Interview with Amanda Michalopoulou

Context N°22

Amanda Michalopoulou was born in Athens in 1966. In Athens, she studied French Literature and then went to Paris to study journalism. In 1993, she entered a short story in Revmata magazine’s literature competition. Since then she has received numerous scholarships for literary residencies in Germany, France, the United States, and Switzerland. She has received several literary awards throughout her career for her novels, short story collections, and children’s books. She currently lives in Berlin.

The National Endowment of the Arts awarded her book I’d Like the International Literature Award. Published in April, 2008 and translated by Karen Emmerich, this innovative and masterful collection of thirteen interlinked short stories engages the reader with powerful characters, poignant portrayal of human behavior, and a concise, visceral stylistic prose. This collection is metafiction at its finest and an excellent introduction to one of Greece’s finest contemporary writers.

Monica Carter: Having written novels and short stories, what made you decide that I’d Like needed to be a collection of short stories as opposed to a novel?

Amanda Michalopoulou: Practical issues of life. My daughter was two years old back then. I was writing and rewriting versions of a novel, which didn’t work, since novels demand a complete concentration of your energy. So I decided to deconstruct this book into stories and see if it worked that way. For me it worked; my state of mind, my conception of the world wasn’t linear at the time, and so these stories were the most natural vehicle for me. Everything was prismatic for me then, both in life and literature.

MC: Were the recurring motifs and repetitions intentional, or were they organically produced during the process of writing I’d Like?

AM: Some of them were organically produced. Like the issue of smoking, for example. It occurred to me that I wanted to describe various vices that might belong to a kind of “museum of lost habits,” some day. This started with I’d Like, and then was developed even more decisively in the novel that I wrote afterwards, Princess Lizard.

The red beret was already there in two of the stories. When I noticed this, I knew I had to make it even more present—so I went back and included it in more stories, feeling my usual unease about walking the thin line between deliberate, premeditated construction and free creation. I always have second thoughts about these intentional, “constructed” elements, but sometimes a text is asking for them, and I have to follow its needs.

MC: I love that idea, a museum of lost habits. You describe unease in your own creative process—do you feel uncomfortable when you don’t sense that uneasiness?

AM: I feel comfortable with both uneasy and easy steps in writing. I think it’s essential to cherish both, as the one leads to the other: darkness and light. I love the easy moments, when everything flows and writing seems as natural as breathing. But you usually get to this point at the exact moment when you worry that you’ll never get there again.

MC: It’s interesting that you felt you need to strengthen the presence of the red beret. I loved its appearance throughout I’d Like. I also felt that there was a definite drive to communicate certain ideas and themes, as though these stories were a form of release. Were you conscious of that, or was it more of an exploration of each character?

AM: It was both. Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.

MC: Do you think Stella finds salvation?

AM: Salvation is a choice. My idea is that if she writes her stories, if she actually sits down and reinvents her life through writing, she will find peace, at least.

MC: Do you feel that writing saves you from suffering, or was there something about writing this particular collection of short stories that was redemptive?

AM: Both. All my books play with the idea that writing is a sort of salvation, and a lot of my heroes are trying to finish their own books. In Bad Weather, for instance, a girl is stealing other people’s diaries and postcards and photos in order to write a “real-life” novel. In As Many Times As You Can Bear It, a reincarnation of Kafka appears and walks like him and talks like him, quoting his diaries.

MC: You reference numerous writers in “I’d Like (Orchestral Version).” Which writers have influenced you the most, and who currently influences you?

AM: Laurence Sterne and Italo Calvino made me think that writing could be playful and funny. Margarita Karapanou taught me everything I needed to know about surreal situations and childhood. Miltos Sachtouris made me want to write short stories based on his poems. And Iris Murdoch taught me a lot about style and dialogue. In my youth I read Paul Auster and Tolstoy. Nowadays I read Jean Rhys and Ilias Papadimitrakopoulos, a short-story writer whom I admire for the density of his thought. As far as the writers of my generation, I’ve read and enjoyed Yoko Ogawa and A. L. Kennedy. And if you don’t stop me I could go on forever.

MC: Okay, I have to stop you! But, understood. You are influential and well known in Greece for the success of your previous works, which include children’s books. What attracted you to writing for children?

AM: I guess the fact that that chapter of my life has always stayed open. I remember how rejection and joy feel to a child.

MC: What was your favorite book as a child?

AM: A French book that my French teacher used to carry around when we went out for a walk. It was an illustrated book about a family who had to repair their house, so they moved out of it into a tent, in their garden. We followed the whole procedure and there were also plans of the house, before and after the renovation. I spent a really long time looking at the rooms and imagining what would go where, how I would redo it. It was probably my first moment as a writer.

MC: That’s interesting, because one thing that I loved about I’d Like is the idea of emotional attachment to objects and places. I felt this immediately in the title story because the wife struggles both to capture the joy and hope of twenty years earlier and to rid herself of her current ennui and pessimism, both associated with the same location. It reminded me of Debord’s idea of psychogeography. Does psychogeography play heavily into your own writing process?

AM: In my writing and in my life as well. This is the only kind of geography I believe in. For me, writing itself can only happen “elsewhere.” I completed all my books in places other than my home, places that I called home temporarily. I need to reinvent space, writing space, the way the family in that children’s book slept in a tent in order to get their work done. I suppose this need also finds an expression on the written page.

MC: What are you working on now?

AM: On psychogeography, actually! I’m trying to get started with a novel about a Greek man torn between Berlin and Athens.

MC: When you look back on your body of work, what comes through the strongest about yourself?

AM: The need to put the writing procedure into a plot. But my body of work changes perspective with age. When I was younger I wanted to please people, and I was narcissistic too. Now that I’ve grown older, I just do my own thing—which is more or less the same thing that I was doing before, I’ve realized, just with a bigger dose of disillusionment.

MC: Have you ever been surprised by your own work?

AM: All the time. I write books to be surprised by the heroes, their choices and needs.

MC: What’s the most important thing you want to communicate to people through your writing?

AM: There isn’t a message, if that’s what you mean. I just want to continue this thrilling experiment. Helping people to be alone in a room, alone in the world, and yet surrounded by so many human beings inside their head. This is one of the greatest joys in life. And I say this as a reader now, not as a writer.

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