On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos, by Ralph Lavelle
I'd like to welcome Ralph Lavelle to my blog to talk about his new book On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos. Welcome Ralph!
About On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos
Hailing from Ireland, but based in Australia with his family, web developer Ralph Lavelle was tired of office life in Brisbane. You know how it is. So he went to Zakynthos, the Greek island his wife Tina's parents come from, to see how he and his family would get on living there for a season before he had to face real life and get a job again.
While they were there, however, it began to look like Greece could find itself out of the Eurozone any day the way things were going in Brussels between Syriza and the troika - oops, the "institutions". But the Greeks are resilient, and Zakynthos itself has seen off earthquakes and invaders over the centuries. It turned out to be an ideal base from which Ralph could launch a full-scale attack on the language, the music, and the culture in general, while his two kids were sequestered away in a village school.
A warm-hearted account of life on the Greek island of Zante, written by someone lucky enough to have spent a season playing guitar there, reading books there, and above all, doing nothing in particular there.
Interview with Ralph Lavelle
Q: Welcome to my blog Ralph. Can you give the readers a brief overview of your book, On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos.
The book is about the three and a half months I spent on Zakynthos with my family from April to July of this year; the things I did, the sights I saw, the people I met. Every two years we come back from Australia to Europe, to see my family in Ireland and to spend time in Zakynthos. This last time we thought we’d take time off our jobs and take the kids out of school to spend a bit more time on Zante: it seemed a shame to only ever spend two or three weeks there. So when we got there I just wrote about the things I did from the moment we arrived at the beginning of April, when it was cold, to the end of July, when it was warm.
Q: What inspired you to write On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos?
Well, we wanted to spend more time on the island than we normally did, but I knew I’d need to have something to occupy me. I can only stare at an olive tree for half a morning before I start to get impatient, and I needed something to do for a whole season. So that was the inspiration – I always wanted to write a book, and here was my best chance. That, and the fact that no book in the travel memoir genre seemed to exist for the island, that I could see anyway. You know, like ‘A Year in Provence’.
I also wanted to make myself learn Greek, and forcing myself to meet people, do stuff, and write about it all seemed like as good a way as any.
Q: What challenges did you face when writing On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos?
I had to learn how to write. I’d never written something book-length before. So I read books about writing, but also books that are just good examples of ‘guy goes somewhere nice and writes about it’.
I also had to learn how to read Greek. I could say some stuff in Greek, like ‘four’, ‘trousers’, and ‘house’, and could even combine them to make sentences of dubious rectitude. But I had to improve drastically. We all joined the library, and I got a few books out, until I found one that was at the right level for me to read. It was way beyond what I could read at the time, but it gave me something to aim for. With all the time in the world to look up every second word, I finished it. A huge milestone: my first ever Greek book. Then we heard about this great new book about Zakynthos, ‘Το μυστικό του λεβάντε’ (http://stefivos.com/) which we got, and I read that. It was a long slog – I probably wore out the library dictionary, but two days before we left I finished it.
Q: Why was it important for you to write On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos?
I really wanted to leave something behind, to give something to the island, if you like. I can’t actually do anything useful myself; I’ve never learned to cook, put up shelves, or do heart surgery, but I can at least write about people who can do useful stuff – I have the patience to do that. Also, I wanted to help other people who might be interested in coming to the island to see what it’s like. Most people come to Zante for a week or two and don’t get a chance to experience what I did. Maybe they’re not that interested, but some must be, and at least they can have a four-month break there vicariously, through my eyes, the same way I’ve travelled with some authors without actually leaving my sofa.
Q: Did writing On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos involve a lot of research?
A little, but it’s not really that sort of book. You want to get the facts right about the island, the dates of the Venetian occupation, etc. but my emphasis was more on the people I met, especially as I got more into the book and began to realize that’s where its strength lay.
Like I say, learning Greek was the most research I had to do with the book, because I’d consider myself a fraud if I was writing a book about a place whose language I couldn’t at least read a little and whose people I couldn’t understand a little.
Q: What’s the best memory you have from your time on Zakynthos?
Playing music with the mandolin and guitar group in Lithakiá. For the first time in all my visits to the place I had the time to join in something that was authentic. Normally, I’d never be able to do that – two or three weeks isn’t enough. But this time I could, and I was accepted unhesitatingly. It helped that I knew it was something I could write about, and in fact I became good friends with the guy who organizes the group: he’s ‘the Maestro’ in the book. The songs are so nice, it was such a pleasure learning them.
Q: The book shows how much you know and love Zakynthos, what makes the island so special?
Obviously, Zante is a beautiful place, but so are most, if not all, Greek islands. The people are wonderful, but again, I’ve no doubt that people are more or less the same all over.
What makes Zakynthos special for me, and it’s a funny kind of ‘special’, is probably the tension between the traditional culture of the island, which is alive and strong, and the package tourism on which it relies. A lot of people who come to the island are ignorant of or uninterested in that culture, and that’s their right. It’s hard to see, when you’re so used to the island, how strange the language must seem, especially for people who don’t speak English, and how hard it is to do much when your role is to be a ‘tourist’.
I’m somewhere in the middle, much closer to the tourist end of the spectrum than the local end, but I’m walking across that bridge more with every trip, I suppose. Which makes being there so interesting for me. (By the way, that spectrum/bridge sentence is a horrible example of mixing your metaphors, which my books on ‘How to Write’ told me not to do, but I’m not writing a book now.)
Q: Do you read? If so what type of books do you read?
Science, history, travel stuff. I especially love reading foreign language books. It’s hard, but it’s a two-for-one: you enjoy the book, and you improve at the language. Of course, it usually takes me three times as long, depending on the language. I’ve just finished reading my first (for pleasure anyway, not homework like when I was a kid) book in Irish, which was easier than I thought.
Q: Do you have a favorite author? If so, who and why?
I’m going through a mad James Joyce phase at the moment. Ulysses is the Everest we all have to climb. Or something. Why is he the man? Because he changed literature by showing that ordinary people’s lives could be heroic, could be worth being the subject of book. A book which is about nothing really. Like an episode of Seinfeld, in fact, only ruder, and with more references to Dublin. And that’s fine. We don’t have to have people caught up in international plots, or falling in love, or wrongly accused, or involved in the Napoleonic wars for them to be interesting and worth writing about. He showed us that.
In science, Richard Dawkins is a huge hero of mine. The poetry of his writing, but also the directness, the clear-headed prose, has been a huge influence on me. Steven Pinker too; same.
With travel, Paddy Leigh Fermor was a big influence on the writing of ‘On a Greek Island’, but he can be a bit much. Anyway, I write about him in the book.
Q: What’s next for Ralph Lavelle? Will you be writing more books and if so can you give us an idea of what they will be about?
I really have no idea. I was lucky with ‘On a Greek Island’ because it’s easy to write a book about one particular subject, in this case Zakynthos. It’s not so easy to have a bunch of chapters in your head with no overarching theme to wrap them up in, which is what I find myself with now. But I’ll just keep writing, and I’ll see what comes of it. I definitely have more books in me, but as to what they look like when they come out, well, I have no idea. They probably won’t be cookery, sports, or childrens’ books, though.
Quick fire round
Sweet or savoury – Habanero chili hot
Beach or countryside - Forest
EBook or paperback – Paperback, with a free ebook download
Cream tea or Fish and Chips – F’n’C with a nice cup of tea
Classic or modern – Modern classic
Sun or Snow – Sun on the snow, before it melts
On a Greek Island: A Season in Zakynthos is available now to download on Amazon: