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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Irena Karafilly talks about the inspiration behind her new book, Arrested Song, and her creative writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Irena Karafilly about her life and career, what inspired her to start writing, and the story of her latest novel, Arrested Song.
Tell me a bit about who you are
I was born in the Ural mountains, which divide Europe and Asia, but crossed several borders while learning to walk, talk, read, and write. I have lived in several countries, most recently in Greece, where ARRESTED SONG is set. I speak several foreign languages badly, swear perfectly in Polish and Greek, and write in English about immigrants and other outsiders. I have been largely educated in Canada, the most generous of countries, where the lack of a high-school diploma proved to be no impediment to obtaining three university degrees.
While still an undergraduate, I sold a short story to the CBC. Their substantial cheque persuaded me that I was a writer. I have worked as a secretary, administrator, editor, businesswoman, journalist, university lecturer, and writer, publishing dozens of poems and stories, while trying to survive as a single mother. Though fame and fortune have remained elusive, my work has won the occasional literary prize, including Canada’s National Magazine Award and the CBC Literary Award.
My short stories have been broadcast, anthologized, and published in both mainstream and literary magazines, in Canada and abroad. I have published both fiction and non-fiction books, as well as literary reviews and travel articles for numerous newspapers, including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.
I am divorced, have one grown-up daughter, and currently divide my time between Canada and Greece, still looking for Home.
When did you first want to write a book?
I had published a fair number of short stories before deciding to choose some of them for a book. NIGHT CRIES, my first book, was a collection of Greek village stories, focusing on both natives and the foreigners in their midst. I have recently been working on some new stories, hoping to publish another story collection. Both my Montreal novel, THE HOUSE ON SELKIRK AVENUE, and my historical Greek novel, ARRESTED SONG, grew out of short stories that refused to let me go when I typed THE END.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Years ago, I took a Creative Writing course at university and, though English was not my mother tongue, I began to write – and publish – while I was still a student. The course had not been very good, but I never quite stopped writing, partly because I have always loved words and stories, but possibly, too, because I had always wished to have at least nine lives.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My first book consisted of short stories written over a period of two or three years. I was still living in Greece when I sent the collection to a Canadian publisher, who rejected it. Some months later, I decided to move back to Canada and, while my trunks were still on their way to Montreal, I started sending the manuscript out again. I did not have my files yet and could not remember where I had sent it in the first round. Unintentionally, I sent it to the same literary press, the same editor, who this time around, accepted the same book she had earlier rejected! In other words, an editor’s mood on a given day may have as much to do with your literary future as your native talent.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
My epic Greek novel started as a very long story which the New Yorker encouraged me to turn into a historical novel. This was early in my career and I was not yet up to the challenge, so the manuscript languished in a desk drawer for years. Eventually, having published dozens of short stories, I felt confident enough to have a stab at the novel currently titled ARRESTED SONG. Had I known it would take over seven years to complete, I think I might have chosen to study Ancient Greek, or even Mandarin.
Focusing on your latest release, what made you want to write Arrested Song?
An improbable set of circumstances. A retired Greek midwife immolated herself on the island of Lesvos a year before I arrived for a short stay. A distinguished Canadian poet – a regular visitor to the island – gave me an autographed collection of his Greek poems, among them one inspired by the elderly midwife’s tragic death. I read his poem and became intrigued by the story of a woman who had reportedly lived her life by her own rules. I began to ask questions and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became by her life.
At some point, I wrote a story about her, but many years would pass before I was able to turn it into a long and ambitious novel about the life and times of a Greek protofeminist struggling against both social and political tyranny.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Arrested Song?
The biggest challenge was to weave Calliope Adham’s personal story with the national narrative; to acquaint the reader with modern Greece’s tumultuous history and make it all into a seamless and compelling read. It was also extremely difficult to condense several chaotic decades into a marketable length. The original manuscript ran to some 250,000 words; the final length is some 156,000. The cuts hurt and hurt, but eventually I got used to the pain and began to congratulate myself for every word I managed to delete.
Who or what inspired you when creating your protagonist?
The village woman who inspired the story had, many years earlier, inspired a Greek classic titled THE SCHOOLMISTRESS WITH THE GOLDEN EYES. Stratis Myrivilis’ novel had been inspired by the author’s own affair with the beautiful young widow. The only thing his novel and mine have in common, though, is the colour of the heroine’s eyes and her teaching profession.
Who or what inspired you when creating your antagonist?
I had lived in a Greek village for the better part of a decade. It was a conservative, tradition-bound society, hostile to the very idea of women’s equality and, indeed, to any failure to abide by convention. Since the novel takes place over 30 turbulent years, there are, of course, many antagonists, starting with the German invaders and ending with the Junta. On the whole, however, the main conflict as I see it is between a courageous, altruistic woman and the society she was born into.
What is the inciting incident of Arrested Song?
In 1941, the Germans invaded Greece, including the island of Lesvos. Being linguistically gifted, Calliope Adham was engaged as their liaison officer. She worked for the German high command while secretly participating in Resistance activities. Eventually, Hitler lost the war and the Germans left the island. Calliope’s life, though, was forever changed.
What is the main conflict of Arrested Song?
The novel deals with several historic conflicts but at its heart is Calliope’s lifelong struggle against ignorance and injustice.
Did you plot Arrested Song in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I had a definite character in mind and a rough idea of what I wanted to achieve – which was to depict modern Greece’s historic ordeals through the life of one extraordinary woman. Once I started writing, though, my own heroine kept surprising me. I had to respect the historic facts, of course, but Calliope’s personal story is almost entirely the product of my imagination.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Arrested Song need?
It did not so much require editing as re-writing – again and again and again. Abridging a 250,000-word novel was a painful challenge. For a long time, I did not think that it could be done, but eventually I did manage to do it, mostly because I refused to give up on my remarkable heroine.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Don’t talk about it. Don’t seek advice. Read the best stories ever written, then sit down and start writing. (If you have nothing better to do, see TIPS FOR WRITERS on my website: irenakarafilly.com).
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I am working on an unclassifiable novel about a Canadian travel journalist’s mysterious disappearance during a research trip to Europe. A recent university graduate, her daughter, Mira, sets out to find out what happened to her mother. The quest leads her to fascinating islands around the world, and to many surprising discoveries. THE PATRON SAINT OF TRAVELLERS offers both mystery and suspense, as well as the pleasures of vicarious travel. At its heart, though, is a complex mother-daughter relationship. A perfect Mother’s Day gift.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I know I will never write anything as ambitious as ARRESTED SONG. Whether it was worth the effort remains to be seen but, yes, I am rather proud that I never gave up on this hugely demanding project. I am above all grateful to Cari Rosen, commissioning editor at Legend Press, for championing this novel.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you.
ARRESTED SONG by Irena Karafilly on AMAZON.
Athens Insider interview: https://www.athensinsider.com/arrested-song-a-novel-about-greece-by-award-winning-canadian-author-irena-karafilly/?fbclid=IwAR2c_u9OJPeU_IKc1SupecB_u1Mz7aasnK2Sle14PSY3onbfpNRRA2zzGxc
“Mastering Art and Life” in Writing.ie – https://www.writing.ie/interviews/mastering-art-and-life-arrested-song-by-irena-karafilly/
Irena Karafilly is on FB.
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