For my Greek research trip blog, see the page “Greece Trip 2017″. Enjoy!
From Teacher to Student (6.11.17)
I returned to La Trobe Uni today for my Research Progress Panel. This is a meeting where we look at the progress of my PhD and to see if there any problems. It was odd. One of my supervisor is a former teaching comrade, Steinar Ellingsen, and the chair of the panel is my former boss, Lawrie Zion. There was a moment before we started when I felt about six years old. Would my work be good enough. Have I been too lazy? Have I been too scattered? Would I get the ruler? Nothing like that of course, but it was a great proverbial whack on the head, a reminder that the lot of a student is one of constant self-doubt, challenge and correction.
I have always loved my students, but I might come back to semester 1 next year even kinder now.
Teaching and PhDing (29.10.17)
At last I have finished my marking for my students at RMIT in Melbourne. It’s one of the prestige journalism teaching institutions, and it’s got some fabulous facilities (just a few weeks ago I met Prince Andrew on the first operating day for our new TV studio).
But it’s the students that make this place special. No matter what we throw at them, they take it all (there are occasional tears, but hey, they’re 19 years old!) and produce some great stuff. I haven’t had the chance to work with them from first year, leading them through TV and radio, but they picked up so much in this semester. So to Lou, Josh, Meg, Elena, Hayley, Thea, Eliza and all the rest of my new friends, it’s been great being with you for this part of your journey. You’re going to be so fine.
Now that the teaching and the marking is over, I can focus on the PhD. For a little while at least.
Planning the big PhD trip (24.10.17)
Next month we are off to central and northern Greece to see the places where the Greek andartes (resistance fighters) operated in the second world war.
Yes, the Greek mountains in winter. Madness. But being an academic doesn’t give you much room. The June break is too short, and I really need to do this trip for my PhD which I hope to have finished by next June anyway.
My godfather Nick Manning (originally Maniarizis) was one of the resistance fighters, and he wrote about walking from Athens to the training centre in Rendina. When he got there, the trainers had moved on to Karpenisi to the south. So he walked there too. No chance of a cab, not that he could afford it anyway in those days of Nazi-imposed austerity.
At the same time my maternal grandmother was spying under the British Special Ops (the SOE), possibly in the same area. They met, but nit until both were safely in Australia many years after the war.
Nick Manning died a few months ago. He was a lovely gentle man. I hope he’ll be with us as we explore his roads and his villages. With minus degree temps and possible snow, we’ll need every angel looking over us.
It’s not about royalties (18.10.17)
I was contacted on LinkedIn by a most amazing woman the other day. Maribel Steel’s eyesight has been getting worse since she was 15. She now, 40-odd years later, has very little sight left, but she still works, publishing books, giving inspirational talks, and generally helping others who have far less to complain about than her.
Maribel has suggested that the book be made into a audiobook for the vision-impaired, which would give it a whole new audience, an audience that I would love to have read it. It’s not about royalties. I really couldn’t care whether 100 people read the book because they bought it full price from a book store, or whether they borrowed it from a library. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job which allows us to feed the dog, eat out every so often, and download the latest Rolling Stones record.
I know there are plenty of authors who rely on their royalties, but I am sure all of them would rather the library readers have their book than none at all. We write because we want to share our art. If we can make a living out of it like Tim Winton or Peter Carey, then wonderful. But for me, to have one Maribel say they were touched by the story would mean far more than the two dollars in royalties for that sale
Thanks Maribel. I hope you’ll be able to hear the book soon.
Anthony. And good old Kevin (12.9.17)
The novel has done it again. I have written earlier in this blog about how the book has brought me back in contact with family members I had not seen in many years. Well in the past 12 months I have had two people contact me.
One is my cousin Anthony, grandson of my Auntie Freda. Anthony and I had probably never spoken. We were a generation an half a country apart. But Anthony has found a cache of photos and documents that belonged to Freda, and the joyful lad has been sending them to me. In them is plenty of information which shines even more of a light on Freda and her father (my grandfather Michael). When you’ve been writing a story like mine, you start to see your characters in your sleep. Anthony’s information and photos has given me a new perspective.
Also contacting me has been Kevin Plumb, a lad I had almost forgotten about from my teen years. In 1976 Kevin and I were in a student acting group that toured to the Adelaide Festival. We became good friends, and indeed I became more than good friends with a girlfriend of his. Kevin and I lost touch, as you do when school and geography intervenes. Recently Kevin got in contact through Facebook, thirty-something years on. I am just mailing hi ma copy of the novel.
I’m sure that back in those amateur acting days in 1976 I never would’ve dreamt that he would be reading a novel of mine. Life really has twists, and some of them are magical.
Surrounded by Greek Women (21.5.17)
This novel is about women. My grandmother Olga, the war hero spy Nikotsara, my step-grandmother Jean, my mum Nellie and aunties Tina and Freda.
I could never have known that this book would lead me into a web of Greek women. In the past few months women have been the ones who have pushed me along on my journey. Greek societies in Sydney and Melbourne have organised launches for the Greek version of the book. A fabulous Greek bookshop in Sydney (The Greek Bilingual Bookshop) has hosted two events for me. It is a shop run at a bare profit by two wonderful women, Eleni and Christina. They are examples of people who do what they do because it will make the community stronger. There can be no greater motivation. While so many of us count our pennies, they are counting the number of books they can offer to the people. Their shop is in fact more of a library. This is a coffee shop where customers can flock through the books for sale.
When I was a kid I was surrounded by women, my aunts, my mum and Jean. It is now so many years later, and I again am surrounded by Greek women. It’s just wonderful.
Here’s a lovely photo of Eleni and Christina and I after the launch. Our faces say it all.
The Joy of being Greek (21.2.17)
Every Friday I receive a slab of tweets on my twitter account @philkafcaloudes from a bunch of people in the USA. I have never met these people, and have only every personally communicated with one of them, Maria Karamitsos, who is a journalist with a huge love of books and authors. She reviewed Someone Else’s War some time ago.
By meeting Maria I was drawn into a wonderful web of Greek people who don’t expect anything from you. They are want to support you and to be a friend. Every Friday, their greetings and wishes for a good weekend are a lovely part of my end-of-week routine now. I don’t always get the time to reciprocate, but I think they probably know.
Thank you my friends.
The Book is now in Greek! (21.12.12)
Some time ago I went to Athens to sign a contract for Someone Else’s War to be translated into Greek for the european market. At first they said the book would be coming out in April 2013, but then I got an email from the publishers (Psichogios Publications) telling me that the date had changed. I expected this bit of news. After all, Greece was in a time of terrible financial turmoil. In the back of my mind there was an expectation that the book would be out off until next August, then the following year, then infinity.
But no. They told me that the publication date was being brought forward to December 2012! In the world of publishing, this is a fast turnaround. It meant only 5 months from contract signing to publication. Granted, the book was already written, but they had to translate it, give it a new cover that would appeal to the Greek market, and go through the manuscript and check any slight factual errors that wold be picked up by Athenian residents (and yes, there were a couple).
So yes, the book is now available in Olga’s homeland, and across the world as an ebook on iTunes. The good people at Psichogios publications have changed the name of their Greek version to “Olga’s War” (it translates much more smoothly in Greek than “Someone Else’s War“). I love the cover too. It is a different species of artwork to Julie Ramsden’s original concept, but they are both terrific. I hope you like it.
To my Uncle Johnny (10.9.12)
About a year ago I blogged about my Uncle Johnny. I wrote about how he waited in the queue to get his copy of Someone Else’s War signed.
I wrote about how I felt an odd wrongness at seeing him standing there, slightly hunched, with the book under his arm.
I wrote how I felt I should be the one waiting in a queue for him, since he was the last son of my grandfather Michael. He lived as part of the family of the book.
This morning I found out that Johnny died today.
So many things go through your mind when something like this happens. You think you should’ve spent more time with him, you think you should’ve talked to him more. You realise that there is not one person left in the family of that generation. That the genes of your grandfather exist now only in the diluted form of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Johnny and his brother Jimmy, who died some years ago, were born of my grandfather and his second wife, Jean. Michael had married Jean during the war, when he and Australian officials believed Olga had been killed in Greece. As we know, Olga was still alive, working with the resistance, and this marriage to Jean was, I suppose you could say, a polygamy. But it was an accident of the times, and a victim of the fact that the British were unable to pass the news of Olga’s survival to Australian authorities because she was working too deeply in the resistance, and it would have been a risk to her safety to pass on this information.
The beauty of this confusion was the marriage to Jean, which was a marriage of love and devotion, and the births of my half-uncles Jimmy and Johnny.
Johnny was a beautiful man, probably the only true Greek-looking man in our family. Think of an even more perfectly chiselled version of Victor Mature, but with more animation, a passion for life, quick to hug, easy to indulge, always wanting to play. I remember the family days at Bondi Beach when Johnny would creep up behind me and toss me into the surf. I think I once got angry about it, but a look at Johnny’s playful face, and the anger was replaced by a need for him to do it again.
I hadn’t seen Johnny for about fifteen years until the book launch last year, and then I saw him again at my mother’s funeral only two months later, when he posed with the rest of the family for photos. Typical of Johnny, he was at the front, sitting on a chair, making himself the centre of attention.
He was a man who loved the good times, who loved his family, and always kept some of the child with him.
He lives on through his beautiful children, John, Anthony and Michelle.
I will miss him.
Thank goodness for good friends (30.8.12)
Being an author is an up and down thing.
There are the journalists you never hear from, not even acknowledging that book you sent them.
There are the book awards you enter, always hoping for a little candle of approbation, one that rarely comes.
There are the dark nights of the soul when you worry that no-one likes your book.
This might be enough for any observer to wonder why we do it.
The answer I might’ve given you two years ago is that we do it because writing is worth every doubt, every dark night, every rejection from every publisher, award panel, or forgetful reporter. In writing this novel I have come to the belief that writing, or any act of art is probably the closest we come to God, whatever your God is. Writing is a spiritual soaring.
Now, after a year of publication, a reprint, a translation, and two Writers Festivals, I have to add that there’s something else that makes it worthwhile/ I’m talking about the people who travel the publishing journey with you.
I came to realise this when I was doing some homework for a Reiki Master level course I was doing some months back. One assignment involved me choosing something important to my life, and then listing all the people who have been supporting me. I chose to be thankful for the people who gave support to me and my book. The exercise was supposed to take ten minutes. My list took me forty minutes. Friends, family, publishers who believed in my writing, the agent who stayed with me for most of the journey, the prominent people who launched it, the people who came to the launches, the people who bought it, the people who sought me out to tell me they loved it, the book clubs, the radio people who interviewed me, the Greek community who took ownership of the book. So many people. So much love.
Thank you all, and thank you to my story for bringing these people into my life.
I met the loveliest of men the other day. (1.6.12)
He is the founder of a Greek publishing house, who offered to translate the book into Greek for the European market. He also happens to be the publisher for the Greek versions of the Harry Potter books, Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie.
As I walked through the foyer of his office in northern Athens, the books of these great writers lined the walls. Clearly this is a publishing house proud of its authors, in love with its authors.
As I went upstairs and met Mr Psichogios, I was struck at how this man, at the forefront of the Greek book trade for thirty years could be so much like everyman’s Uncle Leo, a gentle and warm man who seemed as thrilled to be in my company as I was to be in his.
The Greek financial woes are pretty bad. Greece is currently got a yearly debt that is 130% times its yearly national production. In other words it will never be able to pay its current debt.
It’s people like Mr Psichogios who may be affected by all this. As things get more difficult, people will cut luxuries, and sadly when it is a choice between petroleum and books, books are the luxury.
I thought of this as I sat there in that office, signing the book contract, my name adjacent to that of Mr Psichogios, the man who refuses to let years of Greek government ineptitude close him down and stop him wanting to get Greek stories out to the world.
I now understand the artists who dedicate their work to their producer, director or editor. There is something in realising that there is someone in this with you, someone who has said they want to be with you for the journey.
My regret, my only regret, was that I forgot to get a photo of me with Mr Psichogios as we signed our names together.
Still, it wasn’t a day for regrets. It was a day of sunshine in Athens that afternoon when I was back on the footpath.
A good, sunny day.
My Auntie Freda died today. (16.4.12)
If you have read the novel, you would know Freda as my mum’s very lively and passionate sister, the one to whom attention needed to be paid; the tough-minded and acerbic one; the one who was quick to anger and quick to cry.
Freda played a big part in my childhood. My mum worked for Freda and her husband Leo Bayss in the Bayss’ restaurant in Chalmers Street near Sydney’s Central Station. Mum would take me, the too-curious three-year old to the shop with her. This was in the days when to take a toddler to work with you wasn’t a workplace faux pas. Freda and Leo loved having me there. Uncle Leo would make me a little hamburger for lunch, and Freda would then take me up to her bedroom so we could have an afternoon nap together.
It was a time of kisses and hugs, passionate squeezes. Freda was always so much more public than mum. Her pace was fast, her annoyances more obvious, her jokes and laugh so much louder.
I drew a lot on these memories for the Freda in Someone Else’s War, because I believe a character is a character. We may pull our head in a little as we learn the lessons of life, but we are who we are.
It was actually pretty easy to take the character of Freda back into childhood; she had so many of the traits of an unaffected child. If you stripped away a few years, and some of the disappointments that life must have brought, it was easy to see the young Freda in this woman and mother of my young life. After Olga, Feda was the most interesting character to draw.
Freda had not been herself for some years. A stroke took that away. Over the last five years, Freda moved between remembering our times together, and not knowing me at all. Such are the ways of age.
But Freda was a big part of my life, a character that was large in our family of large characters.
You will be missed and always remembered Freda.
The Ups and Downs of the Book Festival Circuit (4.4.12)
It is mostly ups.
Getting to meet people who love books, and who want to grill you about your work. The questions are endless and intuitive. It takes you out of the mechanics and grind of the book-selling business. You are elevated to the spiritual level, the kind that you experienced when you were writing in the first place. The story is the thing, the inspiration, the character motivations.
And the what-ifs. What-if the character made a different decision; what-if an antagonist was slightly different. The audiences want to know what would have happened to the central character, Olga. What-if.
As the author who has completed the book, a what-if might seem irrelevant, but it surely is relevant. These sorts of questions prove that the reader has become subsumed; their mind has wondered. There is nothing more that you can hope for in an author-reader exchange.
Yes, I love writers festivals.
But it can be a roller coaster. Last week I received a note from the Ubud Writers festival in Bali, letting me know that they think my book is brilliant (which is a lovely thing to say), but that it would not be invited to be on the program this year.
I admit I felt slightly downcast. Call me spoiled. I probably am. I felt guilty at feeling I had a right to be invited to a writers’ festival.
Then, on the same day, came the invitation to appear at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
As Ian Gillan of Deep Purple once wrote in one of his lyrics, “Heaven wouldn’t be so high I know, if the times gone by hadn’t been so low.”
He’s right. The Ubud email made the Brisbane invitation all the sweeter. My publisher was thrilled. Certainly the prospect of book sales is greater in Brisbane, and the likelihood that the attendees will have read my book will be higher, and so the discussions are bound to be fabulous.
And as I said at the beginning, I just love that.
Going into Reprint! (23.1.12)
Yes, after only five months on the shelves, my publisher tells me that we have sold out our first run of Someone Else’s War.
When this happens, you need to get more printed. It is not just a case of getting a few more run off. In the publishing industry, when the first run is sold out, you reprint.
This means you have chance to correct any factual errors (and there was one in the first edition: somehow the great Greek Gorgopotomos bridge went to print as the Gotopotomos bridge. Obviously that clanger had to be corrected (if you are looking for a first edition, that is a giveaway clue). There were also a few typographical errors that were found.
The result is that I have been working over the past week or so to get these corrections to the printer in time for the reprint to be set.
I also was unhappy with a couple of details on the cover. Only small things, like the comment from the Booker Prize winning author Tom Keneally (who won the prize for his masterpiece Schindler’s List). His comment was a lovely endorsement, but in the first printing, it could barely be read. It was dark and faded into the background. If you’re going to have a Booker Prize winner cheer on your work, you want people to be able to read it. We fixed that, and a few other small things you’d need a microscope to see.
The printer, as he sat with me at the proofing table, casually said that it was unusual for a novel outside of a New York Times selection, to need a reprint so soon.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, writing a novel can be full of surprises. Here was another one.
The Surprise of Dreams Unanticipated (12.1.12)
When you write a novel, your head can’t help but be full of dreams.
You dream that people will buy it, that they will like it, that they will tell their friends.
You dream that the media will bother to read it, that they too will like it, and that they will tell their readers or listeners what a great read it is.
You might also dream that people involved in motion pictures will read some of these reviews and clamour to get you book’s rights for a film.
I must admit that some of these standards dreams popped into my head too, just as thy took the mind of generations of writers before me.
But the cliche ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ became true for me; with a slight amendment. It should have read ‘ truth is more wonderful than fiction, because what has happened to me is the following, all things I didn’t anticipate:
People have cried at my writing
Novelists I love have told me they love my writing.
A man who was in Greece in the war told me I got the times and feeling of the place perfect.
I have had my relatives, some of whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two decades, come to support me for the launches of the book.
I had a cousin cry because she recognised a family characteristic revealed in the book, and came to believe, after 60-odd years, that she really did share a commonality with the rest of us.
My mother, who no longer was capable of understanding photos, reacted to the book’s cover with a lucidity and recognition. This happened the last time I saw her conscious, just weeks before she died.
All these things were all surprises. They were undreamt-for. They just happened.
For these alone, the hours, days, weeks, and years of writing were worth it.
The Death of a Gentle woman (8.12.11)
My mum died today.
If you have read the novel you would’ve picked up that Nellie was, like her mother, a pretty powerful woman. She almost single-handedly brought up her family, kept them together, and somehow stopped them from turning into police-botherers.
But there was another side to Nellie Stambolis-Kafcaloudes. She could also be a nervous woman, forever wringing her hands at family get-togethers, worried that everything was going to fall in a heap. She was a mother who, when you told her you were going on holidays, would immediately fret that you would be fired while you were away.
This kind of thinking obviously goes back in part to her own mother Olga, who disappeared one night from the little family shop in Ultimo in 1936. We know now that Olga was working as a spy in Greece and was doing good work for the Allies against the Nazis, but can you imagine what must have gone through the mind of the 13 year old Nellie? Basic psychology tells us that the fears of an adult are often built on the terrors of the child. The young Nellie could possibly have believed her mother dead or abducted. Just as any parent of a disappeared child will say it is the not-knowing that is the hardest part for them, the same thing must apply for the child who has lost a parent. Or worse, for children have the power of imagining things without the limits of reason that adults learn.
If there is anything good to be said about dementia, it is that with Nellie in her last years her dementia removed all these fears from her mind. She was incapacitated to a degree, but the brain damage did not affect her capacity to love. We have just spent a day farewelling the nursing home staff, who had been coming to us one by one, telling us how Nellie would raise her arms to them for a cuddle, and kiss them repeatedly on the sides of their faces. As a very aged woman, she had again become a child.
I feel honoured that I had the chance to see that part of mum before her journey on this planet was over. My brothers Terry and Michael, and sister Sylvia have all said the same thing.
You were gorgeous mum. Just gorgeous.
Tom Keneally and the Art of Surprises (3.12.11)
Booker prize winner Tom Keneally played an important role in this book. He was an early supporter and encourager of me and my story, because years ago he told me to keep up with it, and not to get discouraged by the vagaries of the book trade. Art isn’t easy, he told me in on not so many words, even going as far as to say that if he had begun writing today, he would not have been published, such is the state of the publishing industry today.
These were words that helped me in the darker hours of the publishing process. So now, let’s go forward to this year. I dared to send a message to Tom to ask him if he’d be kind enough to read some of the novel and perhaps give me a quote that I could use on the cover. He fired back an email saying he would be honoured to write something for me. I remember the moment well. Jackie and I were sitting at Manira’s lovely veggie cafe in Prahran market in Melbourne, having just done a pilates session. The email from Tom came through, and I wept at the kindness of it, that this man who must have so many demands on his life, took the time to send such good thoughts across the ether, and to also promise to spend more time reading a work of a first time novelist. It was a moment in life was is glorious. I still remember the feeling. I doubt I ever felt such a humility before. Thanks to Tom I am one of those who can add it to my packet of emotional memories.
Tom was as good as his promise. It didn’t take him long to reply with a quote that sits proudly on the front of the book.
This week I spoke again with Tom, about his latest work, a non-fiction examination of the history of the Australian peoples from the Eureka Stockade to the end of the first world war.
As I greeted him outside the studio, Tom’s first words to me were, believe it or not, an apology. He said he was sorry that he had not written more for me, or done more to help me.
Just when I thought there was no more a human could do for another, Tom surprised me by doing even more. A lovely human being.
The Joy of Book Clubs (28.11.11)
Book clubs are always an interesting experience for an author. The other night I gave a talk to a club run by a great friend of mine, Margie Gillett. She is the young-un in her book club, she’s only been with it for a few years. Some of them have been talking books together for decades, so it was surprising to learn that I was their first author, the first to appear in their book club. I turned up on time to find half a dozen women in a circle in Margie’s lounge-room, all with copies of my novel, leaning over canapes and wine, ready to fire questions that had undoubtedly been brewing for the last month.
The questions were very broad, from my Greekness and the impact of researching Olga on my attitude towards my heritage, to the difficulty in researching such a story. I have written elsewhere here about how hard it was to find details about Olga, given that she was fighting in an occupied country, one of many many people in a strung out and semi-autonomous resistance.
What surprised me, and probably should not have, was how one person in particular kept bringing up detail in the books, the things that Olga did and had happen to her, and wanting to know if that bit was true. At first I answered whether it was true or not, but after a while it was, I fear, getting into dangerous territory. After all, this is a novel. It is based on Olga’s story, and every true fact about Olga is in the book. If I ever had a choice between writing a truth or a slightly more exciting fiction, I stuck with the truth. But clearly it is set in fictional settings. At functions I say to my readers that I really don’t know what Olga was doing on September the 18th 1942. I had an idea of what she was doing around that time, but if I couldn’t be time specific and exact in her deeds, then I was never going to claim that everything in the book was absolutely true. Hence the sub-title “A Novel” on the cover.
To that night though. In the end, when yet another truth or fiction was asked by the woman with the dog-erared copy of my book, I had to laugh out loud and say: “It’s a novel! Let’s not destroy the mystique. Enjoy the ride.” And she was quick to say that she really did enjoy the ride, it as just that her curiosity was diving her mad.
I’m sure Tom Keneally got the same treatment about Schindler’s Ark, which told of Oskar Schindler in a novel form. Fictionalising is probably the most rewarding way for an author to tell a story. It brings the reader into the mind of the characters. I just read Frank Moorhouse’s fabulous new concluding novel in his Edith trilogy. In it he tells of 1950s Australia, the communist witch-hunts and the struggle of Australian women for recognition. His Edith is fake, a concocted character, but Moorhouse has done his work and the book oozes authenticity. Through it we learn a little of the society that preceded, and informed, ours. Like any good novel, it taught me something about where I am and perhaps a little about why I think the way I do.
That’s a pretty neat accomplishment. I love being a novelist.
The Surprising Listener (15.11.11)
Sydney has been so very welcoming to me and the novel. There have been invitations to cocktail parties, requests to speak to book clubs, offered opportunities for signings.
One of the more memorable nights was at the War Memorial in Hyde Park. I had been asked to give a keynote speech to mark the eve of Oxi Day. The word ‘Oxi’ is an English approximation of the Greek word for ‘no’. It was on the 28th of October 1940 that the Greek dictator and strongman John Metaxas was given an ultimatum by the Italian ambassador Grazzi. The ultimatum demanded that Greece allow Italian forces occupy whatever parts of Greece they wanted. Metaxas took little time to say ‘no’, and thus put his country at war with its much more militant and military-capable neighbour.
Because all this happened when my grandmother was in Greece, I tell this story in the novel, central as it is to the demise of Greece in those years. Except this was no demise. The Italians did invade only hours after Metaxas’ famous ‘no’, and the Greeks fought them with a fire the Italians could not have expected. So powerful were the Greeks with their farm tools as weapons, that they pushed the Italians out of Greece and way back into Albania where they had come from.
At War Memorial on this night I told this story, which the audience must have already known and heard every Oxi Day since they were children, but they listened, intent.
There was one man though who listened more closely than most. He was a stooped man who once had been very handsome and still was to an extent, but even now in his eighties he had those Greek shining eyes that seemed both intent and far away. He clapped loudly at the end of my speech, and afterwards waited patiently as others came to speak to me of their own mothers, fathers and grandparents. When he did eventually get to me, he shook my hand and congratulated me.
I have blogged elsewhere that I often feel a little undeserving of congratulation. I simply tell stories. The reward is in the writing and telling, and I am rewarded well by this.
I thanked him for his good wishes and said I talk for a living, so this is not so hard.
No, he said. Congratulations on getting the book right.
You see, he was a child in Athens during the time of the invasion. He walked the streets during the famine. Every day he saw the Nazis and the Italians. He may well have been present at the executions.
I thanked him again and said that I try to get the facts as right.
No, he said again. Not just the facts. More important. You got the feeling right. You painted Greece as it felt back in those days. You took me back to my youth.
I was very touched, I cried a little, and maybe so did he.
It was a lovely gift, him telling me this, and I realised that those shiny eyes of his as I told the story that night were indeed faraway eyes. He was remembering a life long past, and who knows what things were back in his eye.
Sometimes being a writer is just glorious.
The First Time (25.9.11)
A couple of minutes ago I went into a bookstore and for the first time I saw Someone Else’s War on a bookshelf. Now I have been published twice before, and I have had countless articles of mine, or about me, appear in magazines and newspapers, but that moment of seeing your work out there on the market is really something.
My God, I almost became a teenager again. It felt like I had seen a girl I had a crush on walking towards me alone on a street. It felt like Christmas, and it was also strangely frightening. Back then I didn’t know what to do: to speak or not to speak, to pour out my feelings or stay cool.
So many years on, in that bookstore just now, I had that same feeling. Would I look a fool if I told the shop assistant that this book was mine? Should I take a photo of the book on the shelf and risk looking a dork, or at worst a piracy operative?
In the end a moment of inspiration came. I would go to the shop assistant and tell them I was the author, and ask them whether they would they like me to sign the copies.
They weren’t aghast. Or suspicious. Yes, please, they answered. They’d put a little ‘signed by the author’ sticker on them. In fact they went out the back to find their entire stock for me to sign.
So if you’re passing by the Constant Reader bookshop in Crows Nest in Sydney, who knows, you might be able to pick up a little bit of that gem of a moment.
Of Premiers and Greeks (18.9.11)
I’ve just come across the blog that former NSW premier Bob Carr wrote about the book. He launched it at Dymocks in Sydney a few weeks ago and, as I’ve written in an earlier entry, he was gracious and caring.
His blog shows just the same type of humanity. I might have already written that my brother and sister, who have never been known as Labor supporters, came away from the launch Carr fans.
Bob spoke of the terrible war in Greece, and of how so many Australians started life in that war before migrating to Australia. My own neighbours in Melbourne, Peter and Arreghti, lived through that war, as did the lady down the street. They came to this country, somehow managing to live with the nightmares of those times, building new families, helping build a new Australia, and showing a generosity of spirit that must’ve infected St Kilda East. For like so many areas where immigrants have settled, there is a feeling of hope in our town; the sort of feeling that can come from people who have seen the worst of life, and know that the petty woes of our times are often overblown. Compared to Greece in 1941 they certainly must seem so.
For Bob to pay tribute to Arreghti’s generation, the forgotten generation from a forgotten war, was just so right. He expands on this in his blog.
Bob’s blog is at: http://bit.ly/pXxi69
Check out the photo. The reason Bob is beaming is because I had just given a special thank you present: A signed copy of a book written by Senator Joe McCarthy (yes, the anti-communist guy). Bob was thrilled, but no more than me after his gracious speech.
Old Home Week (15.9.11)
I’m in beautiful Byron Bay, trying to make a publicity tour into some kind of holiday. I’ve succeeded, to a degree.
Mornings I take Bella (our kelpie cross) for a long walk into town for a Chai then to the most fabulous doggie beach I have ever seen. It goes for miles with nothing but dunes to one side and the ocean to the other. This is the eastern-most point of Australia, so all we have to the north, south and east is ocean. It’s clean, remarkably cool and fresh early in the day. The only noise is the ocean, except when my publicist, Alan Davidson, sends me an SMS to say there’s another interview scheduled, so can I send the program/newspaper a high resolution photo of Olga as soon as possible.
Holiday evaporates with the ocean spray.
Yesterday I had a bunch of interviews in Brisbane. The first was what we in the business call a ‘tardis’. This is when we go into a studio in the station so we can speak, studio quality, with a radio show in another state. The studios are called ‘tardis’ because, like Dr Who’s police box, they appear small to anyone outside, but they are deceptively big inside, and can, at a pinch, accommodate whole bands of musicians. Just.
Yesterday my tardis interview was with The Guestroom, an hour-long program that comes out of radio 105.7 in Darwin. Yes, an hour. What a joy it was to be able to speak about Olga and my mum for all this time. The host, Kate O’Toole, was terrific. Unlike most interviewers, she had read most of the book, so she had plenty to ask. Since my dad’s side of the family started in Darwin, and my mum met dad in the town, there was an extra dimension to the talk.
The Brisbane visit also gave me a chance to catch-up with old comrades from ABC NewsRadio. When I worked at NewsRadio, it was a truly nationally-produced station. I was the Melbourne bureau; Sydney produced the mornings and afternoons, and the evenings came from Brisbane. Staff were encouraged to do their segments when interstate, so on one morning we had sport from Perth, international news from Adelaide, me in Melbourne, and the anchor in Sydney.
It’s not so national anymore, but it was great to speak again, after all these years to Terri Begley, and my old weekend co-host Graham Cairns. Love those guys.
Again a case of the book giving me a chance to break out of the rapid-fire life. That’s got to be a good thing.
Mixing it with the Best (2.9.11)
Today I was on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
The other guest writer on the panel was Stephen Daisley, who wrote the highly acclaimed first novel, Traitor. It’s the fictional story of a kiwi soldier in World War One who forms a friendship with a Turkish prisoner, and eventually helps that prisoner to escape. It is a story of great heart that takes you into the mind of the young New Zealander.
The session we shared was called Handling the Truth, and we were put together because in our own way, we were covering some similar themes: love and loss; the need for friendship in war; the ease with which people turn good and bad; the regrets.
Stephen is just like his novel. Sensitive, quiet, measured, benign. In the first moment of meeting, I told him how much I loved his novel, and that it made me cry. Like the self-effacing man I expected he would be, he rushed in to tell me he loved MY novel.
Later, as we started our session, he told me he was anxious about doing these kinds of events. You wouldn’t think it to watch his performance before the crowd. He spoke eloquently about the way people think in wartime. He showed a deep understanding of people, probably a deeper understanding than most of the psychologists I have known.
The chair for the session, Rebecca Starford from Affirm Press was the perfect host. She had not only read both our books, but drawn the parallels between them. She was also an incisive questioner. If she ever wants a gig in radio, she’d be great.
The audience was lovely too. Every time I spoke I saw faces eager and smiling. Book lovers are people who don’t just want a diversion; they want to understand a little more about life. They come to these events to to find out more of what was going on in our heads as we wrote, to understand us and our works a little better.
It was a good day, a day when I too learned just a little bit more.
Friends to the Rescue (29.8.11)
The value of friends is priceless.
At the Melbourne launch of the novel, my friend Jon Faine, who also happens to host the sometimes top-rating morning talk show in Melbourne, was due to do me the honour of being the master of ceremonies.
The best laid plans of rodents and humans do come unstuck, and so it was with Mr Faine. Early on the day of the launch we spoke, and he said that because of a family problem he might not be able to do the gig after all. Being a man of honour he said he would do his best to be there, but he wanted to warn me that he might be needed elsewhere. And of course, ten minutes before the doors opened for the perfectly-planned launch, I got the phone call from him to say that he couldn’t get there.
I needn’t have worried, because I have found that during this whole publishing process, friends come from everywhere to help. My mate Bob Sessions, the former head of Penguin books, was to be seen walking up the aisle of Readings bookstore towards us, expecting to have a drink and snack and give polite applause in exchange.
My wife Jackie, who has never been one to let a chance go by, grabbed him and asked if he would be willing to help out with the speechly duties.
He hesitated not a moment. Of course, he said. He has seen hundreds of authors launch novels, but he was enthusiastic, and bear in mind that I was not from his own stable of writers.
On stage, Bob was terrific, and as I looked over the faces gathered for the launch, faces from the writing world, from the ABC, from our circle of friends and professional associates, I saw nothing but love and encouragement. My producers Babs, Sabrina and Artan, my music programmer Kim, Julie who designer most of the cover, Dan who gave us the layout, Margie who has been pushing me to give book club talks, my publicist Alan Davidson taking photos, Jill Morgan and Claudia Escobar of Multicultural Arts Victoria, who were there just to support me, our closest friends Gary Young, John O’May, Robyn Arthur and many many more.
Yes there was love in that room, so much love that they queued for the best part of an hour as I signed their books. On a Friday night when bistros and bars awaited.
And of course Uncle Bob Sessions was standing by me, with the kind of support and mateship that will keep the book publishing industry alive.
Thank you all, and thank you Bob.
Mixed Emotions (28.8.11)
It was Uncle John’s day, yet there was a sorrow.
As the writing of this novel got underway, it morphed from something that was a ripping yarn about my grandmother into something far bigger. It became a story about humanity, good, bad, spiritual, indecent, loving, hating, caring and indifferent. You see these contrasts every day on the train or bus, but they are never so obvious as in war time. In Greece in WW2, family members were at war with each other, often because of political differences, but tragically, it also happened because of ridiculous petty jealousies.
My grandmother knew of these things; she may have been a victim of it. But in that terrible war, for every bad deed done, the good ones were many and more powerful. Olga and her underground comrades knew how to love. They staked their lives on that love. Every time they went on a mission, up to a dozen people risked death to save one trapped and frightened airman caught in a barn somewhere. Day after day these rescuers took the same risks. It had to be for love tinged perhaps, as my grandmother says in the novel, with the opportunity to spit in the eye of the German invaders.
Yesterday the book was officially launched in Sydney by the former NSW premier Bob Carr. Seated in front of us were family members I hadn’t seen for up to two decades, all there with a shared love of our grandmother, but also they were there for me. My cousins Jodie, Jenny, Michelle and Tennielle, as well as my brother and sister and nephews and nieces. Uncle Johnny was there too. He doesn’t get out much these days, but he came to this launch.
Bob Carr strode to the rostrum in that confident manner that he showed when he was NSW premier and when I was a humble member of the media gallery, working for ABC TV news. What he said yesterday was wonderful. He spoke with warmth of the Greek diaspora, and of the Greeks in his former electorate. He read excerpts from the novel in a way that could not but bring tears to the eyes of the audience. And to me.
Later, as I spoke from the rostrum of the grandmother I never knew, I saw those tears were still there. This is what this novel is about, the humanity, the story of life that is being played out today in so many countries around the world. Today in Libya as the rebels are poised to evict a tyrant; in Syria where thousands continue to defy another, facing down their own mortal peril. These are stories of people, not numbers and death tolls.
The tears that I couldn’t break away from as I spoke were those of my Uncle Johnny. I was telling the story of his mother and father, his brothers and sisters. And later when he stood in the queue waiting with everyone else for me to sign his copy, I felt a strange shame.
No, Uncle Johnny should not have been standing in a queue for me. This was his story. This was his moment as the last of the generation. He should not have been standing in any queue.
Maybe this explains why the sorrow I felt at that moment. I really don’t know. That sorrow is with me today. Like I said at the beginning, the writing process didn’t start this way. I suppose these things just take on their own spirit, and you just have to live with it.
Thank you Uncle Johnny.
The Lovely Circus Begins (19.8.11)
I have my first two interviews for the book tomorrow. One is for the Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos, and the other for my colleague Geraldine Coutts at Radio Australia. It’ll be funny being on the other side of the microphone. I am interviewed as a guest on ABC News Breakfast TV regularly, doing their newspaper wrap, so I suppose that qualifies as being interviewed. But tomorrow will be different. I will be asked about my family, my grandmother, my feelings, my writing. And despite what every journalist tells you, there is a little bit of acting involved in being a presenter. You keep your emotions to yourself, especially on a public broadcaster like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. You are always secondary to the story. This makes it easier when a guest attacks you, because you haven’t laid your personal self open to attack.
Being an author lays you open. You are susceptible to criticism, to the enquiring mind, and to that ballistic missile that finds the flaw in your reasoning.
I was interviewed for my last book, which was a collection of short stories. The book, The Chequered Lady (Federation Press), was a bit of fun, and was never going to be in line for the Booker Prize, but the questions were penetrating still.
I wonder what’s in store for me tomorrow. Be kind, comrades.
In My Hands (12.8.11)
Last night when I got home there were some boxes on the front verandah. The books. Just days out from the Sydney and Melbourne launches, the books were printed and elsewhere across the country, other copies of Someone Else’s War were on their way to the bookstores. Was this how the book industry usually worked, I asked the ever-helpful Christine Gordon from Readings in Carlton (which is hosting the August 26 Melbourne launch). Yes, she said. Razor’s edge, she said. Closer than any other business deal you could image, she said. Books often arrive the day before a launch. Palpitations are apparently a normal and expected part of the book game. I don’t like palpitations. I host an international radio program on Radio Australia every week day. I often go to air still with our major interview yet confirmed. They almost always come through (I have some very good producers), but I never get palpitations in the radio biz. To get such heart murmurs over the publication of a book, which has so much longer a lead-in time, just doesn’t make sense. In radio we have two hours planning time every morning for our major interview (which is based on the news of the day). So it’s a case of two hours in radio versus six months for a book.
But the books are here. They will be at the bookstores for the launches, and my faithful publicist, Alan Davidson, and distributor Dennis Jones are ensuring that there will be plenty in stores as I tour Australia next month to do interviews.
First stop though are the launches. If you are around, feel free to drop in and say hello. The first is at Dymocks in George St in Sydney on Tuesday August 23 at 10am. Former NSW premier Bob Carr will be hosting. Three days later comes the Melbourne launch: Friday August 26 at 6pm at Readings bookstore in Lygon St, Carlton.
It’s been a long journey folks, for Olga, for me, and for my family. The launches will be more than a chance to tell the story of Olga. They will be celebrations.
Bringing Us Together (26.7.11)
One of the joys of a project like this how it brings people together. Over the last few weeks I have been emailing with long-lost cousins. Actually they were never ‘lost’. Rather, we just fell out of contact. It happens with big families. As kids, I used to spend every Christmas, Boxing Day, Easter and New Year with the families of my aunties and uncle. Back then there were the usual jealousies and trouble-making (or as much trouble as seven-year olds can make). While our mothers sat around a table watching, talking and scolding, we would explore the yard, dragging out old pieces of wood or corrugated iron, making what we considered to be a shelter, chased every moment by whichever dog was around. Gorgeous times they were, but times that passed as we grew and started devoting time to our own friends and partners. Then the time came when our beloved mums and dads passed on. That seemed to be it. We who were so close as kids, would go from year to year without seeing each other. From decade to decade perhaps. So it has been a beauty of my life that through Someone Else’s War, cousins have again come together. Many are coming to the August launches, and an event in September hosted by the Greek community. I can’t wait to see them all again.
Revisiting the Kiwis (13.6.11)
I am in negotiations to do an author tour in New Zealand in September. I have been the Australian correspondent for Radio New Zealand for almost half my life. At one point I was asked to host RNZ’s flagship Morning Report current affairs program, but I couldn’t bear to tear myself away from Australia on a permanent basis. Still the Kiwis were very welcoming and I did the program for a few weeks alongside long-term co-presenter Geoff Robinson. Over the years I have been invited across the Tasman to do the odd art gallery opening or comedy debate (including one for the Auckland Comedy Festival, with the inimitable Bill Bailey as referee, and with Aussie comics Greg Fleet and Denise Scott on my team). My wife has performed 2 extended seasons in Phantom of the Opera in Auckland, so it really is one of our homes. I’ll look forward to the media circuit.
Making the List! (22.5.11)
I just found out I will be involved in two sessions at the Melbourne Writers festival in August-Sept. On the second weekend I will be part of a forum featuring Someone Else’s War, but also on the first weekend (August 27) I will be chairing a session to do with multicultural writing. Love that chairing stuff. Hope you can get along.