Friday, December 12, 2014

'Them Old Greek Writing Blues"

by Paul Johnston. bestselling Scottish author

I've spent much of the last twenty years in Greece. I even lived on one of those 'idyllic' Greek islands for seven years - that's if 'idyllic' means very noisy in the summer and seriously dull in the winter. (No, I don't regret moving to Athens.) I must have written at least half of my published novels in Greece, as well as three deservedly unpublished ones. (I should add that I've published three novels set in Greece, with a half-Greek private eye, but those I wrote in my homeland of Scotland, if you're still with me.) So what's it like writing fiction in Greece?

Well, as anyone who lives in California will agree, writing in a warm climate is definitely easier than trying to think and type while shivering. But there we run into the first problem. John Fowles, a very fine novelist who also wrote one of the best Greece-based novels in The Magus, rightly said that the landscape and light in Greece are very unforgiving to artists (let's leave aside the issue of whether crime writers are artists…). I guess what he meant was that the hills and coastline, the olive trees and the sea, are so beautiful that they make everything else seem imperfect - and that's before you take in the Parthenon etc). You need inner strength to be a writer in Greece, and I didn't have enough of that as an apprentice and earlier on in my career.

Another issue is the people. Don't get me wrong, I love the Greeks, and I'm not just saying that because my wife is one. They're very down-to-earth, very curious and very keen to offer their honest opinion. But none of those qualities is particularly helpful when you're struggling with a first draft, nervous about your characters or trying to be smart with your storyline. Good old British reserve seems more appropriate, but then you run the risk of insulting the Greeks with their Mediterranean sensibilities. Cultural differences, don't you just love 'em?

Then there's the small matter of Greek history. No matter how imaginative you might like to think you are, you'll never come up with a story to beat those the Greeks acted out. I mean, they're still making films about Helen of Troy, Leonidas and his doomed three hundred, and that well-known sociopath Alexander the Great. To paraphrase Shelley, look upon my ancestors' deeds and despair…

And another thing. How's a writer to compare with the Greek literary tradition? Can you inspire people better than Homer, make them weep longer than Sophocles or laugh louder than Aristophanes? I think not, brave scribe. On the other hand, you might just be able to hold their interest better than Plato - but that's down to the modern world's short attention span, not your superior dialogue.

So, all in all, Greece manages to make the modern day writer feel completely insignificant and utterly insecure. Then again, that's what writers feel wherever they are.

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