‘Every good writer has to be bisexual’: Christos Tsiolkas on the art of fiction

One of Australia’s most acclaimed authors reflects on his craft.

This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.

Christos Tsiolkas, one of the most important writers working in Australia today, is an intriguing man. Greek-Australian, gay, born and raised in suburban Melbourne, his life has gifted him with a unique, multifaceted perception—a perception that one might call all-encompassing. It is not surprising then, that as a writer, he has been credited with capturing the very essence of Australia today. His precise portrayal of family, class, ethnicity, community—and in my opinion—people, has made him a looming literary figure. Recognised mainly for his work as an award-winning writer of fiction, Tsiolkas has had four of five published novels adapted for television. His most famous book—The Slap (2008)—is also his most controversial and critically acclaimed. It has since been adapted into two mini-series, one in Australia and one in the U.S.

His latest effort, On Patrick White, is a thrilling analysis of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s work. Ahead of his discussion of the book on May 3, as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I spoke with Christos Tsiolkas to get to the guts of why, and how, he writes the way he does.

It is Tsiolkas’ belief that all humans, irrespective of creative inclination, have a duty to be ethical. What separates the artist, is “a responsibility to their art.” Yet, he is quick to defend the artist’s right to creative expression because they should, and “can do whatever the fuck they want in their work.” As a poet, I am quick to agree. We discuss the censoriousness of contemporary culture, and its crucifixion of those who dare to ask questions, the innovators. Soon, we come to the same conclusion: “We have to give each other the grace of fucking up.”

He is quick to tell me that when it comes to making a great novel, there is no secret. This is the magic of art, in his opinion—that there is no recipe for success. However, he does observe that to be immersed in a great novel, is to hear a voice that you have never heard before.

And often that voice can be vulgar, an element that Tsiolkas uses regularly in his fiction. He says this crudeness is merely the by-product of his commitment to writing as precisely and as realistically as he can. He expresses his distaste for being limited to and by ‘proper speech’, declaring that: “The vulgar is the expression of the common people.”

His greatest literary influences are an eclectic mix. The thinking of the Greek giant, Nikos Kazantzakis and the daring of the Frenchman, Jean Genet. However, his greatest influences, he says, were authors such as Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. “They had such a muscular language,” he exclaims. What truly affected him, however, was that they too, being Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, wrote of worlds in which they were outsiders—worlds like his.

I divulged to Christos that my favourite thing about The Slap was the tenderly savage way he captured the human psyche; the ways we think, act and feel. I ask him how he did it, and he says that “every good writer has to be bisexual”. He elaborates before I have the chance to register my confusion: to understand people, one must immerse themselves in both the feminine and the masculine. He also stresses his profound fascination with “what people are”. A fascination tempered by a lack of judgement, one attained through a humility only the shames and pains of life can teach.

For aspiring writers, Tsiolkas has three gems of wisdom. The first, be fearless: “Fuck em’, just do the work that you think is most honest and true to yourself.” The second, be disciplined: “If you’re serious about writing, make the time for it. Treat it as work. This is your craft.” The third, read, constantly: “It is through reading that you will find words.”

When it comes to writing and literature, Tsiolkas reflects on timelessness as an indication of a text’s greatness. Literature, like everything else, goes in and out of fashion, he says. Though as an ‘old-dead-white-man’, Patrick White has fallen out of fashion, he is timeless nonetheless. “As a writer, I fell in love with him,” Tsiolkas says.

When I ask Christos how his Greek heritage affects his writing, he reflects on the importance of Greek being his first language, and the Greek tradition of storytelling. However, he is just as quick to explain that a discussion of his heritage should not be limited to his ethnicity. “What you and I share is a migrant heritage,” he says, identifying war, poverty, and a true working-class life. “[My parents] did all that, so they could raise their children in a relative freedom and educate them … and that’s not the Greek experience, that’s the migrant experience.” It’s a constant that many Australians can resonate with—that despite Tsiolkas’ Greek heritage and migrant experience, he is also Australian: “As much as I struggled against that definition of being Australian, that’s my world.”

Posed with the question of how The Slap blossomed into the international phenomenon it became, Tsiolkas admits he doesn’t know, but credits its authentic representation of a new Australian middle class—one that was multicultural, and no longer resembled the cast of ‘Neighbours’. He also acknowledges the book’s existence in a hyper-consumerist context, one that has seen the emergence of a unified middle class across the western world. Ultimately, though, he reiterates that he doesn’t know, and he never could. “Every book you write is a kind of dare,” he tells me. Tsiolkas’ novels have dared me to dare … and dare I will.