A Novel in the Works

Dina Kafiris

The idea for The Unveiling of Self came to me while I was participating in a screenwriting class as part of the Graduate Certificate in Film and Television at the University of Technology in Sydney, 2000. Fellow students felt that because the idea spanned over a long period of time, it would be too difficult to tackle it in a short film. They believed that the themes and relationships were complex and deserved more space, like in a novel. Workshopping the script, the class commented on how they had a very strong sense of the setting. They referred to it as–the ‘Europe’; the place that had become my home for the last seven years before returning to Sydney. Therefore, the complexity of human relationships and the influence of environment would become the focal point of the novel.

Nine months later, having completed my studies, I returned to Greece after a difficult year of trying to adapt to the place where I had grown up. That winter, I spent seventeen days in a patisserie cafe in the leafy suburb of Kifissia developing what started out as a short film script into a novella about a Greek-Australian woman trying to discover her heritage. Finding that the country her parents spoke about did not exist – a place also in search of its own identity in a new Europe.

I wondered how this idea written by a burning fireplace in the cold winter of Athens, grew into this compelling narrative. Remembering moments when I was so absorbed in penning down the story that I had lost track of time, not knowing where I had been the last hour or so – trapped in the realms of the imagination. The only proof were the once blank now busy pages filled with journeys and revelations. Conversing gentlemen with their hats and pipes, and old women with their woollen coats and scarves drinking their coffee and eating their sweets, had not distracted me. Their voices had disappeared in the background. Maybe it was something Julia Cameron had said in her book, The Right to Write, ‘when a writer writes from the heart of what matters to him personally, the writing is often personal and powerful.’ Maybe that was the reason the environment had become insignificant those lost few hours.

Finally, it was all down on paper. A first draft, which had the potential of developing into a novel, was completed. What now, I asked. Being too close to the story I decided that what I required was the appropriate guidance which was when I considered that a PhD may be the right direction to take. It would help me gain control of the creative process. I was certain that it would not only discipline me in the craft of writing, but unveil the journey that I would be taking to discover not only myself as a writer, but also the main characters. Having a mentor would assist in putting it all into perspective, their advice could become vital when it came to strengthening the narrative.

Having known to suffer from the ‘show not tell’ syndrome, I was fortunate to be appointed a supervisor who was a scriptwriter – a visionary. Julie MacLusky, brought another dimension to my writing. She asked questions I had not thought of asking. She made me think about what it meant to be a Greek-Australian woman trying to adapt to a new country, which was what the main character had to confront in the book. Immigration, diaspora, displacement, reverse migration had become important subjects discussed by many writers in their novels, from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, to Andrea Levy’s Small Island. It was an experience that affected many.

I thought back to the conflicts I had faced when I first arrived in Greece: the way in which I was received by the community, my relationship with the people, how long it took me to get used to its rhythm of life. Had this changed the image I had of this country, told through the stories of the immigrants who left all those decades ago?

That was when my supervisor stepped in and suggested I explore the themes of love, coming of age and identity which led to me to the nearest video store renting films such as Life is Beautiful, Monsoon Wedding, and visiting bookstores, lining up at the counters with Middlesex, Ovid, A Suitable Boy, piled up in my arms. This background material would help in the writing of the book by looking at how structure was used to dramatize the story, how the dialogue was set out, and the story developed. Of course, I was not to forget Alfred Hitchcock who was a genius at leaving small clues to keep the audience interested. ‘The job of the storyteller is to entice the reader with little incentives to keep going’ Julie had remarked.

The following months I received notes on each chapter, one after the other, driving me to sit in front of the computer ruthlessly re-writing into the late hours of the night. Leaving me with only a quote to get me through, made famous by William Faulkner, ‘Murder your Darlings’. ‘Murder’ she wrote on a copy of my chapter, ‘the phrases you like the most that serve no purpose in the story, and keep the ones that move the narrative forward. Making it pertinent to the story. No fat, even if it is beautifully written.’ Her words remained embedded in my head. Novel writing had become a slaughterhouse. I placed and extracted paragraphs, occasionally, numerous pages of finely written work. I imagined this kind of parting was what divorce was like. But the truth was that I needed to realise the significance of every word in the book, that it had to serve the dominant theme and story of the novel; that every piece of description and dialogue would move it along.

The story began to blossom, and the relationships between the characters grew more intense. As paragraphs were axed, others came into existence, freeing the movement of the story. Finally, the narrative flowed. The novel was becoming eventful, as chaotic as the place it was set, resembling the complexity of Athenian life. Julie had become the novel’s psychoanalyst, trying to create a balance between myself as subject and writer, and the novel as object. Obviously knowing that a part of me became alive because of this novel and for her as a supervisor she hoped to encourage it for the sake of the story.

I remained objective by noting down my observations only, giving the reader the opportunity to make their own judgements. I was only a reporter recording the facts, placing them in a fictional storyline. I wandered the promenades and side streets of Athens, listening in on conversations, paying attention to reactions and body language, noticing the way people dressed – I became a witness to a city in progress. Whether it was a woman covered in designer drinking her coffee in trendy Kolonaki, ignoring the hand of a beggar passing her, men in the coffee houses playing backgammon, cafes full of youths sipping their coffees, drawing back on their cigarettes as they exchanged thoughts and ideas – it was all important in giving the reader a sense of place. For I was walking the same streets that would be recreated in the novel, unearthing things about Athens I had never imagined. Having lived here for so long, I realised I had stopped noticing what surrounded me.

The main character would carry some of my own worries. So it wasn’t difficult to put myself in her shoes, or vice-versa. How would she have reacted to all that she perceived? Thus the novel became a representation of the contemporary issues faced by modern day Greece, and the conflicts of becoming a woman in the 21st century.

Research played a crucial role in making it all true-to-life for the reader. Whether it was the protests I attended, covering my mouth to protect myself from the fumes of the teargas, the hundreds of photographs I took to capture a city and its people – it all served a purpose. I wanted to understand the animosity of a people struggling for their human rights, for a better life for themselves and their family. During this time I had gathered piles of newspapers, studying the differences between the two cultures. I knew that all this information would be difficult to organise. Once that was accomplished I would then have to think about how to weave it into the book.

My supervisor pointed out that I had to create a distance between the main character and myself which meant that together we had to make two crucial decisions that would affect the book. The first was to change the narrative from first person to third person point of view, removing myself from the limitations of the story being told as if it was autobiographical. Secondly, the present tense would be replaced by the past tense. Once I achieved this, I could then concentrate on any problems caused by my bilingualism since the novel was influenced by both languages.

She then thought it was important to place me in the position of the reader, which was what she was. What was the novel saying to them? She could clearly see what the reader would once they started to read the novel.

With a strict deadline of five-hundred words per day, a timeline and chapter breakdown next to my computer, I started to think about structure, not only in my writing life, but the novels, to be able to get it to the next stage. Aristotle’s 3 Act Structure would help put an end to the dilemma. Julie discussed how it would work in the novel by looking at the actions my main character took during the story. It would help me to stay focused on the plot and not get lost in all the imagery that existed within the story. Though I was familiar with this structural technique from my studies in screenwriting, I never imagined the benefits it would have when it came to shaping my novel. After every meeting I would change those three acts to coincide with the story that was slowly developing.

The PhD gives a writer an advantage. It plays the role of a mentoring scheme, showing you how to discipline yourself as a writer and take control of the creative writing process. It teaches you to ask questions about your writing, helping you understand your story, not only as the writer, but to see it through the reader’s eyes as well. It is a necessary tool for any storyteller who needs such support and guidance. It has enhanced my writing, improved my technique and has given me another outlook towards my work – a requirement for any writer who wants to develop their writing to publication level. As writing can be a lonely craft the interaction with staff and other students is an artistic requirement.

The relationship between mentor and writer is crucial. Building a sense of trust is important. I was very sensitive about my book because it was personal to me and felt very much my journey in a way, at least in discovering a country spoken about by my parents and read about through books or seen through films. It became a quest where I wanted to find where I belonged. In understanding the writer’s weaknesses and strengths, mentors can help in improving the story to achieve the purpose it serves. Writing doesn’t have to be an isolating career. It’s a vulnerable journey you don’t have to make alone if you can share your ideas with like-minded people, especially someone with the professional training and skills to act as a critic and editor.

I have found out more about myself working with Julie, and because of her I know now what aspects of my writing need attending to. I’ve developed as a novelist and have become more confident. Most importantly, she had become my friend and the PhD was just the bigger picture. On finishing this novel, I might even be able to answer the question: Who am I?

Special thanks to Professor Willy Maley for his assistance and support

Copyright Dina Kafiris 2008

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