Christos Tsiolkas
in conversation with Dmetri Kakmi about 7 ½

I have admired Christos Tsiolkas since his first book Loaded rammed into the Australian publishing scene in 1995. And although the ‘big P’ – to use the author’s designation –  political books that catapulted him to fame didn’t affect me to the same degree, 7 ½ rocked my world.

It is wild and fearlessly, messily, human. I was so exhilarated, I couldn’t stop myself from emailing him a slew of questions. It was my way of continuing a thrilling reading process – one that took me back to the author’s early work. Jesus Man and Dead Europe came to mind as I powered through this audacious novel.

Beyond that, there was the thrill of watching a writer turn novelistic expectations on their head by showing the reader what goes on in a writer’s mind as he corralls life’s wild horses and turns them to the services of art.

The Interview

7 ½ is billed as a novel, but it’s really a memoir about the writing process — life flowing into fiction. For me, it is a dynamic how-to-write book and metafiction at its least irritating. At times it has the force of Oriana Fallaci. 7 ½ represents a new phase in your writing. Why divert attention from that?

I’m glad that I hadn’t heard of the term ‘auto-fiction’ before I started writing the book. The term has the whiff of faddishness that I find off-putting. For me, 7 ½ is very much a novel, yet of course, there is a directly autobiographical element to it. Its structure was dictated by the circumstances of the writing.

How did the book come about? Coming after Barracuda and Damascus, it was a surprise departure.

Wayne (my partner, Wayne van der Stelt) and I were in Scotland, in March 2020. We were about to embark on a six-week holiday to celebrate our 35th anniversary. A week into the trip we were confronted by a world rapidly shutting down because of Covid-19. We were in Glasgow, a week into the trip, when we had to come home. When we returned to Melbourne we had to quarantine at home. Hotel quarantine had not yet begun. On the first morning of quarantine, I started to write what became 7 ½. I made a pledge to myself that every morning, I would get up and write at least 800 words on the novel. You could say it began as an exercise of the mind, a way to keep myself writing in a time of disconcerting change and anxiety.

The novel began overnight, so to speak, but it also has been in my head for a long time. Obviously, there is the ‘Sweet Thing’ story, and as I write in the book I have struggled to tell that story for a long time. Trying it in different forms – script, play, novel – and it always somehow being elusive, never quite working. 7 ½ was an attempt to tell that story. It felt like a ‘need’. When I began writing, I knew that ‘Sweet Thing’ would be part of it. Knowing that meant I worked in a particular direction. (As I typed the previous sentence, I thought of both my parents, of how they worked in the garden, their diligence, their patience. I was thinking of that kind of labour in writing the novel, trying to write a book that was not ‘soft hands’.)

Also – and this is crucial to the explicitly autobiographical structure of the novel – I had come out of six years working on Damascus, about the early years of Christianity. I loved working on that novel. It was hard, a very difficult book to write. But I loved the research! I was a true student for the first time in my life, and I loved reading ancient texts: theology, philosophy, history. Especially in the first few years of writing that book I disappeared from the contemporary world. I was already exhausted by it: that strange post-economic crisis world and the hysteria of Trump etc. etc. I was only reading history and the ancients. And then, when I came back to reading the contemporary novel, I was struck by how banal it was, how damn shrunken the English-language novel had become. That’s a big and probably unfair claim. There were, of course, exceptions. I had loved, for example, David Peace’s Red or Dead, thought that was attempting something bold. But most novels I was reading were timid.

I was also struck by how many fellow writers were confiding in me their fears of argument or controversy or experiment. It was bizarre. Everyone was declaiming all the right-on things – Black Lives Matter, Metoo, etc. etc. – yet in late-night conversations people were expressing how they had become scared of writing, of saying ‘the wrong thing’. (I kept thinking of Sasha [Soldatow] throughout this period – wondered what he would have made of it all. He wasn’t a coward.)

7 ½ came out of those concerns and confusions. It was a kind of dare to the idiocies of identity politics. ‘So you think I should only write about what I know? Okay, I’ll make myself the main character and show you that it is still fiction. That what we do is imagine.’

One other note to make, and I know you’ll understand it: I wanted to write of the erotic. Even though ideologically I was aligned to a lot of the radical politics flaring up around me, I detested the puritanism of contemporary progressives. Sex has always been important to me. Also important to me has been the work of the great writers and filmmakers of the erotic. Seeing Bertolucci’s The Conformist when I was fourteen, for example. Just before starting work on 7 ½, I had also reread all of Genet. He had been a remarkable influence on me when I was younger, but I felt like I got him for the first time on this rereading. I responded to his great anarchic will, his refusal to accept the world unless he could reimagine it through his erotic fantasies and desires.

Let me be clear, I am NOT Genet. He’s sui generis and a genius. As a writer, I feel like I’m still learning to fly, and that man was soaring from the get-go! But, my god, alongside Pasolini, what an influence! One of the fears I was picking up in the conversations with friends was their fear of sex (women and men, young writers and older writers). Rereading Genet reminded me of how essential the erotic is in what we do.

You use the photograph ‘Sailors at Great Lakes Training Station’ by Bernard Hoffman and the painting ‘The House at Rueil’ by Edouard Manet as leaping off points to explore two separate strains in the story. Why that photo and why that painting? What do they mean to you?

Dmetri mou, the happy accident. We have a print of ‘The House at Rueil’ at our home in Narooma, on the NSW south coast, and where the stories of 7 ½ unfold. I’ve always loved that painting. It has always captivated and puzzled me. I became obsessed with Manet in high school art class. It was a suburban state school and, as happens, doing art was one way of finding like-minded people. (There were only ten of us doing art by the end of high school and I reckon half the class eventually came out as gay or lesbian. And the others were all queer: goths and post-punks and bolshie wog-chicks!) Manet seemed to imbue the ordinary with sensuality in a way that was less obvious and therefore more curious than, say, Gaugin. His paintings are so pleasurable. As a high-school student I did a series of sketches that were inspired by ‘The House at Rueil’, but I’m not talented as a painter. They didn’t have vitality. Vitality was central to me in the writing of 7 ½, as memory, as storytelling. I reached out to that painting.

I adore the Hoffman photograph. I think it is wonderfully joyous in its celebration of male beauty. There’s intimacy in it and great warmth. And it’s highly erotic. Those young men are beautiful and the photographer is unafraid to show that masculine sweet beauty. I came across the photograph years ago, on a tumblr site, a site that was half-pornographic and half-art school fag (lots of The Smiths and Gregg Araki and Warhol and early Lady Gaga amidst the cocks). I was so captivated by the image that I spent hours searching for the photographer. For years it was the screen-saver on my computer. It was there every morning when I launched my laptop. Is it too cheeky to say that it reached out to me and became part of the story?

7 ½ is above all about the search for beauty. In the struggle for social justice, has the novel and or society lost the appreciation for beauty, sensuality and aesthetics?

One of the things that drives me spare these days – and I don’t care if I sound like Grandpa Simpson – is the lack of historical knowledge by many of those fighting for social justice. Anyone who claims to be left-wing or socialist or progressive has to deal with the terrible history of the left when it comes to the imagination and to liberation. I am not going to do justice to what I want to say in a few paragraphs. Basically, the shadows of Terror haunt all utopian and liberatory movements. Working on Damascus taught me that history has its roots in the utopian and eschatological aspirations of early Christianity. That is why I recoil when I perceive puritanism affect the left.

The argument between Christos and Andrea in 7 ½ is one that I have with friends who are activists. THIS IS NOT A NEW THING! I have been having these arguments since my adolescence. With feminists, with socialists, with communists, with social-democrats/democratic-socialists.

I love pleasure, I love sex, and I am fascinated by it. I am also aware that sex can be brutal and ugly and terrifying and coercive. Yet, knowing all that I am not suspicious of it. I think it central to how I came to appreciate books and films and painting and love and friendship and cinema. The erotic, for me, is integral to the appreciation of beauty. Sometimes it can be terrifying. Look at Pasolini’s Saló to witness how an artist deals with the terror of sex. And look at how Pasolini, a committed communist, was also often disparaged by the Italian left for not conforming to their rigid notions of what ‘progressive’ art should be.

It pisses me of that in defending the erotic and the sexual, one is cast as reactionary or misogynist. Bullshit! I love the anarchy of the imagination. I say fuck off to ALL the moral police, whether they come disguised as preachers, imams, rabbis, teachers, feminists, ecologists. I think the word I distrust most in contemporary English is the word ‘safe’. It has the stench of regulation.

Why this book now?

A very wise older woman said something to me when I was about seventeen. I had joined a socialist party and she was a member. I was talking about films or books, just being a nervous and anxious and precocious boy, and she said, ‘You don’t have to be an activist, Chris. You can be a supporter. You love fun and joy too much to be an activist.’ It stayed with me because it echoed the sentiments of some of my Christian friends when I had been immersed in evangelical Christianity when I was younger. (Long story, basically we had moved from the inner-city to the ‘burbs when I was in Year 8 and as a way of dealing with my anxieties about sexuality and being suddenly one of the few wogs in a very Anglo high school, I reached out to god as a lifeline. It didn’t last.) A pastor had said to me, just before I stopped believing, ‘You must be stronger in resisting the temptations of the material world.’

Why this book now? Because I don’t want to live in the ‘world to come’. I love this world. I love its beauty.

Aside from being a book about writing, 7 ½ is a paean to masculine beauty. The son helping his father prepare a boat, Manolis, Nikos, Paul Carrigan etc. That’s been at the core of all your writing. But never sung with such full-throated clarity.

My father passed away ten years ago. He was a lovely man. He had his faults, of course, but he was gentle and that is a gift. When he died, I found that the world around me was clanging with all this animosity towards men. I got it and I get it: the vile things that men do. But in my grief, I kept returning to memories of solace and joy and pleasure that came from the men I love. I didn’t have a trauma story to tell. I wasn’t abused as a child. Yet I was desiring as a child, and it was the smells and bodies and the clothes and the smiles and the faces of the men around me that shaped my desires. My partner is a man whose greatest joy is working in the garden. I adore embracing him after he has been working in the sun, inhaling those scents of work and sweat.

Thank you for using those words about the book. I did want to sing a song about male beauty. Not only of the beauty in desiring and sex, but also the beauty that we glimpse in how men work.

One of my favourite moments in the book is when young Christos is picked up by a Protestant minister in Tasmania and how that experience feeds into the Paul Carrigan story. It’s a tender, blindly truthful encounter and then, for me, it becomes exhilarating as we watch the old minister turn into Conrad in the fiction story. Anything to say about that astounding transmutation?

Thank you. It’s a book about writing a book. I was worried that in doing that, it could be boring or didactic. But I think what it allowed me to do was sit in memory. And then realising how potent and strange the unconscious is. And that it is always there.

That story happened decades ago, and it had been years since I had consciously thought of him, that lovely Protestant Minister. Then one morning I am working on 7 ½ and getting to the point where Paul is going to meet Conrad for the first time, and I was nervous. In all the attempts to find a way to tell the ‘Sweet Thing’ story I had never found a way to Conrad. I went for a long walk that morning and I wasn’t even necessarily thinking of the old man. I was recalling my first trip to Tasmania. When I returned to the book, I knew exactly how to write Conrad.

I believe in accident. I believe in chance. I believe in work that is pleasure. And I believe in the unconscious. That it is a gift to us writers. That too feels like a heretical thing to say in 2023. The unconscious is many many things. It is never safe.

My favourite story in the collection Merciless Gods is ‘Porn 1’. Porn is at the heart of one storyline in 7 ½. You are fascinated by the dynamics of porn. Why?

Because it was central to my becoming sexual and my becoming a writer. The first writers that I connected with deliberately blurred that chimeric distinction between the erotic and the pornographic. Genet is both. John Rechy is both. And then there is, of course, the centrality of pornographic space in guiding my emergence as a gay man. (I’m using pornography in its literal Greek sense, as the ‘porneia’, to do with the sexual and with lust, to evade that imprecise distinction between porn and the erotic.) I first became aware of a homosexual world when I found an abandoned gay porn magazine in the stalls of Box Hill library. I jerked off, then began to cruise the toilets there and sucked off a man for the first time in one of the cubicles. Later, I started hanging out at porn cinemas to meet men.

The pornographic is central to my emergence as a sexual adult. Yet it also concerns me how much of my imagination is stunted by a reliance on the pornographic. The suite of stories in Merciless Gods (Porn 1 & 2 & 3) are my way of dealing with my ambivalences to do with pornography. I feel like I am losing the ability to imagine sex outside the visual field. I’m lucky with Wayne, that we are so into sex with one another, and we don’t rely on pornography for sex. I want to be aware of all of him. But I am aware and cautious of the ‘glamour’ of porn, of how it can make one lazy and unrealistic of sex and the human body.

The fact that porn is also work has been there since I was very young. I think it might be part of a particular migrant and working-class experience. To be a ‘faggot’ was to also be a ‘whore’. I also was angered by the merciless hate and cruelty directed at women who were seen as sexual deviants or transgressors. That was very ugly, and I felt a sorrow and an empathy there. It certainly steered me to an appreciation of feminism from a young age. Getting to know sex workers, that they were not reducible to the bloody cliches of ‘victim’ or ‘slut’ was a gift.

I loved Paul Carrigan [an American porn actor and director], that unabashed masculinity that I refer to in the book. At a particularly hard time in my life, I used to watch his films again and again. After jerking off, I would just have the video (it was video back then) playing silently, looking up when he smiled. Strange how in loneliness that can be reassuring.

Here is a sentence from 7 ½. ‘Those railing against biology of gender and sex are as suspicious and hateful towards the body as were the most pious of early Christian moralists… I am also flesh.’ Your work has always been about the battle with flesh, as far as I’m concerned. It seems to me you’ve more or less reconciled yourself with the body and its messy fleshiness. What’s transpired?

I might have answered this above, but I think in returning to Christianity in Damascus, and, being unafraid of returning to Saint Paul, I made a truce. And I’ve stopped fearing doubt, which is a sin for the religious AND a sin for the revolutionaries.

Here’s another sentence from 7 ½. ‘I am writing about my past. It clearly is as much a memoir as it is fiction. The writing of one demands the same craft one uses for the other.’ Very true. So why is fiction considered more ‘creative’ and therefore more respectable than memoir or other forms of non-fiction?

I’m going to sound like Grandpa Simpson again, but I don’t think we read enough anymore. Our notions of the creative are limited. I love moving between forms of writing. I have recently finished a terrific two volume history that the wonderful historian John Julius Norwich wrote about the Normans in Sicily. He was a young man when he wrote it and it is a delight – for his love of the place and its history – but also for his pleasure in language and what words can do. That pleasure, that creativity, can be found in fiction and non-fiction, in a poem, in a song lyric, in a theological apologetic. I wanted to show the work, our labour, in 7 ½. Art and skill and craft are necessary whatever the genre. Maybe the one difference of fiction is that there is a different reckoning to fidelity. There are forms of non-fiction that I engage in – interviews, arguments and essays, film criticism – that do require me to keep faith with real people, real events. That doesn’t mean I can’t experiment or structure the work in the same way I do fiction. But there’s a different ethic at play.

Dmetri Kakmi is a co-editor of Kalliope X. He is the author of The Door and Other Uncanny Tales, Mother Land, When We Were Young (as editor), and the forthcoming Haven: Letter to an Unknown Father.