He avoided doubt for decades. Young, he was religious to avoid confronting his sexuality; older, he had Marxism, but also rejected it because of its tragic consequences. So he laughs and says it would be ridiculous for him to talk about a surety position because he was wrong for so many years of his life. Now he values what he calls an old anarchist position, standing on the outside.
He did not dive directly into 7½ with this new respect for doubt. In fact, he started a novel which was to be called Bitterness in which he tried to make sense of the politics of identity and the politics of outrage. It was a project doomed to be trapped in its own quagmire.
Tsiolkas and his partner, Wayne, were in Britain for the publication of Damascus there, then to Scotland – “one of our favorite places” – to celebrate their 35th anniversary. “We get to London and we hug and kiss friends and go out to dinner, and then in seven days there’s this pandemic taking over the world.”
They were on the Isle of Bute when they realized things were going to get pretty gloomy and rushed to catch a flight a few days later to Melbourne. Two days later, in home quarantine, Tsiolkas came to the conclusion that Bitterness was “dead on the page” and started 7½, committing to write 800 words per day. It started on March 20 and a first draft ended in early October: “It became a way to create some discipline in the madness of the pandemic and everything that was going on. “
The story of Paul that the writer tells is one that Tsiolkas has been thinking about for years. “I never found the right form for this. If I go into my files there are scripts, plays, short stories, a novel that I started, always called Sweet thing.
“I saw the end like a movie. He’s coming back from the United States and he’s devastated. I didn’t know what he had been through there other than it had to do with the family, but I had this scene that I had done in my head … and the song plays and he starts crying. In a way, I found myself coming back from there.
So, if doubt drives the novel, the key ingredients are eroticism, beauty and class. It all starts with eroticism, say both the character and the author.
He writes about his first sense for it, observing his uncle – “I honor him for having introduced me to manhood by idealizing him as the perfect man” – and the scent of his father’s migrant friend. who lives with the family, and shows how that and they feed his characters. It’s fascinating for the fictional writing process and fascinating for our glimpses into Tsiolkas’ own life.
He is a warm man, generous with his hugs and his time, quick to smile widely and laugh. When he talks about his work – and his life – he does so with frankness and attention. After his first three novels, he thought he would probably continue to work part-time in a veterinary clinic and write, but Slap her changed all that and allowed him to write full time. What he didn’t like about his huge success was the feeling that he had to create a character for himself. “That’s absolutely why I’m not on social media and I don’t like that aspect,” he says. “I feel ashamed about it, this idea that you’re staring at. I think it’s both a wrong place and it’s a vain place and a vanity that can be quite destructive.
But there are positives: “It’s actually 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 revised? “
Within days of our conversation, Tsiolkas won the Melbourne Prize of $ 60,000 for his work – seven novels, a collection of short stories, plays, film scripts and essays. I asked him if he would ever stop writing? “I was talking to Michelle from Kretser and she was wondering if there was only a finite number of books in us. I can’t imagine not writing.
He refers to Monet’s late work “where you narrow your work down to something so simple, and I wonder if there isn’t something worth thinking about for someone like me in this genre.” example.
“I loved that of David Malouf Ransom and there is something to me in the simplicity of telling this story. It’s one of our great novels and really underrated. Malouf is for me someone who is exemplary. I look at him and I say to him: “You have walked a path that I really respect”.
7½ is published by Allen & Unwin.
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