In a 2011 interview, Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas declared, "There's a tameness to the modern novel."
His own novels, from Loaded (1995) to the sensational The Slap (2008), could be described as anything but. Never one to shy away from confronting and exploring violence, sexuality, masculinity, identity politics and shame, Tsiolkas' ambitious new novel, Damascus, reimagines events leading up to the establishment of the Christian church, based around the gospels and letters of St Paul.
While this epic and mind-melting historical novel may seem a stark departure from his strikingly urban narratives, Tsiolkas' hallmark themes are here along with ideas about class, exile, religion and belonging. It's a deep dive into theology and philosophy, which seeks to make sense of a figure that had a profound hand in shaping the Christian church.
Tsiolkas' books often start with a firecracker of an opening scene. While The Slap, which was made into a television series begins with a controversial slap, Damascus opens with a woman being stoned. Both spark a moral enquiry and ask the reader to question their world view.
"You know, I read a Jean Cocteau letter, where he wrote, 'What I want from art is to be astonished.' That has always stayed with me," says Tsiolkas, who appears at Wellington's Verb literary festival next week. "There's a selfishness in what I do. I'm working out my own feelings and ideas on the page."
Growing up in Australia with Orthodox Greek immigrant parents, Tsiolkas struggled with his faith during his adolescence as he grappled with his sexuality. At 13, he joined an evangelical group in a bid to "make a plea bargain with God" but could not reconcile his sexuality and faith.
"Much of my 20s was despairing. I was in a Bible group and I looked up and thought, 'I don't believe in this' and I walked out and then I was firmly atheist and got involved in socialist and left-wing politics. Later, though, I was working in a film library and across the road was a church. One day I walked in and immediately fell into prayer. It was like a body memory. I think I needed that release.
"There was a Bible there. It fell open to St Paul. It reminded me of how much I loved his letters, for their grace and beauty but was challenged by them. In one line, homosexuality is condemned. So that's the germ of where this book began. I am not a Christian."
The five years Tsiolkas spent working on Damascus began with an immersive research process where he set himself the task of not writing anything – or reading contemporary literature - until he had finished 14 months of research.
"I read the Jewish Bible and I read the Christian Bible and only texts written between 4BC and 3AD. The only exception was that I read the Quran."
He says that re-reading the Bible was important to gain a sense of the language and the harshness of the time. In Damascus, Paul (Saul) struggles with his faith and battles with the crisis of being faithful to the idea of God when he has his own sinful instincts and yearnings which lead to corruption.
Tsiolkas was interested in investigating the question of what happened on the road to Damascus, where, in a radical move, Paul rejected his world, family and religion to follow Jesus and become one of the apostles and champions of Christianity.
Lydia was another key character in Damascus; Tsiolkas says it was important for him to include a woman's voice in the book.
"I was thinking, 'What would make a woman of that time be pagan?' It's radical. It's a shattering of ideals. I was wondering what it would have been like to be a woman around at that time. It is a world of men with power, of celebrating men's voices and cutting out the voices of women. I wanted a woman's voice so when I had Lydia, that's when I knew I had my story," he says.
The world Tsiolkas created in Damascus is filled with political tensions between the Romans and Jews. There are floods of refugees - while writing, Tsiolkas could not have been fully aware these would bear a confronting parallel with the current turmoil in Syria – in a harsh and brutal world that is vivid and evocative right down to the visceral and sensory element of smell: the smell of blood, the smell of bodies, the smell of flesh putrefying and even the smell of fear.
Tsiolkas says it is his work in the theatre and working with actors that has sharpened his sense as a writer.
"I love the rehearsal space. It's not just about 'what does she look like?' but also 'how does she walk and what is the timbre of her voice?' We have five senses and I don't think we always use them all when we are writing," he says. "If you use the visceral element of scent and smell then you're right in the world. There were moments when I'd write a scene and then I'd have to go and have a shower.
"Getting the tone was right. A friend said to me, 'You don't want it to sound like The Life of Brian,'" he laughs.
As with all of his books, in Damascus, Tsiolkas zooms in on families and communities and examines the things that unite and divide them. He says family is core for him.
"I love my family. There was a period where, in a sense, I had to run away to claim my own life as a queer man. You know, the damage that families can do is equal part to the love. And I'm wrestling with that contradiction all the time in my fiction. There's a nakedness to character in families that is a gift to a writer."
Tsiolkas is known for his unflinching look at the complexities and nuances of sex, sexuality and violence and says it allows him, as a writer, to make sense of fear.
"I'm always wary of speaking about gender but there's this struggle with anger and rage in dealing with masculinity. And writing is a place I can explore that. For me at least, there is a real connection with anger and fear. But I really want this book to be a reminder of kindness and kindness as part of a collective history," he says.
"I do have an optimism. As a writer, you need to have a connection to your characters. I do try and not be judgmental of my characters. To try and walk in another person's shoes is important. Damascus might be radical but it's not blasphemous. I'm not out to ridicule this faith."
Damascus, Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin, $37)
Damascus – Christos Tsiolkas: Verb Festival, Wellington – San Fran, Thursday November 7
• Irish author Sinead Gleeson – there's beauty in pain. See nzherald.co.nz