Seven years is a long time to complete a novel. But Melbourne author Christos Tsiolkas, 39, wanted to get his third book, Dead Europe, just right.
It’s the tale of self-destructive gay Australian photographer Isaac, who is travelling through Europe and mingling with the underbelly of society in places such as Greece, Italy and France. While visiting the Greek village where his mother was born he encounters a ghost, who starts to follow him on his journey. Through a series of flashbacks to Greece during WWII we meet a young Jewish boy hiding from the Nazis, who eventually becomes the demon stalking Isaac.
I don’t always spend seven years on the one book. I think Dead Europe was a particular book that I wanted to get right, Tsiolkas said.
I knew I was taking on something that was quite provocative and quite challenging, and I wanted the writing to be the best it could be.
Also once I’d decided to do a ghost story I wanted to do it justice and make it scary.
Part of the reason it took so long was that the book kept changing shape. Originally it was going to be a work of non-fiction, with Tsiolkas documenting his response to the collapse of communism in Europe.
The author, whose first novel Loaded was made into the successful film Head On, said he was a big believer in communism until his faith got destroyed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the realisation of the terror done in communism’s name.
I started that project but realised really early on that I wasn’t a historian, and to do that subject justice you’d have to be a terribly committed historian.
What he did discover during his initial research was the Jewish history of the Balkans, which inspired the theme of anti-Semitism throughout Dead Europe.
Tsiolkas also writes plays and film scripts, and when he’s not writing he works part-time as a vet nurse in a friend’s vet surgery in Melbourne. Now on the final leg of his national press tour, Tsiolkas said he was looking forward to getting back to cleaning the cages.
I think it’s really important for me to work outside the literary world, in terms of getting perspective.
I’m actually quite a good vet nurse now after a year and a half. It’s good, hard, clean work. And when I say clean I mean it in an ethical sense. It’s nice to be in a work place where you’re helping people, and animals. So I really enjoy it. I think in the next book there will be a lot of vets in it, he laughed.
He actually hopes one day to write a children’s book about a vet clinic as seen through the eyes of the animals.
I do want to write something simple, Tsiolkas revealed. I don’t want to be in the headspace I was with Dead Europe. Jesus Man was also quite bleak and dark in that way too, so I want some lightness.
But it is part of my style and I am driven by those dark areas, so it’s not as if I’m talking about abandoning that to write Mills & Boon.