Interviewing the Stars: Christos Tsiolkas


Just after I interviewed Omar Musa at the West Writers Our Stories Forum, I had the opportunity to speak with Christos Tsiolkas, one of the headline names at the event. Rather than meeting the intimidating figure I expected because of his fame, Christos Tsiolkas chatted with me like I was just another cousin at a relative gathering.

Elena: So, when you were growing up, what was your favourite story?

Christos Tsiolkas: Good question.

So you’re talking about as a little boy. I used to love the story of the ancient Greek myths because I come from a Greek background so the myths were just part of my life. Remember I was always attracted to the story of Persephone who was taken down to Hades and her mother created winter, she was so distraught, the gods said go down to Hades but she needed six pomegranate seeds and that’s why we have winter. Now, I loved that story as a little boy because I felt the grief of a mother and that idea of being taken and I think that it is such a childish nightmare. So I could see myself as Persephone. As I grew a bit older I’d have to say my favourite novel as an early teenager was a novel by Carson McCullers, a woman from the United States; she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. That book was the first book that made me think about being a writer, I liked it so much, how it transported me to such a completely different world.

E: How old were you when you started writing?

CT: Look, I’d been writing, in a strange way, since I was a little boy. When I was a little boy, I had all these exercise books that I make stories in. Like we’re talking really, really young. I said at a workshop, I have no memory of this but my mum remembers it quite vividly. When I was ten, I turned around to her at a train station and said “I’m going to be a writer when I grow up” and her first reaction was “he’s going to die in poverty.” So I have been writing for a long time. For me, as I said in the workshop, it was the moment when to be happy I knew I had to commit to writing that I first truly became a writer. It was about having to say: well look, and trying to arrange my life and trying to live with less, just so I could do the thing I love doing. You need to make that decision.

E: So for you, what actually makes a story good? Not just in terms of your own writing, but also in terms of what you read?

CT: Look, I think it’s always… In a way, stories get told again and again and again. So I think what makes a story good is that you are able to hear a voice through the writing that you have never heard before. So when you just pick up a book and they may be writing the simplest story in the world. The one you’ve heard countless times. If it’s a new way of writing it, that’s a great moment like hurrah. This is like I am reading it for the first time. So there are great stories and what they say about stories is that there are only eight stories and they’re retelling them. And so for me, it’s definitely the voice.

E: So what’s your favourite story right now? Do you have a favourite?

CT: Favourite story? Book? The reason I’m hesitating is because the last year I have only been reading ancient work, exploring something I want to write. So in a strange way, I will say the first thing that comes into my head and after a long period of not reading them, I reread the Bible. And I love the story of Job. He’s a character in the Hebrew bible and it is a story that was written maybe four thousand, three thousand years ago and it’s a story about a man who tries to understand why there is so much suffering in the world and what I love about it is that, even with the passing of so many years, it still speaks to me like hearing it for the first time. So that’s my favourite story at the moment.

E: Have you ever come across books that you wish you had read when you were younger?

CT: Oh yeah, look. Sometimes I think, when I look back at earlier work, “If only I had read this work when I was younger” when I realise that someone has tried to tell the same story but in a much better way. I think in a way for me, because of my background, there are some of the great Greek novels I wish I had read. It would have given me… there are two things it would have given me: one was a greater appreciation of a contemporary Greek culture and two it would have made me realise that actually they don’t write in English. I’m an English writer but I have also got a heritage that is from somewhere else.

I remember years ago a friend writing to me from Athens, saying, ‘When I read your books they sound Greek; even though they’re in English, they sound Greek.’ So I think if I’d had that experience I would have discovered something about my own writing and my own self as a writer earlier.

The other thing, and this is very recently – about five or six years ago – I was very lucky to go to Japan and I have started reading a lot of Japanese literature. I have always loved Japanese film from a very young age but I hadn’t read a lot of Japanese literature. And it has become one of my favourite literatures to read because there is something exquisite about the craft of the Japanese writers. And it may be because it is part of a whole different heritage and tradition. Again, I think if I had read some of these books earlier – Monkeola sisters is the one I am thinking of. If I had read them earlier, it would have but me on a better direction as a writer a little bit earlier.

E: Do you have any books that you would recommend?

CT: Have you got enough time? Look, I think that’s the hardest question in the world, there are so many books that I love. Let’s narrow it down. You’re writing for a student paper?

E: I’m doing Level 87 Book Club so mainly young-adult stuff…

CT: I would certainly say that Omar Musa must be read. So I’ll say that. I think there is – this is such a good question and I’m just going blab, blab, blab. I would recommend Omar’s book without any hesitations. I would actually say that it’s because I discovered it late and it’s another book that I should have discovered earlier. There is a great, under-appreciated Australian writer from the early part of the twentieth century called Randolph Stow and he has written one of my favourite books about being a young person and it is just beautiful, exquisite work called The Merry Go Round in the Sea. I really recommend that. Just because I said it, please, please read Azinaki’s The Makioka Sisters, the Japanese novel.

E: Do you have any other Japanese writers you’d recommend?

CT: The Tales of a Genie. They’re like the Greek myths but for the Japanese. So they’re beautiful stories. The other thing I’d recommend and this is for writers who are reading, you know, to read Homer’s Odyssey. I think it’s still one of the great books, books of adventure. Yes, so that would be my recommendation: Tales of a Genie, the Japanese one. There are so many, I kid you not, but they’re the ones that come immediately to mind.

I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with both authors (even though I spent half of the time wondering if I turned the recording on). It is hard to articulate exactly why I enjoyed talking with them so much, so I will steal the words of another volunteer who described Christos Tsiolkas as a “genuinely interesting and interested person”; the same can be said of Omar Musa.

Elena Demosthenous is a seventeen-year-old student who likes reading, hanging out at 100 Story Building and speaking about herself in the third person.

Image by Rachel Main 2014, courtesy of Footscray Community Arts Centre