Sofka Zinovieff Q&A
The House on Paradise Street was our book club pick for April 2012. Author Sofka Zinovieff – a Brit married to a Greek and bringing up her children in Athens, who previously wrote a non-fiction about her Russian grandmother – answered our questions about the book.
Q: I really enjoyed The House On Paradise Street. My question is: do you think the wartime period and the postwar history of Greece is still reverberating through the current crisis – and if so, how? Fabgranny
A: Thank you very much. Yes, I do think the reverberations can still be felt and that was something, even several years back when I started writing, which I wanted to explore in the book. Now it seems to be even more obvious. In the most recent election results, both the Stalinist Greek Communist party and the fascist New Dawn party got seats in parliament. A deeply disturbing indication of how Greeks can take to extremes in hard times. The political divisions have never really gone away, although of course, they have changed over the years. The persecution of the Left following World War II, and then the opening of those same wounds again during the Colonels’ Junta in the late 1960s-early 1970s only kept Greeks divided.
Q: One of the themes of the book is that the terrible 20th century history of Greece is partly the fault of the British. As a Brit living in Athens, is that something you are made aware of – or is it all water under the bridge now? Touchpaper
A: On the whole this is water under the bridge and you certainly wouldn’t be made aware of it day-to-day. It’s not that people bristle if you say you’re British or hold it against you. However, everyone over a certain age (and many younger people) know about the role of the British after the Nazis left and are aware of their “meddling” that at least contributed sparks to lighting the fire of the civil war. Predictably, this is felt much more strongly by anyone on the Left. What I wanted to bring out in the book is that there is more of a complex relationship between Greeks and British (on both sides) than is sometimes thought. Some Greeks resent the historical interference of the British in their politics, and some Brits seem to enjoy kicking Greece when it is down and exaggerating the insulting stereotypes of corrupt or “lazy” Greeks. I’d say it was a question of undercurrents on both sides.
Q: I wondered what your reasons were for writing the book in two voices, Maud’s and Antigone’s? Closetgran
A: I hadn’t originally planned it that way. It was going to be Maud’s telling of her and Antigone’s story. Then, a few chapters in, I was suddenly inspired to try out Antigone’s own voice. I had spoken with so many elderly “Antigones” in Athens that I had an idea of how she might be and I enjoyed it, so kept going. I felt I could relate to her stubborn need to cling on to justifying her past while being intelligent enough to have doubts. I was glad to be able to get further “inside” her than would have been possible if it was all Maud writing. I also liked the idea of people being not entirely able to understand one another – that it would become obvious that they had missed things about each other and that so much in life is not fully clarified or communicated.
Q: I thought the story really raced along. I think it was your first novel. Did you find fiction harder to write than non-fiction? Do you think the ability to tell a story with a good pace comes naturally or do you have to work at it? Flabgran
A: Thank you. Yes it is my first novel, and though I am a great reader of fiction I had never written anything fictional before. So it felt like a huge leap into the dark and there were times when that was quite frightening. Fiction inevitably has fewer restrictions and its very freedom can be daunting. Sometimes I found that it was coming out entirely differently to how I had imagined and I believe that however much I planned it and thought about it, a certain amount emerged spontaneously, almost from the subconscious. I can’t really say about whether these things are natural or worked at. I expect, like many things in life, they are a mysterious mix of the two.
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed The House on Paradise Street, and I am ashamed to say that I knew very little of the history of modern Greece. Since reading this book I am determined to find out more. I can really see this book being made into a film, What would be your reactions to this? Hopefully it would be better than the adaption of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin! gma
A: Thank you very much. I’m delighted that my book should inspire you to find out more about Greek history. If you are particularly interested in the Second World War, I would recommend Mark Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greece.
I love the idea of the book being a film. I was so thrilled to hear the characters “made flesh” on the BBC’s adaptation for Book at Bedtime and so the idea of actually seeing them is exciting. However, you do raise the spectre of all those awful films that are based on books, so I realise it would inevitably be a risk. In the book, I wanted to break away from many of the stereotypes that Brits have about Greece – the blue skies, cheery villagers and holiday beaches. It seemed important to have grey skies, middle-class Greeks and an urban landscape. It would be a horrible irony if a British film was made that went straight back to the clichés that can look so good on film.
Q: Maud is an anthropologist, as you are, I think. And of course she’s a Brit married to a Greek. Is she partly autobiographical? I really enjoyed the book, by the way! Firenze
A: I based certain factual aspects of Maud’s life on mine – I did a PhD in social anthropology and that was what brought me to Greece, I am married to a Greek and I have two teenage daughters who have lived in Greece for the last decade. But Maud has a very different character and very different husband and marriage to mine. I’d say that I have had a much less troubled and more loving relationship with Greece (and my husband!) than her, and that many of her problems were not things I’ve been through. However, it has been interesting to me that many people, even some friends, have assumed that Maud is a direct expression of me, and that Tig is based on one of my daughters (nobody who knows me thinks that Nikitas is based on my husband). For example, last week, a new English friend in Greece said his child had started refusing to speak to him in English, preferring Greek. Having recently read The House on Paradise Street, he asked me what this had been like for me – assuming that Maud’s experience with Tig was mine with my daughter. I had to explain that this hadn’t happened to me, but that I’d come across it as an anthropologist many years before and it had been very striking.
It would seem that readers often assume that even in fiction, things are not made up but are taken from experience. I’d say that in my case it’s a complex mix. I’ve picked up all sorts of things, magpie-like, from my life, my observations and my imagination, and created a parallel reality. All the characters have aspects of people I know, but none are based absolutely on one person. Maud is more cut-off, more typically “English” than I am, and is certainly someone who has made very different decisions and compromises in life to me. But I think her ability to be an insider and outsider, and to observe while participating, are characteristics we share.
Q: Maud seems quite lost in Athens, as though she doesn’t really belong. Is that an inevitable expat experience, do you think – or were you trying to make a particular point about her character and experience? getmehrt
A: I think there are all sorts of expat experiences, and that you can belong in a variety of ways as a foreigner living in another country. My own life in Greece has been remarkably positive and so, to a degree, I was trying to make a point with Maud. I have seen many cases of people who moved to Greece to follow a Greek lover, husband (or occasionally wife), who have ended up being somewhat resentful. I was interested in exploring how Nikitas made his own seduction of Maud overlap with Greece’s seduction and how the subsequent disillusionment became an element within her marriage and within her relationship to Greece. Maud’s problems and Nikitas’ alienation from her being British are part of the plot rather than being something universal or inevitable.
It seems to be very different for expats who come to Greece for their own reasons and then meet a Greek and stay. My own relationship has been a hybrid, in that I lived in Greece for several years as a student (when I learned Greek and fell for the country), then I met my Greek husband (in Moscow). We lived together outside Greece for 10 years and then made a joint decision to move to Athens. At that point I did have to get to grips with the idea of living as an ex-pat, but it was within the context of a long existing bond with the country and the language. Even with all the problems that Greece is currently experiencing, I feel a huge devotion to my adopted country.
Q: Antigone’s overriding love for her brother and need to bury his body seems to show the relevance of ancient Greek tragedy today. How does Nikitas’ attraction to Maud fit his mistrust of the British and their actions after the second world war? Is the name Maud significant, slightly off-kilter, out of time? Does this allow Maud to become Mod, Mond, almost a different person? I found the book very compelling, really makes me think about family perceptions and the writing of history. Harrikat
A: Thank you very much. I am fascinated by how different perceptions can be about the same person or event, even between people quite close to one another. This was something I pondered on a great deal with my previous book, Red Princess, about my Russian grandmother. I ended up realising how there were as many “stories” and different perspectives as there were witnesses, and that any “truth” was only going to be the best that I could do, and would not necessarily fit other people’s opinions. I wanted to develop that theme in The House on Paradise Street, so that people would be seen to forget, miss the point, not pass on information, and fail to connect.
The echo of the Antigone myth was something that felt appropriate in this case. Antigone Perifanis is someone who was prepared to sacrifice herself for her beliefs. Also, I’ve long been interested in the burial practises in modern Greece, with the digging up and preservation of bones, the memorials and ossuaries. But I didn’t want to overdo the parallels between myth and modern story – it’s meant to be a sort of after-echo rather than a straight-forward re-telling. And Antigone is a relatively common name in Greece, as are many other names from ancient myths.
Nikitas’ attraction to Maud is in some ways, “inappropriate” given his mistrust of the British, but I think that he also genuinely loves her and doesn’t find her nationality such a big issue. Unsurprisingly, given his background, he is a deeply troubled, complicated man, and there are times when he uses Maud’s foreign-ness and British-ness against her.
Yes, Maud’s name is slightly awkward – a sort of reflection of her own awkwardness and failure to fit in. I also enjoy how certain words and names are not very adaptable to Greek, as it illustrates how strange and complex the differences between languages are – how we translate words and phrases but they have an altered flavour. Mond or Mondy is somehow different to Maud, and she enjoys this, while also being somehow estranged by it.
Q: I was perplexed by Maud’s complacency over Nikitas. She seemed very happy not to know much about him until after he died. Were you making a point about her character, or marriage to Greek men – or perhaps you weren’t making a point at all?! totallygranned
A: I am fascinated by the way that some people manage to have marriages where they don’t ask too many questions, or where they don’t want to know too much – perhaps out of fear, or perhaps because it suits their character. There are already a number of lacunae between Maud and Nikitas, due to differences in age and nationality, but above all in nature.
Nikitas is evidently someone who has always trodden his own path, and Maud, being much more introverted than him, accepts that. I certainly wasn’t making a point about marriage to Greek men, so I suppose, if there is a “point” then it is more to do with how even within a marriage, there can be gaps, or failures to engage. I have to admit to returning to something I mentioned earlier, which is that a certain amount of all this emerged without me planning it or wanting it to “mean” something about Greeks or Brits.
As to Maud not knowing about Nikitas, I feel that she felt she knew enough – he did tell his story to her, and he didn’t actually know all that much about his mother until very near the end of his life. When he died suddenly, it was brought home to her Maud how little she really knew about the back story, and about Nikitas’ mysterious mother.
Q: Greece has become central to European politics – and very worrying now with neo-fascists in parliament – yet it certainly seem in Britain that we are rather ignorant of recent Greek history. I wondered why you think that is?Photon
A: Yes, it is horribly worrying the way people are disillusioned with the more central political parties in Greece, which is driving them to extremes that seem unbelievable – areas that were devastated by the Nazis, voting in neo-Nazis to Parliament.
As to Britain being unaware of Greek history, I think that unfortunately, there is quite a lot of world history that Britain has played a part in, that is not discussed enough today. Greece is a relatively minor case from the British point of view, if you compare it with former colonies or protectorates that have continued to have problems. Palestine, Iraq and India spring to mind…
Q: I found Antigone’s story absolutely riveting. I know it was based on truth – but were many women locked up for political reasons or was it very extraordinary? Sloopy
A: I’m so glad you were interested in Antigone’s story. Unfortunately, only too many women were locked up like Antigone. The descriptions of Averoff Prison were based entirely on fact, from books and testaments and I met a number of women who had been imprisoned there and who told me fascinating details about life there. Many of them stayed in prison through the ‘50s, were released in the early ‘60s and were then re-arrested and imprisoned by the Colonels’ Junta in 1967, when they were joined by a younger generation of left-wing women. Naturally, the prisons and exile islands and prison camps had many more men.
Q: I really enjoyed The House on Paradise Street. Sometimes novels with a political aspect get overwhelmed by the politics, but this is a very powerful family story. Was it hard work to hold those two aspects of the book in balance? Having done the research, was it easy to forget it again and write about your characters? Champagne
A: Thank you. I always knew that what interested me was the emotional aspect of politics and how it affects characters, how it enters a family and becomes part of its DNA. However, I did realise that I had to be careful, especially as a first time novelist, not to put too much of the research in – and that applied to history and all that “stuff” one accumulates during research, and that is so tempting to include.
Q: I was shocked at the various events that took place immediately after the war – I knew nothing about them and nor did others I have discussed it with. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to tell the story? To bring it to a wider audience? FeeTee
A: That’s great that you’re enjoying it. I, too, felt shock when I first found out about the December Events in Athens, 1944, and the role of the British around that time. I was also interested that it was so little known in England, so that was one of many motivations in writing this book.
Q: Did you always want to write? And did you plan out the novel beforehand or find out what was going to happen as you went along? Saturdayschild
A: Yes, I did always want to write, though I didn’t know whether I would be able to write a novel. It was a hope. Now I’ve done it once, I hope that I’ll write more fiction, though I’m currently writing another non-fiction book.
I did make plans before, and though they changed as I went along, I can’t imagine starting a book just with an idea rather than something more solid.
Q: I would love to know a bit more about you and the book – I have assumed it is translated from Greek but is this the case? And do you have Anglo-Greek connections? Kittyp
A: If you want to know a bit more about me and the book, you could check out my website, which has a biography section: sofkazinovieff.com
I am British, but third generation Russian on my father’s side – my paternal grandparents left St Petersburg after the Revolution. My mother’s family is English. I was born, brought up and educated in England and I write in English. My connection with Greece came from research I did in Greece as a student, but I had no previous link. The book has been translated into Greek, and I was able to be involved with checking that.
AND SOME COMMENTS…
I am over half way through and absolutely love it. Thank you very much for sending me a copy. Grandmanorm
Really enjoying my copy of The House on Paradise Street – it is nothing like I expected! For once, I did not read any reviews or anything about it before I started it.Fortunately it is cold and wet here so I will not be able to get on with the gardening or cleaning the conservatory windows! Will just have to read my book! Shame
Thanks for my copy. I love it and the way the story unfolds through the thoughts and actions of Antigone and Maud. I have spent many years holidaying in Greece and through Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and from Greek relatives learned much about the war years. The House on Paradise Street is adding to my understanding of the suffering of people of Greece. Can’t wait to finish it. It’s been to Rome and back with me! Jan
Thank you for my copy. A thrilling story, difficult to put down. Hameringham
I am loving this book. RuthMarianna
– Thank you so much to everyone for the enthusiastic responses and very stimulating questions. It’s wonderful to have such an interesting collection of readers! Sofka