A few weeks ago I read How to Sew Pieces of Cloud Together by Greek writer Mary Papastavrou. The depth of ideas and quality of writing buried the accusation that self-publishing and indie authors don’t compare to those in the mainstream. I published my review on this blog back in November, but I always intended to interview the author to find out more about the writing process and how the novel was conceived.
And here it is. Give yourself time to read this interview properly and take away some of the thoughts and ideas contained within it.
How to Sew Pieces of Cloud Together is a simple set up telling a complex story. Can you tell us how you developed the idea and structured the novel?
It was all triggered by Walser’s Institute Benjamenta. It inspired me and thrilled me crazily. Then after years I watched the film of Quays Brothers which made wonderful justice to the book. Yet, a few years later I reread the book. I was always carrying the theme in me and I was burning to do something with it but I wasn’t sure what. I just wanted to keep the essence of it: an experiment based on the grotesque, stating the human condition. In its birth, there were no prisoners nor experiments. It was much more surreal with the men being as confused and victimised as the servants in Benjamenta. Then it hit me and came altogether in its current form, minus the ending.
Did you have an interest in the penal system or did you decide the setting would be the best one to explore the theme of rejection and condemnation?
My Dad asked me very worried what do I know about prisons when I told him what I’m writing. Then he instructed me to go and get inspired by Greek Tragedy and write something decent instead, to show those English people the glory of the ancient world!
I don’t have a huge interest in the penal system per se but I’m hugely sceptical to the idea of authority and punishment. I think that as a collective psyche we need monsters, we need someone to project our hatred and exercise our power upon. Law and society’s punishment is more retaliation than rehabilitation. In many respects the Dark Ages never went away very far.
Malcolm Cherry is an archetypal put-upon man. How did you avoid making him a caricature?
Thank you for not thinking that he is a caricature! The character himself suffers from shame feeling that he is one, but I hoped that the readers wouldn’t agree with him! My model was Jonathan Pryce’s character in Glengary Glenn Ross. The way he was manipulated and basically swallowed alive by Al Pacino’s character was heartbreaking. Mix to that Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s Idiot who is a creature full of love and belief in people. Mix to that some of the traits of people I know and am fond of.
As Rita says he’s six part kindness and four part weakness. But he is misplaced in a job that requires authoritative powers and some domineering and bullying types around him. As for the inmates he interacts with intimidate him with their excessive masculinity. He is intelligent enough to understand his situation but he’s too weak and soft to kick back. His breakdown is pivotal to the plot so I had to work excessively in the evolution of his psyche.
Dr Hoffman’s subjects are all convicted criminals. How did you ensure the reader followed their stories without taking an instant dislike to them?
I tried to say that we are all complex animals and spend a lifetime of education, brainwash, subliminal suggestion, guilt etc in order to eliminate the animal within. You can say that perpetually we try to stand on our own two feet. Things go wrong for some of us, life beats the hell out of us, we are rejected by our environment, we are again brainwashed towards different directions and we have the fate of our neurons accountable as well. Who knows what happens to a person to end up as the baddie?
I truly don’t believe in the good and evil classification and certainly I don’t believe in the tabloid model of the monster criminal. Some of them happen to be just extremely weak people who need support and rehabilitation…I was challenged once or twice with the usual ‘what if their victim was your kid? Would you be so tolerant?’ No, I would probably kill them, or at least attempt to but that wouldn’t be me as I recognise me but the animal I don’t want to be.
During the course of writing the novel did your opinion of the issues and theme change in any way?
I believe in human rights. My own very political thinking doesn’t change but there are so many things I’m uncertain about. It was a pleasure to construct Dr Hoffman’s views since their starting point is the same as my own. Only that I pushed his own beliefs to the extreme. The sure thing is that I don’t believe that severe punishment results to less crime. I put more stock on a nurturing society which works more on the prevention, or if the crime is not preventable in rehabilitation, instead of vengeance. So, no, these thoughts of mine don’t change. But since I don’t have a solid alternative social model to suggest I furnished Dr Hoffman with a strong surreal visionary plan and I let him go as far as possible.
We can’t help prejudging people and situations. Does it frustrate you that the prejudging of self-published novels will mean people not discovering your work?
I have these brief megalomaniac episodes which occur once every a couple of months! In the flamboyant fantasy I am bombarded by literary agents, publishers and Industry’s top dogs wanting to buy the film rights. Apart from that I’m fully aware of the sad truth for me and many other writers of the indie tribe. It just ain’t happening sir! To have your book read but not liked is one thing, but not discovered at all, it’s a huge sadness. Not frustration, not anger, but defeatist sadness.
Additionally, I’m absolutely crap in marketing and self-promotion. I do the obligatory spasmodic and half baked attempts but I forget to persist. I’m not saying this to prove oh, what a pure artist I am, I’m just acknowledging a fatal weakness.
With references to Alberto Moravia, Lacan, Kafka, epigrams, ethics and psychoanalysis, did you worry about your readers being left behind by the book’s intellectual foundations?
Well, the readers who are already aware of these thinkers can feel in a familiar territory and they will either be agreeable or they will dispute the way I used my beloved thinkers’ work to support my characters’ views and actions. I hope that the packaging of ideas in my story was attractive enough and concise so the readers who were not aware now research these thinkers and discover a whole new interesting universe. Alternatively they put the book down in disgust saying‘sod that, what do I care?’ I suppose it would be only healthy and balanced for my response in this occasion, to be ‘sod them’.
Do you think the reader has a duty to understand a novel (or at least make the effort), or is it the author’s responsibility to keep things simple?
I’m grateful for the question Chris, it touches a nerve. Well I don’t think that it would be a good idea to tell Joyce, or Beckett, or Ionesco, or Pynchon ‘well can’t you tone it down a notch or twelve, love, so we grasp what the hell you’re talking about?’ I think the only responsibility a writer should have is to be honest and respectful towards his potential readers. To treat them as intelligent people, or people with a certain hunger to discover new possibilities of thinking. And it will be their choice if they pick your book up, or not. I would happily refund someone who felt cheated by the cover synopsis and found himself into an unwanted plateau of non sense and ‘pretentious long words’.
I have nothing but contempt when the writer’s motivation is just a formulaic solution for selling as many copies as possible. The ‘give people what they want’ kind of approach.
Have you been surprised by the responses to the book?
Well, I gave the best I could at this particular time, with this particular set of ideas and plot. At some point I felt confident enough to publish it, considering it a good read. But personally I can never be completely confident. Still there are times of doubt, when I feel that I could have put more work in a certain paragraph or change a bit of the dialogue or enrich a character, or whatever the hell else occurs to me. In short, I worry in case I wasn’t respectful enough towards my potential readers, as I was saying in your previous question. So yeah, when I have a positive, or even better an enthusiastic opinion of my work I experience a huge thrill that feels between gratitude, peace and surprise.
Without giving the end away, did the climax surprise you when you were plotting the story, or did you always know where the plot was heading?
Not a clue. The last pages were wild agony to be written. I tried four different endings through a number of months and nothing was good enough. The real surprise was when it finally came to me the way I wanted it. I feared that the book would end up as an abandoned project, if I couldn’t come with something a bit better than just decent.
You’ve worked in radio and television, what made you decide to write a novel?
Mind you my TV and radio work was mainly a small stations provincial affair (Corfu, Greece). And seven more years of radio in the UK at the London Greek Radio, another diminutive station. The beauty with small media companies was that I had artistic carte blanche, doing whatever I liked, free to create the ambience I wanted. And it was all starting by the script I would put on the table. At the same time I had to be lumped with demands for scripts advertising Greek cheese, travel agencies and crap like that.
Eventually I couldn’t work in this scheme anymore and left.The point is that whatever I was doing I was fundamentally feeling like a writer, in a homogeneous sense. It was all starting from ideas going down on paper meant to be communicated. I wouldn’t differentiate between a poem, a script, a play or a novella and it wouldn’t automatically make me a poet, a playwright, a scriptwriter and a novelist. I’m just a writer. I don’t even particularly like the term author. However, I never thought that I would manage to write a novel just because I felt I lacked the discipline for the task.
In Britain we describe a frustrating experience as being like ‘knitting fog.’ Is sewing pieces of cloud a Greek expression?
I’ve never come across that expression but this is the beauty of the English language. So rich in metaphors, so precise and so poetic! And no, it’s not a Greek expression at all. I just came up with the title when I had to give a presentation in my Marketing class about a film project that was supposed to be on its finishing stage but I hadn’t managed to give it the slightest thought yet. So I spurted the title out and a completely different script idea making it up as I was going along, you know, just to save my face. Then I got home and mentioned it to my partner who loved the title. So I decided to keep it and started plotting stories around it. ‘Cloud’ became a metonymy for ideas, mainly elusive ideas.
Malcolm Cherry’s Elvis is Eddie Vedder. Who is your Elvis?
By the way I really, truly can’t stand Elvis! Obviously I used his ‘holy’ name as another metonymy of hero. I’m afraid I submit into cultural whoredom in this respect. I have a huge bunch of heroes and perpetually adding. I do love Eddie Vedder because he makes great music but mainly for his persona. He is liberal in his sociopolitical views and outspoken, but still soft, shy and unassuming…I absolutely adore this duality. Then it’s Kafka and Dostoevsky for their craft to delve into intricate psychological depths. Then it’s Zizek and Kristeva. Then it’s women like Emma Goldman and Mary Wollstonecraft. And the ultimate femme fatale Lou Salome, an intellectual, loved by both Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke.
How to Sew Pieces of Cloud Together is available on Amazon here. Paperback or Kindle (As usual, change .co.uk in the address line to your own country .com, .ca etc, to find the book in your national Amazon store.)
Mary Papastavrou is on Goodreads HERE, so call in and say hello.
My thanks to Mary for taking the time to answer the questions and giving us a guided tour of the thinking and development of an intriguing and thought-provoking novel.