'Sex was the battleground in my soul'
Smitha Verma meets headline-hitting Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas
Never judge a book by the author's looks. It's difficult to believe that the soft-spoken, mild-mannered man sitting across me can write about sex, violence and drugs so unabashedly. But when I tell Christos Tsiolkas this, he bursts out laughing.
"Really," he asks, and laughs some more.
But make no mistake, the Australian author of Greek origin writes in a language that is stark. The anger is palpable in his works. The pages talk of drugs and sex, and are replete with cuss words. "But they all exist in real life," he points out mildly.
"A part of my writing is from personal experience," he says in an interview on the sidelines of a literary festival. "From a very young age I was attracted to writers who were explicit. Take for instance Norman Mailer or Henry Miller. Sex was the battleground in my soul. If I couldn't write about sex, I would be cheating."
From his debut novel Loaded in 1995, which was turned into a feature film called Head-On, to Barracuda, released in December 2013, his works have made news. His 1999 book The Jesus Man won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize, and Dead Europe (2005) the 2006 Melbourne Best Writing Award. Tsiolkas is also a popular playwright, essayist and a screenwriter. Last October, he published Merciless Gods, a collection of short stories, described by one reviewer as a "stunning piece of work".
The 49-year-old author says he finds it odd when people ask him if his writing is pornographic. "It's not that I sit down wanting to be provocative. To tell a good story one needs to have drama. And drama comes from relationships and conflicts. And these are bound to have sex."
In 2010, he was on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for his phenomenally successful novel The Slap. The book deals with the story of a man who slaps a child in an Australian suburban neighbourhood. Though the book was seen by critics as an intense exploration of contemporary Australian society, the writer was accused of misogyny, racism and homophobia.
With the brickbats, accolades too came his way. It won him the Overall Best Book in the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2009 and the Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Book Industry Award of the year. It has sold in excess of a million copies and was adapted into a popular eight-part television series by ABC in Australia.
We move on to his India visit, and he talks about the "multi-culturalism" that exists in India. "You go through alleys in Old Delhi and you see Muslim culture and thriving across is a Sikh temple. I just want to come back soon to understand this multi-culturalism."
His mother, he adds, is a Bollywood fan. "She loves the melodrama of Bollywood. The family set-up in Bollywood reminds her of Greece," he says. Excited about his India visit, she asked him over the phone how he found the country. "I said just like Athens minus the billion people," he laughs.
Tsiolkas's parents, who migrated from Greece, were employed as factory workers in Australia. "In fact, till I was four, before I started school, I thought Australians spoke Greek. I was shocked to find that there was this other language I had to learn."
But his father ensured that he read English outside of his school curriculum. Every week, on pay day, he would buy him two English books. But since his father could not read English, Tsiolkas ended up with Great Expectations one week and a Mills & Boon the next week.
His book Dead Europe is influenced by his father's story-telling ability. "Every night he used to tell me and my younger brother (now a lawyer) ghost and vampire stories. He had a wicked imagination."
It was when Tsiolkas was studying political science and history in the University of Melbourne that he fell in love with his roommate, Wayne van der Stelt, now a cartographer. They have been together for 26 years.
Tsiolkas was still in primary school when he realised he was gay but it took him a while to come out in the open. His first book, Loaded, is the tale of a 19-year-old boy belonging to an orthodox Greek family, struggling to fit into suburban Melbourne society and dealing with his alternative sexuality.
"My brother and cousin supported me but it took my family a long time to accept the truth," he says.
Convincing his parents that he would be a full-time writer was another hurdle that Tsiolkas had to conquer. In his 20s, he had decided that he would be a writer, but it was almost two decades later, after the success of The Slap, that Tsiolkas (who had a "wonderful job" with the Film Archives) was able to devote himself to writing full-time.
I go back to the start. Across the world, there is a debate on freedom of expression and how far it can be stretched. The killing of staffers of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has widened the divide between rights and responsibilities. So I ask him, does he ever worry about hurting people?
Tsiolkas ponders over it carefully and when he replies it is as though he has gone through every syllable in his mind. "I am cautious about not hurting the religious sentiments of people. I have read the Quran just to figure out how faith and religion are two different entities," he says.
He holds that he is anti-censorship but also wants people to respect all religions. "One of the dangers of the West is this thinking that they are the centre of the universe," he says. "This has to change."
I suddenly realise that we have been chatting for over an hour. We bid goodbye and as I walk away, he calls out my name. "Write to me when the interview is published," he smiles.
Those twinkling eyes and the warmth stay with me when I, a little later, read Barracuda. It's a book about failure and rejection. And, of course, full of sex and cuss words.