Two communities. A shooting. Migrants on the run.
Greece is caught in the jaws of economic crisis. Right-wing militias patrol the streets of Athens, and migrants Sunday and Samwells Ngone are struggling to survive in a country rife with poverty.
Filoxénia is trying to carve out an independent life for herself in the city, while her beautiful sister Anássa is keeping dangerous company.
The two sisters and two migrants become embroiled in the events at the FlyKing Hotel. Ripples are felt across the turbulent city of Athens and spread to the small village of Páno Pétro.
The olive harvest approaches, economic and radical tensions flare, old friendships are tested and loyalties broken.
To celebrate the publication of our latest digital-first debut Dead Olives by Jeremy Hinchliff, we’re featuring an interview with the author to discover more about the writing of the novel, and the inspiration behind it.
What made you want to write about migrants and the economic crisis in Greece?
You couldn’t not, really. The migrants were already a big issue when I was there (2013-15) and that was before the Syrian exodus that’s going on today. Very sad that there was tension with migrants as Greece was once extremely welcoming to foreigners and in many cases still is. Little help from other countries, especially Britain.
The migrants I first saw tended to be Africans, selling stuff out of rucksacks. They annoyed people at the bars and cafes but you had to admire their courage selling their awful stuff so far from home.
The economic situation was such a massive subject I could barely touch on it. Imagine if Britain suddenly had 35% unemployment and those still in work had their wages cut in half. Absolutely awful. They’re still arguing about who was to blame but I’m left with the feeling that it could have been avoided. It just happened with a bit of artificial tinkering by finance ministers to meet EU criteria.
What prompted your move to Greece?
A bit of a life crisis. I realised it was time to give up my job. I’d been a librarian for twenty-five years when I only meant to do it to support my writing. I needed to take a risk, basically. I wasn’t getting much written and wasn’t happy. I also wanted to see the Crisis as I had spent a fair bit of time in Greece over the years.
To what extent did Greek history and myths influence your writing?
I love all myths. I invariably read The Iliad or The Odyssey every couple of years. The stories and language never go stale because someone always does a good new translation. I like Homer’s idea of Gods and how they interact with the rest of us. It’s like a family squabbling and taking sides with their pet humans. All very arbitrary and, well, rather like life really. Like bosses in the work place. I’m always tempted to put in a layer above the human in my stories.
Greek history: I’m interested in the period under Ottoman rule and the first century of Greek Independence more than the classical stuff. We all know about the latter but hardly anything about the more recent period. That’s why I wanted one of the characters to be a historian.
Are any of your characters based on real people?
I don’t think so. There are real people in the book, like Pavlos Fyssas but no one I’ve turned into a fictional character. Maybe an arm and a leg here and there, but not a whole person.
Any must-visit places in Greece?
Everywhere. To be honest I’m not a great sightseer. I rented my little bungalow, wrote, and went to the beach. I have been to Mycenae, Knossos and the Athens sites and they’re good but hot and crowded. One year I want to just go round the country, not necessarily seeing classical sites. Athens-Thessaloniki railway is not bad.
What writers have influenced you?
There are excellent Greek travel writers; Patrick Leigh Fermor, of course, and Peter Levi. Jan Morris has covered many parts of the Mediterranean. You can’t ask more than that trio.
The best insights into contemporary Greece under the Crisis are probably from Maria Margaronis. Excellent documentaries on Radio 4.
Fiction-wise, no specifically Greek writer but I’ve always loved novelists from other countries. I loved José Saramago; Leonardo SciaScia and Ismail Kadare who probably provided some Mediterranean and Balkan inspiration. I also enjoy Indian writers; R.K. Narayan, V.S. Naipaul. I would have to add William Trevor and Cormac McCarthy to a list of admired writers. And Nadine Gordimer as I was born in South Africa.
How long did it take to write the novel?
I’m a slow writer. It took pretty much two years but then I was doing a certain amount of research and language acquisition as I went along.
Was it always your ambition to be a writer?
No. I first wanted to be a musician/singer/songwriter. Had to move into novels when rhyming couplets went out of fashion and gigs began to start after my bedtime
Have you joined writing courses/groups? Any tips for fellow writers looking to get published?
I’ve thought about doing writing courses but the MAs are not cheap and I just don’t know if I want to commit that amount of time at my age. It’s a very tough choice to make. If you know you want to be a writer in your twenties then you would probably do a course. It is generally said that agents and publishers look for writers with qualifications now. I sometimes feel that might be breeding a certain type of writer so I’m not entirely in favour of it. I don’t think many of my favourites went to writing school.
Other routes: I think you’ve got to try everything. Sending short stories to competitions can be a good way to get started. But it’s a fairly low return. Can be frustrating. Really reading the directories of agents and small publishers is important, AND comparing them to the up to date website. Hone your list so you don’t waste time on long shots who may not look at your script. Lots of good articles on the net about writers’ experiences.
How much can you tell us about your future writing projects?
P.D.James used to say you should never talk about something till you’ve written it and I think that’s true. I can say I’m trying to work out the logistics. I don’t think I can do another twenty-five years in a library before my next effort. One big question is whether to write another one in Greece or try one set in Britain. While I think I’ll keep writing short stories.
Jeremy Hinchliff worked as a librarian for twenty years before moving to Greece to write about the debt crisis. Dead Olives is his first novel. He studied Classics at Oxford and Information Management at Thames Valley University. He lives in Somerset and Messinίa.