Today we welcome author James Cristina to share the inspiration behind his new novel Antidote to a Curse.
I wrote a short story, approximately ten pages, that I published years ago in an American gay quarterly magazine. I wrote this story, in pen, in one sitting and was surprised by how effortlessly the words flowed. In some ways, this would prove to be the kernel that gave rise to the novel—even though I ended up shedding this section later on. About the same time a character, not presented in the short story, came to mind, a hybrid, Kafkaesque character. I had been working on some short lyric poems and the character first appeared in one of these poems that I presented in a workshop class run by Judith Rodriguez. The inspiration to the novel would be this convergence between short story and character that emerged in one of my early poems.
This convergence felt like being seized somewhat.
I have heard Janette Turner Hospital speak about the inspiration behind her novels where she described the feeling-of-inspiration as being somewhat akin to being hit on the side of the head with a cricket ball! She had expressed this feeling as being the result of a convergence between an image and a burning question that she felt compelled to explore. For me it was more a convergence of what I have described as this Kafkaesque character and a realist story, devoid of fanciful characters, set in Melbourne. The question for me was how do the two go together? I think the question was apt because it took me years and countless drafts to work this out.
A fanciful character and a realist setting, both that would eventually take me to another part of the world. It was obvious to me from very early on that the novel would be divided into two main parts. A binary narrative, dovetailed together. I liked this idea of two disparate, related entities being woven together like two locks (one natural, the other coloured) being plaited together.
Finding a structural setting was one thing, but the task had altered somewhat: how to be in two places at once?
This was possible in musical terms, particularly contrapuntal music. I had studied music seriously at La Trobe University. They had a wonderful course called: The Art of Listening. I enjoyed it so much that I swapped from the minor to major stream, though then I liked it less. One thing that I enjoyed when studying various compositions was studying how two different themes would be used to make a piece more varied and colourful. I liked seeing how these themes related to one another in the larger course of the composition, how these themes altered, influenced each other and how they sometimes mirrored one another and changed. My background was literature. I had studied a poem by Plath entitled Little Fugue. I liked how she so cleverly used the two phrases, ‘yew’s black fingers wag’ and ‘cold clouds go over’ and how these phrases and images recur, merge, only to recur again somewhat altered. While being an accomplished poem, I thought it was also an enticing, cross-disciplinary experiment. Given my enjoyment of music, I wondered if I would ever be able to do something like that with a piece of writing.
So what were the main themes? What was going to be woven together only to end up altered in some recognisable form?
In the novel, the protagonist Silvio meets a Bosnian immigrant. There is Silvio’s present circumstances and Zlatko’s past, something he has escaped from. Silvio starts compiling a notebook, one where he researches the all too recent war and the regions in Bosnia that Zlatko refers to in their encounters. Silvio conducts his own research while borrowing from Zlatko’s direct reports in order to write a story, the story surfaces in Silvio’s dreams and is in turn recorded in his notebook. Silvio and Zlatko meet regularly and their encounters develop into a relationship. Silvio’s dreams and Zlatko’s past alternate and merge with the present.
In 2013 I won the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award. I won this for a slither of the novel that I thought stood in its own right and entered the novella section. To my surprise I won. It seemed my ideas, including the concept of a binary structure, worked for other readers. At the awards I met Barry Scott, publisher of Transit Lounge. I decided to make the extract that I pulled from the draft my new beginning and with the help of Barry and Transit I slowly began to re-piece and rewrite the novel.
Of course the precursor for a gay character had long been there. I had read Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded and liked the immediacy of it as well as the exploration of a character that was at times at odds with his environment and adoptive culture. The protagonist of Antidote to A Curse, Silvio Portelli, was of Maltese background, like myself and had taught abroad. I was able to use my heritage, experiences of teaching abroad and interest in travel to further inform and develop the protagonist while lending from a broad range of literary influences.
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Antidote to a Curse Synopsis:
It’s the 90s. Silvio Portelli returns to Melbourne after time spent teaching in England and rents a room from the charismatic octogenarian, Nancy Triganza. Nancy is having an elaborate aviary constructed to indulge her passion for birds. At a city sex shop, Silvio meets the mysterious Zlatko, a Bosnian immigrant and, in a previous life, a collector of rare birds. Silvio becomes obsessed with Zlatko, and his own journal and dreams begin to mirror Zlatko’s past, and in time the reality of what happened in Bosnia. Such revelations are counterpointed by Silvio’s own tense wait to learn the result s of his tests for HIV.
Bold in design, Antidote to a Curse is a story in which the hunter becomes the hunted, the writer the subject, and vice versa. Cristina lovingly captures Stalactites cafe where Zlatko and Silvio often meet, and a city enmeshed with Europe, both physically and in spirit.
Rich with images and allusions yet grounded in the everyday Antidote to a Curse is a startling debut. Cristina subtly draws the reader deeper and deeper into a state of psychological obsession where only the truth can provide a way out.
(256 pages, Transit Lounge Publishing – July 2018)
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About the Author, James Cristina
James Cristina was born in Malta. His parents migrated to Australia in the late sixties and he grew up in Melbourne. He has taught English in Australia, Malta, England, the U.S., Jordan, Bahrain, Switzerland, Belgium, South Korea and Oman. He holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.