Exploring family ties that bind

The family and the complex web of feelings and duties that bind – sometimes too tightly – are at the center of Amanda Michalopoulou’s latest novel, «Prinkipissa Savra» (Princess Lizard), which is published by Kastaniotis. Persephone – the mother of Theoni who is named for her maternal grandmother, a strong-minded writer who died a few years earlier – has to learn to move on. But her daughter has started writing in her sleep, seemingly receiving dictation from her deceased grandmother. Persephone’s hitherto happy relationship with her husband hits a rough spot when his father dies. She also has to come to terms with her brother, her father (now living with their former housekeeper) and her husband’s children. The demands of work put further constraints on all those relationships. Resentments simmer and misunderstandings grow until Persephone learns to see her family in a new light. There’s much more to this intricately plotted novel, which, like all of Michalopoulou’s fiction, plays with structure – there are letters, a book within a book, newspaper columns – and with conflicting takes on reality that keep the story moving in new directions. Insider humor The author habitually drops hints to amuse her regular readers in what she called «playful complicity» in an earlier interview with this paper. Here a book written by the grandmother has the same title, «The Move,» as one of Michalopoulou’s own children’s books. «Princess Lizard» flirts more openly with a surreal element that lurked at the edges of her earlier work, notably the story collection «I’d Like.» Kathimerini English Edition asked her about that and other aspects of her work. «Princess Lizard» is set in territory that will be familiar to readers of your earlier work: the family and its tenacious grasp, the struggle to grow up and be an independent adult. This time you go further, to the experiences of later adult life: of balancing work and relationships and, notably, confronting separation, loss and death. Without wanting to reduce your fiction to autobiography, may I ask to what extent your own stage in life influences your choice of subject? To a great extent. Although I never write about my own family, I am more open to family stories than I used to be when I was traveling alone and didn’t have a clue about children, didn’t really care about death. Now I don’t have to go in search of my subjects. People die around me. And my daughter’s friends are sitting in the next room and discussing princesses and magic castles. It is for me an amazing new world of sensibilities and cruelties. There are interesting angles on children in «Princess Lizard»: Persephone as a child, her own child, Stamatis’s children and the complexity of life following separation and divorce. Childhood has always been a theme in your work. Can you comment? In the past I used to see childhood like Persephone does, through my autobiography, through my own idealized childhood, that is. Now there are many perspectives. For Stamatis’s children, for instance, I used as models 10-year-old boys and girls. I was so surprised to find out that their childhood is totally different, full of different interests. When a writer is surprised, the story takes usually an interesting turn. Your main character is not a writer, but her mother was; her husband is a journalist and she steps in to write his column when he vanishes. Her grandmother seems to be communicating with her through her daughter, who writes in her sleep. What extra dimension does it give your fiction to have characters that are artists and writers? Can you imagine yourself writing a book without one? At this very moment, yes. As a matter of fact, I am just thinking about writing a book where no one is involved with art. I guess writing about artists was the only solution when I thought the life of an artist is a kind of idealized ghetto. As I grow older I feel artists can be also boring. So I want to examine closer a teacher, a gardener… Last time I interviewed you I asked where you saw your writing going after «I’d Like,» and you replied: «I guess to more surreal stories. I’m starting to take a distance from reality, which is very therapeutic.» There is certainly an element of the surreal in «Princess Lizard.» Can you see yourself developing that strain in future work? Not really. I was talking then about «Princess Lizard,» which was just beginning to take shape around this very special surreal idea. Every book asks a particular question to come to life. My new idea – which is still vague – is very much down to earth because my main hero is a man. Men don’t believe in ghosts. They are «doers,» aren’t they? Recognition abroad Amanda Michalopoulou has had work translated into several languages – Czech, English, German, Italian, Serbian, Swedish and Russian. But her first full-length book to be translated into English is «Tha ithela» (I’d Like), which won an International Literature Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Originally published in Greek by Kastantiotis in 2005, the English translation by Karen Emmerich will be published by the non-profit Dalkey Archive Press. The author will present «I’d Like» at the PEN New York Festival of International Literature, Public Lives/Private Voices, April 29 – May 4, 2008. She also has a new book for children, «I engoni tou Ai Vassili» (Santa’s Grandchildren), due out in November.