For our latest interview, we’re pleased to meet Sofka Zinovieff, author of The House on Paradise Street and Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life.
GIB: When did you first fall in love with Greece?
SZ: After so many years of being involved with Greece, I’m a bit wary of the assumption that everyone who comes to the place must fall in love with it. I fear that viewing Greece as a kind of paradise inevitably implies that it must also be the reverse – a kind of hell, a viewpoint that also gets a surprising degree of coverage in the Anglo-Saxon media. Having said that, I have to admit to feeling utterly captivated by the place as an anthropology student, carrying out research in the late 1980s. While trying to get to grips with the language, culture and the way of living that was so different to England, Greece was deeply inspiring to me. Although I’m reluctant to romanticise a country that has its problems like any other, I haven’t really been able to stay away since then, and have made it my home for the last 12 years. I still get butterflies of pleasure each time I come home to Greece when I’ve been away.
GIB: How did you start writing?
SZ: My first writing about Greece was academic – my PhD thesis. Then I did some freelance journalism, including some pieces on Greece. I wrote my first book about Greece in 2004. Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens describes my return to Greece ten years after my academic life ended. I was now married to Vassilis, and after living outside Greece, we and our two young daughters were about to face an intensive phase of adapting to Athenian life.
My second book about Greece is The House on Paradise Street, published in 2012. It is my first novel, and looks at a contemporary Athenian family and its appalling secrets that date back to the Civil War in the 1940s. I’ve long been fascinated at how the wounds of the Civil War can still be felt and how many of the old divisions are returning to haunt us during in the current crisis. I love fiction as a reader and had always wanted to write it too, but it felt like a leap of faith making the cross-over.
GIB: Have you written any other books?
SZ: I have also published Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life. It follows in the footsteps of my Russian grandmother, who was born a princess, was exiled to England and grew up to become a Communist. She was often in trouble – too many lovers, interned in a Nazi camp during the war, and hated by many fellow-countrymen who saw her as a traitor for embracing the regime that had ruined their lives. She was a fascinating subject for me to investigate, all the more so because I was connected.
GIB: How do you feel about Greece’s current plight? What do you think the outcome will be?
SZ: I am naturally optimistic and I believe that Greece will make it through this terrible time of crisis. Having researched so much about the Nazi occupation and the subsequent Civil War for The House on Paradise Street, I learned a lot about how much Greeks suffered during the 20th century – far worse than now – and how they survived. They are strong and determined and are definitely able to withstand an economic depression. Having said that, the stamina that is needed to keep going, year after year, at this time, is great and the toll cannot be underestimated.
GIB: What’s the funniest experience you ever had in Greece?
SZ: Our first Christmas back in Greece as a family in 2001, when we had all the in-laws (about 20) over for lunch. I wanted to do something “traditional” and foolishly got a suckling pig, which turned out so big it wouldn’t fit in the oven, so we had to go looking for a baker to roast it. And that isn’t easy these days, in the southern suburbs of Athens. Then I somehow forgot that you don’t give presents at Christmas in Greece, but at New Year, and got all the relations little gifts, which was awkward as they hadn’t brought us anything. And then the person collecting the suckling pig got lost… I wrote the whole disaster up in Eurydice Street, which made me see the funny side of it.
GIB: What are the best and worst meals you’ve ever had there?
SZ: The best meal was freshly caught fish grilled on the beach with oil and lemon, crusty bread and some tomato salad. Nothing beats the simplest cooking when the ingredients are perfect. The worst meal was a touristy taverna moussaka – probably defrosted and micro-waved and a mockery of what Greek cooking is all about, with its thick wodge of béchamel sauce.
GIB: What’s your single most cherished memory of Greece?
SZ: I couldn’t possibly pick one from so many wonderful memories of half a lifetime in Greece. And they are so varied. Some of the best are definitely summer holidays with my husband and daughters – in the Dodecanese, where we go each year and take a photograph in the same place, up on a mountain, and I can see time passing in these pictures, my children growing up and I realise how fortunate I am.
Photographs of Sofka Zinovieff copyright Giorgos Vdokakis and Elisabetta Catalano