Resist the restrictions about what can and cannot be written about. In a world that praises “likeness” and the authenticity of personal experience, use your sense of empathy to imagine the world through the eyes of the other.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gianni Skaragas. Gianni is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. His play “The Lady of Ro” was presented at CAP UCLA in 2020. He writes in both English and Greek and teaches creative writing. Skaragas has written ten novels and several screenplays. His English short fiction has appeared in various American publications. In 2009, his play “Prime Numbers” premiered in New York. His short story “The History of Grains” was adapted for theatre in Zurich, Switzerland in 2017 (“Courage”). In 2015, he was invited by the European parliament as a keynote speaker about the European identity and financial crisis. In 2018, he received the Copper-Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose (University of Colorado). His grants and fellowships include honors from renowned organizations in the U.S. and Europe.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Iwas by nature shy and uncommunicative. The silence was a big part of my life when I was growing up. My sense of empathy helped me to render complex emotions into storytelling. It offered me a hypothetical arena of magic, in which I could become whatever I wasn’t. It taught me how to choose and change words, how to expand their meaning, and use language not merely for its capacity for concrete description.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I knew early on that learning languages came easily to me. I was drawn to a more polylingual literary environment and cultural otherness. It was a mystery to explore the intimate meeting between one language to another. When I started to write in English, I didn’t try to translate my thoughts and domesticate them in a way that best appealed to the target audience. To me, it was more important to ask questions about the thoughts that could not be communicated, about the words that had no literal equivalent in English. My own limitations reinforced my writing practice, though. I came to realize that in order to make my voice understood in the very different medium of English, I would need to reimagine my ability to acquire language holding a magnifying glass up on what goes unsaid.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
The financial crisis in Greece was truly devastating. I felt like I was leaning against what I thought all along was a concrete wall, and when that gave in, I realized there was nothing there to help me. I had to leave Greece and lead a peripatetic life doing what I did best: I had to reinvent and rewrite my life. It was painful, even devastating, but it made me realize that all our lives are precious and connected, charged, and changed by the prism of hope and our very sense of faith. Some of my short stories in the U.S. convey the experience of being forced to step into uncertainty, knowing that sometimes we cannot return to the person we were or to the reality we perceived in the past. I can’t help writing metaphors of disappearing and being lost and wanting to be seen and understood — stories about learning, however slowly, to allow ourselves to be seen and understood, to allow my voice to he heard, even if we cannot change the world.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My short story How to Draw Human Figures (winner of the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize for Prose in 2018) is becoming a film in France. I am also working on a story about a prison librarian who must find a way to rebuild his community and his own life in a world where all images are patented. The question my novel poses is the one that is classically aimed at humanities majors. What practical value could there possibly be in studying literature, art and philosophy? My story is about the function and value of literature, how it gives a view into the human condition and builds moral imagination.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
One of the stories in the collection is an homage to a woman who chose to live outside a social context, a Greek widow known as the Lady of Ro after the name of the deserted island where she took refuge during the two World Wars. She lived outside civilization, but her life was suffused with a kind of humanity that proves the better spirits of our nature can thrive against any odds. I focused on the flawed woman who became a folk legend and gave herself and the world a little faith as a lover, as a fighter and as a participant in history. The Lady of Ro was the perfect symbol for a multilayered chronicle of ordinary people in an era of sweeping change — for a generation of people in Greece, in the States and the wide world, who had to question the values they once held true, confronting the financial crisis in the last decade, and learning to live beyond grief and anguish. The Greek Crisis was truly devastating.This story conveys the experience of being forced to step into uncertainty, knowing that you will never return to the person you were or to the reality you perceived in the past. The Lady of Ro in both the book and the adaptation for theatre became a metaphor of disappearing and wanting to be seen and understood. This is a story about learning, however slowly, to ask for our voice to he heard, even if it doesn’t matter or change the world.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
My stories are about the the danger of believing that following the rules can avert pain and misdirections — about the demoralizing speed at which our lives can spin out of control. They portray ordinary people, who may feel they are unimportant, misunderstood and undeserving of kindness: My stories that tell them the very opposite.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Submit short stories to your favorite literary magazines. Writing short fiction is a wonderful creativity tool. It helps you hone your craft, experiment with characters, improve your process, and have your name in front of good editors and agents. Short fiction is a beautiful, compressed form, and a good short story is a proof that there is no such thing as “short fiction.”
2. Resist the restrictions about what can and cannot be written about. In a world that praises “likeness” and the authenticity of personal experience, use your sense of empathy to imagine the world through the eyes of the other.
3. Learn (more) languages. Read more books (in translation).
4. Don’t be afraid to put across ideas. Resist the intentional removal of intellectual content from fiction. The literature of the senses is a wonderful, reliable art, but it won’t necessarily drive your novel to the bestseller list. It’s not elitist to expect your audience to be literate.
5. Trust beauty and truth. They make pretty questionable abstract nouns, but they are too important to be given away to fools. Don’t take something already beautiful by itself and gloss over its flaws and faults. Don’t trust the truth to be merely realistic.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would be a movement to encourage people to read more, to use their mind, to establish and develop sound ethics and the courage to act on their values in the face of what everyone is going to do to silence them; to explore the whispers of human existence, the complexities between free will and social responsibility, and the exhilaration of freedom and its cost.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Instagram at @GianniSkaragas and Facebook at Gianni Skaragas.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!