The critics are already whispering excitedly about Christos Tsiolkas’s latest novel, The Slap, a forensic examination of the Australian suburban family and contemporary debates about morality and raising children. Belinda Monypenny and Jo Case spoke to Christos for Readings on the eve of its release.
What was your inspiration for writing such a grounded, earthy novel in a domestic, suburban setting after the globetrotting sprawl of Dead Europe?
Dead Europe was a very difficult novel to write. It took time for it to find its form; it also took me, in the writing of it, into dark and fearful places. As a writer you take on aspects of your characters and if you are not careful the world you are creating begins to blend with the world you actually inhabit. That’s not only a problem for yourself, but more importantly, for the people around you.
So I started working on notes for The Slap towards the end of writing Dead Europe as a way of escaping the bleak world of racist Europa and also as a return to just the pure joy of writing. To use a musical metaphor, which I am prone to, I wanted to just ‘riff’, create characters and scenarios and stories and see where they took me. I think suburbia, such a part of the Australian experience, has always interested me; the push-pull of it. Suburbia tends to be viewed as static in our cultural and literary representation and I think that’s simply not true. What does the new ‘wog’, aspirational suburbia look like? That seemed a good jumping-off point for a novel.
The Slap is very much a novel of ideas, as were your previous novels (particularly Dead Europe). Do you see fiction as a way of exploring ideas and asking questions about contemporary society, and is this something you set out to do or something that just naturally happens in your writing?
Sometimes I fantasise about what it would be like to be a musician or a visual artist and deal with creating works of the imagination that are not bound by words and the history behind the word. Of course, my muso and artist friends tell me that I am just fooling myself and that history is also in a note and in a brush-stroke. Ideas, history, meaning are for me as essential to this thing called writing as is imagination. In that sense it feels natural that a piece of writing poses questions. Any intelligent person in this world at the moment has a million questions running through their head. I expect intelligence from a reader and as a reader I expect the same from the writers I read.
The Slap pivots on one seemingly minor incident at a backyard barbecue, with wider ramifications – when a man physically disciplines an unruly child who is not his. The incident highlights the huge range of ideas about child-rearing these days, and the passionate devotion of adherents to their own very different (contradictory) schools of thought. What made you want to explore this as an issue? Do you think it says other things about us as a society, right now?
Family – which for me is not only a relationship of blood but also one of communality – is central to me as a writer. Bonds and fractures of family I think inform all my novels. In real life I’ve been able to be either an observer or a participant in various permutations of family organisation: the extended family, the nuclear family, communal families, blended families, queer families. I think there are roles for adults in family life, apart from the obvious role of the mother or the father, that are crucial. The role of the uncle or aunt, the role of the cousin, godparent, mentor. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I have also been part of the debates, arguments, questions to do with having children, raising and educating children, the sexuality of children, and also part of discussions about whether to have children or whether my generation has left it too late. For something we tend to think of as ‘natural’, having children now is often a contested arena of philosophies, politics, morality. It is an obvious fruitful, interesting, complicated area to explore. The way we treat our children says a lot about our culture and our society. Obviously.
What kind of research did you do for this novel, if any? Your female characters in particular are so sensitively drawn – and the novel is packed with such minutely etched detail. Not just in terms of your characters, but the world they inhabit – right down to the food they’re eating and DVDs they’re watching. It’s almost forensic.
Apart from conversations with two lawyers, the novel was pretty much all drawn from imagination and observation. It was a leap back into the pleasure of writing after the difficult terrain of Dead Europe. There is always the ethical concern you have as a writer that you are being vampiric, taking from people’s lives to construct your work. I hope I have been fair to everyone I have borrowed from. A long time ago I came across a quote from someone (I wish, I wish I had written it down) who said that every good writer must by necessity be bisexual. What they meant was that a writer needs to be able to occupy both a masculine and a feminine persona. I think there has been a fear of writing outside one’s own experiences, a sense of trepidation about who has a right to speak about certain politics or history. The trepidation is understandable, thoughtfulness and intelligence are crucial; but I sometimes think we might get a more interesting literature if we shook it up a bit: John Birmingham writes as a drag-queen at the twilight of the sexual liberation era; Kate Grenville as a punk boy in Brisbane in 1977; Peter Carey imagines the language of a refugee arriving in Australia in 2003.
You write from the perspective of eight very different characters in The Slap, from a Gen-X philanderer to troubled teenagers to an elderly Greek grandfather. Was it difficult to inhabit all those very different voices?
I enjoyed being an Australian heterosexual man, a Greek immigrant in his seventies, an adolescent girl, an Aboriginal convert to Islam. It was not difficult at all, or rather no more difficult than writing usually is. The questions that are posed in The Slap are, as I hope I have indicated above, questions that I am not alone in grappling with. How do you raise a child? What does family mean? What the hell does an ‘aspirational class’ mean? By writing through eight different characters I was able to look at the issues in different ways, ways that ended up surprising even myself.
The anger in The Slap is quite confronting – so many of the characters are wracked by frustrations and ready to snap. Do you think this is an endemic problem of Australia’s middle class?
It’s possible to see The Slap occuring within the space of two elections, the ‘Tampa election’ of 2001 and the Latham election of 2004. I don’t think that is at all important for a reader coming to the novel to know upfront; but it explains something of how I approached writing it. One of the most fascinating aspects of Australian cultural life over the last 20 years has been the changes in the working-class, both the so-called ‘battlers’ and the ‘wogs’. Are we all middle-class now? I don’t believe that we are, for there are a significant number of people who have been falling through the cracks over the past 25 years that no political party – not Labor, certainly not the Liberals, not the Greens or Family First – gives a toss about. There’s also a patrician class that has got wealthier. Then there’s the great swathe of the middle-class, and finally the under-class which no-one wants to fall into. I think that in part explains the level of uncertainty, frustration and aggression in contemporary Australian culture. With the collapse of working-class social structures and camaraderie, there is a fear and distrust of being poor which I think is something new and difficult in Australian life.
I think some of the extreme nationalist and racist reactions over the last decade don’t make sense without attempting to understand these shifts in class and social mobility in Australia. These are just thoughts, impressions, questions that remain unresolved for me but which probably makes sense of some of the tension in the book. I’m going to use this space to highly recommend George Megalogenis’s book The Longest Decade, an examination of the Keating and Howard legacies. It’s smart and insightful. I think he’s a terrific journalist and writer.
Loaded’s Ari makes a cameo appearance in The Slap. What made you decide to do that? Was a bit of fun for you to revisit that character from your first novel?
Initially Ari was to be one of the character voices in the book. Ari is a sort of alter-ego for me, brasher, more courageous than I am, so it felt interesting to return to him. He’s an alter-ego a decade younger than myself, so I wondered what he would be like at 30. I started to write him in the book but he didn’t fit. He didn’t quite belong to the milieu of The Slap and his inclusion meant that the narrative lost momentum. I’m tempted to return to him again in short novel form. He’s a perfect age for a music-obsessive like myself. He’d be 33 1/3rd. That’s a possible title, no? I did think of omitting him altogether once I made the decision to not have a chapter in his ‘voice’, but then decided a cameo was a small enough indulgence. And I like the fact he’s still obviously using and dealing drugs; that he hasn’t succumbed to our contemporary neo-puritanism.
Who are some of your favourite writers and books? Any inspirations when writing the book? What have you enjoyed reading lately?
The desert island discs question. Way too hard, and as we all know the answers shift all the time. Always the Russians – Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Dostoevsky – Kazantazakis, Agee, Mailer, McCullers, Kael’s criticism, Waugh, Rushdie, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jean Genet and Richard Ford. Ford’s writing has been a recent dsicovery and reading him makes me want to be so much better.
I think Malcolm Knox is one of our best writers and I re-read A Private Man whilst working on the The Slap. For clarity, for how to write about modern Australian life. In terms of forensic dissection of a particular Australian upper-class, there’s no one in this country that can touch him. I’d also like to draw attention to a fantastic memoir by Fiona McGregor called Strange Museums about her travels as a performance artist in Poland. Fiona’s writing is underrated, always impresses me, and in this book she not only writes well about history but also about the body and performance. I want to mention it because it’s the kind of book that doesn’t lend itself to simplistic hype and so could easily disappear. It shouldn’t.
I found Tobias Wolff’s Old School in my favourite second-hand bookshop in the world (Fully Booked in Thornbury) and it was a great discovery. Thrilling, about writing and inspiration and the excitement of creative discovery.
I just re-read Nabakov’s Lolita, which I last read when I was in high school. I finally got it. It made no sense when I was 16 and the humour bypassed me completely. I think he’s an intimidating writer, an old school aristocratic European but the passages on American suburbia are fantastic. And Humbert Humbert is such a great character. I think it’s misanthropic but not misogynist. I think it would have no chance being published today.