‘This is a novel about how to be a good man’
What happens when a champion athlete fails? The writer Christos Tsiolkas, author of ‘The Slap’ and, now, ‘Barracuda’, has some intriguing ideas
Christos Tsiolkas: “It’s not about the golden boys.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The last time we met, Christos Tsiolkas was in the middle of a publicity maelstrom. His fourth novel, The Slap, had just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was outselling the other nominees. Its content – misogyny, racism, violence – provoked debate and propelled its author into the spotlight.
The Slap used multiple viewpoints from an ensemble cast to tell a multicultural story. The Australian’s latest novel, Barracuda, homes in on one man. Danny Kelly is a working-class boy and a champion swimmer who has set his sights on the Sydney Olympics, but Tsiolkas avoids a Hollywood version of the story. “I didn’t want to do the ‘happy ever after’ where the poor kid makes it, because that’s not the reality for most people. It’s not faithful to most of our lives, so I didn’t want the reader to ask, ‘Does Danny become an Olympic hero?’ Right from the first chapter we know that he doesn’t. The more interesting question to me is what happens when you don’t achieve your dream.”
Born to working-class immigrant Greek parents, Tsiolkas had his own dreams about going to college – he was the first in his family to do so – and becoming a writer. His novels – Barracuda is his sixth – have explored not just ethnicity and race but also class and wealth.
As we talk, in a chic suburban hotel, members of a bulky, smiling rugby team saunter by in training gear. Like a walking metaphor for Danny’s story in Barracuda, they epitomise what Tsiolkas says – initially, anyway – about sport: it’s tough, it’s extremely competitive and you have to love it to succeed.
“Sport is still an area where there are huge disparities of wealth. When I was working on the book I interviewed Lisa Forrest [who captained Australia’s swimming team at the 1980 Olympics], and she came from a really working-class background. From the start her family were very supportive of her decision to be a professional swimmer, but they also told her, ‘Our lives cannot be dominated by this. Your siblings are equally important.’ ”
For sportsmen and women there is a very non-public graft, plus elevated physical expectations. “No one sees all the hours spent training, getting up early, limiting your diet. One of the things that isn’t talked about is that for a lot of athletes, when their body gives out at the end of their career, a gold medal just isn’t enough. This book was never going to be about the achievers, the golden boys.”
Tsiolkas frequently compares swimming with writing, and he believes both have the same central dangers: envy and competition. “The reality of writing is that it isn’t like doing a 1,500m freestyle. You can’t throw books in the water, let them swim and see which one is the fastest. So how can you compare different kinds of work? And for someone – a swimmer, or a writer – to only live for the cheering and affirmation is dangerous. When I was 23 I thought that, to be a ‘great’ artist, nothing mattered more than the work you do. If that’s the truth, I’d prefer to just be a ‘good’ artist. My relationship, my family matter more to me than the work . . . and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the success of The Slap.”
That success means Tsiolkas spends long periods away. He misses Wayne van der Stelt, his partner of 28 years, but the distance from his home country gives him a chance to examine its flaws. In Barracuda a character called Marguerita declares, “We are all parochial and narrow-minded, racist and ungenerous, we occupy this land illegitimately.” Does Tsiolkas share this bleak view of the contemporary Australian mindset?
“Yes, that’s how I feel about my country at times. I think we’re still trying to come to terms with the legacy of being a colonial settler. How do we acknowledge and honour the violence against the indigenous people? Australia is still very much an outpost, far from everywhere, so that push-pull is constant. At my most optimistic I feel Australia is still in the process of defining itself. At my most pessimistic I feel we keep making the same mistakes and going backwards.”
If class and race are intrinsic to his work, so is sexuality. In The Slap it was brutal and misogynistic and came from a deeply macho place. In Barracuda Tsiolkas’s protagonist struggles with his outsider status as working class and second-generation immigrant; he is also gay. Danny, who racks up numerous identities in the book – Dino, Dan, Barracuda – is a teenager when we meet him, but Tsiolkas resisted the urge to give him a coming-out story. Deciding to omit it was one thing, but he initially wavered about even writing a gay character.
“I asked myself if I should do something that’s deliberately queer and in your face, or write something that has nothing to do with that world. I was aware I was addressing readers who had found my work through The Slap, but it was all about Danny’s voice. When I was writing him in Scotland I realised he was homosexual, so I knew I had to just trust that. I didn’t give him a coming-out scene because it’s so difficult to make that moment different. We’re so used to it, it’s what you expect. I wanted to let the reader fill in the gaps.”
Tsiolkas is keen to point out that this is not a book about sport, or ethnicity, or sexuality. He wanted to write a book about failure – specifically, an immense failure of character – and how you come back from that. Yes, Danny doesn’t fulfil his dream, but the events and supporting characters underpin the book’s intense narrative.
“When I started the book I wrote down the words ‘This is a novel about how to be a good man,’ and even though I was scared that it might sound cliched I knew that’s what Barracuda was about.”