Webchat with author Christos Tsiolkas
Christos Tsiolkos is author of The Slap, one of the most divisive and talked-about novels in years.
Christos joined us for a live webchat to talk about his novel, which was Mumsnet book club choice in March 2011.
His very detailed and thoughtful answers took in multiculturalism, parenting, writing from a female perspective, the middle-classes and his penchant for a certain swear word... It was a great discussion.
MrsKwazii: I've already said in an earlier post that I disliked the majority of the characters - in a bit of a rant I said that they were an assembly of arseholes. Did you plan to write them in an unsympathetic light or did they just develop like this?
Also, I found it interesting that the Slap became such an important moral standpoint, when the behaviour of many characters - the casual racism, adultery and drug-taking - seemed to portray the amorality of a particular Western-style of modern living. Did you set out to make this distinction?
Christos: The Slap, as a writer, was a starting point not an end point. In structuring the novel I wanted each section to deliver a "slap", for the reader to ask precisely the question you have above. What is it about this particular incident that sparks such fury and indignation when there is so much activity the characters participate in which is equally abhorrent?
I think there is hypocrisy at work in our day-to-day lives where we make distinctions, sometimes unconsciously, between our public morality and our private morality. Some friends have said to me that they believe that this is more true for men than it is for women. I am not so sure this is true but it felt like such a rich vein to mine.
I am always interested that no one comments on the final slap in the book, or that they rarely do, the slap Richie’s mother gives him. It was a very conscious decision to bookend the novel with "slaps" (nothing very original there, I know, but very satisfying for me in terms of getting me to a conclusion). I hope this second slap is "ignored" because the reader understands it comes from a place of real love and care, that it is not selfish, not the result of aggression but of fear. It is, I hope, very human. Your question makes me very happy because it is precisely the reason why that second slap is there, to get the reader to ask, is it the slap which is the real issue or something else.
earwiggo: I enjoyed the book, but I thought the female characters were less realistic than the males. Did you consider having a female co-author for those chapters?
Christos: I was so nervous initially about writing the female characters, I think because of the whole question of representation, can I convincingly write as "a woman", will it be authentic? I am very fortunate to be a part of a writing group with three other authors, all women. We show each other our drafts, our chapters, and we interrogate the work. They certainly jumped on me if they thought I wasn't getting the women right, they would say "women don't think like this" or "women don't experience sex like this".
At the same time, I like to think that they have enjoyed bouncing their work off a male reader/writer, been fascinated by the moments when I have said "I don't think a man would say/think/do this". This has resulted in many many fascinating complicated discussions and I think in turn affected (in a positive way) the shape of the book.
Years ago I remember reading a quote from an author (wish I could remember her) who said every good writer has to be bisexual, by which she meant a writer needs to understand men and needs to understand women. I think this is true. Having said that I do love collaborations, I have often collaborated in theatre and I think a book, almost a dialogue between a man and a woman might be a fascinating project.
Poppygolucky: Was it a deliberate decision to include the younger characters to make the story more 'hopeful', particularly ending on such an uplifting note with Ritchie? And how did you decide which characters would have their own chapter ahead of others? (I would've loved Bilal's story or Sandi's...perhaps a sequel!).
Christos: Yes, I started writing the novel on turning 40. I am a proud uncle, godfather, mentor to many kids who are now adults. I can be a grumpy old man but I did want to write against the demonisation of kids in our culture, I wanted to see hope there. And I do. I think young people are less self-righteous than my generation. I like that about them.
mummylouise: Hector seemed to start out such a strong character with definite opinions and thoughts on his life, but by end he seemed faded and withdrawn. Did you ever think about doing another chapter on Hector and Aisha to focus on the effects of their affairs on their marriage?
Christos: When you finish a novel you can only look back on the failures, mistakes. Hector is a man who goes through a breakdown in the novel, a classic middle-age crisis, one in which he has to deal with his failures and deceits as a man. At the end of it, I think he is aware that he doesn't have much moral courage. I don't think he is alone in that - the question is how do you live in the world with this knowledge of yourself? At my most pessimistic I think that people live quite well once they have come to an acceptance of this.
I wouldn't have written another chapter, but I wonder what the novel would have been like if I began on Aisha and Hector was chapter seven instead? Would the reader have a different sense of him, of Aisha? I knew many couples who had gone through a male partner going through a breakdown and had spoken to women friends who were honest about how they felt angry at their partner's behaviour and feeling. I wanted to write about this, it felt taboo.
Shells: I'm interested, in the 'but I'm Australian, and Australia is not like that' kind of responses you have had to the book. Do you think this would happen in a more established, confident culture? I'm from a small country myself (smaller than Oz) and there's a lot of chippiness. I always perceive Australia as being uber-confident in its sense of self, but maybe books like yours rock the foundations of that self-belief?
Christos: That's a very interesting question. There seems to me to be a very insular, backward-looking conversation in Australia at the moment about what it means to be "Australian" and also, even more ridiculous, what it means to be "unAustralian". I do think that this points to an anxiety in the culture, that we are not very good at dealing with conflict and complexity. I find it an odd response, that somehow culture must be monocultural to be "real" or "authentic". There are many Australian books I read which feature characters, settings, lives vastly different to mine, to my experience. I don't perceive this as not being "Australian".
I don't think Australians have an uber-confidence about who we are.
ttalloo: I loved the book for many reasons, but one of them was the depiction of Greek-Australians, because I was born in the UK to Greek-Cypriot parents, and have always been frustrated at our lack of presence in modern British literature and cultural life (apart from Stavros the kebab-shop owner and My Big Fat Greek Wedding). I really understood Hector and his family's sense of wanting to do better than the natives, of bewilderment at their low standards, because this is something I grew up hearing from my parents and aunts and uncles. What effect has your ethnic background had on your writing, and in particular on The Slap?
Christos: Yeia sou. I think being a child of migrants had a huge effect on how I am, how I came to writing. I have said that I found a tension in being a migrant's child between a sense of obligation and duty and also a concurrent sense of rebellion, of needing to break traditional roles. I feel such an obligation to my family, to the struggles that both my mother and father undertook in coming to a new country, working hard as labourers all their lives, educating myself and my brother, giving us opportunities that were never available to them. At the same time in order to live my life as a writer, as a homosexual man in a relationship with the man I love I had to break with family. It was hard, difficult, but I'm glad that on both sides we never stopped communicating with each other. I think it took courage on all sides and I respect my parents for that.
I think one of the problems with Hector is that he doesn't have this courage. I don't know what it is like in the UK, but in Australia you find a lot of second-generation people who take their parents' struggles for granted, and never challenge their parents, lead a second life, if you like.
This sense of obligation/rebellion is not uncommon I think to many writers from a background similar to mine. It makes me acutely aware of language, that we don't all necessarily speak the same English, it makes me acutely aware of the central importance of education.
Tillybookclub: Do you think there is a specifically Australian angle to your novel, and the issues it explores? Do you think it might have been a very different novel were it set in the UK? And do you believe that British people might have different reactions were it set in their own country?
Christos: It is always difficult to speculate on a place that is not one's own. I am not English or Scottish or Welsh, I have only known these countries as a traveller (though I had three wonderful months in Scotland last year and will always feel an intimacy - can I call it that - with the country). A critic here in Oz said about The Slap that it is one of the first Australian books to assume Melbourne and Australia is the centre of the world. Maybe part of the British response to the novel has to do with the dislocation of looking through a strange refracting mirror. Sometimes what you see reflects your reality back at you and then sometimes it is a completely different reality.
I think political correctness is different in Australia, different in the UK, different in the US again. I wonder if the "vulgarity" in The Slap is about a discomfort with it not being polite, saying too much? I do think there is often a separation between what we say and what we think. I am surprised that this seems to be a contested notion. I don't know if this is a cultural difference. It's a good question.
TillyBookClub: What childhood book most inspired you?
Christos: As a child I loved the Narnia stories, they made me realise that the imagination could take you anywhere. I also loved David Copperfield. I love that grand sprawling narrative, those amazing characters. I loved disappearing in that world.
defineme: Which novels have you enjoyed recently?
Christos: I have made a discovery of a great Belgian writer from the mid-20th century called Marguerite Yourcenar. I feel ashamed that I had not heard of her earlier. Her Memoirs of Hadrian is one of the finest books I have ever read, it makes you feel that you are right there at the moment when the ancient world is beginning its decline. I am madly now reading through her other work. I love that there are still discoveries to be made. Reading her makes me want to be a better writer.
There is an Australian actor and scriptwriter called Brendan Cowell and his first novel, How it Feels, I really liked, it is raw and honest. I loved reading Patti Smith's Just Kids, that too made me hungry to do good work.
MrsKwazii: Which book by another author would you have loved to have written and why?
Christos: A good hard question. I'm just going to go with the first book that comes to mind and it is Hemingway's A Moveable Feast - it paints so well the dreams and frustrations and freedom of being a young unknown writer wanting to take on the world. It is a young person's book, full of vitality. I couldn't write it now, it needs a young person's hand.
SerialComma: Much like you, access to the completely random selection of books that my rather indifferent parents had made a similar eclecticism in my reading - including Portnoy's Complaint at 14 years old. Do you think that publishers' decision to put age recommendations on children's books is a bad thing, in light of the value of non-selective, voracious, sometimes 'improper' reading?
I liked Anouk's deliberate, contemptuous inclusion of an 'unacceptable' storyline in her script for the soap she wrote for - a storyline that muddied the moral water by messing with our society's increasingly rather sanctimonious and simplifying need for tales of victims and perpetrators. Was there any similar contempt in your composition of a similarly muddying tale?
Christos: I read Portnoy's Complaint as a teenager as well! I loved it, it read like it was describing my life, my fears, my shames. I feel fortunate that I had that experience. I still read Roth, he still makes me want to be better.
If there is anything I know from observation of the kids around me it is that you can't generalise about age appropriate. There are kids I feel fine about giving any book to, there are some that I just know are not ready for it. That is one of the hard roles of teaching, I think, having to respond to the needs and capabilities of an individual child, having to also advocate on behalf of a community of children and young people.
But I am digressing, back to writing. You have to be a great reader to even be a moderately good writer, that's what I think. I repeat that I feel fortunate that I had such a world open to me through books at an early age. Did I understand Henry Miller when Dad gave it to me? Of course not, I had to go back as an adult. But it made me curious about language, it made me want to read more difficult works. I didn't understand complexity and ambiguity as a pre-pubescant but it meant that I wasn't afraid and stricken by inaction a few years later when ambiguity and complexity became part of life. Does that make sense? I'm with Anouk there. I want better readers, better viewers, I think the publishers and the TV executives sell us short.
Thecatatemyjumpsuit: Do you think the kid deserved the slap? Honestly?
Christos: I think Hugo deserved to be disciplined. I think part of my coming to terms with being an adult male was working out how to control my anger, my aggression. I don't think Harry should have slapped Hugo but I wonder what the result would have been if he had turned around to the parents and demanded they disciplined the child? I'd like to think that's what I would do; I fear I might not have the courage.
I got slapped a few times for bad behaviour from my parents, smacked on the bottom by my aunt and uncle. I don't really recall those incidents. But I do remember being belted by a particularly sadistic teacher, I could tell her violence was some sort of hate. I think kids know these things, you can sense them.
monkeymiss: I see there is some discussion about how The Slap is about society and how a new middle class is emerging. Interesting, as for me the book is very much about about parenting - it is as a result of 'failed parenting' that the slap results, after all.
I appreciate the novel is a work of fiction, but it really doesn't fit in with any version of reality I know of. Are you a parent out of interest? Despite taking drugs in my own youth, I find the attitude of some of the adults in the book (Aunt Tasha, Richie's mum) towards drug taking implausible, and I can't imagine writing this myself now that I am a parent.
Christos: No, mate, I am not a parent, but an uncle many times over. I have also worked in schools with young people. I think Tasha in the novel is similar to me. I think it is important to have adults in your young life who are not parents, who you can talk openly with. We can't be "mates", but sometimes it is easier to speak to another adult - be it aunt, teacher, etc - than a parent, sometimes it is a way of creating abridge between yourself and your parent.
Drugs? I think drugs are prevalent and I think that we do lie about them. Also, I have noticed, that there are changes once children become older, become teenagers. Society isn't static, things change and maybe a next generation won't be as liberal as mine are when it comes to drugs. I hope they are not as hypocritical. Personally, I respect Richie's mother's attitude; I think it realistic but also loving. Remember she doesn't know he shot up, I thing Tracey would have reacted differently then.
I debated for ages about whether to have them shooting up, I knew it would be contentious. But it reflected something of my own experience at that age and I guess I wanted even at that point the reader to have to wonder, well, what is the future for these young people?
It is an important question, isn't it? Fundamental. What is the kind of future we are making? I question the sense of entitlement my generation has. We can't have everything, it just isn't sustainable.
BestNameEver: A follow on to the sex question, I read the book and thought - this was written by a gay man. Have you found that the majority of readers did not relate to the sex in the book?
Christos: A friend once said to me, Christos, you can't stand behind every one reading your work, trying to discover if they understood it, if they "got you". It was good advice.
So I don't know the percentage of readers who do or don't get the sex in the book. But I do think our squeamishness about sex has to do with some of the fears and anxieties we carry into sex, the lies we tell each other in sex. I'm a writer, of course this fascinates me, the unspoken conversation we have while we are engaged in sex. Great sex, good sex, bad sex, revenge sex, sympathy sex, passive-aggressive sex, selfish sex, selfless sex.
If I have failed to accurately get to the heart of women's experience in sex in the novel I think this has more to do with my masculinity than my sexuality.
Poppygolucky: What do you make of the misogynist accusations? I personally found it to be quite a lazy criticism; as others have pointed out, the characters who have misogynistic tendencies are not portrayed sympathetically. However, what is your personal take on it?
Christos: I was surprised that there as this conflating of the characters with the author. Yes, I did think this is lazy and I also think it says something about how safe and conservative the English language novel has become. It scares me that we have become censors of ourselves as writers, that we might fear using certain language or exploring certain topics or revealing certain human frailties because we do not want to be accused of misogyny or racism? In turn I was equally surprised when critics were angered by my refusal to take their punches on the chin, so to speak. If you call me a racist or a misogynist then of course I am going to get angry. They are big charges - the questions of racism and misogyny have been a challenge all my adult life and I think people who turn away from the novel claiming, "Oh he's just racist/misogynist etc etc" are turning away from really examining themselves.
What do I think? I think it's about class. I think The Slap is a novel about a new middle-class that doesn't act/look/sound/think the way an old middle-class acts/sounds/looks. I think this scares the shit out of the traditional middle-class.
ifaistos: Personally, I'm not sure about the accusations of misogyny but I do think they aren't to do with the misogynistic characters in the book (do you think certain characters are misogynistic?) but rather to do with the depiction of the female characters - Rosie in particular. She comes across as more of a charicature than the other characters to me, with less effort to understand her reaction to the slap and the tone when describing her is more of ridicule.
My question is: do you like her less than the other characters, or feel you understand her less? She's definitely the character I least liked and understood, which is odd because on paper she's probably the one I resemble the most. Or maybe that's more about my own prejudices - and maybe that's the point - if that makes sense!
Christos: No, it does make sense. I need to repeat again that one is always acutely aware of mistakes on reflecting back on a novel once it is finished. Of all the characters in the book Rosie is the one I wish I could have described at 21 (and I think I probably have given her more "backstory" than any other character). I grew up with many Rosies, lovely girls who were fucked up by with-holding, punishing parents, who were equally fucked up by a sexist culture (and Perth's surf culture was certainly that when Rosie was young). Sex became a currency and the more sex became currency the more confused they were about it. She's also married to an alcoholic and she is also in a constant state of self-denial. She's terrified about becoming poor, really the only person in the book who has to deal with that anxiety. The biggest slap for me in the book is the one that Bilal delivers to her, "You're no good for my family, your people are no good."
I don't know what the situation is like in the UK (or I am no expert on it) but I think that there is an anxiety in Anglo-Celtic Australian communities about somehow missing the boat, somehow being excluded from contemporary multicultural society. That's the direction I was heading with her character. Maybe I needed to be tougher on her?
As for your reaction, it is interesting. Someone said the character you hate most is the one you are most like. I think it is probably too glib but I know as a reader when I feel that itch of anger and repulsion about what a character is doing I wonder if it is because they are too close to the bone.
I wish I had written a Sandi chapter now. There was a Shamira chapter in the original draft. I can only see my mistakes now, the directions I should have gone in.
withagoat: When you were writing it, did you ever think "OK, this is a bit explicit"? All that 'c*nt this' and 'c*nt that'?
Christos: It is such a contentious word, I know that. But I also knew that it is a word that I wanted to use, that there is a certain fear/apprehension about. This fear, this apprehension fascinates me as a writer. Is there a way to use the word without offence? Is it a different word when used by a female character, different again when used by a man? What of its use to describe a part of the female body? What of its use when it is a term of abuse? It is because I was scared of the word myself I wanted to use it, to think about it. If you are writer words are your tools, of course they fascinate you.
You have to understand that the success of the novel has taken me completely by surprise - a very welcome one - but a surprise nevertheless. I didn't use the word to "shock". I didn't write the novel with fantasies of being a "bestseller". I wrote the novel, in the same way I have written all my books, because I was driven to write it, to get it out. I wanted to say something about my culture, my world, to try and examine the aspects of it that confuse me and disappoint me - part of that is the silences and evasions that occur between men and women, part of that is to ask what responsibility as adults we have to young people. Does the book disturb readers? If so, good. We need to be disturbed.
withagoat: The "c*nt*" thing didn't really shock me. To be honest, in a way I thought its use was a bit sixth-form-provocative. And I loved the book.
Christos: I wonder if part of my generation's problem - I'm thinking of the men now - is that we are stuck in adolescence for so long, that we don't grow up. I detest it when I hear fifty is the new forty or forty is the new thirty. I worry we don't have a language anymore to do with maturity, to do with coming to terms with ageing, a language about honour and restraint and compassion.
I also worry about what pornography is doing to our imaginations, how it affects how we see ourselves, our partners, sex, bodies. I wanted to get some of that concern into the book. I don't like that we don't grow up, that we chase being young for so long in the contemporary world.
poppygolucky: I agree with you when you say that a new middle class is emerging here in England too, a class that is very hard to classify: unlike previous generations, it is no longer about simply wealth and occupation. So can I press you further to ask what you define as the new middle class, and how do the characters in The Slap fit in to this? Gary, for example, has middle class 'lefty' ideals but without the financial position? Harry, vice versa etc.
Christos: Now that is the kind of question that makes me wish we were across a table in a cafe with coffee in our hands. I think one of the defining aspects of this new class, in Australia at least but also I suspect in Europe, is that it no longer looks and sounds like the old "middle class", it now longer need speak the "Queen's English", it no longer means being "professional".
Another aspect of class these days is that there doesn't seem to be a sense of community and connection that I think was part of working class life when I was younger. Maybe I am romanticising it, I think that one has to always be conscious of nostalgia, but I do think that a sense of egalitarianism, at least here in Oz, has been increasingly replaced with a competitive and toxic materialism. I'll give you an example: I never used the term "loser" as a child and I tick off my nieces and nephews when they use it. They look at me as if I am crazy. That's what I wanted to get at in The Slap, this new ruthless way of understanding ourselves.
All nations tell myths about themselves. The cosmopolitan European image of Melbourne ends once you move away from the inner-city tram lines. I don't think this is dissimilar to European cities. As a tourist you tend to only see and move within the "postcard". That is why reading, listening, taking chances is so important.
constantlywrong: What is your actual stance on extended breastfeeding? In The Slap, I feel that half of the time I feel you're ridiculing it, and the other half that you're actually showing how ridiculous people's attitudes to it can be.
Christos: I don't really have a position as such on breastfeeding. I will say that one of the loveliest men I know, he is now in his mid-twenties, was breast fed till he was nearly five. His mother is one of the most wonderful human beings I know.
I think as a writer I was interested in the visceral reaction people have to breastfeeding and more than that I was interested in how critical mothers and parents could be about other mothers. I found this equally fascinating and dismaying, how harsh people could be when they themselves understood the difficulty of birth and raising children. I'm sure you have discussed it in this group, but that was the paramount question in my mind.
Tillybookclub: What was your parents' reaction to the book?
Christos: They have just read it, it was published in Greece in February and I gave them a copy at the start of March. I gave it to my mum on a Friday and I hadn't heard back by Wednesday. I was so unsettled, I thought she must hate it - you have to realise that her world is so different from mine. But on Wednesday night she rang and she was in the middle of the Manolis chapter and loving it. I was so ecstatic, both at the opportunity for her to read my words and also that she looked beyond the language, that she trusted the story. "Yeah, they're all selfish bastards," she said, "but that's the modern world."
TillyBookClub: You said in one of your earlier posts that we "need to be disturbed". Do you feel it is an essential part of the writer's role to provoke and challenge? And what childhood book most inspired you?
Christos: Not sure that there is any one "role" for a writer or an artist. The truth is that we do what we do because we love it, I do realise how fortunate I am in having my working life be my passion. But as a reader I know that so many of the books that stand out for me are the ones that have challenged me, made me reassess my opinions, the way I look at the world. I remember as a late adolescent throwing Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero against the wall because I found a version of self within its pages that I hated. But I'm glad I took it up again and confronted those fears.
poppygolucky: There is undoubtedly a perceived liberal stance on illegal drugs in the novel. I think in the UK a debate about the issue of decriminalisation etc is still very far away. However, it appears whether you view it as morally justifiable or simply wrong, recreational drug taking is a permanent fixture in society. What's your opinion on this?
Christos: When I was in Scotland last year my partner turned to me and said: "You know you are middle-aged when the PM and Deputy Leader of the UK are younger than you are!"
I mention this because I think there is a level of hypocrisy about drug use and drug trafficking and about drug commerce. I have had my share of problems with drugs, I know the consequences of drug use. I am also grateful for some of the experiences I have had on drugs, and feel like I would be a hypocrite to deny this. I am very conscious now as an uncle about how to approach the question of drugs, how to communicate information when young people ask me about them. I think one can only be honest, kids can sniff out a bullshitter - you know this as a teacher. Health is the most important issue for me, making sure they have the right information in terms of their health.
A friend of mine has been doing excellent work on the drug wars on the US-Mexico border, a situation of horrific violence and war, absolutely dismaying. He was telling me how the children of the drug lords are been trained in Business Studies at Yale and Harvard, at Cambridge.
I think treating it as a criminal issue rather than a health issue is a wrong direction.
Christos: I have to say that I have enjoyed this very much. There is something wonderful about the opportunity to have a conversation with readers. My favourite part of being at a panel is the question-and-answer period, especially when it feels like a real dialogue is beginning. This experience feels like that.
So thank you very much. I am off to have my cereal while I imagine you all are heading off to bed. Muchas, muchas gracias, Christos