The perils of publishing

Christos Tsiolkas speaks about the changes in the publishing industry and the challenges facing 'ethnic' writers today

From the time acclaimed writer Christos Tsiolkas burst onto the literary scene with his début novel Loaded in 1995, the publishing world has seen many changes.

A human drama can have a Greek face, it can have a Vietnamese face, it can have a Sudanese face and their ethnicity not matter at all in relationship to the world.

With the emergence of the internet, it’s no secret that many of the arts including music, film and literature have been affected.

The way people access and hence consume these mediums has changed, thereby altering the focus of the industries.

“It’s not an easy time for anyone to get published,” Tsiolkas tells Neos Kosmos.

“So much of what happens in the publishing world is fashion as well, and it being the right moment.”

Tsiolkas is a believer in working hard at developing one’s craft, yet also thinks timing plays a key role.

In one of his creative writing workshops that took place earlier this month at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, one of the points listed on the board for discussion was ‘fortune’.

“I wrote Loaded at a time when this new group of publishers were in the scene, it was just before the internet took off. I’m not saying I didn’t work for it, but it was the right moment.”

The writer has seen a significant shift in the focus of publishing companies, with a greater concern about marketing and sales figures.

When he started out in the industry, he recalls that there were full time editors working in publishing houses and two or three marketing people. But now he says it’s sadly the reverse.

“There’s twenty-five marketing people and ninety freelance editors. So you know where the concern is – all about the sales.”

Despite this however, the writer does have hope, claiming to know people in the publishing industry who deeply love writing and reading.

All it takes, he says, is a manuscript that excites or astonishes them, a voice that they haven’t heard before.

Despite having cemented his position in the Australian literary scene with bestseller The Slap, this is something the writer still takes into consideration when creating a new work.

When writing his latest novel Barracuda, Tsiolkas knew the protagonist Danny was going to be a gay man, yet he was conscious that he didn’t want it to be a ‘coming out novel’, as it is a story that he believes has been told time and time again.

On the other hand, “if a young Islamic Australian was to write a coming out novel, they would be interested”, he says.

Which naturally leads to the question: which voices have yet to be heard within Australian literature? Who are now considered the minority, and who are the ethnics within Australian society?

“It’s really interesting. I went out with a group of friends and we were a mixed mob – Greek Australian, Sri Lankan Greek Australian, Vietnamese Australian, and Malaysian Australian. I remember one of our conversations was whether Greeks are still wogs,” he says.

“So things have changed.”

The migrant story is not an uncommon one in Australia.

Although it may have been harder for people from a non-English speaking background to find a platform to be heard years ago, these days there seems to be a greater support network.

Now, Tsiolkas thinks the real challenge for writers of an ethnic background is not only to not repeat a story that may have already been told, but more importantly to try and get the Australian publishing and film industries to recognise them irrespective of their ethnicity.

Focusing on a writer’s ethnicity and grouping them based on their background is almost seen to be tokenistic, pigeonholing the artist, rather than focusing on their talents separately.

“A human drama can have a Greek face, it can have a Vietnamese face, it can have a Sudanese face, and their ethnicity not matter at all in relationship to the world,” Tsiolkas tells Neos Kosmos.

This is what Christos believes made The Slap such a success.

By placing the characters as a part of the fabric of Australia’s middle class, they didn’t play up to the usual stereotypes of being the fruiterers and bricklayers of society.

Another successful example of this is Tony Ayres’ Australian drama Walking on Water, about two friends, Charlie and Anna, who are brought together by the death of a mutual friend.

The lead roles are played by Vince Colosimo, an Italian Australian, and Maria Theodorakis, a Greek Australian.

Tsiolkas however observes that the actor’s ethnicities are never referred to in the story, rather it was more a case of the actors being selected based on the merit of their acting, without being confined to playing ‘ethnic’ roles.

Unlike some artists who choose to keep their mouths shut about the magic behind their craft, Christos Tsiolkas is open and willing for others to benefit from his experience – his famous phrase is ‘use me!’

Having worked as a mentor through various programs, namely Express Media, he is someone who sees the value, as someone who was once a young writer himself looking to catch a break.

“I actually think that more money going into setting up a mentorship relationship between more established writers and younger writers is a really good thing. There’s something about the one on one that’s really precious.”

For the past year, Tsiolkas has also been an ambassador for the West Writers Group, an initiative based in the western suburbs for writers from all over the city from diverse cultural backgrounds.

“I thought it was a great initiative,” he says.

“Although Australia likes to present itself as a classless society, it really is a factor. Most writers groups and arts groups in Melbourne tend to be white, they tend to be middle class. So just having spaces for people who may feel intimidated or who have not had a connection to that world, can go there and feel a bit of safety.”

For the writer, lending his services as an ambassador and mentor is really about providing support and encouraging them.

Although there is a lot more to Christos Tsiolkas than his ethnicity, the fact that he comes from a non-English speaking background is a strength of his in the Australian literature scene, giving him an edge when faced with emerging writers from migrant backgrounds.

The writer sees the diversity as something that can be embraced and used as a tool within their writing.

“Sometimes I want to say to some of the students, especially if they come from a non-Anglo background, the time you spend on this [the workshop] would be much better if you learnt your own language,” he says.

“I wish I had studied harder at Greek. It’s something amazing to have this second language that you can work in, that you can write, that you can do something in.”

His recent compilation of short stories, Merciless Gods, includes the first ever piece written by him in the Greek language and translated into English, entitled ‘Petals’.

With every one of his books featuring at least one Greek character, as a writer he has never shied away from his Greek heritage, and as time goes on it seems he feels an even greater affinity to the Greeks.

“When I was in Greece for Barracuda, I felt like a sigh of relief because the Greeks got me in a way that the Australians never did,” he says.

“The Greeks never, never asked me ‘why’ about the sex. They just assumed that’s normal, you’re a writer and you’re gonna write about sex. But the protestant Anglos, that’s their obsession right?”

Despite having just released Merciless Gods, the author’s next work is already in progress, revealing it to be an exploration of faith through the story of Saint Paul.