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Christos Tsiolkas: Man behind The Slap

Summary

Geraldine Doogue talks life, love and religion with Christos Tsiolkas, author of the best-selling
novel The Slap, now a new ABC1 television drama. The elder son of migrants, Christos was born and
raised in Melbourne as a Greek Orthodox Christian. But as a teenager struggling with his identity
and sexuality, he briefly turned to Pentecostalism before turning away from religion
altogether. From his earliest years as a writer - social morality, beliefs, relationships and
sexuality have been recurring themes in his works. These include: the novels Loaded, The Jesus Man
and Dead Europe; and the plays Who's Afraid of the Working Class? and Dead Caucasians. The Slap,
published in 2008, became that rare literary event - an award-winning, best-seller.

Story producer: Dina Volaric

Story

Geraldine Doogue

Welcome

Christos Tsiolkas, Author

Thank you very much Geraldine

Geraldine Doogue

Glad you could be here. Christos Tsiolkas welcome to Compass

Christos Tsiolkas

Thank you

Geraldine Doogue

Good to have you in for a yarn

Christos Tsiolkas

I'm looking forward to it

Narration, Geraldine Doogue

Christos Tsiolkas is a Melbourne writer witnessing his work literally come to life on the small
screen.

His best-selling novel The Slap has been made into an eight-part television drama series now
screening on ABC1.

Filmed on location in Melbourne earlier this year the story features eight characters whose lives
are profoundly affected by a single event. The repercussions of this - a man slapping a child who
is not his own - are shattering.

As the series unfolds friends and family are forced to take sides. Beliefs are tested,
relationships strained and the morality of contemporary middle-class life in Australian is put on
trial.

Geraldine Doogue

Could you tell me what the genesis of The Slap was?

Christos Tsiolkas

I just thought, you know what, I want to write a book about contemporary life. And I also wanted to
make sense of this transformation that was happening in Australia.

It was written during the Howard years. It was written at a time when we became the richest and
fattest we've ever been. And I think we've also lost our kindness.

And then I was at my mum and dad's, and they were having a barbecue and it was a very social event.
Friends and family, lots of people, and there was a child.

Mum was cooking. She was cooking up a storm and he was in and out of the kitchen. He was playing
with the pots and pans. And at one point they just crashed down around her feet. And she literally
just with the lightest tap, like this. Just said, "Stop." And he put his hands on his hips and he
said: "No one has a right to touch my body without my permission."

You know, three and a half I think. And my mum looked at him, and he was looking up at her and it
was this, they were both astonished, really. He was astonished that she had tapped him on the bum.
She was astonished that he came out with this sentence. And she said: "If you're naughty I hit
you." And we all laughed.

It's really important to stress that there was no aggression in the act. It was a moment of
complete lightness. But this is what you do as a writer. Driving back home I just knew how to begin
the book.

Geraldine Doogue

What was it like watching the book become the miniseries?

Christos Tsiolkas

There was really early on there was a sequence being shot where the two youngest characters, who
are also, I actually do really like them. I feel very protective of them.

It's a scene where Connie reveals something to Ritchie. All the crew was around and then the scene
happened and these characters which are words, which were from my imagination, suddenly became
flesh and blood through these actors, through this whole process. And it seemed a small miracle to
me. That's what it seemed.

Geraldine Doogue

When do you think you decided to become a writer?

Christos Tsiolkas

My mum's story is that I turned to her at a tram stop when I was 10 and I said: "Mum I want to be a
writer." She laughs about it now, but she just said, "Oh, my god," she thought, "He's going to die
penniless." (laughs)

From childhood my dad you know, being Greek, had the best vegetable garden. And I remember just
lying in the middle of it, especially in summer, and create worlds. Imagine worlds.

And I started getting exercise books and writing down the stories. So I was writing from a very
very young age. It actually came from a love of words, and where I have been fortunate is that love
of words came down to me from my parents.

Both my parents grew up in a world where education was denied them because of their class, because
of being children and teenagers at a time of war in Greece.

So they were adamant that they were going to give their children an education. I think that is
something that connects migrants across the globe.

And my father would buy me books every pay day. He would just go to the newsagent, and he doesn't
read English so he would just pick up two books; whether off the bargain shelves or... It would be
Charles Dickens - I remember him getting Hard Times. It would be Mills and Boon, it would be Harold
Robbins. And I had a very eclectic, uncensored reading experience. And it was because he and my
mother just wanted me to read.

Narration

Christos' father arrived in Australia in the mid-50s. His parents met and married in Melbourne a
decade later, and Christos was born in 1965.

The elder of two boys, he was raised in inner-city Richmond.

Christos Tsiolkas

I was someone who grew up thinking Greek was the first language of Australia. So the street I lived
in was mostly Greek. I knew everyone in the street.

I was raised Greek Orthodox Christian. As a child you learn the rituals and I love the rituals and
the liturgy of the Orthodox Church.

My mum is quite religious, in fact very religious, but also can be very suspicious of the clergy.

My father, and I'm so grateful for this because I think it's been really important for my writing,
is a great storyteller. And he grew up in a rural, Balkan Greece, in a village where there were
stories about vampires. My dad removes the evil eye, for example.

I always think I had a very fortunate childhood in retrospect. There was nothing frightening, even
for all the tales of vampires and ghosts, there was really nothing frightening or terrifying in the
religion I got taught as a young child.

Adolescence coincided with a move away from the inner city environment I grew up in, which at that
time was very heavily Southern European. And I moved out to the outer suburbs where I was one of
only two Greeks in my classroom.

Narration

This move to suburban Box Hill as a teenager led to an encounter with a completely different branch
of Christianity.

Christos Tsiolkas

I guess I was lonely, really. I was lonely and I wanted a way of understanding what was happening
to me.

Geraldine Doogue

You wanted to fit in.

Christos Tsiolkas

I certainly wanted to fit in. I certainly did not want to be who I was. I was terrified. I didn't
want to be a wog and I didn't want to be a poofter. I'm talking about being 13. It's an age where
being marked out as an outsider is not, well it doesn't feel like a good thing.

I got involved with some Pentecostal Christians.

I think realising that I was homosexual, that I had these feelings that I didn't know what to do
with and how to express. Somehow I did ingest that idea of sin. That what I was, what I was
feeling, what I was expressing was truly awful, truly evil.

And around 15 I turned away very, very sharply from religion. I thought, "I don't want to have
anything to do with religion, because this is its cost."

And so it was a very, very dark time, but what I did, is I read the bible and I started reading
commentaries on the bible and I started reading, going to the library and trying to understand this
experience.

I had a great teacher at high school who was Czech and he opened up the world of literature to me.

Narration

The love of literature led Christos to study Arts at Melbourne University. In 1988 he edited the
university newspaper, Farrago, and continued to develop his philosophy of life.

Christos Tsiolkas

I gave up God and I gave up the Christian faith at 15, but I didn't give up faith. What it got
replaced with was a faith in Communism, with politics, the idea that humans could make heaven on
earth, really.

I still have sympathy to Socialism. I still consider myself that. But I had to deal with a second
trauma, or failure of faith, which was that these human made systems not only often didn't work but
they left this horrific tragedy in their wake.

Narration

In his late twenties Christos re-encountered religion when he found himself inside a local but
unfamiliar church.

Christos Tsiolkas

I was very, very unhappy. I was not in a good place at all. And I was working in the city here in
Melbourne and it wasn't an Orthodox Church, it was a Catholic Church across the road from where I
was working. And I went in one lunch time and just sat on the pew, and my body immediately fell
into the motion of prayer. And I had not allowed myself, I had not allowed myself to pray for
years. And I just found that release and that comfort that I think I was seeking at the time.

I'm still battling to understand faith. But I no longer run away from it the way I did for those
early years.

Do I believe in god? I don't know. I am truly agnostic. Sometimes I think I may be I'm a deist.

Geraldine Doogue

Which you take to be what?

Christos Tsiolkas

I don't think God is human. I don't think we are made in that.

Geraldine Doogue

Just like a metaphor?

Christos Tsiolkas

A metaphor. I think there is not an interventionist god.

Geraldine Doogue

You have described yourself as a secular humanist or as a free-thinker. Now which of those do you
prefer?

Christos Tsiolkas

I really do like free-thinker. In fact that's how I would like to describe myself. I think there is
something in that word that is. It's inquisitive, it's saying you are still...

Geraldine Doogue

...searching

Christos Tsiolkas

Searching and still awaiting discovery. I like that.

Geraldine Doogue

You've spoken out against aggressive atheism as well. Why?

Christos Tsiolkas

Though I have sympathy and understanding for what the atheist position is, contemporary atheism
seems to not understand mystery, which seems to not understand that human beings are not reducible
to just the material.

An atheist will say, "Look, there is no meaning, there is no god, you make your own meaning." I
understand that clearly. And as I said, I have sympathy for that point of view. But an atheist
can't make sense of that experience I had in that Catholic church in my late '20s.

If atheism is to say, "No, prayer isn't important. Prayer doesn't matter." then what are you
offering in its place?

Geraldine Doogue

Is there a difference between an atheist and a free-thinker?

Christos Tsiolkas

Well for me what I like about the notion of the free-thinker is that you are still open to the
challenge of god. Really in my life I'm an atheist really. Even then as I said that, I'll touch
wood. I do pray.

That may sound strange because what am I praying to? I'm praying to a sense that I'm not
omnipotent. I'm praying to a sense that I'm not the centre of this, of my life in the world. And I
actually think that experience is quite healthy.

I was very fortunate a year ago to work on an exhibition of a friend of mine, Zoe Ali. She's a
photographer and we have worked together for years combining text and image. We did an exhibition
here in Melbourne for the City of Melbourne on places of worship in Melbourne.

I was doing a lot of reading of contemporary theology, not only Christian, across the faiths. And I
came across the free thinkers and I thought, "That's what I am" or "That's what I would like to
be."

Narration

Examining what it means to live in our modern society links much of Christos' work from his
earliest years as a published writer.

Christos Tsiolkas, archive 1995

I don't actually identify as a dirty realist as much as I identify as somebody who is very
interested in questions of identity and culture.

Narration

Since the mid 1990s Christos has written novels, plays, screenplays and essays, always turning a
critical eye on our social mores, including sex.

Christos Tsiolkas, archive

He was now aware of only one thing - he wanted sex with a stranger. The thought of disappearing in
sex was so delicious, he shivered as he handed over the money.

Geraldine Doogue

There's a lot about sex in your books.

Christos Tsiolkas

Sex is part of - I mean...

Geraldine Doogue

There's an awful lot about sex in your books. Why did you see the need to put such an emphasis on
it?

Christos Tsiolkas

Because I think partly because in my experience sex has played such a crucial role. Sex and
sexuality, and through that gender, has played such a crucial role in forming my consciousness.

As I said what I got from the Greek world more than anything was that struggle between masculinity
and sexuality. From a very early age.

I'm someone who's been in a relationship now 26 years. The battle between fidelity, love,
commitment, those questions, they don't go away. And sexual desire, the way sexuality and sex can
be some of the most thrilling and exciting moments of life and the way they can also be the most
hurtful. It is a great subject.

Narration

Christos' latest and most successful novel The Slap is also about sex and men, women and their
relationships.

Christos Tsiolkas

I was 40 when I started writing The Slap. A lot of my friends had, as is indicative of my
generation, had started having children quite late. I couldn't believe how tough parents were on
other parents.

Geraldine Doogue

Judgemental.

Christos Tsiolkas

Very, very judgemental. That was something I thought about in the writing of it. But really most
parents I know they're doing a terrific job, really.

The fathers have a much more intimate relationship with their children than my father's generation
did. I think they are really looking after their kids. I didn't understand why they were so tough
on each other.

Geraldine Doogue

So, are most of the characters searching for a new moral compass?

Christos Tsiolkas

I think certainly most of the characters, with the exception of the old Greek man, possibly but
even there, are rudderless.

Geraldine Doogue

Rudderless?

Christos Tsiolkas

Yeah. They are morally at sea. And again with the exception I think, of the old man and the younger
kids, they also have an incredible sense of entitlement, which I think is a generational change.

In writing The Slap, it seems to me for the novel to work I had to be really honest with myself.
The betrayals, the disloyalties, the lack of courage, the moral prevarication that has occurred in
my life and that I think is part of negotiating the contemporary world. I'm part of that and I
think I'm probably very hard on these characters because I know them so well. And I think we are,
my generation is guilty of a failure to be humble. A failure to examine itself.

Geraldine Doogue

Lack of humility?

Christos Tsiolkas

A complete lack of humility and an incredible self-righteousness.

When people have said, "Oh, I don't like your characters in The Slap. They're so selfish." It's
like, "Have you read John Updike? Oh my God, have you read The Illiad?" Moral absolutes, moral
certainties, moral, we live in moral confusion. That's what I'm writing about.

Geraldine Doogue

Which character do you like best in The Slap?

Christos Tsiolkas

Manolis.

Geraldine Doogue

The old Greek man?

Christos Tsiolkas

The old Greek man, yes.

Because he reminds me of my father. Because he has a sense of honour and I didn't find for a long
time, I didn't think that honour was an important thing. I thought it was an old-fashioned,
traditional, conservative value.

But I think I actually was running away from the very word itself. And I think honour is also about
acknowledging your fortune.

Felicity Davies, Newsreader, ABC News

The author of a book that takes a new look at Australian society has won this year's Commonwealth
Writers Prize announced last night in Auckland.

Man announcing prizewinner

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (applause)

Narration

The Slap was published in 2008 and has since become that rare occurrence: an award-winning
bestseller.

Christos Tsiolkas, receiving Commonwealth Writers Prize

There is no competition in art. That is a mistake.

Geraldine Doogue

Why do you think it's become so big, such a hit?

Christos Tsiolkas

You can only second-guess those things I think. And I think maybe the last person who can give an
adequate response is the writer.

In Australia we're very used to saying we're all middle class, which I don't think is true at all.
The middle class when I was a little boy did not include Greeks and Italians and Vietnamese. Now it
does. Okay, so what does that do to the middle class? How has it changed? What are the values now?
How did a country that I think wasn't as selfish when I was growing up become so selfish now?

Geraldine Doogue

A lot of your writing is about code setting, it seems to me. What is an ideal code to live by?

Christos Tsiolkas

I'm still searching for that one. That will be part of the ongoing journey. This is where I think
history, you can't outrun it, so I am also a product of my history.

I think there is something of incredible value in Christianity, that even at the moment of my most
furious anger at it, you know, when I literally did turn my back to any engagement with even the
philosophy of Christianity. The notion of turning the other cheek that is incredibly important and
inspiring for me as a way of a code

I've been thinking about this so much lately. What was the first story that I responded to, really
responded to in the bible? And I remember thinking about it for days. Like was a story of, "He who
was without sin cast the first stone," and the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. That
is an incredible story.

For someone who has grown up in a migrant patriarchal world, here is a prostitute defended by Jesus
Christ. I mean that's the simple terms I heard when I was 7 or 8. And, obviously now my
relationship to that story has gone through a whole history, but I think there is something
powerful in that Christian message that has played a part in forming my ethics.

And I think I don't want to discard that essence of that, let me call it a philosophy, of my
approach to the world, and that's probably where I'm prepared to engage with atheists to talk about
how important that moral tradition has been in forming what is I think best in our culture.

Geraldine Doogue

And if you had children would you seek to hand it on? Would you absorb them in Christian education,
in the business of building up this tradition?

Christos Tsiolkas

For my godson's baptism I gave him a box of books, and it was the Bible, it was the Koran, it was a
book about Buddhist philosophy and the Communist manifesto. I wish, I wish now that I had had a
greater understanding of other religions when I was growing up. And I'm someone who, I think ethics
and values needs to be taught.

Two things, you know, if I ruled the world for a day would be, ethics and values needs to be taught
from the earliest age in schools. And the second thing would be philosophy.

Geraldine Doogue

Why?

Christos Tsiolkas

Because it teaches you how to think. It teaches you about logic. It teaches you that there are
questions that have been asked for millennia and that there are foundations to why I, Christos
Tsiolkas, have the beliefs I have today.

And it also teaches you about argument. I don't think that we're very good at argument in
Australia. I think we fear argument and we think argument means that you need to be aggressive or
it means you need to dominate the other, or you need to, you know, I think, I think philosophy
would teach argument.

Geraldine Doogue

So if I asked you, what would an ideal Australia look like for your generation?

Christos Tsiolkas

It would certainly be an Australia that would be much more thankful. I'm going to speak really
plainly:

You know what I would say, I would say, "Stop bloody whinging. Stop complaining. Stop wanting more.
Stop thinking it's all about the frigging plasma screen and stop thinking that a few thousand boat
people is going to do anything to change what you have." I will say that's what I would want for
Australia.

I think we have become, as I said really at the beginning, we have lost kindness. You know,
that's...

Geraldine Doogue

...your ultimate verdict.

Christos Tsiolkas

It is.

Geraldine Doogue

Christos Tsiolkas, thank you very much indeed.

Christos Tsiolkas

Thank you. It's been a pleasure.