He steered clear of doubt for decades. Young, he was religious as a way to avoid confronting his sexuality; older, he had Marxism, but rejected that too because of its tragic consequences. So he laughs and says it would be ludicrous for him to speak from a position of surety because he has been wrong for so many years of his life. Now he values what he calls an old anarchist position, standing on the outside.
He didn’t dive straight into 7½ with that new-found respect for doubt. In fact, he started a novel that was to be called Resentment in which he was trying to make sense of the politics of identity and the politics of outrage. It was a project doomed to be trapped in its own mire.
Tsiolkas and his partner, Wayne, were in Britain for the publication of Damascus there and then headed to Scotland – “one of our favourite places” – to celebrate their 35th anniversary. “We get to London and we’re hugging and embracing friends and going out to dinner and then in seven days there is this pandemic that is gripping the world.”
They were on the Isle of Bute when they realised that things were going to get pretty grim and scrambled to get on a flight a few days later back to Melbourne. Two days later in home quarantine Tsiolkas came to the conclusion that Resentment was “dead on the page” and began 7½, committing to write 800 words a day. It was started on March 20 and a first draft finished early October: “It became a way of creating some discipline in the madness of the pandemic and everything that was going on.“
The story about Paul that the writer is telling is one Tsiolkas has been thinking about for years. “I’ve not ever found the right form for it. If I go into my files there are screenplays, plays, short stories, a novel that I’ve started, always called Sweet Thing.
“I saw the ending as a film. He comes back from the US and he’s devastated. I didn’t know what he’d experienced there except that it had to do with family, but I had this scene that I’d directed in my head … and the song comes on and he starts crying. In a way I found myself going back from there.”
So if doubt is driving the novel, the key ingredients are the erotic, beauty and class. Everything begins with the erotic, say both the character and the author.
He writes about his earliest sense for it, observing his uncle – “I honour him for initiating me into manhood by idealising him as the perfect man” – and the smell of a fellow migrant friend of his father who lives with the family, and shows how it and they feed into his characters. It’s fascinating about the process of writing fiction and fascinating for our insights into Tsiolkas’ own life.
He is a warm man, generous with his hugs and his time, quick to smile broadly and laugh. When he discusses his work – and his life – he does so with candour and care. After his first three novels, he thought he would probably continue working part-time at a veterinary clinic and writing, but The Slap changed all that and allowed him to write full time. What he didn’t like about its huge success was the feeling that he had to create a persona. “That is absolutely why I’m not on social media and I don’t like that aspect,” he says. “I feel shamefaced about it, that notion that you’re being looked at. I think that is both a false place and it is a vain place and a vanity that can be quite destructive.”
But there are positives: “It’s actually an incredible freedom. Can you write a book like 7½ if you don’t have it? You can, but will it be published, will it be reviewed?”
A few days after our chat, Tsiolkas won the $60,000 Melbourne Prize for his body of work – seven novels, a collection of short stories, plays, film scripts and essays. I had asked him whether he would ever stop writing? “I was talking to Michelle de Kretser about this and she wondered if there were only a finite number of books in us. I can’t imagine not writing.”
He refers to Monet’s late work “where you hone your work to something so simple, and I wonder if there isn’t something worth thinking about for someone like myself in that kind of example.
“I loved David Malouf’s Ransom and there’s something to me about the simplicity in telling that story. It’s one of our great novels and really underrated. Malouf is to me someone who is an exemplar. I look up to him and go, ‘You’ve walked a path that I really respect’.”
7½ is published by Allen & Unwin.
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