A Conversation with Greek Writer Christos Ikonomou
In sixteen short stories that closely follow the everyday lives of young Greeks, Christos Ikonomou brings readers inside the economic crisis.
Ikonomou’s recently translated collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, explores a Greece that few see on vacation. With his use of repetition, dry humor and raw emotion, Ikonomou relates that plight. In one story, the narrator describes his friend Takis: “I see his mouth take on an odd shape and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes look like prints left by small birds on wet earth, so many tiny wrinkles, like carved lines, like the prints of birds that took fright at something and rose up into the air.” These poignant details give voice to the working class of Greece—people who worry about how to put food on the table for their children, who drink to escape the pang of disappointment from unemployment. Like Tim O’Brien or William Faulkner, Ikonomou employs sentences that flow long into each other, forgoing traditional punctuation marks of quotation and commas. Ikonomou allows the reader to become fully immersed, drifting down the stream of each sentence until the very last.
Ikonomou writes with compassion, bringing us close to his characters through a sympathetic expression of the banal, and heroism, of just surviving. The economic crisis is real, not an abstract, and as are the people, all the people, who populate the Greece of today.
Christina Berke: In an interview, you said that reading was a huge part of your childhood. What was your experience like in obtaining books (library visits, book stores, school)? What was your life like growing up, and has that changed at all in Greece for children today, especially considering the economic crisis?
Christos Ikonomou: Reading is an inseparable part of my life. Actually, as far back as I can remember myself, there was always one or more books open somewhere around me. My parents were not avid readers themselves, but they had always prompted me to read, so they would buy me as many books as I wanted. Besides, since they were both overprotective and wouldn’t let me go out by myself or play with other kids, they’d thought, I guess, that reading would keep me busy at home and spare them the constant nagging. I think I was an introverted child, quiet and shy, with few friends and a lot of imagination. I’d always imagine I was somebody else, living somewhere else, doing something else. I tend to avoid generalizations, but, roughly speaking, I think that the main difference between growing up now and then—apart, of course, from the obvious consequences of living in a crisis-ridden country (deteriorating educational and health service standards, etc.)—is that, back in the ‘70s, there were far fewer distractions: no computers, no Internet, no video games, no cell phones, no social media, nothing—just the old good TV. This, of course, is something that happens with kids all over the world, not just in Greece. I guess it must be far more challenging and difficult—and it must feel even more ‘‘strange’’—to be an introvert or lonely child nowadays than it used to be back then.
CB: After reading The Catcher in the Rye and wanting to become a writer, what was your path like from then on out? Were you always focused on writing? Were there teachers who pushed you, recognized your talent? What did you study? Are you teaching writing, going to workshops?
CI: To be honest, I had started to write long before I read The Catcher in the Rye. I was keeping some kind of diary since I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. As I’ve said, I didn’t have many friends, so writing seemed to be some sort of communication. Actually, I was writing down these long imaginary dialogues between my many imaginary selves and other imaginary people. That’s how I made my first attempt at writing. But, you know, I had never wanted to become a writer. I mean, I know that a lot of writers say that they always knew they would become a writer, but that’s not the case with me. I don’t think I’ve ever said to myself that I would be a writer. I was just reading and writing without thinking what would come next. I knew that these were the two things I wanted to do more than anything else, but, again, there was not some specific moment in my life in which I decided to be a writer. Even now, I don’t like to use the word ‘‘writer’’ when I’m talking about myself. I wasn’t raised in a literary environment, but I was lucky enough to have a great teacher of Classics in high school—a highly educated and well-read young woman, with whom I had a close bond—and she was the only person who pushed me to do something with my writing, since she thought highly of my writing skills. Meanwhile, I had started listening to music and soon I became passionate about Jim Morrison’s lyrics. So, I tried to write poetry for a while, but then, in my late teens, I switched to prose, because it seemed to me, for one reason or another, that the things I had to say would be better said in that form. Since I had never thought of pursuing a career in fiction writing, I decided to study journalism, because I was thinking (yes, I was that naïve) that journalism was the only profession that came close enough to reading and writing. Anyway, I studied for two years in a private school, then I did my military service, and, after that, I took my first job as a reporter in a newspaper. I kept on writing, of course, almost on a daily basis, but my first book came out several years later, in 2003, partly because I write very slowly and partly because of the constant rewriting and the insecurity I feel all the time about the quality of my writing. I started to write my second book, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, in late 2003, or early 2004, but it was published in 2010, and only thanks to my wife, Julia, who has that tremendous, unflinching faith in me and pushed me to wrap it up—otherwise, I would probably still be typing the manuscripts and fiddling around with commas and periods. My third collection of short stories came out in 2014. It is the first part of a trilogy about a group of ex-urbanites Greeks, who are forced, after the outburst of the economic crisis, to move to an Aegean island.
[To make ends meet] I work as a political correspondent in one of the largest Greek newspapers and I teach creative writing in a workshop in Athens.
CB: Something Will Happen, You’ll See originally came out in 2010. How did you get in touch with Karen Emmerich, and what was the translation process like? Do you speak English fluently and if so, why did you choose to use a translator instead? Do you think it does it justice? What is your hope in bringing it to English speakers?
CI: If I remember correctly, it was my agent, Evangelia Avloniti, who put me in touch with Karen, although I was already familiar with her work and knew that she’s one of the best translators of Modern Greek literature. Actually, I have worked as a translator in the past and I also have translated a couple of my stories in English, but I wouldn’t dare to translate the whole book, not only due to the lack of time, but mainly because I would be tempted to revise the original (again). I had an excellent collaboration with Karen, and I am grateful for the amazing work she did. I hope that her work will help the English speaking audiences realize that this book is not just about the Greek crisis, but it tries to address many more universal and timeless issues.
CB: You’ve been called the Greek Faulkner. Do you consider this a compliment? Was he someone you strove to emulate, or do you have others who have influenced you? Are you somewhat of a celebrity in Greece, as in very much appreciated and/or recognized? What’s it like to be a writer in Greece?
CI: I guess it’s a compliment, but I don’t take these things too seriously. For people like me, who place high demands upon themselves and their work, such comparisons seem distracting and futile. After nearly 25 years of writing, I have come to the conclusion that, what matters most to me is to try not just to push myself forward on the road that other writers have already opened, but to open my own road. Opening a new road, that’s what I’m trying to do.
There are some people in Greece who appreciate my work, but it would be pretty funny, really, to think of myself as a celebrity. There is no such thing as a celebrity writer here. The book market is rather small, and the reading audience is even smaller (actually, the running joke is that there are more writers in Greece than readers). Of course, some writers are better known than others, but, all in all, it’s highly unlikely for a writer to draw public attention—unless they get involved in politics or start posting offensive messages on social media.
CB: What is your writing process like? Are you someone who writes a little every day, only when you get inspired, or….? How do you keep track of your characters, and get into the voice/ tone when you go back to writing or editing after a break? Do they talk to you, or you them? Do you go to cafes, eavesdrop, use stories of friends? Have any writing rituals?
CI: I try to write a little every day, no matter what. For me, inspiration is like hope: most of the time, you have to create it yourself. I’m writing very slowly, and only when I’m home, sitting at my desk. The main reason for writing slowly is that I need time to believe what I’m writing about. I know that probably this is not a wise thing to say in public, but when I write, I hear voices in my head. So, I need time to find out who these voices are and what exactly they say to me. Writing a story, as I see it, is kind of a religious experience: logic is not enough—you need to have faith in it. You have to trust the voices, and you have to trust the tales they tell. You have to be able to distinguish reality from truth. I have a myriad or writing rituals—actually, writing is one huge ritual for me—but I feel a little bit embarrassed talking about it. So, let me just say that I need a pencil, some paper, and a lot of silence.
CB: What are you reading right now, why, and what are you currently working on? How long does a project typically take (like this last collection)?
CI: I’m currently reading a lot about Christian theology not only because I’ve been always interested in it, but also because I need to do some research about the second book of the trilogy. As I’ve said earlier, I’m a painfully slow writer, so it takes me always a long time to finish a book. It took me almost seven years to write Something Will Happen, You’ll See, and almost four years to write the last collection. I don’t even want to think about how long it will take me to write the next one.
CB: Before I got to the short story “The Things They Carried,” I very much thought of Tim O’Brien while reading your collection (especially with “Mao”). Was this intentional? What was the process behind deciding which pieces to include, in what order, and what to title the collection?
CI: I have a great appreciation for O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and especially for the eponymous story. I think it’s one of the best examples of the author’s ability to distinguish between reality and truth, which is something extremely important to me. But you know how things are with the books you are falling in love with: after you have read them innumerable times, they become part of your innermost self in such a way that it’s almost impossible to draw a line between what’s yours and what’s theirs. Books (at least the important ones) are living creatures. Reading them is like sharing your life with another person: after a while, the lines between ‘‘you’’ and ‘‘me’’ begin to blur. By the way, I have always had a huge admiration for the greatest of the American authors. I think that the direct, immediate and straightforward manner in which they deal with their subject matter is truly unique and appeals to me in many different ways. As for the process of bringing the stories together, I was probably thinking that the particular order would help the reader to fully grasp the deeper meaning of the book. I came up with the specific title partly because I was looking for a phrase uttered by one of the characters and partly because of its ambiguity.
CB: This one is a bit cliche, but it has to be asked! What advice do you have for young writers? Or for readers? What do you think makes a good reader? A great writer?
CI: I’m not very fond of giving advice to writers or readers or anyone else, for that matter. But, since you’ve asked, this one is for the writers: The great author is not just the seismologist or the seismograph. The great author must be the earthquake itself. And this one is for the readers: It’s not enough to open a book. You must open yourself to the book.
CB: One of the devices you use throughout your collection is repetition. Can you talk about why you chose this and what you hope readers get out of it?
CI: Frankly, I don’t feel very comfortable talking about these things. I have an apophatic, rather mystical approach to writing. I mean, the first thing that comes to my mind whenever someone asks me about how or why I write in this or that way, is ‘‘Well, I don’t know.’’ When I write, I feel like I’m in a state of trance, in a state of ecstasy. It’s very hard for me to rationalize or explain afterwards how or why I did what I did. Maybe it’s not relevant, but I think that’s one of the reasons I hold in such high esteem these two great sayings: ‘‘Trust the tale, not the teller’’ (D.H. Lawrence) and ‘‘One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality’’ (George Orwell).
CB: When I find work like yours, language always amazes me. It has an infinite combination of letters, words, phrases, paragraphs that come together to make people feel something. How do you keep your writing so fresh that it moves people so much, that it jumps off the page and sticks in people’s brains and makes them appreciate the beauty of language all over again?
CI: Well, I don’t know. I guess this has something to do with my compulsion to write about things that matter not only to me, but to other people too, and the constant, endless, tireless rewriting. Because, after all, that’s what I do: I don’t write, I rewrite.
Christos Ikonomou was born in Athens in 1970. He has published two earlier collections of short stories, The Woman on the Rails (2003) and Something Will Happen, You’ll See (2010). Described by Italy’s La Repubblica as “the Greek Faulkner,” Ikonomou writes with profound sensibility, deep humanism and astute foresight about the human condition using the Greek economic crisis as a backdrop.