A LITERARY WORLD: GREECE. An Interview with Marjory McGinn
A Literary World:Greece. An Interview with Author Marjory McGinn
Over the years I have read many travel memoirs on Greece ranging from excellent to, well let’s be honest, quite superficial and which have either scratched the surface of Greek life or not all. Today’s guest to A Literary World: Greece, Marjory McGinn, is an author whose travel memoirs set in the southern part of Greece, most definitely fit into the former category. Marjory began her career as a journalist – and still is, and perhaps it is partly this background that has given her an instinct to bring to her writing many of the wonderful vignettes she tell us about. Living and immersing oneself in another culture is not always easy, yet Marjory is a writer who has developed a clear love for Greece and its people and it shows. She also has the ability to “tell it as it is” and still leave us with a warm feeling at the end. In most travel memoirs, it is the people who make the story, yet in these books the human protagonists are often usurped by an animal – the lovable and spirited Wallace, a Jack Russell Terrier who we have all come to love. Without more ado, welcome to A Literary World, Marjory. It’s great to have you with us.
1.Where do you live?
First of all, Kathryn, thanks for inviting me to do this interview. I’m honoured.
I am currently living in East Sussex in England.
2. Can you tell us what your Greek travel memoirs are about and what inspired you to write them?
The books were inspired by a mid-life odyssey to Greece my partner Jim and I took – along with our slightly bonkers dog Wallace – in 2010. We were escaping from an Arctic winter in Scotland and after years working in journalism, we were also sidestepping a downturn in the newspaper industry in the UK. We picked a remote village in the Mani in the southern Peloponnese on the mainland, for a year’s adventure which turned into three at that point and inspired my first two books, Things Can Only Get Feta and Homer’s Where the Heart Is. During our first year there, I had a vague notion that I might write a book if the experience was interesting and it turned out to be more inspiring than I could have imagined when we made the decision to integrate with the local Greek community there. My third memoir has just been published, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree which was the result of a second odyssey to Greece in 2014 for over a year on the adjacent, Messinian peninsula.
3. How did you come up with the titles and the design of the covers?
With the first title, I had wanted something light and humorous and this particular pun, Things Can Only Get Feta seemed to sum up the crazy things that personally had happened to us in Greece but also what was happening during the economic crisis, when things started to change for the worst. The second title was also a pun and a play on “home is where the heart is” obviously, but it was meant to convey the fact that Greece felt like home to me and this second memoir examined my long love affair with this country. The third title, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, reflects an incident that happened in Koroni. I have written about scorpions a lot in my blog since we have had quite a view visits from them over the years, but the scorpion is also a metaphor in the book. You will have to read it to see what I mean. The illustrations are all very beautiful I think and infused with Greek colours and all produced by the talented London artist Anthony Hannaford.
4. In Homer’s Where The Heart Is, you tell us that your love affair with Greece did not begin with “quaint white-washed villas by the sea”. When did it begin?
It began in the seventies when I first went to Greece not long out of school. I was very adventurous and decided to live in Athens despite Greece being ruled by a punishing military dictatorship. I arrived overland on a bus and the minute I stepped onto an Athens street that was it. As I described in the book: “I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.” Athens was very exotic then, a “heady, Levantine cocktail” and the political uncertainty of the time probably ramped up the atmosphere somewhat for a shy Aussie Scot on her first big overseas jaunt. I did interweave a back story in this book with my first experiences in Athens which I think explains how I became so enamoured of the place and it’s a period of my life that I have never written about before.
5. Many people choose to make a lifestyle change and explore new horizons. What made you choose Greece and why were you drawn to the Mani village of Megali Mantinea for your adventure in 2010?
When Jim and I were deciding on our mid-life odyssey in 2010 there was really no contest. I had been going to Greece at different points throughout my life and Jim also loved the country so it seemed logical. Also, I had some passable Greek which I thought would help us to assimilate. We were looking for an unspoilt traditional location but the hillside village of Megali Mantineia came to us quite by accident and we just embraced it.
6. Immersing yourself in another culture is not always easy and there are times when you feel like a complete stranger. What did you do to overcome this?
I have never felt like a stranger in Greece, partly because I always try to engage with local people which I again did from 2010 in Megali Mantineia where we met some outstanding characters like the lovable goat farmer Foteini. But as I have written in my books, even with some Greek language it can be difficult to forge friendships with people whose attitudes and lifestyle are so different from your own, particularly in a poor rural location. There is always a pain barrier to cross which I think we did, with funny and sometimes dramatic outcomes. I think it helped that we never went to southern Greece just to lie on the beach and do nothing much. We were also working to fund the adventure and freelancing for British and Australian publications while we were there, so from a purely practical point of view we had to engage with what was going on around us at the time, during the crisis. That helped.
7. You often mention the word kefi (high spirits) in your work. What do you think gives the Greeks kefi?
I think the Greeks are naturally high spirited and inclusive which is why we all love them so. I don’t know where their natural enthusiasm and energy for life comes from because as a race they have gone through some dire historic upheavals and have been occupied, oppressed, massacred and yet still their indomitable spirit shines through, as it has during the economic crisis. They are also stoical and we can only deeply admire them for their brilliant attitude to life.
8. Many visitors to Greece and who know the country well, including yourself, talk about the contrast and the contradictions of the people- “the irreconcilable contradictions between the old and the new, the glorious past and the inglorious present” and you mention that the prize-winning poet George Seferis wrote about the tragic predicament of Greece in a line from his poem In the Manner of G.S.
“Opou kai na taxidepso, I Ellada me pligoni” Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me’ Can you tell us what is meant by this?
I used this quote in Homer’s Where the Heart Is to illustrate a particular point. The poem was written in the mid-1930s and captures the sense of turmoil and melancholy of the interwar years particularly the events of the Greco-Turkish war from 1919 to 22 and the slaughter of thousands of Greeks in Smyrna, in present day Turkey. The poem expresses a disappointment by Seferis over what the Greeks had become in modern times, or how they were oppressed. I thought that had a parallel with the economic crisis years. I heard very many educated Greek friends, in particular, express their shame over the crisis and the way Greece was portrayed in international media as lazy and workshy which of course is not true. That was one of the saddest things about the crisis, for me, the way it destroyed the confidence of hard-working Greeks. Also, on a simpler level, the lines imply the aching nostalgia that Greeks and foreigners feel when they are not in Greece, or forced to leave for whatever reason.
9. 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 think the Greek Orthodox church has played a crucial role in preserving Greek culture, language and keeping whole communities together through some of the worst historic overthrows of Greece. I think that the Greek clergy, particularly in smaller communities and in rural Greece are the unsung heroes of this country and continue to quietly do a lot of good work in the parish for very little material reward. During the crisis, with very few large charity organisations in Greece to help people struggling without money and food, a lot of the burden has fallen on parish priests to help local communities which they are still doing. I have seen this first-hand. I met many Greek priests, and nuns in various churches, and also monasteries, who impressed me greatly and who despite the odds, were trying to keep a traditional way of life going, and churches open and operating during the crisis.
10. In Homer’s Where The Heart Is, you describe an incident in which the Greek family you rented your second house from danced the Kalamatianos. It remains one of your favourite memories of southern Greece. We’d love you to share that with us.
It happened during the Easter Sunday lunch at the house we rented in Paleohora in 2012 at the height of the crisis. The extended Greek family who owned it had come to the property to cook the traditional meal and we all sat outside at one big table with a Greek radio station playing music in the background. It had been a slightly more sombre lunch than usual as the crisis had been on everyone’s mind and suddenly a tune came on the radio that everyone knew and the family got up and started to dance the Kalamatianos in a loose chain. It became quite vibrant as it snaked its way through the family’s lush olive grove with everyone suddenly more light-hearted and laughing, with plenty of ‘kefi’. It was a gorgeous interlude and the kind of spontaneous happening that typically happens in Greece.
11. Of all the people you met and wrote about in the memoirs, do you have a favourite?
That’s an easy one. It would have to be the inimitable goat farmer Foteini whom we met on our first visit to Megali Mantineia and who in her way, sealed our fate and steered us towards the stone house we eventually rented. My friendship with her was to become one of the most curious and challenging of my life since on the face of it we had little in common but she was such a unique and unforgettable soul that I was drawn to her. The friendship really defined our whole stay in Greece. Even though we left the village after the first year and moved to nearby Paleohora, we made regular visits back to the village to see her and other friends and she reappears in the third memoir when we meet up with her several times and most memorably on a crazy shopping trip to Kalamata.
12. Can you tell us more about your third memoir, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, and why it took place in a different peninsula.
Although we left the Mani in 2012, to return to Scotland after three years away, we quickly drew up plans to have another long odyssey in Greece. We had planned a return to the Mani but it never happened. Plans always go adrift in Greece and that became part of the theme of the third book: how we ended up in a peninsula we hadn’t chosen and a house we never thought we’d live in, and it featured many more dramas and funny adventures. In fact, the town of Koroni, in Messinia, where the book is set was just as wonderful a location as the Mani and a great subject for a memoir as very little has ever been written about this peninsula.
13. If you were to sum up a few things which aptly capture your time in southern Greece, what would they be?
There are lots of things: the beauty of an olive grove in the morning light; caiques trailing across the Messinian gulf at sunrise; sharing meals with Greek friends; the spine-tingling sound of the Orthodox chant on Sunday morning. Every Grecophile has one of these lists. There is just something about Greece that captures your heart, and all underscored with a delicious simplicity.
14. An interview with you would not be complete without mentioning the lovable and spirited Wallace – who I am convinced is a dog with plenty of kefi. He has become a much-loved character in your books and readers have followed his antics with amusement (and sometimes worry). How did Wallace adapt to his new surroundings and in the end, what mark do you think he made on the villagers who were at first wary of him?
If the Greeks hadn’t invented kefi, Wallace would have. Wallace is quite a character, and lovably naughty, but I believe he also helped steer our fate in Greece – along with Foteini. Although it sometimes seemed that Wallace created an element of difficulty in Greece when it came to finding good rental properties for example, most of the choices we made in terms of location turned out to be inspired. We picked Megali Mantineia in the end because the owner of the stone house we rented was cool about having a dog there. The first time we met Foteini, she had stopped on her donkey when she saw Wallace because she thought he was a baby goat with his white body and black face. She had never seen a Jack Russell terrier before. Wallace does look, and acts sometimes, like a goat. I think the villagers were bemused by his antics, his funny bark, his ‘handstand’ pees that I described in the first book, and his pranks, like invading the Holy Friday procession at Easter. Wallace proved to be amazingly adaptable. He is a very willing little dog, very stoical. Sadly, he probably won’t ever go back to Greece again because he’s quite old now, almost 15, and has his health issues, but it hasn’t blunted his effervescent personality.
15. How long did it take you to write your books?
Each book took about a year in all including research, writing and rewrites.
16. The Greeks believed that ‘inspiration’ came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Where do you believe inspiration comes from?
As a journalist, and mainly a feature writer, I haven’t needed to find great subjects to write about as they have kind of found me. Perhaps journos have the muses on speed dial! Certainly for these travel memoirs, the inspiration came from our experiences in Greece and the people. I think I felt during our first year in the Mani that we were living through exceptional times, and the end of ‘old Greece’ as we knew it in past decades. For that reason, I wanted to capture this way of life in a book before it disappeared altogether. That was a huge inspiration.
17. 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?
The ancient Greeks were a phenomenon. They were so incredibly wise, with a celestial talent but they also had the human touch and in their work all mankind’s foibles are there. The big human emotions and dramas are there too. Incredible! Did these ancient folk come down from a superior planet and establish this unique civilisation in Greece? Just sayin’.
18. The author, Simon Worrall, states that historian, Adam Nicholson suggests in his book, Why Homer matter’s 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?
I kind of like the idea that Homer was in fact one clever individual, just as I like the idea of Shakespeare being one and not a collective of geniuses. But yes, you could say the stories are bigger than any one person could have envisaged so they must have been ‘cultural’. In the same way, the disciples’ testaments in the Bible were probably written by groups of people and not just four.
19. 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?
Definitely. Much is said about the beauty of the Greek islands but I found a monumental kind of beauty in the southern mainland with its mountains, gulf and vast horizons. In Koroni we rented a house overlooking the gulf and the Mani peninsula and the view was vast and ever changing, as I described in my third memoir. Every morning, I couldn’t wait to wake up and open the shutters on this glorious scene.
20. What are you working on now?
Although I have a few ideas for other books set in Greece drawing on my lifetime of travels there, I have started writing a novel set in southern Greece that will be very different for me and will have its own cast of characters. Again, I didn’t really plan it, the plot started to chip away at me the last time we were in Greece and so far I’ve enjoyed what the muses have come up with.
21. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I try to write most days for a few hours. Currently I have an attic study in our house in Sussex with a view of fields and horses and it’s very soothing. The room however owes more to Greece with a slew of Greek memorabilia, photos and the odd saint here and there to keep me centred.
An a few quick questions:
22. Who are your favourite Greek authors or foreigners who have written about Greece?
I like Greek poetry and my favourite poets are George Seferis and Konstantinos Kavafis. I also like Nikos Kazantzakis, particularly Zorba the Greek and Report to Greco.
23. Favourite type of Greek music.
Laiki and rembetika.
24. Favourite Greek film.
Ο Θίασος (The Travelling Players) by Angelopoulos, even though I struggle with the Greek. It is epic.
25. Favourite Greek monument, sculpture or painting?
I love the statues of the Kariatides maidens (caryatids) on the Acropolis and wish the British museum would set the captive, remaining sister, free and send her back to Athens.
26. Favourite Greek food?
Grilled sardelles (sardines) with a Greek salad.
27. Favourite Greek drink?
A Nemean red.
28. Favourite holiday destination?
Anywhere in the southern Peloponnese because it is still a remote and funky remnant of ‘old Greece’, well, to me anyway.
29. Where can we buy your books?
The three books can be bought on Amazon, all sites in paperback and ebook format.
Links: Author Pages on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Marjory-McGinn/e/B00FIQ0FBK/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Facebook books page http://www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta
Thank you for being with us, today, Marjory. One of the joys of doing these interviews is gaining an insight into other authors and learning something new. I am now going to look for the film Ο Θίασος (The Travelling Players). On behalf of readers to A Literary World: Greece, we wish you continued success.
NOTE: For earlier interviews, please visit my blog at www.kathryngauci.com
1822: During one of the bloodiest massacres of The Greek War of Independence, a child is born to a woman of legendary beauty in the Byzantine monastery of Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios. The subsequent decades of bitter struggle between Greeks and Turks simmer to a head when the Greek army invades Turkey in 1919. During this time, Dimitra Lamartine arrives in Smyrna and gains fame and fortune as an embroiderer to the elite of Ottoman society. However it is her grand-daughter Sophia, who takes the business to great heights only to see their world come crashing down with the outbreak of The Balkan Wars, 1912-13. In 1922, Sophia begins a new life in Athens but the memory of a dire prophecy once told to her grandmother about a girl with flaming red hair begins to haunt her with devastating consequences.
1972: Eleni Stephenson is called to the bedside of her dying aunt in Athens. In a story that rips her world apart, Eleni discovers the chilling truth behind her family’s dark past plunging her into the shadowy world of political intrigue, secret societies and espionage where families and friends are torn apart and where a belief in superstition simmers just below the surface.
Set against the mosques and minarets of Asia Minor and the ruins of ancient Athens, The Embroiderer is a gripping saga of love and loss, hope and despair, and of the extraordinary courage of women in the face of adversity.