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There is a mystique to the writer, particularly the novelist, and most of it is a cliché. The commonly imagined (dreamed) scene is this: sitting at an oversized antique desk, an expensive, preferably French bottle of red wine or an exquisite whiskey to one side, a clunky old typewriter waiting for the next masterpiece to appear, one that will put the author on planes and flown around the world and plonked in front of adoring festival audiences, long lines of readers waiting for an autograph. Of course, the reality is much less glamorous: years spent trying to wrestle a manuscript to the ground, with only a flickering hope that the book will see the light of day and find a readership. Industry surveys suggest we are reading less, especially less literary fiction. So most writers will ask themselves: why am I doing this?

George Orwell wrote ‘Why I Write’ in 1946, as the world was beginning the slow process of rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War. In it, he gave four reasons for why he wrote: ‘sheer egotism’ (a need to seem clever), ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ (perceptions of beauty), ‘historical impulse’ (a desire to document facts), and ‘political purpose’. Of the latter, Orwell claims:

When I sit down to write a book, I don’t say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write because there is some lie I want to expose, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.’

One of Australia’s most political writers of recent generations is Christos Tsiolkas. Born in Melbourne in 1965, Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants; he is also gay and identifies as a socialist as well as an atheist. Despite, or because of, the conservatism that has been a part of Australia’s political landscape since John Howard came to power in 1996, shaping the way the nation operates, particularly in terms of economic policy and international relations (that is, an appalling treatment of those seeking asylum), Tsiolkas has had one of the rarest experiences in Australian letters: a literary career that is commercially successful while – in the main – being critically lauded. He is the author of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, and essays of criticism covering art forms such as film and music. Even though widely regarded to be fearless writer, Tsiolkas is well-known to be a warm and affectionate man who has supported generations of emerging writers.

Looking deeper, how might we describe Christos Tsiolkas as a writer?

Words such as audacious, dangerous and ambitious come to mind. From the evidence of his considerable output to date, it is likely that Tsiolkas would agree with Orwell’s political motivation, being to ‘expose lies’ and ‘get a hearing’.

Justifiably, and perhaps reassuringly, Tsiolkas has been getting a hearing since the publication of his first novel, a relatively slim novel called Loaded, which was first published by Vintage (Random House) in 1995. In Loaded – the novel was adapted for the silver screen and called Head On starring Alex Dimitriades and directed by Ana Kokkinos (1998) – Ari is a nineteen-year-old son of Greek migrants. He is actively gay though expresses considerable hatred, both of himself and the world around him. We see him as he works his way through a day and night in Melbourne, taking an almost death-defying amount of drugs, having sex, and interacting with family and friends with both animosity and affection.

What is most striking about Loaded is its audacity.

The opening paragraph:

The morning is ending and I’ve just opened my eyes. I stare across the cluttered room I’m in. I scratch at my groin. I yawn. I feel my cock and start a slow masturbation. When I’m finished, and it doesn’t take long, I get up with a leap, wrap a towel around my naked body and make a slow journey downstairs.

There is much to learn about the craft – or the ‘trade’, as Tsiolkas himself likes to say – of writing: the life in the language, the boldness of the prose, and the fact that the DNA of the entire novel appears to be contained in those few opening words. We immediately know the story will be told in an uncensored way, and we know there will be shocks; we also know, by the very fact that Ari makes a ‘slow journey downstairs’, the narrative will be one of descent, potentially into some kind of hell. It is the audacity that is the most striking feature here: this is writing that believes in its own worth, even though Ari himself openly believes in nothing but short bursts of sexual connection and chemical-induced pleasure.


This is an extract from my commissioned essay, titled ‘Fearless’, which appears in READING LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER, edited by Belinda Castles and available now through New South Books.

It was the light, such brightness.  We’d had heat for days, temperatures hitting forty degrees Celsius, the chooks barely coping, before a stretch of cool, overcast weather, a little mist.  But on Tuesday just gone, there it was, the light, such brightness, extraordinary clarity, as if we’d been living through a dust-storm that had suddenly cleared, or I’d finally cleaned the windows after twenty years of domestic laziness (which reminds me).  In reality, it was nothing more than a morning with a clear blue sky, no heat, just the clear blue sky, but how magical it felt.  I wanted to grab my coffee and sit outside and be out there, amongst the light on the blooming white roses, on the lavender that’s coming, and on the tomatoes that are fruiting up nicely; and the chooks, of course, those angels of the handkerchief-sized yard of mine.

But still I went down there, the opposite direction, to my writing room at the front of the house and opposite the library.  It’s quite a big room, my writing room – it could easily fit in a queen-sized bed (which would result in no writing, that’s for sure).  There’s a view out into the front veranda and the strip of yard out the front and the picture-postcard picket fence and the plane-tree avenue and the houses on the other side of the road and Rocky Hill on the other side of town.  But I’m getting carried away.  The point is I like my writing room: there’s no internet, no stereo, no bookshelves except a small white one that contains a collection of dictionaries.  One black Acer PC, which is holding up well considering how cheap it was; a Canon colour printer-scanner-copier, of which I’m just a little too fond.  The walls are painted a deep mud-red, which, in certain kinds of light, matches the turpentine floorboards.  A lot of things on the walls: a painting done by a friend, screen-prints, photos I’ve taken (some dating back to the early 1980s), story outlines.

So I enjoy it, being in this place, but on a day when the light outside is so extraordinary that you find that you’ve spent ten minutes staring at it, marvelling, there are thoughts that go through my head: why do I go down the hallway to the writing room?  What’s the true impulse?  Perhaps the most honest – and potentially most famous – essay on the subject is ‘Why I Write’ by George Orwell (1953).  Orwell talks about ego, and aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose, amongst others, with political purpose being his greatest motivator: ‘…looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’.

I can’t find any reason to disagree with Orwell, but somehow there’s something missing.  Although it’s rather presumptuous – pompous even – to talk about my own motivations (Fall On Me might be pretty good, but it’s no Animal Farm), the topic is something I often think about, especially when I’ve just received bad news – the rejection of a story submitted, notice of a bad review, or my own conclusion that what I’m writing is stillborn.  Why exactly do I insist on spending the majority of my week sitting at my desk and making up stories?  In many ways, it’s an absurd practice: I did it as a kid, it was just playing back then, and I’m still doing it now, aged forty-three, except it remains playing.  Even though I write contemporary realist fiction, I’m doing nothing more than making up worlds and characters and predicaments.

Sure there are things I want to say, there are records that I want to leave behind, and, yes, I do love playing with words and sentences; getting life on the page is no easy task, in fact it’s more impossible than possible, so there’s an almighty challenge in all of this, and when it happens, that life, when you can feel pulse on the page, when the world is as real as any world can ever be, well, there’s no other feeling of accomplishment – it’s as though you’ve managed to go to the moon and back.  But I can’t escape thinking that the main reason why I turn away from spending a day outside in the most magical of light is that, on the whole, I find the fictional world more interesting than the world on the other side of the glass.

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