Chris Tsiolkas, Melbourne Writers Festival BMW Edge Federation Square

My last event at the Melbourne Writers Festival was the sold out session with Chris Tsiolkas, the author of The Slap.

The book was discussed in my book club earlier in the year with lots of debate, so I was very interested to hear about the work from the author’s perspective.

Tsiolkas was extremely personable and generous with his personal anecdotes during the session. For instance, he works part time as a vet nurse in Northcote because even a successful author like himself can’t pay the bills by just writing!

I really enjoyed the discussion and felt that I should pick up the book again, as my first read was all about chasing the story instead of dwelling on the deeper messages that Tsiolkas was trying to convey. During the hour I took really extensive notes  as the tone moved from relaxed to sombre to earnest to humorous, so I’ve tried to group the discussion around a couple of key themes:

The Howard Years

It’s significant that the book was set in the Howard Years – in Tsiolkas’ view, this moral tale for the middle class could not have been told at any other time. In his earlier drafts he had toyed with the idea of writing a prologue set in the Tampa election and an epilogue set in the Rudd election. Later he removed these parts because he felt that these bookends weren’t needed – the story already contained  a sense of time and space.

Tsiolkas felt that the  newly middle-class, migrant experience was  not being represented in literature, and in the book he wanted to explore what it meant to be part of this aspirational group in terms of family, history, politics and class. In his view, the success of The Slap demonstrated a real hunger for contemporary stories.

The characters

Apparently one of the questions he is often asked is why all the characters are so unlikeable, and I thought his book had a distinctly negative and pessimistic tone. In response Tsiolkas believed that in the Howard years we all became quite unlikeable – selfish, insular and inward-looking.

Sally Warhaft then asked him about how he chose the eight characters that had their own chapter. Originally there were to be thirteen characters, but he found that it made the story unwieldy, so he whittled it down to eight. He initially thought that Ari would have his own chapter, but he found that the character took the reader away from the essential part of the book. He also originally didn’t have a chapter from the perspective of either of Hugo’s parents, which is interesting because I think Rosie was one of the most fascinating characters. When his editor told him that somewhere he needed to deal with the parents, he realised that he was running away from confronting those characters and their issues. In the end he decided to focus only on Rosie as he’d already previously written extensively about men and masculinity and because he was fascinated by the form and strength of female friendships. He also considered having a chapter from Hugo’s perspective, but considered it to be too artificial.

In hindsight he would have liked to give Bilal a chapter because he was a man who had discovered how to be a moral and ethical man through religion. Also Bilal represented an opportunity to discuss Australian’s colonial past.

Finally he said his favourite characters were the oldest and youngest characters. It was important to include their views because they were casting judgements on his generation of Gen Xers. The old man was particularly important because he also gave a migrant perspective. With Ricky, he wanted to write about a child who had been raised well by a single parent and had positive relationships with female characters that were not misogynistic. (As an aside, Tsiolkas threw a bomb out into the audience when he pronounced that ‘men have a misogynistic inner monologue that would be monstrous if they revealed’). He also pointed out that in fact there were two slaps in the book – the second one when Ricky’s mum slapped him. However, the second slap has attracted almost no attention, maybe because all readers understood that it had come from a place of love and she was not being abusive.

The inspiration

Most readers probably know that The Slap was inspired by a real-life incident involving Tsiolkas’ Greek mother. His parents were hosting a barbecue much like the one in The Slap, with different generations all gathered together.  A young child was creating a nuisance in the kitchen so Tsiolkas’ mother gave him a gentle slap on the bottom and told him to stop. The child wheeled around and declared ‘no one has the right to touch my body without my permission’.  His mother responded ‘you naughty, I hit you’ and all the adults laughed.

On the way home Tsiolkas realised that the small moment represented an enormous passage of change in culture, family, parenting and history from his mother’s peasant Greek upbringing to the child’s upbringing in contemporary Australia. Also, it was an example of the fractured relationship between children and adults in the West. Where once a whole community was responsible for nurturing and disciplining a child, now it was the sole responsibility of parents to protect the child and keep them almost separate from the adult world.

The migrant experience

‘If migrants could build a nation, they could conquer the world’. Tsiolkas believed that migrants were inherently people of hurt and suffering because they had been exiled from their origins, and he decried the fact that we treated migrants and refugees as a class of people who were stateless.

Tsiolkas grew up in Richmond, a very Greek part of Melbourne at that time. His parents worked the day shift and the night shift, so in his formative years he spoke only Greek and Italian because the milk bar owner was Italian. He told an amusing anecdote that as a child he had thought that all Australians spoke Greek and on his first day of school he was seated with the refugee kids because he couldn’t speak any English.

Tsiolkas believed that his distinct memory of a pre-English history was to his advantage in his writing because he had access to the different cadences and music of another language.

Sex

One thing I didn’t notice when I read the book was the liberal use of the word c**t. In fact, Tsiolkas said that he deliberately wanted every character to either say or think the word in order to challenge readers. He believed that that sort of language was part of our contemporary vernacular, and he wanted to present the idea that our distaste for certain words depended on the context and our feelings towards the characters. He also wanted to explore the minefield of sexual conflicts, pleasures and dangers because he was fascinated by our nakedness as sexual beings.

Hope

One of the themes that my book club agreed on was that there was a sense of hope at the end. In the last chapter, the best day of Ricky’s life was when he injected speed and went to the Big Day Out with his friends. Tsiolkas wanted to challenge readers with Ricky’s drug use, showing it as a source of happiness and joy, rather than of death and destruction, and in fact the scene was a direct reference to his own experience of taking speed as a teenager and going to gig. So did Tsiolkas express a sense of hope for the younger generation? He responded ‘Yes’.