their own talent or genius, is successful as if they are disconnected from the social, from family, from everything – I think that’s one of the plagues (laughs) in our society at the moment. So I was very aware of that as a writer. And I could see it in someone like Danny that that too was, I think, a destructive thing … I think the thing about the hero in something like sports, say, with swimming or football, with young men like Danny, is the aspiration is to be Superman. And when they’re being Supermen, we are cheering them, and we are making them gods, and we are giving them licence to believe that they stand alone, that they can be anything they want to be. But they make one mistake, and we tear into them.”

It’s a coming-of-age novel that isn’t afraid to look into the darkness of the human heart and the murky world of developing sexuality.

And it takes on a technically difficult task: how do you keep a reader engaged in the repetitions of effort required in training and the winning of race after race in the waters of a variety of swimming pools?

Here’s Christos again:

“There are a series of words and expressions, and a couple of phrases, that form a chorus in the book. That’s one thing I wanted to do, but part of the work on the book was actually making sure that I didn’t overuse them, that they didn’t become banal by then. So that was one of the tasks.

… the breathing part, you know, the breathing in and the breathing out … and the other thing I wanted to do, and this was a real challenge, was how do you convey to a reader the discipline and actually the monotony that is part of that swimming process?”

Christos Tsiolkas succeeds mightily in this task of keeping the reader engaged, and Danny’s life and his intensities will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. You might even detect a longing to dive into the water and test yourself against its force.

Full Transcript:

CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: I’m going to begin by saying it’s so lovely to see you. That’s how I’m going to begin.

RAMONA KOVAL: And I’m going to begin by saying it’s great to see you, too, Christos. And welcome to the Monthly Book.

CT: Thank you very much. I’m really glad that this online part of the Monthly exists, I think.

RK: I am, too. I am, too. Because I enjoy talking about books that I’m passionate about, and to writers that I’m passionate about. And you’re one of them.

CT: Thank you! (Laughs)

RK: This might look like a book about young men and sporting success, but it’s not really.

CT: No.

RK: It’s a book about many other things. Danny is a young man who’s part Greek, part Scottish. He is a great swimmer. He’s got enormous talent. He gets a scholarship to an elite school, because of that talent, and he comes in contact with a whole new world. Before we talk about all of the other things that come up for him and the things you’re being passionate about, I want to talk about swimming. I want to talk about water, I want to talk about writing and physicality.

CT: OK, yes …

RK: Because this is quite something, to choose a medium like water, and to have a character who’s constantly in the water and having races, and I keep saying to myself, “How is it that Christos has made me read this race as if I haven’t read another race before?”

CT: (Laughs) That is—

RK: Which is quite something.

CT: That is … Sorry, that’s just taken me … Um, thank you.

RK: Was it in your mind, to say, “How am I going to write this book about a guy who’s in the pool a lot?”

CT: Yeah, look, there are so many elements that came into the decision to write this book, to write this character, to write him as a swimmer. He had to be an athlete. And I guess there’s the element that though I am so far removed from champion swimming, or champion any-kind-of-sports, I do swim. I’ve swum all my life. So I had a relationship to water that I could draw on, which I think is important in terms of the writing of it. I have a very different relationship to water to the one Danny has, particularly Danny as a young man, boy and man, as a champion swimmer. For me, what I love about water, and [it’s been] from a really early age, is that sense of disappearing in it. I just remember that from my earliest memory: Mum and Dad taking the tram down to St Kilda, getting out, and going in the water, and how just running into the water was one of my favourite experiences as a young boy. And to this day, I have a deep regret that Mum and Dad took me to see Jaws at about 10 (laughs) because that kind of—

RK: Spoilt—

CT: Spoilt what I remember as the … the only for word it … did I say “bliss”? It was a joy. And it was the sun touching the water, I remember the fascination with that. Without giving anything away, I think the last chapter of the book draws on that, draws on that experience and that relationship with water. So I guess I had that history to draw on, that relationship to water. I didn’t want to make it that relationship for Danny, but I could think about water and I could think about what it was like to be in water.

The other thing is that I still swim now, but the activity that I most enjoy now is walking, really long walks. And when I started Barracuda – and I don’t think it was an accident that Scotland features in the book – it was on the west coast of Scotland. I was very lucky to have a residency for three months at this wonderful place called Cove Park, and it was right on the coast. Because it was spring and summer, I would get up at five in the morning and start working, and then have lunch, and then I would do three-, four-hour walks.

RK: Because the water is so uninviting (laughs).

CT: (Laughs) I actually went in twice in the water in high summer in Scotland, and I swear to God, particularly in the north, I thought I was gonna die. My heart just … I think it did stop, there was a second I could have ended up out far in the North Sea. But I was always, as you are in Scotland, very close to water, so the water was there. But in terms of … I’m going back to your question … I’m sorry it’s such a long answer, but that loss in the physicality of walking, the moment where you no longer think of yourself as being in the activity, you’re just in the land, in the landscape, when you’re swimming in the water, that to me is part of the writing process. My loss in that moment is part of how I find the breath that’s really important for Danny; that’s how I find the breath for myself as a writer.

RK: So, in a way, this is a book about writing, too.

CT: Uh, yeah … I guess, in a way, every book is a book about writing—

RK: But about success or failure in the task.

CT: It’s almost like – I’ve used the term just talking to friends, trying to describe the book – “tributaries” come into Barracuda, and one of them is, after the success of The Slap, wanting … [It] was astonishing and something I was so very grateful for, but it also decentred me. It was wonderful to have that success, it was wonderful to have those readers, all of that I’m grateful for, but [there was] that voice kind of here, going, “You’re not that good. You’re faking it.”

RK: “And when are they going to find out.”

CT: “And when are they going find out. When will I be exposed?” That’s a very destructive voice, and I think every writer has that, but there were real points in a year and a half after the publishing of the novel where it just seemed so acute in my consciousness, and it wasn’t until I went to Scotland that that white noise disappeared, and I think it was because I was in an environment that was different. But even before Scotland, I had to think very hard about what the success means; I’ve had failure, what does failure mean. And that’s really the genesis of the novel, Ramona. I was thinking, “I’ll write about success and failure, but I won’t do it through a writer.”

RK: Now, I’m sick of reading writers writing about writers.

CT: Thank God you said that.

RK: I’m really glad that you didn’t do that.

CT: A writer at a university writing about (laughs) writers—

RK: —who’s married to somebody who’s an artist who’s … and they all live in Brooklyn.

CT: Yeah! (Laughs)

RK: But I suppose my question really was a technical question. Do you have a list of words that you use when you write about swimming and striving and arms and legs and the physical effort? Each time this guy gets in the water and goes for a race, how do you make it different?

CT: Ah, that was …

RK: As a technical question.

CT: That question is a good one. There are a series of words and expressions, and a couple of phrases, that form a chorus, kind of, in the book. That’s one thing I wanted to do, but part of the work on the book was actually making sure that I didn’t overuse them, that they didn’t become banal by then. So that was one of the tasks.

RK: Key words, signature words, words that opened up other feelings or other implications? Like what words?

CT: Well, the breathing part, you know, the breathing in and the breathing out.

RK: And it’s forming two sections of the book: ‘Breathing in’, the second section is called ‘Breathing out’.

CT: Because the other thing I wanted to do, and this was a real challenge, was, how do you convey to a reader the discipline and actually the monotony that is part of that swimming process?

RK: The training?

CT: And that you are in the water going up and down those lanes. Objectively, that was the big challenge: “My God, it’s such a boring activity.” It’s not [boring] when you’re in the middle of it, but even now as a swimmer—

RK: You count the laps: one one, or is it two, or is it four …

CT: “Twenty-five laps away from a coffee,” you know, or whatever it may be. So that was one of the ways I thought about how I was going to give the reader the experience of being in the water, but also not only just in the water but working in the water, training in the water. And so the use of repetition in the novel is something that was there from the first draft but also one of the hardest things to get right. All through every draft of this novel, that’s one of the areas I’ve really had to concentrate on. You know, at what point does the reader lose patience with me if I go too far? You know, maybe some will.

RK: Well, the other thing is the physicality of the task is something that is obsessing Danny. He’s a young man, he’s a kid.

CT: Yes.

RK: He’s learning to live in his body, in a way, isn’t he? He’s not quite grown yet, when we first meet him.

CT: No, he’s 13, when we first meet him. Thirteen, 14.

RK: And so he’s learning about his beauty, and he’s learning about his strength and his power. He’s very judgemental, too, about his family, the bodies that his mother and his siblings have. He has the sense that he’s influenced by that idea of the singular, lone hero.

CT: Mmm.

RK: That the hero, the succeeder, the one who is a winner, only is a winner because they are singular. And it seemed to me that this is something that you were trying to challenge in the book.

CT: Well, I do. I think that ethos of “the winner takes it all” – of the individual who, by their own talent or genius, is successful as if they are disconnected from the social, from family, from everything – I think that’s one of the plagues (laughs) in our society at the moment. So I was very aware of that as a writer. And I could see it in someone like Danny that that too was, I think, a destructive thing. And also because … I think the thing about the hero in something like sports, say, with swimming or football, with young men like Danny, is the aspiration is to be Superman. And when they’re being Supermen, we are cheering them, and we are making them gods, and we are giving them licence to believe that they stand alone, that they can be anything they want to be. But they make one mistake, and we tear into them. And I was very aware of that in our culture.

And, Ramona, I’m turning 48 in a week and a half from this interview. So I’m this middle-age man now … Looking at a younger man and looking at young men, I can make judgements about behaviour, and I can even demand that some atonement has to be made for these acts. But I can’t sit in judgement and I can’t condemn them as … I feel a tenderness [for] who they are, and I think, I hope, that that is something I’ve done with Danny in the book: extend that tenderness. He does some incredibly cruel things, he does. He is everything you described: he is self-obsessed, he’s very – not directly but when you’re in his head – he’s very cruel about people around him, but I think—

RK: Well, he’s got his eye on the prize, hasn’t he.

CT: Yes.

RK: And he knows that the only way he’s going to get it is to strive and to be singular. And he doesn’t want anyone holding him back, including his background, including his parents, including everything he’s known up till now, including friendships.

CT: His getting that scholarship to that private school, he is suddenly outside his world. And when we first see him—

RK: A fish out of water.

CT: A fish out water, exactly. For me, very much, this novel was also partly wanting to talk about class, and what does class mean for us now, and what does the move from one class to another result in. And so I just knew that I wanted Danny to go to a private school. He was from a very working-class background, but that was going to be a really strong part and fundamental part of the story.

RK: And this is the way that working-class kids or Aboriginal kids or kids from the wrong side of the tracks always make it: through, you know, they’re good boxers or good footballers or they’re good—

CT: Good singers, increasingly.

RK: Exactly, exactly. So it’s a story, a trope, isn’t it.

CT: And also because I think two things immediately come to mind about that – one is that it is a trope, and it is already, in a way, a story told so many times in our culture, but it keeps being told in the same old stereotypes, and that’s one thing I wanted to challenge.

RK: And what’s the stereotype that you don’t like?

CT: Ah, the stereotype is that the experience of class 50 years ago is the same experience of class in 2013. That’s bullshit. It’s no longer true.

RK: You’re quite clear that you’re not sentimental about the working class anymore, in a way, because you’ve got a character there that says, “Go back to Glasgow, to the working class there, and see how far you get with them.” There may not be that much solidarity anymore, perhaps.

CT: And also one of the gifts I had in writing this novel was I interviewed – and I thank him in the acknowledgements – a very lovely man named Bill Sultan, who’s the father of one of my best friends, and he grew up in the Gorbals in Glasgow. And he was able to give me a real … He was born in 1919, so, you know, a real … He made the experience of growing up working class, and immigrant working class, in a city like Glasgow, which represents working-class culture in many ways for the Brits, he made it flesh and blood for me. And so I called Danny’s grandfather Bill there and that’s a homage, too.

So there’s three expressions, three generations of expression of class in the novel: the grandfather; the father and mother; and Danny and Demet, his best friend. And so it seemed to me they’re all, in different ways, struggling to make sense of what it means to come from that background now and what it means to make sense of it when it’s been pulled away from you. And it’s not an autobiographical novel, obviously – I’m not a champion swimmer – but I thinkBarracuda is the first point I’ve been able to look squarely at my own experience and to say, “I come from exactly those backgrounds, I come from that working-class background, but I could no longer call myself that.” And Demet has that realisation through her experience at Melbourne Uni, and that was where I realised that as well, but it’s just taken me 20 years to be able to articulate it properly. And part of one of the reasons is, going back to that notion of the stereotype, I thought you had to represent that background in particular way to be authentic and—

RK: A sort of romantic or sentimental—

CT: And I guess I’ve been a bit nervous about romanticism and sentimentality. But I dedicate this book to Angela Savage, who’s an Australian writer … What was instrumental was very early on, talking to her about the idea, she was the one who said, “You are a humanist, you really care about questions of compassion and empathy. Your novels have shied away from really, kind of, you know, just creating a good character.” Now, there is an argument to be had about that, but … It just made me think.

RK: Is this because people criticised the characters in The Slap because they couldn’t like them enough? Was that right, or …?

CT: It wasn’t about the likability, but she was saying, “Your struggle is how to be a good man. You should write about that,” and that really … Ramona, I was talking about the tributaries, that was the night, I think … You know, it’s just an exercise I do for myself when I’m beginning a book: “Well, what is this book?”

RK: Even before you begin it, do you know what it is? How can you know what it is?

CT: Not right [away]. Obviously you think about ideas and you jot down ideas and you start … There may be an image or something, or something you’ve overheard, or you hear the voice before you even know what the story will be. I knew I wanted to write about class, I knew I wanted to write about success and failure, I knew it was going to be a sportsperson, so those were there. But I didn’t quite know how I was going to put it together. And so after that conversation with Angela, I remember writing down, and it stayed with me through all the redrafting, “This is the story of how to be a good man.”

RK: Mmm.

CT: And for me, with Danny, right at the beginning of what you said, “This is not really a book about a swimmer,” the story is, for me, “Can you be forgiven, can you forgive yourself, for something so shameful?”

RK: As?

CT: As what he does to his best friend. Well, to his friend.

RK: But also as shameful as failure.

CT: Yes. That was a really interesting question you asked, because technically that was the challenge, to make the swimming convincing. The hardest bit to draw on was that experience of failure, just that shame where you do want to disappear from the world, and you’re so ashamed that you can’t even communicate it to those people closest to you.

RK: I’m kind of staggered that you have such experience to draw from in your own mind.

CT: Oh, look—

RK: [An experience] that’s so monumental.

CT: I don’t know, there’s nothing as monumental as what happened to Danny … But that’s part of what you do as a writer, is, well, try to understand that experience, drawing from what you know of what you’ve been through. Oh, look, the second novel I wrote, The Jesus Man, that failed. You know, Loaded, my first novel, was successful. You know, it—

RK: The film came out.

CT: It had a film, and then The Jesus Man was—

RK: When you say “failed”, what do you mean?

CT: Oh, look …

RK: You’re talking about numbers? Critics? What?

CT: I think it took me quite a long time to realise what failure meant. It was considered a failure because of critical response and numbers, selling. But I realise that—

RK: Was it considered a failure by you?

CT: Oh … I have … Was it … (Pauses)

RK: These seem to me very external measures.

CT: No, you’re right, that’s … I wish now that I’d had more time with that novel, I wish I had read more when I was writing that novel. The reason I’m hesitating is it’s not that I think it was all a failure or that I reject it completely … Yes, I think I failed myself by not working harder on it. That’s one area where that sense of shame came from. But also I have to be honest and say that … no matter how much you tell yourself that these things shouldn’t matter – and they don’t – at the moment when a person says, “Oh, did you read that review?” or your mother says, “Why do they hate you so much?” or someone asks you how the book’s doing, you – hate yourself is too strong a word, but you dislike yourself, for caring about such things, caring about such nonsense. But it does work, but it does have an effect, and you do feel a sense of wanting to disappear from the world.

I feel so removed from that experience, because it happened so long ago now, that particular sense of failure, that I just want to think about it more and try to get back to what I was feeling at the time. But I did certainly want to fall through the floor. I remember that. And how hard that experience was. So that helped me draw on my writing of Danny.

RK: The structure of this is that we meet Danny at several parts of his life. Very early on, we meet him as a young man: a child, teenager, 13-year-old swimmer. And we meet him as a man later, some years later, and he is far away and he is avoiding water and he’s become somebody else. He’s inserted himself into another life, in a way. But he’s doing something: he’s caring for disabled men. And again the physicality is really fantastic: the washing of his charges and the sharing of the life with his charges and the people he’s working with, and their shit and their bodies, and their—

CT: He says that, he realises he knows bodies. He knows how bodies work, which also means he knows how bodies don’t work.

RK: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting, that you juxtapose the champion, the heroic body, with the bodies that weren’t working anymore. Tell me about that.

CT: Well, there’s an element where as a writer you want to say, “I wish I had been so intellectually thorough when I was constructing the novel,” and the reality is that sometimes it feels instinctual, where you get to with the material. I guess, to explain, just really quickly, the structure of the novel, it is written in the third person going chronologically forward, but every second chapter is chronologically backwards, written from the first person. So you do start with Danny as a man in his early 30s, and you finish with him as a little boy at the beach, but the story is told chronologically through it. He’s in his body; he is that Superman, or the golden boy, as it’s referred to in the book. And so after he has this fall, and I was just thinking of the structure of the story, I wanted him to get, you know: he had this fall, how does he make atonement, how does he become a good man, is that possible? And the character of Dennis came to me, his cousin, and it just seemed to me he needed to have this encounter with someone whose body had been broken, just in the way Danny’s spirit had been broken or his … yeah, you know, spirit, let us call it that. And there was something from this encounter that was going to provide a possible path to that.

RK: And that this character who looked broken could actually understand something fundamental about Danny that others couldn’t, or that only a few others could.

CT: It took a lot of work on that chapter where those two cousins meet. A lot of work, of all the chapters that went through some of the most drastic changes. But, again, [it was about] fighting that sentimentality away, but also wanting to bring the reader to a point of real pleasure in the relationship, this friendship, that forms between these two men. And I think Dennis also sees something in Danny that his family are too close to see. And so that’s reciprocal, and I think that’s why the friendship – I hope that’s why the friendship – works, that you as a reader are convinced of it. Because Dennis’ family can’t see through the broken body, right; it’s Danny who says, “Just listen to him.” And it’s Danny’s family, who love him – I mean, they so love him – but they can’t see through the broken spirit. It’s Dennis who points to that, who says, “Listen to them.”

RK: Just going back a little to … on the way up, I suppose, this idea of the mentorship, the mentorship of Danny by the coach at the school … And for many young people, I suppose this has got to do with fathering in a way, too.

CT: Yeah.

RK: The idea of the father, that the ones that they have aren’t the ones that they want, and they focus on this one guy who’s going to be the father, he’s going to show him everything that he needs to do. He doesn’t listen to everything the coach tells him.

CT: No. Because we’re arrogant little shits, teenagers (laughs).

RK: You’ve got a certain kind of body and you’ve got to let your body dictate your trajectory, in a way, but he doesn’t want to listen to that. But then there’s a whole sense, too, that the mentor has a stake in it, too, the mentor has a reputation in it, too, and it’s very hard for young people to judge, isn’t it, who to trust. And for what reasons.

CT: I think that’s always one of the hardest things, that mentorship between an adult and a younger person. The perception, the world a young person lives in, is so different, their consciousness is so different, and so part of the novel for me was to take Danny to a point where he suddenly understands the coach, but he can only do that as an older man. He’s toointo his body, he’s too … You’re absolutely right; the coach becomes a father figure in a novel that is about the father and the son. And part of, I think, Danny’s pain is he’s living with what he thinks is failing the father … Thinking about the sports relationship, the foundation – it’s kind of the glue that brings them together – is this young person’s talent, is this young person’s ability. So how do you move forward from there, once you stop swimming or stop running or stop competing? What is left?

RK: Mmm.

CT: And it’s imagining the “what is left” that seemed interesting to me.

RK: There’s also—

CT: Sorry, can I just … Going back to the question of the failure, it’s just been percolating there, and thinking it through, the question of the coach (pauses). That question of “What do you do?”, and what you do is who you are, is … For me, I know for myself, as a younger man, it was such a present question that you did feel like a failure if you couldn’t answer that adequately or in ways that were satisfying to the external world. So there’s a real difference between being able to say, “Oh yes, I’m a writer and I’ve been published,” and “I’m a writer,” and people turning their heads because they’ve—

RK: They’ve heard that before.

CT: They’ve heard that before. Again, there’s realisation that it’s not as much that you’re conscious as you’re writing it but you see it in the redrafting, in that first push of the story, that in a way Danny and the coach, even Danny’s father, they’re all … That question of what we do, who are we and how we are defined about work and that activity, that’s central, that’s important to them. You’re absolutely right; the coach has his own anxieties. In the world of the private school, he is king, but when they go out to the Australian competitions, suddenly he’s no longer king, and Danny can see that. And that’s part of this culture of success. I think there’s an anxiety that all of us – and I think all of us, men and women – have about who are we, connected to what we do. Maybe it’s been there in various forms for a long time, but I think it’s something very strong in our culture.

RK: There’s a big theme of friendship in this book, too, and attraction, and sex. But I’m interested in the relationship between Demet and Danny, because Demet is his friend from forever, and as she grows up and they meet again, she’s gay, she’s lesbian, and when Danny has a partner later on, there’s that conversation that must go on all over the place, which is about looking for a sperm donation, which I found kind of funny to see it there: “Oh, they’re not going ask him! Oh no, they’re not going say that! And what’s he going to say? What’s he going to say?” And then I thought about the instrumentality of that relationship, too. And that must create questions in those relationships.

CT: Look, I think it’s … Oh, of course it does … The relationship, I think, the love, that Demet and Danny have for each other is incredibly strong, and it’s, in a way, for both of them, in different ways, the bond … I think one of the reasons they both treasure it is it remains their link to working-class life, with where they come from. That’s the one relationship they’ve managed to keep. I mean, there’s family, of course, but in terms of a choice. I think those relationships are so special in our lives, when you have people who know your history and have gone through the world with you, and I also know in those relationships there are times when you fall apart. And that happens: Demet goes to the university and she ignores Danny, and I did that as well. I know the reality of that: you get so excited by the new, something you’ve not known before, and you’re meeting new people and you kind of forget your friends. Demet, in a way, is the character closest to me, I think. But in that time, in a way your sexuality doesn’t matter, you love these people … and then you get into your 30s, it happened to me, you know, friends asking, thinking about children, and the fact that I was gay suddenly wasn’t an issue in it, and that was all very confusing. When the characters came to me, Ramona, they came to me not fully formed but they came clearly to me … That Demet would be a lesbian was really clear to me, so I wanted to be true to that character, in terms of, “Well, what would she want from someone like Danny, who is her best friend?” And if she’s going to have a child, that’s one of the things she’s going to ask him.

RK: And the question about how to be a man, does it mean to be a father? Is that one of the only ways that you can be a mature …

CT: Oh no, I mean, I think—

RK: A mature kind of adult?

CT: I mean, not that the novel works so … You know, it’s not, like, squarely, three acts.

RK: Nobody says it was (laughs).

CT: There is a line that Danny does say in a conversation right towards the end, when he says, “I’m not going to be a father.” Now, I think a reader can say, “Well, you don’t know. You don’t know what will happen in the future,” but for me it was important that that claim was made. It was made to say [that] I don’t think the question I had at the outset, how to be a good man, is answered by fatherhood alone. I mean, that’s one [element]: parenthood, the relationship you have with children, can be part of it, but it’s not for Danny Kelly. But it is certainly rooted in family, and it’s why decisions he makes about what he needs to apologise for and what he needs to do within family, that part of him achieving adulthood: that’s part of achieving adulthood. And I think that’s true – I hope – to the character but I think that’s true for who Christos Tsiolkas is as a man, that acknowledgment of what I owe. And it’s not monetary, it’s just what I owe to family is so central to me, and it is connected to class and it is connected to the story of being from that world. And I know you know it, too, that we can sit at this table today and have this conversation about literature comes from, I would call it, a terrible labour and cost of our parents and family. So then Danny understands that moment as well.

RK: The social realist novel, you know.

CT: Yes (laughs).

RK: The novel of people living lives, making decisions, meeting, working.

CT: I will get shot down in flames for this, I’m sure, but one of the great joys of writingBarracuda is that I realised I’m no longer a postmodernist (laughs).

RK: (Laughs) But what does it mean that you were a postmodernist? And how was that—

CT: That I was fearful of writing a book that did do what the social realist novel does, [which] is take us through the story of an individual to ask questions and reflect on our culture. That I do believe that that there are universals to the experience of love, to the experience of family. That I trust that there is still a relationship that a reader has to a novel that is almost a relationship of faith. That I will have an encounter in reading that will challenge me, put things into question, bring me closer to an understanding of the world I live in. You know, I still believe that of the novel. I think that’s what I mean by it. Danny becomes a reader. I wanted that. I wanted to suggest that part of his climbing back to being fully human came from books, from that world. And the books he reads (laughs), they’re David Copperfield …

RK: Graham Greene.

CT: Graham Greene. Yeah.

RK: And he’s had that lovely moment where he feels like he doesn’t want to put down the book, as you do when there’s a great strong narrative, with strong characters, that you want to know: “What’s happening to them? I can’t go over here, because what’s going to happen next?”

CT: There’s a bit of cheekiness in saying I’m no longer a postmodernist, but I do think it was interesting, that realisation that came through working on this book. And it’s partly why I could write about class in this way, too, to say that there are actually things more important than identity to write about.

And then the other thing for me is that I’ve been thinking about this because occasionally I act as a mentor or work with younger writers, and I understand this, I understood this completely: you want to be William Burroughs, or you want to be Franz Kafka, or you want to write aUlysses. It’s like, my god, that path is … Those greats – and they are greats of modernism – they are sui generis … You can’t walk down that path because it’s just full of fire. If you have that in you, it will be done, but most of us haven’t got that; we will mark a space and create writing that hopefully has some resonance in the world. And I think that was kind of a relief.

I’m glad that I had that chutzpah (laughs) as a younger man, but at this moment I just want to work on my craft and create stories and create characters that have some resonance to whoever comes in the path to read it. Which isn’t to say I have given up on dreaming, and I haven’t given up on being ferociously engaged in what’s happening in the world, and at times angry [when I’m] engaged in the world. You know, I wonder sometimes if I’m just moving closer and closer … For so long, I’ve … Because my father passed away last year, so thinking about … It’s like, I do like the shed (laughs).

RK: You like the garden …

CT: The garden. I’m very fortunate because my partner is a great gardener. As was my father. And what I mean about the shed is just the space of … My friend Patricia Cornelius calls it “fugging”, that time as a writer where you’re just staring out the window, and I think that’s really important, that time. I feel at this point that I just want to work on my craft, and in terms of my fiction just try and be as good as I can get [at] it. That’s what I want. That’s what I think my vocation demands of me. And yeah, I don’t even know how I got to that, but that’s what I want. I want to be in that shed.

RK: Well, it’s been a great pleasure to be in the shed with you.

CT: (Laughs) Thank you, mate!

RK: Thank you for speaking to us at the Monthly Book.

CT: It’s been an absolute pleasure.

 

One comment

  1. […] to write from the part of his character I know to be humane and deeply compassionate. He said in a recent interview: ‘[Angela] was the one who said, “You are a humanist, you really care about questions of […]

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