FISH OUT OF WA­TER

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CAuthor Chris­tos Tsi­olkas re­flects on the suc­cess of The Slap and the con­tro­ver­sial

themes in his new novel,

hristos Tsi­olkas is suf­fer­ing a bout of me­lan­cho­lia. He knows from ex­pe­ri­ence with his best-sell­ing book, The Slap, that the feel­ing will pass but it doesn’t make the mood slump any eas­ier to en­dure. “There’s a cer­tain melan­choly just be­fore a book is pub­lished,’’ says Tsi­olkas, who is on the verge of re­leas­ing his next novel, Bar­racuda .“It feels like in go­ing pub­lic, it’s no longer quite yours any­more. At the same time, I know it’s part of the process and I have to let it go.”

Bar­racuda, of­fi­cially re­leased on Wed­nes­day, is Tsi­olkas’s first work since The Slap changed our literary land­scape in 2008.

That book trig­gered a na­tional de­bate on child-rear­ing, fam­ily life and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, sold more than 750,000 copies, was made into a tele­vi­sion minis­eries and earned Tsi­olkas the Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers’ Prize 2009 for best novel in the South-East Asia and South Pa­cific area. It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing prece­dent for the Mel­bourne writer. “What hap­pened with The Slap, you can never as­sume will hap­pen again and I’m OK with that,” he says. “I just hope peo­ple re­ally like the writ­ing in Bar­racuda, that they like the char­ac­ters and the story it­self.

“More than that, I hope peo­ple who read it can see I haven’t been rest­ing on my laurels. I have been work­ing re­ally hard.”

It took Tsi­olkas five years and six drafts be­fore he was happy with Bar­racuda, a story about a young Mel­bourne swim­mer with a dream of win­ning Olympic gold.

Danny Kelly, the el­dest of three chil­dren to a Greek mother and Scot­tish-Ir­ish fa­ther, is from a work­ing-class back­ground but his for­tunes change when he’s of­fered a swim­ming schol­ar­ship to an elite high school.

Sep­a­rated from his childhood friends, im­mersed in a white, wealth-soaked school and ob­sessed with be­com­ing the world’s best, Danny has an in­tense ado­les­cence and tu­mul­tuous early adult­hood.

With his swim­ming ca­reer and Olympic dreams be­hind him, Danny finds him­self lost in a sea of doubt, re­morse and frus­tra­tion through which Tsi­olkas pow­er­fully ex­plores is­sues of fam­ily, iden­tity and class. Some of Danny’s story is Tsi­olkas’s story too. “My par­ents were both mi­grants from Greece and were both fac­tory work­ers,” Tsi­olkas says. “We had a work­ing­class life. Danny get­ting a schol­ar­ship to that high school was like my go­ing Mel­bourne Univer­sity. Both were mak­ing breaks with that work­ing-class life.”

Like Tsi­olkas, Danny is also gay but Bar­racuda is not a com­ing out novel. Rather, it deals with adult re­la­tion­ships and some of the in­ti­mate scenes are both graphic and con­fronting. But if the gay sex in Bar­racuda of­fends some peo­ple, Tsi­olkas is unapolo­getic.

“One of the great mis­takes I would have made would have been to cen­sor my­self on the ba­sis that the reader did not have faith in me that I wasn’t be­ing gra­tu­itous,” he says. “It’s about mak­ing sense of Danny as a char­ac­ter. It’s a mat­ter of trust and I’m trust­ing the reader will un­der­stand that.”

The idea for Bar­racuda came to Tsi­olkas two years af­ter The Slap was re­leased when he had nag­ging doubts about whether he’d ever be able to live up to his pre­vi­ous novel’s suc­cess. Hav­ing ex­plored his own ques­tions about suc­cess and fail­ure, Tsi­olkas be­came fas­ci­nated with ris­ing sports stars, the pres­sure they en­dure to suc­ceed as well as the price they pay for fail­ure.

For him, this brings up ques­tions of iden­tity and how you can be a “good man”.

“If Danny can­not be a swim­mer, what does he do? There’s some­thing about that ques­tion, par­tic­u­larly for men, that still leads to the essence of their iden­tity,” Tsi­olkas says.

Tsi­olkas be­came a writer af­ter study­ing his­tory and pol­i­tics at univer­sity be­fore trav­el­ling over­seas and then work­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent jobs, in­clud­ing film ar­chiv­ist and ve­teri­nary nurse.

He only iden­ti­fied as a writer when he re­leased The Slap, be­cause that was when he was able to sup­port him­self with his craft, de­spite hav­ing al­ready writ­ten Loaded (1995), which was made into the film Head On (1998) star­ring Alex Dim­i­tri­ades, and Dead Europe (2005), which was also made into a movie.

In fact, Tsi­olkas has been writ­ing for more than 20 years and says Bar­racuda re­flects a ma­tu­rity not present in his pre­vi­ous work.

“Anger and rage have al­ways been themes in my work but be­cause I’m now 48, I can stand back and al­low a cer­tain ten­der­ness I didn’t have be­fore,” he says.

“What was I like when I was 18, 19, or 20? I wouldn’t have coped with the pres­sure of try­ing to be the best at some­thing. I didn’t have any wis­dom or insight be­cause I was young too.”

Al­ter­nately writ­ten in third and first per­son, Tsi­olkas’s voice as Danny is com­pelling and re­al­is­tic, por­tray­ing the char­ac­ter’s ob­ses­sional drive as well as his crip­pling self­ha­tred. But it’s the role of fam­ily in Bar­racuda that per­haps most strongly re­flects Tsi­olkas’s per­sonal val­ues.

“Fam­ily is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to me. I am very con­scious of what I owe – how my par­ents’ sac­ri­fice gave me the chance to go to univer­sity to be­come a writer, some­thing they had never con­sid­ered could be a job,” he says.

Tsi­olkas now lives in in­ner Mel­bourne with his part­ner of 29 years but writes in a stu­dio which is a 20-minute walk from their home.

He’s now work­ing on his next novel, which will be a de­par­ture from his pre­vi­ous works.

“I want to write a story about that mo­ment when Chris­tian­ity be­came the voice of the slaves in the an­cient world,” he says. “As an ag­nos­tic, I’m fas­ci­nated by his­tory and ques­tions of the­ol­ogy.”

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