OCTOBER: Christos Tsiolkas

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Christos is the author of six books, including Loaded, which was made into the feature film Head-On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998). His second novel, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize and the 2006 Melbourne Best Writing Award. For The Slap, his third book, he won Overall Best Book in the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2009 and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. The book was shortlisted for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award and longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. The Slap has been adapted twice for television—first in Australia for ABC and then in the USA for NBC.

Christos, who is Writers Victoria patron, published his novel Barracuda in 2013 to great critical acclaim. His short story collection Merciless Gods was shortlisted for the Voss Literary Award 2015 and won the University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award 2015. His latest book, Damascus, was released by Allen & Unwin on 28 October 2019.

 

You’re on the record as saying that your involvement with Writers Victoria helped you as a writer. Tell us about that involvement. Did you sign up as a member? Do a workshop? Work with a mentor? Get a manuscript assessment?

I did sign up as a member but was initially a little anxious about putting my hand up for the workshops and mentorship programs. I think I had that dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, that doubting of self that is one of the first things you have to learn to deal with when you are serious about committing to writing (or to any art practice).

My parents were great storytellers, and their encouragement of my reading was the first important step that put me on the path to being a writer. But I didn't grow up in a world where the idea of making writing a career was ever offered as a possibility. I still remember my first time at Writers Victoria—which was then known as the Victorian Writers Centre. I was so very nervous, I asked at the front counter if I could have some information on memberships.

The young person asked, ‘Are you a writer?’  I answered, ‘I want to be.’ I thought that I would be sent away and asked to return when I was ‘really’ a writer. But she smiled and explained all the resources available through the Centre.

That the people there took my desire to be a writer in good faith was an important moment. It made me realise that it was okay to be a beginner. So, the Centre became more of a drop-in place for me, a place to read, write, to hear about talks and conversations that were happening in my city. Of course, I realise now, I should have taken more advantage of the opportunities the Centre was offering, but it is only a very mild regret. That good faith extended to this young man dreaming of writing was what I needed at that time.

 

What difference did this experience make to you and your writing?

It emboldened me. It also introduced me to other writers who spoke to me about events and readings that were occurring. I wasn't completely ‘green’. I had been to university and was a vociferous reader; I adored film and was a member of the Cinematheque. I don't believe there is a distinct border between the arts. I learned as much about the craft of storytellers from filmmakers, playwrights and poets as I did from prose writers.

But what I did access through the Centre was information on magazines and competitions to send my first tentative attempts at short stories. That was crucial to my learning about being a writer. That meant making my work public, having to learn how to deal with rejection, learning that you need to go back and draft and draft and draft again. It was from the Centre I learned of a group of writers from immigrant background who were working in Sydney. I sent some stories to them and got back a response from George Papaellinas, who was honest and direct but also encouraging. He thought some stories were okay, some weren't but he liked the voice he heard in my writing. These connections are essential—as is learning to deal with criticism and the bruising that can cause. It is these connections that seem impossible when you are starting out, or when you don't come from a world of money and status. The term ‘networking’ doesn't do it justice. It is about having access to people who will hear your individual voice, and every writer must have an individual voice. That is what those hours in the Centre gave me: finding my way to people who took a punt on listening to my voice.

 

What kind or support or resources are most helpful to you as a writer?

A good library. First and foremost: use the library at Writers Vic, use the State Library, use your local library, use your school and university library. Ask your friends and family for books on your birthdays and for the holidays. 

Hopefully, you will also find fellow writers who are true friends, and who don't piss in your pocket but who respond to your work critically and always with encouragement. Writers who are friends who take your work and commitment in good faith. And it has to be reciprocal: you have to do the same for them. When I first started out, I was lucky to meet the writer Sasha Soldatow, who became a mentor for me. It was never an official ‘mentorship’ but his generosity and encouragement was essential in teaching me about the labour of writing. But it is hard to be both mentor and friend at the same time—and it was hard for me and hard for Sasha.

In retrospect I wish I had applied for a mentorship program through the Centre; it's hard when boundaries get blurred. I am happy to be an ad hoc mentor for people whose work I admire or whose voice I want to be heard but I am clear now that a mentorship role has to be ‘professional’. That doesn't mean that there isn't warmth there or that a friendship can't develop but I think it works best when the roles are clearly defined.

But the most important resource for a writer is reading. Widely and across genres and forms. And sometimes against fashion. I mean by that trust the writers that inspired you in the first place; always be open to the new, but don't betray your instincts in doing that.

 

Based on your own experience, what advice do you have for aspiring and emerging writers about engaging with their local writers’ centre?

Don't be as shy as I was about engaging with the mentorship opportunities or the workshops available to you as a member of Writers Victoria.

When it comes to the workshops, it may not be the person delivering it who makes the biggest impression but a fellow writer you meet there. And it gives you the opportunity to have your writing read by people who are not friends or family, who don't know you. You have to learn to trust the work to a stranger. This is one way of doing it.

I think making time to leaf through Writers Victoria magazine, The Victorian Writer, is an activity worth doing. I am from a generation that needs the print copy but if you can do your ‘leafing’ on-line then by all means do that. But I always make time when the magazine arrives in the mail to sit down for a good half-hour or an hour, over a coffee, and read through the insights, stories and information that is contained there. It's a great resource. 

And don't be afraid of using the space if you can access the Centre. Conversations will begin. Maybe at first, they will be tentative. But then they will become more friendly. You'll hear about a short story competition or a writers’ group in your area or an event at a bookshop across town. We are members. It is OUR space. Don't be afraid to use it.
 

Anything you’d like to add?

There is no one correct way of being a writer, not one sure path. But when I began, I was overwhelmed by how I was going to translate the dream I had about writing a book to reality: how on earth was it going to happen? I eventually found my own way but I needed the advice and mentorship and encouragement of fellow writers. And that included learning—or instinctually gleaning—what wasn't going to work for me. 

Do you want to write? Then I trust you when you say it to me.  I can't promise you it will be easy, or that it will work out like the dream in your head. But you are NOT an imposter.