Christos Tsiolkas is one of Australia’s highly regarded novelists, a man unafraid to both chronicle and critique his homeland while allowing for its generous and immigrant-rich character. His most recent book, Barracuda, centres on a crisis in the life of a former competitive swimmer.
Why did you write your new book?
For two reasons: firstly, I felt it was time to deal with the C-word, that it was time to write about class. Class shapes everything: language, desire and consciousness. But, of course, what class means keeps shifting and changing, eluding us, and that is exhilarating terrain for a writer.
And secondly, I wanted to write a story about how hard it is to be good in this world. I told myself to forget that something called postmodernism had ever existed, to turn my back on it completely, and that too was exhilarating.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
George Eliot has sentences that have the sweep of a symphony, they are astonishing. There is a delirious rhythm to her sentences but also moments of peace and respite; you inhale them even if reading silently to yourself: they make the mind and the lungs dance. Sometimes I look at her sentences from a distance, ignoring the words, and I just examine them as notation and punctuation. And indeed, they look like a music score.
David Peace too is a writer with the soul of a musician, but his scores are discordant, modernist frenzies.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Take a deep breath, then think to yourself, ‘Will any of this matter in twenty years?’”
This was said to me by a work colleague, many years ago. She was a terrific, wise woman who always kept her head whenever there was a “crisis” at work. Her advice is still so very useful.
Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through, and why?
One of the invisible ordinary people of the early Roman Empire, in one of the Hellenic eastern cities. But, please, let me not have been destitute or enslaved. I’d love to know what being human, being sexual, being honourable might have been like when there was no shadow of a ruthless and righteous monotheistic god.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
The Sound of Music. An anti-fascist movie that is so Aryan, so white, that Hitler would have approved of it.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d created?
Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley. I think Jude the Obscure the most lacerating study of how working-class aspiration can be broken by the harsh reality of economic relations.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Elizabeth Bennet, but only on her wedding night. Or the Hadrian that Marguerite Yourcenar imagined.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
What are the challenges in writing in the English for someone whose emotional and psychic language has been formed by a Balkan historical legacy and by Eastern Orthodoxy?