Family saga anybody? To write one has been my life-long dream: a fictionalized story of my fierce, desperate ancestors and their colourful lives all the way from 19th century Devon to New Zealand's unknown shores.
About to begin, by chance I was introduced to rescuers working for the Canadian Coast Guard, the Military and the Navy. Intrigued and inspired by their stories, thinking my saga could wait, I began working on the first of what was to become three books of true stories about these extrordinary people, their heroic rescue work, and of survivors of terrible tragedies. To this day these people are my heroes.
Now to my New Zealand saga. But then I met a Greek hair dresser who had an extrordinary family story woven straight out of the stuff of myth, tragedy and obsession. A tale about identity and who are you really? About the consequences of simultaneously pursuing both love and fame. About the burden of one man's pursuit of redemption for historic wrongs, imposed all future generations. What do you owe to an old patriarch when his mission conflicts with your own dreams, and the path of your true love.
Sunday night on a long weekend and I'm in my small, dark little room upstairs writing - well, editing to be precise. Now it is 10 PM. and still I'm at it. This must be my zillionth edit and I think I'll never be finished with it. What kind of a life is this? How does one finish a novel, or should the question be: can a writer ever get to the end? Can a writer ever be satisfied with what they've written, and especially with the ending?
The answer is probably no. Think of Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Kathryn Mansfield, all who longed to change their stories, or to alter the endings.
I can see myself sending off my manuscript, then desperately wanting it back. "I want to change it! It's not good enough!" Or toss it in a drawer for grandchildren to find when the old lady has eventually croaked.
And how does an extravert with an insatiable social appetite willingly isolate herself to endlessly, restlessly hit the keys? To give up dinners and parties and plays and movies - for the sake of what? Ambition and dreams of success? Some discipline learned in childhood that you must finish what you start? That someone is watching, even leaning over your shoulder?
For me it is the absolute love of telling stories, of moving others to feel what I feel. Simply - to share.
Why did I not pursue the New Zealand story, you might ask. First, I had trouble getting started, and when I did, felt I knew the history too well, that I didn’t have in interesting voice or enough originality to do justice to ideas lurking in my subconscious. I began reading other people’s histories, and soon longed to know another part of the world. To see through the eyes of people whose experiences and understanding of their lives and the world were different from my own. And then came that serendipitous meeting with a Greek hair dresser.
Also about this time I heard Tom Wolfe say to a large audience in Toronto that unless an author can write what they know with a unique and compelling voice, maybe they should get to know something else.
Over a period of months I listened to the tale told to me by this Greek hair dresser: the story of the tragic lives of her Greek forebears who had lived in Turkey until surviving members were forced out after the Greco-Turkish wars of 1919-1922. A tale that included soaring successes and tragic failures, some at the hands of a bitter fate, others because of their own poor judgments and reckless decisions.
I was fascinated at this glimpse into another time, another place, a complicated culture unfamiliar to me. Exotic, powerful, it suggested shades of Greek tragedy.
Soon I became hooked on Turkish-Greek people and their history and believed I could fictionalize my hair dresser’s story. Quickly I realized it was not enough to chronicle a family’s trajectory from poverty, to success, back to poverty, then follow up with the immigrant story of struggle in a new country. I wanted a back drop, a context, to set a stage for more comprehensive understanding for what I wanted to unfold – exactly what, I didn’t yet know.
I started asking, who were the ancient peoples who raced across the Anatolian Plateau over many thousands of years? How did they live? What do today’s populations of Greeks, of Turks – the origins of Turks are complicated already – have in common with them: the Hittites. Assyrians. Phoenicians? If you are a Greek living on the Anatolian Plateau as your ancestors have done from the beginning of time but you are living among Turks, adopting many of their customs, even speaking their language, are you a Greek or a Turk? Do you care? Perhaps not much, until you are forced to. These questions intrigued me. Soon, passionately I wanted to know. As I read, this history took on magical, even mystical proportions.
I didn’t begin with a plot, but with a character (the patriarch Yiannis). I tried to imagine him living a subsistence existence on the vast Anatolian Plateau, a king in his own small world. That is, until he learned that a forebear had once been advisor to an Ottoman Caliphate. And so began my journey with him and his descendants to restore what he believed he had lost. I asked myself was this powerful enough to propel a family from poverty in Anatolia to successful merchant prince status in the teeming, Aegean city of Smyrna? To keep the survivors going after the Greco-Turkish wars and a forced deportation into Greece, to them an alien country? Would I find the old myth of restoring lost honour dimming over the generations?
It unrolled itself as a story about what happens when a man grabs hold of a myth – for the patriarch Yiannis, a belief – and insists his sons to help him chase it. A story of a man abandoning life as he and his forebears have known it over the centuries. With the last drop of sweat in his body he will reclaim past status he believes was his from the times of ancient Byzantium.
And now to Helena, the last in a long line of forebears to carry the ultimate burden of restoring family honour, four generations after her great grandfather’s quest to restore her family’s rightful place in old Byzantine history.
But she’s only a hair dresser, you might say, incredulous. How can she get famous by doing that?
By achieving international fame, I say. She can get her face on the covers of all the magazines. She can compete and win prizes. She can travel everywhere. Have the rich and famous clamouring at her door - like Vidal Sassoon, and like Jie Matar.
It’s a long, hard road for her. She grows up to the cries of bereaved refugee women in what at the time was a poor part of Greece. To tension in her parent’s calamitous marriage. To the local people, she and her family were spurned because they were not real Greeks.
Helena is intense, flamboyant – even histrionic – and struggles with a strong need to be recognized. Hair, she believes, is the major weapon in a woman’s seductive armoury. It has been the source of power since ancient times - the Biblical Samson, Lady Godiva, sun gods from India to Ireland - and so it will be for her. The creation of beautiful hair, unlike many occupations, makes people feel good about themselves.
But it is her great uncle Spiros who burns many of the pages with his sufferings and brief triumphs. An accidental character, I call him, since I created him only because I felt that first-son Adam needed a brother. Somehow he becomes Cain to his brother’s Abel. Yearning for his father’s acceptance, he works his body to dust, and racks his soul. At his shoulder is his fair-looking gentle brother Adam, both his parents’ favourite.
Jealous of him, both loving and hating him, Spiros works until his hands bleed, until his belly claws with hunger. All the while Adam hides under an oleander bush dreaming about the mythical lives of his forebears, of tribes who once lived on the Anatolian Plateau before him.