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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Irena Karafilly writes about the inspiration behind her new book, Arrested Song, and her creative writing process.
Written by Irena Karafilly
Many years ago, a retired village midwife immolated herself on the Greek island of Lesvos, in a dramatic act of defiance against local authorities’ plan to place her in an old-age home. Stella Ioannou was by then in her eighties and suffering from dementia but her spectacular death shocked both islanders and tourists.
Among the foreigners visiting the village of Molyvos that year was Irving Layton, a distinguished Canadian poet and ardent Hellenophile, who wasted no time penning a long narrative poem titled STELLA.
Stella Ioannou had once been the village schoolmistress, a famously beautiful young woman who defied village morality by having an affair with a veteran soldier who had been in the Balkan trenches with her late husband. The outsider’s name was Stratis Myrivilis, an as-yet-unknown young man destined to become a famous Greek author. I am not sure how long his affair with the beautiful Stella lasted, but eventually, the aspiring author left the village, going on to fictionalize his relationship in a novel titled THE SCHOOLMISTRESS WITH THE GOLDEN EYES. The novel was published in Athens and, in time, became known as a Greek classic, translated into several languages.
I learned about Stella on being presented with an autographed collection of Irving Layton’s Greek poems. Intrigued by STELLA, I began to ask questions. Why had she stopped teaching to take up midwifery? Where had she been educated? Why did she immolate herself? The more I learned about her, the more fascinated I became by the story of a village woman who had steadfastly lived by her own rules. A year or two after her death, there were many tantalising rumors about her, one of them hinting at collaboration with the enemy during the German Occupation.
This was the beginning of an increasingly seductive idea that would eventually take over much of my life.
Inspired To Write
It started with a story – a very long story I wrote and impulsively sent to the New Yorker. One of its editors had read some of my previous work and kept encouraging me to keep submitting.
My long story was rejected – it was almost novella length – but the editor urged me to turn the highly dramatic material into a historical novel. I thought it was a great idea but I was, at that stage of my career, too inexperienced to undertake such a challenging project. I stashed the manuscript away, but Stella Ioannou kept haunting me. I thought about her off and on while working on other books and many new stories. I knew there was a potentially fascinating novel here but was I up to the challenge? I was a single mother teaching, writing, and caring for ailing parents.
Time went by. My daughter grew up. My parents passed away.
The book I eventually started would take over seven years to complete. My rather ambitious goal was to seamlessly weave the personal and the historic, telling the dramatic story of a fierce village iconoclast and, through her, the little-known saga of her beleaguered nation.
Calliope Adham, ARRESTED SONG’S fictional protagonist, turned out to be a rather different character from Stella Ioannou because, as you have no doubt heard, some characters refuse to do their creator’s bidding. Mine turned out to be as intransigent as Stella Ioannou had reportedly been but much more idealistic. The daughter of the village headmaster, she is a young widow when the Germans invade Lesvos in 1941. Well-read and linguistically gifted, she is recruited by the Germans to act as their liaison officer. It is the beginning of a personal and national saga that will last for several decades.
Calliope’s wartime duties bring her into close contact with Lieutenant Lorenz Umbreit, the Wehrmacht commander. The schoolmistress is an active member of the Greek Resistance, yet her friendship with the German officer blossoms against all odds, in a fishing village seething with dread and suspicion.
The villagers’ hostility finally erupts, but the bond between Calliope and Umbreit takes unforeseeable turns as Greece is ravaged by civil war and oppressed by military dictatorship. It is against this turbulent background that Calliope gradually emerges as a champion for girls’ and women’s rights. She starts study sessions to promote young girls’ education; she opens a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. And that’s just for starters.
The novel’s plot spans over thirty years, starting with World War II and ending with the fall of the Junta. Calliope’s tumultuous life mirrors that of her nation as she makes one impetuous decision after another, at times risking not just her reputation but her very life.
Writing a historical novel is different from pure fiction because one has to remain true to the facts while giving free rein to one’s imagination. A historical novel also demands more time than your average novel; time not only to write but to research a subject so thoroughly that, awakened in the middle of the night, you might be able to recall the name of your hero’s great-grandfather, or the colour of your heroine’s favourite knickers. I suspect that my Calliope might have at times eschewed knickers altogether, especially during the trying years of the Occupation. A feminist before her time, she wears trousers in the early 50s. She has love affairs with several men, heedless of village censure.
But what happens to the relationship with the dashing and well-educated German commander? I will say this much: It does not end with the War. And something more surprising. Although, virtually to the end, I thought that my fictional heroine would immolate herself while protesting the Junta’s brutality, Calliope Adham resisted this tragic ending. The plot takes her story into old age, ending the novel on a triumphant but bittersweet note. If I have managed to achieve my goal, readers will be enthralled by the captivating island setting and moved by my indomitable heroine’s lifelong struggle against social and political tyranny. Calliope Adham is far from saintly. She is, I’ve been told, unforgettable.
Find more from Irena Karafilly now:
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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