Thursday, 11 February 2016

Getting All Literary

An author and fellow "Admin" of my Facebook group "A Good Greek Read" is Englishwoman Kathryn Gauci, who now lives in Melbourne, Australia. Kathryn, a dedicated Grecophile, has a lovely website and you can visit it by clicking here. She used to live in Greece and has written a successful novel called The Embroiderer, which has gained some pretty impressive reviews on Amazon (that link is to the site, but if you want the UK one, or any others for that matter, you'll know to scroll to the bottom of the page and from there select whichever Amazon site you prefer to consult).

Recently, Kathryn interviewed me about my writings and, if you haven't already read it, you can read the interview by clicking HERE. So, I thought, as was the case with Chrissie Parker a while back, that it would be really nice to fire the same questions back to Kathryn as she had put to me, mainly because I believe my readers would be interested, but also of course, because she maintains a very informative website and blog, which you can get to through her website.

So, let's get started...

  1. Where do you live?
Melbourne, Australia.

  1. Can you tell us what your novel is about and what inspired you to write it?
The Embroiderer begins in the spring of 1822 during one of the bloodiest massacres of The Greek War of Independence when 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, a couturier, 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 when the Italians and Germans occupy Greece, 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.
The story unravels when Eleni Stephenson, an English woman living in London, is called to the bedside of her dying aunt in Athens in September 1972. In a story that rips her world apart, Eleni discovers the chilling truth behind her family’s dark past plunging her into the sensuous and evocative world of Orientalist art and Ottoman fashion, to the destructive forces of political intrigue, secret societies and espionage where families and friends are torn apart and where a belief in fate and superstition simmers just below the surface.
Set against the backdrop of the mosques and minarets of Asia Minor and the ruins of ancient Athens, The Embroiderer is a sweeping family saga spanning several generations. Offering a fascinating insight into a forgotten world, it is a story of love and loss, hope and despair, and of the extraordinary courage of women in the face of adversity.
It was inspired by firsthand accounts from the Asia Minor Catastrophe refugees when I worked as a carpet designer in the refugee area of Nea Ionia/ Kalogreza in Athens in the 1970’s. During that time, I began to immerse myself in Greek history, especially the period under Ottoman domination. As a textile designer I also had an interest in the arts of that period.

3. Where in Greece is The Embroiderer set?
The prologue begins on the island of Chios and later returns to it. The rest is set in Constantinople, Smyrna and Athens, with a small section set in London.

    4. Why did you choose to set your novels in this particular place?
The Massacre of Chios in 1822 played an important part of The Greek War of Independence. Constantinople and Smyrna were the two major cities of the Ottoman Empire. The burning of Smyrna was a turning point in Greek/Turkish relations and Athens is where most Greek refugees from the Catastrophe ended up.
Massacre of Chios by Eugene Delacroix

Burning of Smyrna

       5. What is it about Greece that inspires you?
Living and working there gave me a great insight into the history, the people and the culture. It was an important period in my life and no matter where I am, my spiritual heart will always be in Greece.
       6. How did you come up with the title?
The Embroiderer was a natural title as so much of the early protagonist’s lives centred around embroidery and then fashion. It is one of the threads that carries the story. There is also a hidden meaning in this title which is not revealed until the end.
       7. How long did it take you to write your book?
Almost six years. Plus I could not have written it without my earlier experience in Greece and later, Turkey.
        8. The Greeks believed that ‘inspiration’ came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Where do you believe inspiration comes from?
I do think some people are naturally more creative than others. Such people have an instinct that cannot be learned. The phrase “Let your imagination run wild” is true. Imagination knows no bounds but to gain it one needs to let go of conventions; to explore and be inquisitive. Children have this natural ability but lose it at as they develop due to the constraints society puts on them.
         9. 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?
I think they opened up a whole new world for us. Suddenly literature in all its forms was recognized as contributing to our daily lives. They challenged us to think about who we are and how we interact with each other. 
         10. The author, Simon Worrall, states 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?
That may be true. In a time when few people could read or write, the storyteller played an important role in people’s lives. Any good story teller worth his salt would have to create light and shade into his narrative; good versus evil, heroes and villains – struggles with storms. All this would gradually gather momentum to become an epic.
        11. 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?

When I see the soaring rugged mountains that gave birth to the gods, diverse villages that nestle among valleys or perch high on a mountain ridge, and when I inhale the scent of pine in an age-old landscape of olive groves, or view a cluster of islands floating in a sea of turquoise through a veil of translucent light, yes, I would definitely say that Greece is a land of great beauty.

12. 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?

Religion, or rather the sense of theatre which surrounds particularly the Greek Orthodox Church, is hugely important to most Greeks. My old boss in Athens – an atheist of the first order – once told me that in his opinion, Greeks love the pageantry and sense of occasion of religious festivals because it harks back to the glorious feast days of the gods, especially Dionysus – a reason to get together and have a good time. It’s also been my observation that Greek priests are a part of the everyday life of a community and their steadfastness in the face of Ottoman oppression only served to reassure the people that they were not only there to serve God, but the people themselves. I am not a religious person but I do think religion has contributed to giving us great art and some of the most beautiful and serene churches can be found all over Greece.

Kaisariani Monastery, Athens

13. 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?

Their history is what binds them together and gives them a sense of shared identity. Greeks hold on to their past - good and bad - with pride. They have a great distrust of government and bureaucracy but given the fact that Greece has only been an independent country for a short time (just over one hundred years if we take into account the half of Greece gained after the Balkan Wars), and have suffered many wars and dictatorships in a short space of time, then this is understandable. In the end it has made them resilient.

         14. What would you say are the elements of the Greek spirit?
A love of life, pride in their country and who they are, and they are endowed with enormous generosity of spirit and hospitality. They are also naturally inquisitive and are not afraid to ask what often seems to an outsider, prying questions. Kazantzakis gives an excellent example of this in Zorba the Greek. I think this says it all.

“My maternal grandfather, who lived in a fair-sized Cretan village, used to take the lantern every evening and go round the village to see if, by chance, any stranger had arrived. He would take him to his house and give him an abundance of food and drink, after which he would sit on the divan, light his long Turkish pipe, his chibouk, and then turn to his guest – for whom the time had come to repay the hospitality – and say in a peremptory tone:
Talk about what, Father Moustoyorgi?”
What you are, who you are, where you came from, what towns and villages you have seen – everything. Tell me everything. Now speak!”

        16. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
I enjoy all the research, especially when I’m travelling. You can only get so much from books and the internet but nothing replaces the sights, sounds and smells of the real thing. I’m also rather talkative and so I love meeting people and hearing their stories.

        16. What are you working on now?
The current WIP is set in France during WWII. Much of the research was done whilst writing The Embroiderer, particularly the third part which is set in German occupied Athens from 1941-44. I am fascinated by anything to do with spies and the resistance. War changes people. It makes them do things they would never usually dream of. After that, I will be back in Ottoman Greece, between the years 1810 and 1821 – a tale set in Northern Greece just prior to The Greek War of Independence.
17. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?

I have a small room, surrounded by books, which opens onto a tiny patio filled with trees and bushes. It’s peaceful and I can spend hours there. Whilst I might notes everywhere else, it’s only in this room that I can pull it together.

And a few quick questions:

• What are your favourite books set in Greece by Greek or foreign authors?
Nikos Kazantzakis’s Freedom or Death, Christ Recrucified followed by Zorba the Greek – the book shows far greater insight into human nature than the film; any Patrick Leigh Fermor book, Leon Sciaky’s Farewell to Salonica: City at the Crossroads, Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Friends. I am also a lover of Modern Greek poets such as Cavafy, Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Plus there’s a growing ‘must read’ list of excellent authors who feature on A Good Greek Read.
• Favourite type of Greek music?
Yianni Parios and Haris Alexiou. I have been playing their records for years. Hadzikakis and Theodorakis. I also love the classic Rembetica musicians such as Vamvakaris and Tzitzanis.
Haris Alexiou

• Favourite Greek film?
Stella, the 1955 film directed by Michael Cacoyannis and featuring Melina Mercouri and Giorgos Foundas. Plus it has that great singer of the war years- Sofia Vembo. I also loved the serial, Who Pays the Ferryman
Stella - the film

• Favourite Greek monument, sculpture or painting?
Any archeological site, Byzantine monastery or Ottoman building – all of which I am in my element when viewing alone in the heat of the day with not a soul in sight.
• Favourite Greek food?
Baked prawns and fetta which I first had in 1972 in Mikrolimani, grilled lamb cutlets with lots of rigani and a generous amount of tzatziki, and for desert, heavenly cinnamon-scented loukamathes.
• Favourite Greek drink?
Plomari ouzo and retsina.
• Favourite holiday destination?
A difficult one. Perhaps Chios for the history and Karpathos for the unspoilt beaches.

And, finally...
Where can we buy the book?

Or direct from the publisher: Silverwood Books, Bristol, UK.

There you go folks. Hope you enjoyed Kathryn's comments and now maybe - go check out The Embroiderer!


  1. Brilliant idea to question the questioner... you beat me to it! Lovely insight to what makes Kathryn tick. X

  2. What a lovely interview. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. Kathryn's love for Greece is infectious! Beautiful interview!

  4. What a terrific interview! Kathryn's lyrical prose rendered me mesmerized as I read and it was just an interview - I can only imagine how poetic her writing style in novels must be! I am looking forward to reading The Embroiderer. My paternal grandfather had lived for many years in Tsesme, in Asia Minor, so I know the book will speak to my heart!