A LITERARY WORLD: GREECE: An Interview with John Manuel
Author interview with John Manuel
Over the next few months, A Literary World is taking a new angle and looking at writers whose novels are set in Greece. I hope you will join me in discovering their insights into the land and its culture and why they choose to write about it. Without much ado, let me introduce you to my first guest, John Manuel. John has written four books of Grecian memoirs spanning almost four decades, plus three novels. He has also written for “Traveller”, the EasyJet in-flight magazine (see April 2013 edition).
Welcome to A Literary World: Greece, John,
1. Where do you live?
In the South of the island of Rhodes, up a mountain!
2. Can you tell us what your novels are about, where they are set, and what inspired you to write them?
“The View from Kleoboulos” is about a young couple who want to marry in Lindos, but something from the past rises up to shatter their world – twice.
“Brief Moment of Sunshine” traces the story of a main character from Kleoboulos, an apparent suicide, plus an adoption with huge complications. Again, Lindos features quite heavily as a location.
“Eve of Deconstruction” is about a woman, Eve, who discovers her Greek roots quite by accident when her Greek mother dies in the UK. Eve’s life is affected in all kinds of ways that she’d never have imagined as she finds out stuff about her past that she was never aware of during all the years that her mother was alive. The main Greek location for Eve is the fictional village of Sorona, north of Lamia, on the mainland.
The new novel due out shortly, “Can’t Tell”, is a crime thriller in which a young Greek woman’s past threatens to destroy her, quite literally it seems. It’s set on the fictional island of Spilos.
3. Why did you choose to set your novels in this particular place?
Well I’ve learned that it’s always best to write about what you know. Whilst I have been to virtually all parts of Greece over the years (many locations do feature fleetingly in the 2nd novel, Sunshine) I know the locations I’ve used particularly well. Never underestimate your readers. If they know a location, you lose credibility if they discover inaccuracies in your descriptions.
4. What is it about Greece that inspires you?
I love the country. I love its culture, its history, its music, its food, its people (even though they have their faults, as do the people of every country, eh?). I get really annoyed with ex-pats who’ve chosen to live here and yet spend half their time slagging off the Greeks. If the locals irritate them so much, why don’t they go back home then? They’d be no loss to Greece. I’m not blind to the faults. The bureaucracy as we all know is maddening, but it comes with the territory.
5. How did you come up with the titles?
Well, the walk out to the Tomb of Kleouboulos in Lindos is central to the theme of novel number one. The heroine and her fellow characters often sit out there and contemplate not only the natural view, but also their view on life. Sunshine just happens to be the name of the main character in novel number two. “Eve of Deconstruction”. Well, of course Eve is the name of the heroine and her life deconstructs around her in novel number three. Plus I liked the play on the song title “Eve of Destruction”, which just about everybody knows (they do, don’t they?). The new novel, “Sometimes You Just Can’t Tell”, refers to something that the main female character can’t tell anyone about. I’ll say no more than that because it would be a spoiler.
6. How long did it take you to write each book?
Probably about three months per book.
7. The Greeks believed that ‘inspiration’ came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Where do you believe inspiration comes from? –
A good imagination, odd things that happen around you, real life.
8. The ancient Greeks created masterpieces in literature of such brilliance – poetry, tragedy, comedy and history – that have inspired, influenced and challenged writers and readers to the present day. Do you agree with this and if so, why do you think they remain an inspiration for later writers?
Any tale that stands the test of time contains the basics that touch the soul. Human tragedy, misunderstandings in relationships, love and loss. The eternal themes all feature in the old Greek literature that I’ve read anyway! I suppose that if one identifies with a story, or at least with a character within it, then it’ll stay with one, won’t it?
9. The author, Simon Worrall, says that historian, Adam Nicholson suggests in his book, “Why Homer Matters”, that ‘a whole culture- not a single ‘Homer’ created the Iliad and the Odyssey and that it is a mistake to think of Homer as a “person”. He describes these great works as a metaphor for all our lives – struggles with storms. Do you agree with this theory?
Who cares? As long as it’s an enjoyable, even an educational read. We’ll probably never know anyway!
10. Visitors to Greece and Greeks themselves make mention of its physical beauty – the light, the wine-dark sea of Homer, and a diverse landscape. Would you agree with this?
I once asked a photographer if there was any truth in the talk about the light here being special. He was from Germany and had lived and worked in Greece for many years. He said that it is true, owing to Greece’s latitude and its abundance of islands across a turquoise sea. The angle of the sun and the combination of land and sea work together to produce light conditions that aren’t found in too many other places on the planet. Sounds reasonable to me.
11. Apart from the world of the gods, the Christian Orthodox religion played a significant role in shaping Greece’s culture. Do you believe that religion still plays an important role in Greek life?
I do, but I am unusual in that I don’t like the religion I’m afraid. In my view it has oppressed people with too many burdens for far too long. Of course, this applies to other countries as well, not just Greece. It’s not a subject you want to get me started on! Suffice it to say that I believe wholly in logic and there isn’t much of that in the established religions. Call me Mr. Spock. I don’t subscribe to the view that all these religious traditions are ‘harmless’ distractions. Their roots are in lies, deceit and hypocrisy. The truth never was all that popular though, sadly.
12. Greece’s history has been a turbulent one and it is often said that “a man is his ancestry”. To what extent do you think this history has shaped the Greeks?
Well, the fact that Greece has suffered innumerable occupations and invasions has certainly in my view engendered a resilience in the people that is admirable. I’m often asked why the Dodecanesian islands are Greek and not Turkish. I reply that they were Greek for centuries before Turkey ever existed as a nation. Despite the Ottomans, the Italians and the Nazis having tried to subdue these islands, they’ve maintained their Greek culture and language since before the time of Christ.
13. What would you say are the elements of the Greek spirit?
Ouzo. Maybe Metaxa too.
14. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
Hmm, not much to be truthful. I much prefer it when I can get down to writing the story.
15. What are you working on now?
Getting novel no. 4 ready for release. Then I’ll take a break before starting another project. I say “take a break”, but that means a summer season working as an excursion escort a couple or three times a week. I love doing it, because I meet new people every week, plus I get a free lunch!
16. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I have a cubby hole that could laughingly be called an office. I go in there and close the door. It would be hard to get a cat in there with me, let alone swing it, but it is reasonably comfy and tidy.
And a few quick questions:
17. Who are your favourite Greek authors or foreigners who have written about Greece? What are your favourite books set in Greece by Greek or foreign authors?
I loved John Mole‘s book “It’s All Greek to Me”.The title isn’t all that original, but his writing style I really enjoyed and I was very sad to finish reading it. Some of Victoria Hislop’s are good. “The Island” of course stands out. I recently read “Freedom and Death” by Nikos Kazantzakis and found it an amazing book. It’s not easy to read, but its presentation of brutal realities with an injection of humour strikes a perfect balance. It’s educational too, of course. He wrote “Zorba the Greek” too, as doubtless everyone knows.
18. Favourite type of Greek music?
Well, my wife’s mother was Greek and so my wife fills our house with Laika music all the time since she was brought up on it. So, I am familiar with and actually really like Stratos Dionysiou, Vasilis Karras, Pascalis Tersis and Notis Sfagianakis. But my absolute favourite Greek musician is Nikos Portokaloglou, who’s like a kind of Greek Paul Weller. He can do no wrong in my book.
19. Favourite Greek film?
Most Greek films are awful (there are some exceptions, granted). As for films about things Greek? Well, although I don’t care much for Cliff Richard, I did rather like “Summer Holiday”!
2o. Favourite Greek monument, sculpture or painting?
Where does one start?
21. Favourite Greek food?
Grilled Tsipoura (Sea Bream), Briam, baked aubergines with tomato, onion and herb sauce and a cheesy topping, vegetarian pittas stuffed with salad, tzatziki and a few chips, yummy – a filling meal for a couple of Euros!
22. Favourite Greek drink?
Beer – Fix. Otherwise I’m afraid I unashamedly love chilled Retsina.
23. Favourite place in Greece to escape to?
Here I’m thinking of an isolated beach etc. – Naxos, especially Apollonas – heaven!
Where can we buy the book?
Thank you for being a guest on A Literary World : Greece, John. Its been a pleasure to have you with us and I also share your love of Ouzo, Retsina, Briam, tzatziki, and that great number of the sixties, “Eve of Destruction”.
“Imagination – the muscle of the soul”
Cover image: Marble bust of Homer – 200 BC.