The pandemic was a strange gift for writers. If they weren’t homeschooling or juggling remote work, the lockdown provided almost perfect conditions to write: no shops or parties or distractions; nothing going on outside.
Yet on the other hand, the strangeness of the times made it difficult to focus on anything but the news. How could anyone create anything in the tumult and disorientation?
We are now at the point in the publishing cycle where works created in the first lockdowns of 2020 are hitting bookshelves.
While it doesn’t deal explicitly with the pandemic, Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel deals with isolation, a retreat to interior life, and at the conclusion, a cataclysmic global event that reshapes the world.
In March 2020, Tsiolkas was about to embark on a driving holiday in England and Ireland with his partner Wayne. That was cut short by the pandemic and realisation that life was going to change profoundly.
“For the first time in my life I was disturbed by the cavalier assumption so many of us had that there was nothing extraordinary in assuming the right to air travel,” he later wrote.
In Melbourne’s first lockdown he set himself the task of writing 800 words a day – and just kept on going until he finished a book.
“Because the world had narrowed so much, it allowed me a focus and a patience. If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I might not have sat in the stillness. I couldn’t travel, we weren’t going out, so I wasn’t waking up with a hangover saying ‘I’m not going to write today’. I had this space to concentrate,” he tells Guardian Australia.
Tsiolkas started writing on 20 March and finished a first draft by 4 October. There was of course redrafting and editing. “But that first draft came out really quickly. It just poured out of me.”
What emerged was the novel 7½. Part autofiction, part memoir, part novel, it’s a layer cake of a book.
One layer concerns an author (Tsiolkas) who has gone into isolation to start a new book. He rents a house on the south coast of New South Wales, writes, cooks, takes walks, swims and revels in the beauty around him (both in human form and in landscape).
The next layer is the story of the book itself. Called Sweet Thing, it’s about a former porn star and his family. The former porn star is offered a substantial sum of money to return to America to spend three nights with an old man who was obsessed with his films. The top layer is the author retreating into memories of youth and childhood. “I am paying homage to the people that shaped me,” Tsiolkas says.
7½ captures the experience of writing a novel better than anything I’ve read. In it we see the narrator’s external world narrow to the essential: cooking, eating and ablutions. But his imaginative world expands. Tsiolkas nails the way the fictional characters follow you around long after you’ve put down your pen and how the creative process continues to whirr in your brain when you are swimming or showering or first wake up.
While it is a book about craft, it is also a protest novel. The author of and in 7½ doesn’t want to engage in politics or culture – instead he wants to connect with beauty.
In one of the pivotal scenes in the novel, the narrator meets with an old friend named Andrea who baulks when he says he wants to write about beauty.
“We have grown old,” she says. “And you have grown soft.”
To which he replies: “Maybe I have. I am certainly tired of the outrage and anger. It’s not a world I want to inhabit any longer.”
So what does the real Tsiolkas think? Was this passage based on interactions he’s had with his own friends?
“So many friends were just getting angry all the time – they would be always on their social media feeds,” says Tsiolkas. “I was with friends down the coast and I wanted to look at the ocean and they weren’t looking up. Instead they were getting outraged about what Trump was tweeting and the planet and what was going wrong. I hate these things too, but I was like, ‘Just look at the fucking ocean – just look at where we are’.”
Like the narrator of 7½, Tsiolkas feels some public pressure to take a political stand on topical issues.
“At writers’ festivals over the past few years, I’ve felt as if I was disappointing people if I was expressing doubt or nuance. I felt a certain pressure to articulate certain positions in politics that I didn’t yet know what I felt about.
“In life, things are very nuanced but in the public sphere or on social media, the nuance disappears and it becomes either/or. The writing of [the novel] Damascus clarified for me how important doubt is. I’m really scared of surety – because of the consequences of surety in religion and politics.”
At 56 and the author of seven novels (this week he won the $60,000 Melbourne prize for literature in recognition of his work), Tsiolkas defends his right to write from different perspectives, genders and sexualities (he draws the line at “First Nations stuff” because “there’s so little I know” but “everything else is allowable”).
Yet he wonders, “Is this an old person’s book because of the distrust the narrator has for the phone and social media?”
He answers his own question: “But to write you need to find that space of patience and a bit of solitude – particularly if you want to get some clarity around something and it becomes impossible to do if you are constantly looking at the screen. You need to step away from the screen – whether you are looking at Twitter or porn or YouTube videos of cats and dogs.
“Targets move so constantly that what you are writing dates almost immediately – and you have no time for the serious contemplation of the big picture.”
7½ by Christos Tsiolkas is published by Allen & Unwin (A$32.99)