Five Questions with… Sophia Nikolaidou

Sophia Nikolaidou, author of The Scapegoat and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event on October 31. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: The Scapegoat is based on the real-life murder of famed CBS reporter George Polk. What about this story interested you?

Sophia Nikolaidou: The Polk case—which many people regard as the start of the Cold War in Europe—has everything: innocent blood, aNikolaidou, Sophia set-up trial, interference of foreign powers, history, politics, love.The idea of writing a pure historical novel and bringing a whole age to life has never intrigued me. Different historic periods reflect each other in my novels. This is my way of perceiving history.To make a long story short, I was really interested in putting together two different ages: A.1948–49 (Greek civil war, Polk’s murder) and B. 2010–11 (Greek crisis). I wanted to capture the historical adventure of my country. Some things change just because the circumstances around us have changed. Other things stay hidden and unpunished—they poison everything. Some of them are inherited from one generation to another. We think that we have left our past behind. Alas, we always find it ahead. The American title of my novel (The Scapegoat) underlines the connection between the two ages (a now 2010–11 and a then 1948–49). The parallels between the Polk case and the current situation in my country are simple: both then and today basic political decisions are taken somewhere else. It’s like a game of chess or Monopoly. Some are playing the game miles away and their moves determine everything in the country. Thus, are money and influence—that is, everything—at stake? That’s the question.

IFOA: Beginning, middle or end—which do you find the most challenging to write?

Nikolaidou, The ScapegoatNikolaidou: I love the beginning; it’s a fresh start. I have an immense passion (other people call it obsession) for the subject and the characters, but no idea of how I will be able to domesticate the raw material of my novel. Every time I start from scratch. I enjoy the middle. That’s real life and real writing. All problems arise together. It’s hard and deeply satisfying at the same time. Just like real life. You fly in the sky, you are in pain, you play games, you know what to do, you don’t know what to do. You dig into life, you dig into yourself. The end is bitter and sweet. I love the pure satisfaction of giving a plot life and the sweet bitterness of the last period. Writing is memory then. The story is not mine anymore.

IFOA: How would you describe the literary scene in Greece?

Nikolaidou: Fresh, pluralistic, waiting to be discovered. Greek literature isn’t known abroad. We don’t have a regional literature brand name (Skandinavian and Ibero Spanish authors have, for example). My country has generated a great interest in the international press in recent years. Maybe this is a big chance for Greek literature. The Crisis is a subject that Greek writers can talk about and people will listen. The timing is good. Now we can talk and exchange ideas about this small spot on the world’s map called Greece. We can investigate its recent history, finger the historical and social trauma. The novel seems to be the ideal cognitive tool for that. It is our empirical way to perceive real life and comment on it. As I grow older, I’m more convinced that writing (and reading) a novel is the most efficient way we human beings have to build a world like the one we’re living in and to understand what’s happening around us—but maybe I’m saying so because I’m an obsessed novelist.

IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.

Nikolaidou: Homer’s Odyssey. I read it again and again. An everlasting text. I’ve learned so many things from it about life, human nature, writing. Every time I read it I discover diamonds. It’s the archetype of classical, deeply human literature.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “The best part is…”

Nikolaidou: In literature I prefer fullstops, but in real life I choose ellipsis. That’s why I won’t finish this sentence. I prefer things to remain open.

Sophia Nikolaidou was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. She teaches literature and creative writing and writes criticism for various newspapers, including Ta Nea. She has published four novels and two collections of short stories, several of which have been translated into eight languages. Her previous novel, Tonight We Have No Friends, won the 2010 Athens Prize for Literature. She presents The Scapegoat, a sweeping saga that brings together the turbulent Greece of the postwar period with the struggles it faces today.

Five Questions with… Assaf Gavron

Assaf Gavron, author of The Hilltop and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to his event on October 25. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about The Hilltop.

Assaf Gavron: The Hilltop is my fifth novel and seventh book (there is a short story collection and a falafel review collection too). I consider it my best and most ambitious work, it is a “big” novel in many aspectssize, depth, subject matter, plot and more. I spent five years working on it, during which I traveled extensively across the West Bank (normally a foreign territory for me, as a left-wing Tel-Avivi) trying to get the right “feel” of the place and the settlers who occupy it. I hope I managed to capture and convey something of that feel, in all its complex madness of violence, passion and absurdities. It is nice to see it received so warmly and intelligently around the world, despite its explosive subject matter. Gavron, Assaf (c) Fana Feng

IFOA: How closely does the novel reflect your own upbringing in a small village near Jerusalem?

Gavron: Not much, actually. The village I grew up in is on the other side of Jerusalem, to its west, which is very different to the settlements of the West Bank to its East, North and South. My upbringing was very far from the religious and political zeal of the settlements. Having said that, the landscape is not unfamiliar, and the small village mentality is not too far removed. However, the kibbutz section of the novel is more closely based on my personal experiences as a teenager who visited a kibbutz in Galilee frequently.

IFOA: Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Gavron, The Hilltop

Gavron: My favourite book growing up was Huckleberry Finn, but I am not sure I was thinking much about writing when I read it. It was probably more in my early 20s, when I read contemporary novels like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, that I thought about having a go at it myself.

IFOA: What are you reading right now that you can recommend to our readers?

Gavron: I am currently two-thirds into The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I find totally compelling. Before that I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, which I thought was brilliant.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “When I’m not writing, you can find me…”

Gavron: Tinkering with my English Fantasy Soccer team, which I play in a league with a few other writers, when I should be really taking care of my two daughters screaming at each other behind my back.

Assaf Gavron is the author of seven books, and his fiction has been translated into 10 languages. He has won the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, the Buch für die Stadt in Germany and the Prix Courrier International in France. The son of English immigrants, he grew up in a small village near Jerusalem and currently lives in Tel Aviv. Gavron presents his Bernstein Prizewinning novel, The Hilltop, which grapples with one of the most charged geo-political issues of our time and skewers the complex, often absurd reality of life in Israel.


Five Questions with… Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells, author of Sum and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

 Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to his event October 24. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What got you hooked on poetry?

Zachariah Wells: Probably the vatic vision of Irving Layton. Initially, at least, as a young man. As I’ve aged and altered, I’ve been hooked anew by so many different poets’ peculiar gifts. Wells, Zachariah

IFOA: For you, how does a poem first take shape?

Wells: Usually as a crystallized structure of sense and sound, which, as crystals do, starts to expand and ramify, almost spontaneously.

IFOA: Working for Via Rail, you must have the opportunity to travel the country quite extensively. How does this experience influence your writing?

Wells: I’m not really conscious of how my work has directly influenced my writing. I have written a lot about place and rootlessness. I’m not sure to what extent my choice of jobs has reflected that and to what extent it’s been a thematic spur.

IFOA: Where is your favourite place to write poetry? Wells, Sum

Wells: I have none. I’m more concerned with how an individual poem takes shape than where it happens. And when    you travel as much as I do and have as many occupations as I do, you can’t really be too fond of particular work places.

IFOA: Which poet are you most excited to meet at this year’s Festival?

Wells: Probably Ulrikke S. Gernes. I read and reviewed her first Canadian-published translation many years ago and was really taken with her poetry.

Zachariah Wells is the author of three collections of poetry, several chapbooks, a children’s book and a collection of critical essays. He is also the editor of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets and The Essential Kenneth Leslie. His poems have been translated into Bosnian and Spanish and adapted into operatic songs by composer Erik Ross. Wells lives in Halifax where he works for VIA Rail as a service attendant and as a freelance writer and editor. He presents his third collection of poems, Sum, which weighs the mutability of the self against the forces of habit, instinct and urge.

Five Questions with… Russell Smith

Russell Smith, author of Confidence and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to his event October 24. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Confidence paints a satirical portrait of urban city dwellers and their dark secrets. Where did you gather inspiration for your characters?

Russell Smith: They are basically me and my friends.  Smith, Russell

IFOAYou write a weekly column on the arts in The Globe and Mail. How does the process of writing a novel or a collection of short stories differ from writing a column for a newspaper?

Smith: Fiction and non-fiction exercise different muscles. I find non-fiction much easier to write: it is explanatory, linear. The object is clarity. Information is conveyed differently in fiction: it is imparted obliquely. The explicit must become implicit. Writing fiction requires entering a kind of trance in which one must imagine a spacethe light in it, the smells in itand make oneself hypersensitive to emotion and irrationality. I can write a newspaper column while having a fight with my wife and answering calls from my mechanic. I can’t do that with fiction. That’s why novelists like to isolate themselves. A newspaper writer must be fully present to the world and its phone calls.

IFOA: When and where do you write?

Smith: You know, it’s funny, that question: it is the one that is most commonly asked of writers and it is the one whose purpose I understand the least. I don’t get how it is important or could be important to anyone reading the story. I understand that lots of readers are also writers, and so they are interested in questions of process because they feel they might glean some secret from them, but the truth is that the process really doesn’t matter. Some people write in cafes, some people write lying on their backs, some do it drunk; there’s no secret, no technique that will actually change your sentences. Anyway, the boring answer is that I write on my computer at my desk in my study in my house between the hours of nine and five.

Smith, Confidence

IFOA: What other short story writers do you read and enjoy?

Smith: Ernest Hemingway. J.D. Salinger. Guy de Maupassant. Edgar Allan Poe. Julian Barnes. Michael Winter. Caroline Adderson. Annabel Lyon.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “When I’m not writing or reading, you can find me…”

Smith: Mixing techno in my basement on my Traktor S4 controller.


Russell Smith is one of Canada’s funniest and nastiest writers. His previous novels, including How Insensitive and Girl Crazy, are records of urban frenzy and exciting underworlds. He writes a provocative weekly column on the arts in The Globe and Mail and teaches in the MFA programme at the University of Guelph. Smith presents his latest collection of short stories, Confidence, which shows a darker side of urban dwellers, including mommy bloggers, PhD students and experimental filmmakers.


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