An edited version of this interview appeared in Monster Children Issue 50, 2016.
Christos was a great writer for years, but he had to pen The Slap, a story about someone belting an irritating kid in the mouth at a barbecue before the mainstream really sat up and took notice. Since then he’s been peddling his delicious filth in books like Barracuda and Merciless Gods, both of which are the kind of awesome, dirty, subversive takes on Australian life this just-turned-50 Greek whippersnapper excels in.
After reading Barracuda, I’m guessing you’re a decent swimmer.
A good but careful one. I always loved swimming in Greece, because you can go out for miles and it’s safe, the Aegean, whereas you have to be cautious in Australia.
Otherwise you’ll die. Like the former Prime Minister. They’d name a beach after you.
I don’t know about a beach. Maybe a public toilet.
The Christos Tsiolkas Memorial Toilet Block.
Bog, yeah. Ha ha. It’s good to be remembered. So did you always want to do a swimming book?
It’s not that I wanted to do a swimming book, but I went through a weird period after The Slap of being unsure what I wanted to do next, and I’d never had that before. I wanted to do something about class, that was my first thought, nothing more concrete than that. Just because it was something that had transformed in my own personal life with the success of The Slap. When I was young I loved The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the Alan Sillitoe book?
God, I loved that book.
And that’s so much about class. So I wanted to write about a sportsperson, and it had to be an individual sport, and I do know swimming. And water—it goes to that question about who we are and what it means to be Australian. The thing about this country is the bush doesn’t feel mine. And I don’t have a problem with that. It doesn’t belong to us. But the coast? That’s linked more closely to my Australian identity. When I’m away, what do I miss? The ocean.
I was in the forest up in the Grampians last weekend. It’s definitely not mine.
I love how you call it the forest.
Well, it’s not the jungle.
It’s the bush, Chris.
I struggle with that term. It means something else in Ireland. Quick, into the bush! Yeah, give me a minute, love.
There is a sexual fear of ‘the bush’ in Australia, so I’m only half teasing.
The ocean in Ireland is ball freezing. Australia is Paradise for me.
I lasted 20 seconds in the sea in Scotland. But yeah, because my main link to Europe is Greece, it’s impossible for me to not feel thankful for what I have here.
I love Greece, and it fucks me off when I hear casual racism against the Greeks.
That they’re lazy, they don’t pay tax, they deserve the economic crisis somehow. There’s so much to say about that. Western Europe and Southern Europe seem so very different. At the beginning, you could go to London and people had no idea what was happening in Greece. The whole European project seemed suspicious to me then. Stereotypes about Eastern and Southern Europeans are deeply entrenched.
Just go to Athens and see how fucked it is for the ordinary Joe.
They never go to Athens, though. It is so rare that I talk to someone from Western Europe who has visited Greece and who’s spent more than a night in Athens. It’s just a stopover point to get to the islands. As someone who has family and friends there I find it frustrating that, particularly in the cities, the economy has stopped. There is huge dysfunction and it’s actually credit to the Greeks that they haven’t fallen more apart. The first time I went to Europe as a young man, I was in the UK at the height of Thatcherism. I was shocked at the homelessness and savagery, but amongst progressives here there was never anyone who said it was the fault of an indulged working class. I don’t understand why sympathy is not being extended to the Greeks. Most people here have someone Greek in their life.
Ireland and Greece colonised the world, and nobody really noticed.
The Irish, the Chinese, the Jews and the Greeks all did it. You can be travelling in the most obscure place and you’ll come across a Greek running a café.
He didn’t have to fire a shot, either.
That’s a huge conversation that we’re often scared to have, about how successful these peoples have been in transplanting their culture elsewhere while also successfully integrating. Is it that these cultures are pre-post-colonialism? And yeah, we didn’t need guns. We were running away from the guns.
It pleased me when you started getting your due because at least we were getting books about contemporary Australia rather than some crap romanticised historical version.
What is that about? Is it the tyranny of writing in the English language? Why is London still the centre of the Australian world? It’s outrageous to me. Literature is still very white, very vanilla, in a variety of ways, always with exceptions. We have too much unresolved history, so it doesn’t surprise me in a way that people keep scratching at the wounds. But most of the voices we hear are still Anglo-Celtic.
Has it made you want to kick back? Barracuda felt like you were having a go at some of the new white middle class readers you picked up after The Slap.
There were two choices at the beginning. The first was to approach the next book from a purely mercenary point of view, and do The Slap 2.
The Slap 2? Ha ha, I never even thought of that. What would you call it—Slappier?
Happy Slappy People, I don’t know, whatever. Very clearly that was not a choice I was going to make. And then the second approach was to go really fucking ugly and unreadable, so Barracuda was the right thing to do. In a way it felt like I was going back to Loaded, back to my roots, if you like.
When I left the UK to come here, the guy who picked up my Sky TV set top box thought my housemate and I were gay because we said we were moving to Australia.
Because that’s where all the poofters went?
I guess. After he left I thought, wait—is Australia a really gay country? What about Crocodile Dundee?
Crocodile Dundee is pretty gay. There’s a lot of homoerotic repression at work in that film. Attitudes regarding sex are one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. When I first started having sex it was illegal. Then HIV was another difficult negotiation in sexuality. But what has happened since then is astonishing. Same-sex marriage has never been on my radar and I still don’t know how I feel about that, but my nieces and nephews think I’m a dinosaur. For them it’s as integral to forming their values as the asylum seeker debate. It’s an issue that blindsided both the left and right. You’ve got extreme right wing people now saying you can do what you want. We just don’t want you to marry. Everything goes. Just don’t sign that bit of paper!