i'm tired of the novel being timid
Christos Tsiolkas, author of the Booker long-listed novel The Slap, is not at all what you might expect. His hair is short, neat and slicked back at the sides. He wears a black military-style shirt with its sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He is intensely polite and soft-spoken (although an explosive, booming laugh suggests a fun foil to his more serious side).
When we meet, it's been a rough week for The Slap, which had been condemned by some writers as misogynistic (India Knight wrote "Raoul Moat would have gulped it down at one sitting"). The Slap has also been called a "masterpiece" and "Neighbours as Philip Roth might have written it".
He is vaguely irritated but unruffled by the accusation of misogyny. "I think to close down your reaction to what I'm writing by throwing about a term like that says something about a reality that you've seen in the book that you don't want to face. I'm really, really tired of the English language novel being so timid. I want tougher novels."
Tsiolkas's novel is nothing if not tough. It tells the story of a group of friends at a barbecue and takes the slap of the title as its starting point, when a man hits a boy who is not his son. It forces the reader to face all sorts of uncomfortable truths about racism, sexism, generational differences, but most of all the kind of unpleasantness that most of us are capable of.
"I have done very shameful things, I have made mistakes, I have made betrayals," Tsiolkas says plainly. "To stand outside as a writer and pretend that I am above the characters I'm writing about felt like an enormous falsity. It's a really difficult world to make really black and white distinctions about behaviours and rights and wrongs. By the end of the book I wanted you to completely have changed your opinions or reflections on what had happened at that barbecue and who this man was and who this woman is. That was really important for me because that's the kind of questioning that is part of my life now."
The Slap is in many ways an attack on our PC culture. "I understand completely why we have to be careful about language. We have a multiplicity of religions, ethnicities, subcultures, there has to be a civility that comes into urban life and being reminded of that is not a bad thing. But to pretend that there aren't also tensions, to pretend that we don't make mistakes, to pretend that navigating the world at the moment is not a complicated thing, that's what I don't like about PC culture. It actually feels like it has repressed certain realities and made us dishonest about the way we communicated with each other."
Tsiolkas has spent the last three months as a writer in residence off the west coast of Scotland and at this point he says he's feeling "a little homesick and a little lovesick". He hasn't seen Wayne, his partner of 25 years, for six weeks. (They met in college when they were 19 and have been together ever since.) "He's a cartographer. The last few years he's been mapping Aboriginal heritage in sacred areas."
As for the Booker nomination he is not letting it go to his head. After all, The Slap was already a bestseller and had won the Commonwealth writers' prize by the time the Booker judges picked it up.
Tsiolkas is the son of Greek immigrants and says the best part of being nominated is the pride -- and relief -- it offers his family.
"Particularly my parents, who for a long time have been very apprehensive about what I do and, not unlike the majority of migrants, they worry about the security of their children and even though I'm 44 they still worry. And there's now a sense they can let go of that. 'Christos is doing all right.'"
The Slap is published by Tusker Rock