Interview About Palimpsest

An email chat with Angelike Contis, filmmaker and journalist.

Angelike Contis: First of all, how long have you been working on the book? How did it all begin?

Kathryn Koromilas: From start to end, it’s been an Odyssean decade, no less. It’s weird. I didn’t set about to write it. I didn’t make a plan. I didn’t set a start date. I simply knew what I always knew, that I wanted to write a novel, but the sheer magnitude of the venture always awed me. The number of words that needed to be threaded together, and not only that, that they must be the correct words and together they must do something truthful, they must help the author’s invention become spectacle, an entire other world and characters and stories within that world. And it’s not just the practical work of writing those thousands of words, it’s even harder, it’s sustaining an idea over such a lengthy work.

In the beginning I wrote poetry, then short pieces of fiction, but even the short stories were not much longer than a thousand words each. I just lacked the sheer strength to take on the task. But at one point I realised that I had. I had had the image of a dead man by a beach, there at the littoral and then I wrote the first sentence of the novel – just as it is today. And once I had done that, I realised I had begun and that’s when I scribbled the date on the back of a card (oddly my old Athens News business card) and I wrote: Started writing The Novel: 1 September 2000.

AC: How did the homecoming/return to Australia help you finish it? Was it important in the final product?

KK: Actually, I finished composing the novel while living in Spain. It had essentially been written completely and many, many times over while I was still living in Greece, in Preveza, but there were a lot of things I needed to clarify and make decisions about regarding the second part of the novel and most of that happened during the two years I spent living in Spain.

In Spain, the writing of the novel became serious work. I was no longer physically in the place which had started it all and in which I was, after living there for almost a decade, sinking – and Spain gave me the emotional freedom to really do the work of required of a mature writer.

Also, it was while I was still tinkering with the manuscript in Spain (the work of the novel, it seems, never ends, so long as it is in manuscript form you keep at it, changing a word, the structure of a sentence or sometimes adding or removing scenes) I began sending the manuscript to a few literary agents in the UK and even in the USA and while a couple responded with positive comments, nothing came of it. Then, I shifted my focus to the Australian literary scene. I realised that it was in Australia that this novel had to be sent. So I sent the manuscript to Australian Scholarly Publishing – I’d found them while researching online and I liked the name – I always thought my novel was both literary and scholarly. Their fiction imprint is called Arcadia, which is, of course, the geographical region in Peloponnesus and also a mythological place. It is also a place in New South Wales whose original inhabitants – according to Wikipedia – were the Darug people. There is also an Arcadia in Victoria and Queensland. I like how many Australian names are derivative of European names and places – epigonic I called Australia once in a poem.

I still had no concrete plans to return to Australia – Australia had become a distant and foreign place to me (I hadn’t been there – bar two short visits – for a decade). But I sent the novel there and the fiction editor at the time replied with: “Palimpsest is one of the most exciting manuscripts I’ve come across recently.” A year later I was in Sydney and signed the contract in Melbourne.

AC: When did you first get the idea of Zeal & Zelopolis? How close, in your mind, is it to Nikopolis, which you lived so close to for so long? How is it different?

KK: Nikopolis, in Preveza, Nikopolis – the ancient Roman city built by Augustus in 31 BC following his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium – is, of course, the real palimpsest which first fascinated and enthused me so much so that I kept seeing everything in palimpsest. Nikopolis is the place that said everything and in the beginning I used it in the novel. But as the novel and I matured, as the novel became its own self, I knew that I would never be true to Nikopolis. It was not Nikopolis I was writing about. It was not a factual geographical place I was writing. I was inventing something else, some other place, fictional, but true nonetheless. And it was Zelopolis that was able to do the work I wanted, it was Zelopolis that helped reveal the truth I wanted to see, it was Zelopolis that helped me learn and understand what I wanted.

And so, there was born the philosophy of Zeal, there I invented the demi-god Zelos and the ancient philosopher Zelodotus. Zeal is the excessive fervour that drives a person to do things, it is enthusiasm for something. This is the basis of what I saw to be Akindynos’s greatest virtue and greatest flaw. For while enthusiasm and zeal made Akindynos eager and ready to read and to study, he was not able to dominate these feelings and to overcome them; he was not able to see beyond his enthusiasm with reason and logic. This ultimately led to his fanaticism. To explore all this, I invented the pursuit of zeal and Zelodotus’s philosophy of zeal.

AC: Your writing – as I saw it – is very streamlined – not a lot of flowery adjectives, not a lot of detailed descriptions, of say the layout of the village or architecture etc. How did this style evolve?

KK: I’m not sure. I simply knew that Kally’s voice had to be clear and strong, confident and rational, and most importantly, disinterested and not emotional at all, not elaborate or suggestive. I worked on each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence, and each word over and over. I did this also because I – like Kally might have when she was active in philosophy – loved playing with words and dictionaries, I loved and love rearranging the words in a sentence and noting how everything changes. I struggled finding the right words – we take the words we use so much for granted – and I studied the etymology of words to try and find the most accurate words for what I wanted to say. It is hard for words to convey accurate meaning and I’m fascinated by rhetoric.

I imagine I could continue working on the manuscript forever, I still see things I could make more subtle or stronger, clearer or more obscure, obscure enough to lure a reader.

AC: You dedicate the book to “Me” and Katerina Koromilas appears as a character in it. Can you talk a little about this? Were they both daring choices? Were you taking the lead from any favorite writers?

KK: The novel is dedicated to me, because, well it’s just completely mine. But the “Me” in the dedication is not Katerina Koromila, even though, clearly she’s been given my name and is supposed to be the closest thing to me that a fictional character could be. I think I’ve given her my voice, my ideas, my scepticism and fear of national identity, my fear of enthusiasm. And yes, of course, I’m not the first author to appear as a character in my novel. I think it was a way, for me at least, to admit that I was more involved in the novel than in just writing the words. I was intellectually, emotionally and physically a part of the whole novel-writing process – I was before it, during it and after it. I was the novel.

AC: Which philosophical concepts do you consider the backbone of Palimpsest?

KK: Initially, the novel was motivated by my desire to understand home and identity, exile and suicide. I had forgotten all about this aspect of the novel, until Dr Edward Spence – a Sydney-based philosopher whom I’d invited to help me launch the novel at Gleebooks – spoke about the aspect of home in my novel.

Then, at one point, because I was reading Kazantzakis, I began reading about existentialism and the absurd. The absurd is really just the ultimate confrontation between a desire to find any inherent meaning in the universe and inability to find any, at the human level anyway. Sisyphus – who pushes the boulder up the hill only to let it fall and then to push it up again and so on and so forth, is the ultimate absurd character.  Kally is the absurd character in this book.  When she finally decides to act, to remove her shoes and to walk up the hill towards the Zelos monument, to try and connect with her ancestry, she comes back down the hill, a cut on her toe and nothing more. No connection, no emotional revelation.  Nothing. This is the absurd. And this is where some readers find her irritating. But why should there have been any epiphany?

Suicide comes up a lot in the existentialists but also in the ancient Greeks and that is something that is also explored as it is unclear if Akindynos has died by accident, has been murdered, or has committed suicide.

There’s also the whole aspect of light and darkness and Plato’s cave and the idea of rationality and seeing things clearly. Akindynos – the more he becomes a fanatic about the Greeks, the more he hides in the shadows of logic.

And then, something I would like to research more is the idea of enthusiasm and fanaticism. Fanaticism is normally defined as “irrational enthusiasm” but I argue that enthusiasm is irrational, for it is not grounded in reason, but incited by human intuition and imagination. And so, I really wanted to explore, via Akindynos, the aspect of the human mind that is encouraged and enthused by learning – a virtue to be sure – and what happens when that enthusiasm obscures reason.

AC: Can you speak a little about the issues of Greek identity (pride vs. fanaticism, Ancient Greece vs. Byzantine Church) we see in the book? How did identity issues become distilled in your mind as you lived in Greece?

KK: I have to admit I’m a bit sceptical about identity, and maybe more than sceptical, fearful of it. Identity – whether individual or group identity – is at the core of all confrontations. And I’m not very good with confrontations. You see them amongst individuals in families or workplaces; you see them amongst groups of nationalities and fans football teams. This constant battle between me and you, or us and them.

But I also understand that identity is akin to the survival instinct in all beings. We all strive towards understanding ourselves within this universe and that means making identity statements too. Making identity is linked to creating meaning. For people like Akindynos identifying with his ancient Greek ancestors was one way of making meaning in the world. And that identity had to be pure and grand and awesome; nothing less would suffice.

As far as the social issue of migration is concerned, I once read an essay by Siri Hustvedt in which she posited an in-between place for the migrant, a place between home and away, and this place she called ‘yonder.’ I like this idea because it places the migrant in a non-physical place between the homeland and the new-land and I think all migrants essentially live in their heads – with memories of the homeland becoming all the more romanticised and ideal.

AC: Can you talk about the challenges of creating your book’s heroine, Kally? It’s no easy feat – as when the book starts I felt she was numb/dead/in mourning & she gradually came awake – but is never really an active heroic, more a philosopher. Was that hard?

KK: I was really interested in what a disinterested protagonist would be like. Kally has lost a daughter, left her husband (also a philosopher, who philosophised through the grief of losing his own daughter – the reason why Kally became estranged from him) and Kally also left philosophy. She doesn’t care about a thing. She’s lost her ability to do philosophy, lost her faith in the value of it. Epicurus had once said that a philosophy that cannot heal the soul or mind is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body. Philosophy could not cure Kally’s grief and so she rejects it. (In the end, she does return to it).

So, given this type of person, how would she be as a protagonist? Clearly she would be silent, she would ignore parts of the story that another protagonist might pick up on and offer in dramatic fashion to an eager reader. She would ignore the prompts in a story that could turn things spectacular. And Kally does this, that is, she ignores what is going on in the story.

It was almost impossible to tell the story with her in the heroic role. And yet, I persisted; I liked the idea of it. And I have to admit, there were many times when her words appeared on the page and I had to go back and delete them. Were they my words or hers? I could not be sure. Finally, I let her speak.

I’ve been told that she is irritating, because of this. But I like her. She’s been through the worst thing – losing her child and her ability to do philosophy – so why should her appearance as the protagonist in someone’s novel make her suddenly more interested? Why should that bring her out of her depression? What, really, is so life-altering and life-giving about being invited to be a novel’s hero? And why should an author demand that it should be? And, moreover, why should a reader say she’s shallow or irritating because she’s lost everything and doesn’t want to participate in the spectacle?

AC: In the village and with Akindynos does philosophy have a male-bonding purpose for Akindynos? For some reason, it’s the men that gravitate to him mostly.

KK: I remember seeing groups of elderly migrant Greek men meeting together in small neighbourhood squares around Sydney. I always wondered about those men and called them the philosophers and imagined the types of conversations they would have. I always wanted to write about them and I guess that’s what happened with Akindynos and his entourage.

This interview was published in Odyssey Magazine in 2010.

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