FISH OUT OF WATER
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.”