Time Out sits down to talk to Australian author Christos Tsiolkas to quiz him about Barracuda, his new book inspired by Olympic swimmer Nick D’Arcy.
The idea for Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel came from a misheard news report. When he first found out about Australian Olympic swimmer Nick D’Arcy assaulting teammate Simon Cowley in 2008, Tsiolkas had thought he caught a detail about D’Arcy being from a working-class background – instantly, the picture of a frustrated young athlete forced to move in a world of privileged ‘golden boys’ began to paint itself in his mind.
The tidbit turned out to be incorrect – D’Arcy’s father is a successful surgeon – but the picture stuck: Danny Kelly, the teenaged swimming star from the wrong side of Melbourne’s tracks and protagonist of Tsolkas’s Barracuda, was born.
‘I knew I wanted to write a story about contemporary class,’ says Tsiolkas on the line from Melbourne. In the book, Danny, the son of a Greek-Australian mother and Glaswegian father, moves from a public school to a private school for the college’s swimming programme – it’s 1994 and Danny has his goggled sights set on Sydney 2000. He struggles to fit in at first – he’s a Greek-Australian in a WASP world – but soon adapts to a new life of neck-cutting ties and beachside holiday homes. But Tsiolkas’s time-hopping narrative reveals early that something happens along the way, something terrible, before the dream can ever be reached.
‘It wasn’t the initial story that I thought it was, but the connection is still there,’ says Tsiolkas. ‘It’s like with Nick D’Arcy. Can you come back from doing something so completely terrible and ugly? Can you forgive yourself and can you be forgiven?’
We won’t reveal what the terrible thing is – unlike the hyper-successful The Slap, where a shocking act opens the book, the centering act of violence here is slowly revealed. As Tsiolkas was writing the book, he kept a simple sentence on a note above his computer: ‘How do you be a good man?’
Tsiolkas swims regularly, and in new book Barracuda he captures the strange thrill of hours spent alone in the water, the sights and sounds of the world blurred above you. And as a 13-year-old, he moved from multicultural Richmond in the UK to white and suburban Box Hill – as with Danny, it was an adjustment. His parents migrated from Greece in the ’60s and worked as cleaners and factory workers. He also spent a lot of time in Glasgow, as the older Danny does – after The Slap, he found there was a period where he couldn’t write and took up a residency at Cove Park, a writer’s retreat an hour-and-a-half north of the city. ‘It’s not an autobiography,’ Tsiolkas says of Barracuda, ‘but it is from within me’.
He relates Danny’s experiences at his new school to his first years at Melbourne University more than to his own high school years. ‘I’ve been running away from this, but it was the experience of going to university that tore me away from my working-class roots. Becoming a student in that world, I had some amazing experiences, but I no longer was working class.’
Barracuda is priced at Dhs95, available at www.amazon.com.