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Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of some of our favourite authors. In this latest instalment, Christos Tsiolkas talks to us about writing a love story, re-reading Dostoyevsky and his latest novel, The In-Between.

Your new book, The In-Between, is the first time you’ve written a novel centred around a love story. Could you tell us how it came about?

It is always difficult to pinpoint where exactly the idea for a story or a novel comes from. For me, it often begins with a voice in my head: I hear the words being spoken, and I sense a tone, an accent, a breath. And from that sensual moment, a character emerges. The In-Between begins with a man reaching into his wardrobe and finding a knot of old ties that he has amassed through the years. That image came to me, and then I heard the character’s sigh as he touched the silk and cotton of the neckties. I heard his voice, and then I found my way to him through thinking of touch, of how memories were unleashed by his fingers running along the fabric.

Love has been there in my novels before. Even from the first novel, Loaded, where the main character, Ari, has his secret love for his brother’s roommate, George. And I think love, both romantic and platonic, is central to Barracuda. I think that the difference with the new novel is that I made the decision from the beginning to be much more intimate in the way I told the story.

Were there any stories that inspired or influenced the writing of this book?

It is probably no accident that for a period before I started writing The In-Between, I was immersed in watching the films of two directors: the French director, Éric Rohmer, and the Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Zanussi. They are virtuosi in conveying intimacy. Though I love cinema, and have been addicted to it since youth, I had only seen a couple of Rohmer’s and only one of Zanussi’s films—they were both directors whose work was largely unknown to me.

With Rohmer, I suspect my bolshie younger self had resisted his work because I had assumed it would be insufferably middle-class. Then one night a couple of years ago, I sat down and watched his wonderful My Night at Maud’s and I was struck by the patient realism of his work. His unstinting focus is on how people interact with one another, and he allows conversations and arguments to unfold in a simulation of real time. He’s a wonder with space. In a film such as A Tale of Springtime, the rooms and locations in which the characters interact have real presence. You feel as if you have been living in those spaces, that you know how to move around them. I wanted that sense of space in the new novel.

It is always difficult to pinpoint where exactly the idea for a story or a novel comes from.

I had a similar response to Zanussi’s films. He, too, is patient. He, too, is acutely responsive to how relationships between people develop slowly—in the ‘in-between’ of what is voiced and what is withheld. His early works were made under the Communist regime in Poland, and that probably explains why they were hard to access when I was younger. I do love his early works, films like Family Life and Camouflage and A Constant Factor. Watching them now, with the fall of Communism becoming an old history, I am struck by how much can be conveyed of a character’s inner struggle through a nuanced understanding of evasion and compromise. His characters aren’t ‘heroic’, but he isn’t smug or self-righteous in his revealing of their flaws. I respect that hugely.

It isn’t that I sat down and consciously decided to write something that was influenced directly by either Rohmer or Zanussi. It is only in hindsight, and thinking of the question that was posed, that I realised that they got under my skin.

Images: My Night at Maud’s (1961), A Tale of Springtime (1990) and Family Life (1979). Imdb.com.

If there was a spark, a moment that ignited the idea of my new novel, it was a conversation over dinner one night. I have been in love with my partner, Wayne van der Stelt, for thirty-eight years now. A friend, cheekily, a little drunk, asked both of us: ‘What would you do if for some reason the other person wasn’t there?’ I remember rapping the underside of the table with my knuckles—touching wood. Wayne and I both made some jokey, none-too-serious reply, but I think the question stayed with me. What would it be like to begin a relationship in one’s later life? How do you deal with the weight of the past when it comes to starting a new life with someone?

It took some time for that little spark to become the fire in the belly that led me to the writing desk. So, I owe a series of thanksgivings: to my friend for posing the question, and to Rohmer and to Zanussi for reminding me of how much of intimacy can be revealed by being patient.

What are you currently reading?

The other day, I picked up Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale at my favourite second-hand bookshop, Fully Booked, in High Street, Thornbury.

I first read Mailer in high school and was inspired by his fearlessness and his pugnacity—and yes, probably his excess. For some reason, I had never got around to reading Oswald’s Tale, which is about Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President Kennedy. It is non-fiction, but Mailer approaches it with a novelist’s glee in storytelling.

I suspect one reason I resisted reading it for so long was that I thought that there was nothing new that could be added to the story of Oswald, and to the assassination of Kennedy. But Mailer wrote it in the 1990s, with access to former Soviet files, and he interviewed many of the people who knew Oswald when he was living in Minsk. The first part of the book, about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, is exhilarating. It captures the madness of the Cold War, for both Soviets and the West. It is absurd and tragic all at the same time.

If there was a spark, a moment that ignited the idea of my new novel, it was a conversation over dinner one night.

What kind of reader are you?

I tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Before the Mailer, I read Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic, about the interregnum in Britain between the execution of Charles I and the Restoration. It was a wonderful read, informative and compelling. It’s a period of history I know very little about, and it has made me keen to explore more about the English Civil War and its aftermath. She has a lovely writing style, lucid and elegant, thoughtful yet genial. It’s a sensibility any writer would covet. It’s a great and rare gift for an historian.

I have collections of poetry and short stories by my bed, so I often will read a few poems or a short story with my first coffee in the morning. I still subscribe to print magazines, and that’s part of my daily reading.

Images: Oswald’s Tale (1995)Lee Harvey Oswald (Public Domain, 1963) and The Restless Republic (2022).

What role does reading play in your writing process?

Writing my novel, Damascus, with the immersion in research, was one of the great joys of my life. I didn’t pick up the pen (or type on a key) for close to eighteen months before beginning work on that novel. I felt like a real student for the first time in my life, reading and exploring history, theology and philosophy with a drive and commitment that I never—unfortunately—brought to my university degree. That book, because it was a historical novel, demanded that kind of deep dive into research.

The In-Between emerges completely from my imagination and desire to tell stories. Of course, you can’t help but be influenced by what you are reading and what you are seeing and observing as you write. As I commented on above, films were an important influence or spur to the writing of this most recent novel. When I am working on the first draft of a novel, I tend to eschew fiction, and prefer to be reading history or philosophy, biography or criticism. I don’t want to fall into the trap of mimicking another writer’s style. The one exception I make is with crime fiction. It’s a genre I adore and respect, but I fear I don’t have the talent for it. I read Georges Simenon and Agatha Christie and PD James while working on the first draft of the novel.

When I am working on the first draft of a novel, I tend to eschew fiction.

For the last decade or so, every year I have tried to read the complete oeuvre of a writer. Last year I spent re-reading all of Dostoevsky, and it was astonishing to return to a writer who was such an important influence on me as a younger person. My love for his work has only deepened through that immersion. There was a terrific new translation of his Devils, a novel I struggled with when I was in my early twenties. This time I found it galvanising and troubling, and so very funny. I completely missed the satire when I was younger. It still feels relevant, timeless really. The ‘devils’—those so sure that their way is the only way that they are prepared to do anything to remake the world in their image—are still amongst us.

What does your book collection look like?

A few years back, Wayne built us shelves in the living room and in the study to house our massive book collection (and our LPs—I never gave up on analog!). It was a real labour of love and he then shelved the fiction alphabetically. He did the same with our music. He also created sections for poetry, for anthologies, for the books on cinema and the books on art. I am meticulous now in putting back the books and records in their proper place. That is to honour his labour and also because I love libraries. I like that the space where our books live has the atmosphere of a library. A well-used, well-loved library.

Image: Supplied.

What books are you constantly recommending other people read?

Always Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. And Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. They are perfect novels. For the last year I have been telling everyone about Shannon Burn’s blisteringly good memoir, Childhood. I think it is electric. I am a relative latecomer to Georges Simenon, and I am constantly now recommending him to friends and to writers. His style is so deceptively stark and simple, yet his novels are profoundly moral and profoundly ambiguous.

If you had to pick one book to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be?

That question has never been posed to me before. I’m going with my first instinct. I would like to be a minor character in Rabbit, Run, maybe a young bartender straight out of school. I’d like to hear Rabbit’s story as he was sitting at a bar, getting drunk. I’d probably fall slightly in love with him that night, though I’m sure Rabbit—or Updike, for that matter—would be totally unaware of it.

What’s next for you?

Working with Stephen Nicolazzo and Dan Giovannoni on the recent theatrical adaptation of Loaded was a great joy. We’re developing a new theatre project together and I am very much looking forward to working with them again.