A Literary World: An Interview with Sylvia Karakaltsas
A Literary World
An Interview with Sylvia Karakaltsas
My guest today is Melbourne author, Sylvia Karakaltsas; someone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions. Welcome to A Literary World, Sylvia. Tell us about your yourself? When did you decide to become an author?
I worked in the corporate world for a long time and only fell into writing when I discovered letters between my father and my grandmother about his time on a phosphate mining island in the middle of the pacific in 1948. There was a double murder and while his letters where frustratingly deficient on details, it put me on a path towards researching what happened. I realized by fictionalizing it, I could put my research and imagination together to bring the story to life.
The natural progression was then to learn how to write which, in itself was daunting as I ploughed through courses and joined a writer’s group to obtain feedback and improve my writing. And so began my passion for writing when Climbing the Coconut Tree was published in 2016. It was all quite accidental with no plan or ambition initially, just persistence and hard work. Now I’ve published three historical fiction novels and a collection of short stories and haven’t looked back.
What are your novels about and where are they set?
I guess my interest is to write about little known places and underrepresented events, particularly in the immediate post-war years. My second novel, A Perfect Stone is set in Northern Greece during the Greek Civil War and focuses on the forced separation of children from their families and is a story inspired by my husband’s Macedonian family’s memories.
Can you tell us about your latest novel?
My latest recently released novel, The Good Child is a story of emotional and financial resilience, loss and unexpected friendship.
Commencing in 1937, it covers wartime Australia from a woman’s perspective, taking the reader right up to the financial turbulence of the early 1990’s. A dual timeline and dual character novel, it’s the story of seventy-two-year-old Lucille with a tragic past and thirty-year old Quin whose ambition has lost her everything.
Everyone hates Lucille for what her son, Tom has done and she expects he could go to jail. She ignored all of his faults — perhaps even encouraged them as she reflects back on where she went wrong.
On a train, Lucille has no money and no home just a blind overprotective love for her son which has been pushed to the brink as she’s forced to come to terms with what he’s done.
Quin worked for Tom so she knows exactly what he’s done because she helped him do it – she turned a blind eye to the corners he cut and the lies he told. Now, she’s lost everything by taking the blame for him and wants revenge.
Then she meets Lucille on the train and finds herself facing her past and her future.
What sort of research did The Good Child require?
I did a lot of research into life for women during the war in Melbourne and in Darwin. My aunt who is 102 years old helped paint a picture of how women alone managed their health particularly having children.
Quin’s story is set during the financial crisis on 1991 in Victoria and my research was drawn from many books, newspapers as well as a little on my own experience when I worked in the financial sector during that time.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered when researching.
I always uncover an enormous amount of research and find myself diving into rabbit holes. But I try very hard to disseminate that information appropriately into the novel to avoid an information dump. I feel that it has to belong to the story no matter how interesting all the research findings may be. I actually cut well over ten thousand words from my original manuscript for The Good Child. If it doesn’t help the story, it just can’t go in.
Are the characters based on real people?
My characters are all fictional although I may have been inspired unconsciously by people I’ve known over the years. I think as writers we can’t help borrowing character traits and flaws from real people.
Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
Absolutely. I think fiction makes the past relatable to anyone. Readers have told me that A Perfect Stone, which is about a young boy’s forced journey through the mountains during the Greek Civil War was incredibly relatable for people whose parents or grandparents had been refugees. And that’s the power of storytelling. I hope that in some tiny way, current and future generations, will better understand and appreciate the history of others as well as their own.
Tell us about your short stories.
Out of Nowhere: A Collection of Short Stories is a quirky and delightful mix of short stories taking the reader into unexpected territory. In the story, ‘On The Side Of A Hill,’– first included in the Monash Writers Group Anthology 2016 – a couple make a shocking discovery during their summer evening stroll. ‘The Surprise,’- shortlisted in the Lane Cove Literary Awards 2016, – follows a mother and son’s life changing journey. Transported to a café in ‘The River,’ a woman wonders, “Am I the only one who sees?” before the screams begin. And in the unforgettable title story, a man grasps why his wife is unhappy, too late.
On writing. What do you think is the secret to writing a good story? Are there any?
I’m no expert but what works for me is a compelling story, relatable and well-paced with great characters. It helps that I love reading and review many books for my blog. A well written story inspires me to improve every sentence I put on a page, to make sure it deserves its place and can move the story along.
Do you have a special writing space?
I have my own study and use the desk that my father bought in the 1950’s so I think it gives out the right vibe for writing historical fiction.
Is there a special time of day that you like to write?
Not really, just when I can although I usually avoid evenings otherwise my brain won’t slow down. Having said that, I have been known to write a whole chapter in my head while I’m trying to fall asleep and simply have to get up and get the words down.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do to chill out?
I read… a lot, then I love to talk about books to anyone who will listen, then review books on my webpage. But I also like to have a break from writing, chilling out by a bit of travel, eating out with friends and family, taking in the art galleries, and wrestling my garden back from the weeds while listening to music.
Who are your favourite authors?
There are so many great Australian authors such as Sophie Laguna, Charlotte McConaghy, Craig Silvey, and Hannah Kent to name just a few. Then there’s Anthony Doer, Amor Towle.
What’s next for you?
I am knee deep in another novel which is through its fourth draft with the working title of The Palace Hotel. Set in far north Queensland it’s a dual timeline historical mystery fiction centered around two female characters. Of course, it’s set in 1948 and the other timeline is the year 2000 with themes of forced adoption, and traumatic inter-generational exposure to environmental destruction.
I hope to release it in 2023.
Excerpt from The Good Child
It wasn’t as if the house was about to burn down. Yet, Lucille anxiously checked she had everything she needed. In her handbag: an envelope with a small bundle of photographs, her most precious memories; her medication; and her bank book holding details of the only money she had left.
Everything else was hardly important.
She glanced around the small timber cottage, its quaint prettiness now lifeless. It was more from habit that she double-checked the window locks and backdoor one last time. She’d got rid of most things, trying to sweep away her past so she could come to terms with her present, or what was left of it.
If anyone had enquired, they would have seen from her sunken eyes and thin frame that she wasn’t doing well. But no-one cared enough to ask. She pulled a hand-knitted beanie over her ears, tucking away stray wisps of white hair before wrapping a grey woollen scarf around her neck.
“You got the money, didn’t you?” Tom had asked on the phone the night before. “I sent you a cheque.”
She noted the concern in his voice. “No.”
“You must have. Come on, Mum. Have you been checking the mail every day?”
She heard the growing frustration in his voice. “Of course, I collect the mail, but you haven’t sent me any funds for more than five months.” How else did she know the electricity was to be cut off today?
“You’re kidding. Why haven’t you told me?”
“I thought you might have rung me when you reconciled your cheque account and realised that these so-called cheques hadn’t been cashed.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. As if I don’t have enough to worry about. It seems to me like you’re not looking after yourself. Jesus Mum, what have you been living on if you haven’t even cashed the cheques?”
She faltered. Perhaps he had sent the money. Then a sudden thought: perhaps they’d been stolen. There were people in this town desperate enough to do that.
It has been good to get to know you better, Sylvia, and to learn more about the story behind the books. We share a few things in common. I also love to chill out in the garden when not writing, and having a pet sitting close by, is always soothing company. On behalf of my readers, thank you for being a part of A Literary World and I wish you every success.