Tag Archives: WWII

WeekEND Reading: James William Brown talks political unrest, shadow puppetry, the resilience and spirit of the Greek people, and so much more in his sweeping novel, MY LAST LAMENT

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own–and a nation’s–epic struggle in the aftermath of WWII.

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I was definitely intrigued with MY LAST LAMENT (Penguin/Random House, April 2017). The cover is gorgeous, plus I spent about a month living with a Greek family as a teenager. And then there’s the economic strife Greece is currently facing…in fact, it’s so bad in areas, one of our neighbors recently brought her mother (who was living in Greece) to her U.S. home to work and save money that she could send back to her family.

Another little fun fact: I recently watched an episode of WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE featuring John Stamos; much of the episode was filmed in Greece. The imagery is gorgeous, the people strong…but not without shame, hard work, and more.

MY LAST LAMENT is ‘told’ on a cassette tape by Aliki–an old woman and the last of the village lamenters–women who compose lament-poems for grieving families (this provides a very intimate storytelling method and would be fabulous heard as an audiobook). Aliki agrees to speak with an American ethnographer about her fading art. In the process, Aliki begins to sing her own story–as a fourteen year old girl, she witnessed her father’s execution for stealing a squash…at the hands of Nazi soldiers.

While I’ve read several stories about WWII, this one was entirely different…yet, the same. There are Jewish refugees, public executions, economic strife, makeshift families, unique trades/hobbies (in this case, puppeteering), but I can honestly say, I’ve yet to read a story about Greece during the aftermath of WWII.

I’d like to say I were sitting on a white-washed patio tucked into the hills of Santorini sipping Roditis with James William Brown…alas, we’ll have to make do with my suburban Chicago patio and Nebraska varietal. If wine’s not your thing, grab a beverage of choice and plop down.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, James. I’m curious about the title, MY LAST LAMENT. Did it come before or after you wrote the book? Was it in complete relation to Aliki, your main character, or was it somehow derived from another place? 

James William Brown: I always have trouble coming up with titles and I usually complete a work without one and then have to work it out.  That was the case here.  The manuscript was finished but had no title.  I knew that I wanted a line that was in Aliki’s tone of voice so I re-read the work carefully, looking for something that could represent the whole book and I found it on page 333, where she says this is probably her last lament.  As the whole book is really a lament for her life and times, the line seemed to suit, so I called it Probably My Last Lament.  My editor didn’t like “probably” and thought it was more dramatic just as MY LAST LAMENT. 


L.L.: You have a personal connection to Greece, having lived there in the 1960s teaching English. You loved it so much, you found other ways to sustain yourself and stayed…for ten years! Can you talk about that experience, please?

James William Brown: I lived in Greece from 1967 to 1977, teaching and writing.  I began my first village short stories there and one grew into my first novel, BLOOD DANCE.  When I  arrived, a military junta was running the country.  On the surface, everything looked normal but in fact the jails and detention centers were full of people who had dared to criticize the government.  Reports of torture were ancient-Magical-Phoenixwidespread and elections and public gatherings were forbidden and there was both press and mail censorship.  I worked with a group of people, Greeks and foreigners, to smuggle documentation of what was going on to Amnesty International in London which lobbied other governments to put pressure on the Greek government and as a result, many of the political prisoners were released.  After the junta fell in 1974, I wrote articles for The Nation and other publications about how Greece was adjusting to the aftermath of seven and half years of military rule.  It was a heady time with a rebirth of arts, music, political life and optimism about the future.  Greece is really like the mythological bird, the phoenix, which is destroyed in fire and re-born again and again.

Years later when I was working for an educational publisher here in Boston, the publisher acquired an Athens-based publishing house and I became the liaison between the editorial departments in Boston and Athens.  And my wife and I return to the same village on one of the islands as often as we can so the country remains part of our lives. Some parts of MY LAST LAMENT were written in that village. Greece is a complicated and often maddening place but endlessly fascinating.

L.L.: I am so curious about the role of a village lamenter. In all honesty, I had never heard of one before. My sense is, a lamenter composes chants/songs/poems for a grieving family specific to the person who has passed. Do I have that right? At times, too it reminded me of the practice of hospice care. Can you illuminate the profession for us?

James William Brown: Yes, that’s right.  It’s an ancient folk custom originally practiced throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and North Africa.  But it has largely died out in modern times.  I first got interested in it when I was living in a house that overlooked a village cemetery.  When a funeral procession entered the greek-cemetery-14334963cemetery, old women in black would stand by the gates making bird noises to ward off bad spirits.  I found out that some of these women were professional lamenters who composed lament poems about the dead at the request of relatives.  In a sense they eulogized the dead and honored them at a time when the actual bereaved family and friends were probably too overcome with grief to be able to do so.  In that way, lamenters performed a service for the bereaved family, the community and for the dead themselves.

L.L.: There are some really tough things that Aliki witnesses in her life: her father’s execution ranks high, but there’s also poverty, smuggling of Jewish refugees, a makeshift type of family. But this was WWII and just after. How does this time period compare with the local political and economic landscape of Greece?

James William Brown: I suppose the most obvious similarity between then and now is that Germany occupied Greece during WWII and today, because of its role in the European Union which is more or less regulating the present Greek economy, Germany has now what might be called a financial occupation of Greece.  Many of the present day problems in Greece have grown out of the aftermath of the War and the bitter civil war which followed it, as chronicled in MY LAST LAMENT. Distrust of government, unwillingness to pay taxes to it, a dense bureaucracy that strangles innovation, lack of opportunities for youth which encourages them to move abroad—these are just a few of the problems.  And of course Greece is on the forefront of receiving massive amounts of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa at a time when the country teeters toward default on the many e0693b66b86a759fb1686856e9f16259--vintage-italy-foto-vintageloans it has taken from the EU just to keep economically afloat.  But it has to be said that Greeks in general have many gifts: resilience, a sense of humor, a light heartedness contrasted with a certain ferocity and tenacity of spirit, along with a great capacity for joy and a sense of the irony in life.  And these have allowed them not only to endure but to prevail.  I tried to get many of those qualities into the character of Aliki, who narrates MY LAST LAMENT.

L.L.: I have to ask about puppetry…this is fun to me. Different. I have to wonder…is the act a little about suspending the horrific plight of the country and adding a little levity, in addition to a way of earning money?

James William Brown: I wasn’t really trying to add levity but I don’t mind if it reads that way.  Shadow puppetry is another centuries-old folk custom once prevalent in the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe.  In Greece it flourished mostly 220px-Karagoz_theatre_06315during the 400 or so years when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks Karagiozis, the main character, is the scheming villager who plays dumb in order to outwit the Turkish overlords.  These comedies were originally for children but Stelios, the puppeteer, brings them into the present by making a puppet based on Takis, one of the other characters, helping to outwit the occupying Germans.  Then there were also more serious historical plays enjoyed by adults too such as The Hero Katsandonis, which Stelios, Aliki and Takis perform several times in MY LAST LAMENT  For uneducated rural audiences, this was a way of learning their cultural history when the times they were living through were as terrible as the times in the play.   So there is a sense of stories within the story, levels of time overlapping such as when Stelios makes puppets based on himself and Aliki along with the Takis puppet in a story about what happened back in their own village which changed their lives and started their travels together as puppeteers.

L.L.: And madness. Always a fascination of mine. What is your take of the mental unrest in MY LAST LAMENT?

James William Brown: The only mentally unbalanced character is poor Takis who demonstrates traces of both childhood schizophrenia and bipolar behavior.  Of course the question is what conditions were present in him to begin with and what were brought on (or exacerbated) by events such as the village massacre by the Germans in which his mother, and Stelios’s mother, were killed and for which Takis initially received much of the blame.  There’s no way of knowing.  What’s clear is that his rock to cling to is Aliki but he’s too young to understand that she’s on the cusp of young womanhood.  So her love for Stelios drives him into fits of jealousy and worsens his other conditions. Still, he’s a lost little boy, deserving of love and pity and so much more than life can possibly give him.  There was little if any help for children with these kind of psychiatric problems in that place and time.  I cared deeply about all my characters but I cared the most about Takis.

L.L.: I don’t know about you, but I’ve drained my glass of wine…is there anything more you’d like to add about MY LAST LAMENT, your summer plans, if you’re going back to Greece anytime soon, what you’re working on next, or something completely different?

James William Brown: My wine is nearly gone too.  One thing I’d like to mention is that MY LAST LAMENT, in spite of many terrible events, is also a funny book.  Aliki’s tone of voice as she records her life is by turns wry, ironic, crabby, irreverent and altogether down to earth in its humor.  And, as she says near the end, “Hope, that’s all we’ve got, isn’t it, our most important word?”

No special plans for summer but my wife and I may go to Greece in September.  I’m working on another novel in which both Aliki and Takis continue to be characters (they won’t let go of me).  There’s a scene later in MY LAST LAMENT in which Aliki sees a photograph in a newspaper of Takis grown into a young man in a military uniform in the 1970’s.  That photograph is the launch of another story because as Stelios said, “We become the stories we tell.”

L.L.: Thanks so much for chatting with me—it’s been a pleasure!

James William Brown: Thank you. Leslie.  Here’s to you!  Now the wine is done.  On to the next story.

For more information about MY LAST LAMENT, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see: 

2141017.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: James William Brown is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Blood Dance, which the New York Times said, “…conveys the layered history of a small Greek island where the past is everywhere.  An assured and seductive debut.”  His short stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in a number of publications including most recently Narrative Magazine and Fiction International.  A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, Brown has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and is a two-time winner of writing fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts.  He has served as editorial director of publishing houses specializing in materials in the fields of applied linguistics and English as a second language in New York, Boston and Athens and was formerly the host of BookNotes, a weekly radio book review program in Massachusetts. Originally from Illinois, he lived and taught in Greece for ten years but presently lives with his wife in the greater Boston area.  They return annually to a village on the Greek island of Evia.  He is currently at work on his third novel, also set in Greece. [Author photo credit: Jane McLachlan Brown]

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media channels:

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[Cover and author image retrieved from Penguin Random House’s website. Greek grandmas retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Shadow puppetry image from Wikipedia, mythological phoenix retrieved from ancientorgins.com, all on 7.12.17] 

 

Write On, Wednesday: Meg Waite Clayton on Her NEW Historical Fiction–THE RACE FOR PARIS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A crisp September evening. Preschoolers tucked in bed. New friends. Wine and books…this was my first introduction to Meg Waite Clayton, author of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. tws_boookcoverAfter our introductions (some of us didn’t know each other yet), a sweet, quiet and assuming member thrust a book my way, “You need to read this,” she encouraged with a smile. I did. Later, flipping the pages, and nodding in agreement, in reliability, I knew this was my life. A writer is first a reader. That’s what I think Meg Waite Clayton’s book taught me.

Today, I am honored to have Meg chat with us about her newest book–perhaps her most ambitious title to date, THE RACE FOR PARIS. For me, it’s the perfect combination of history, women’s rights and independence, my appreciation for photography, and of course–books.

Welcome, Meg! 

Leslie Lindsay: Can you tell us in a few words what The Race for Paris is about?

Meg Waite Clayton: The novel was inspired by the actual “Race for Paris” and the journalists who first reported the liberation of the city in August 1944. It’s the story of two women journalists hoping to make history, and a British military photographer who joins them. It’s a bit of an underdog story, because while the male journalists had access everything they needed and were free to roam Europe, the women correspondents were restricted to covering red cross donut girls and nurses. If they wanted to win this spirited race to be first to report from Paris, they had to break rules. It took me 15 years to write—I started it before the turn of the century!—and I’m just thrilled to be talking about it with you.

L.L.: Where did the story idea begin for you?

Meg Waite Clayton: The idea for The Race for Paris actually came to me while I was doing research for my first novel,The Language of Light.  I read photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography, Portrait Of Myself. Something she said in that—about motherhood, I think I can say that much without spoiling the plot—really moved me. I had to read the autobiography in the stacks of the Vanderbilt library because it was out of print and couldn’t be checked out, so you can picture me sitting in the stacks, weeping.

The story really began to take shape when I read about how Martha Gellhorn got to cover the Normandy invasion. Only male journalists were allowed to go. (The excuse: “no women’s latrines there, and we aren’t about to start digging them now”—never mind that the press camps were generally set up in lovely big French chateaus with running water and sometimes whiskey literally on tap.)

book_parisMartha stowed away in the loo of a hospital ship and went ashore with a stretcher crew, one of the very few correspondents to cover the invasion from French soil. And her reward for her bravery?  She was taken into custody on returning to England, and stripped of her military accreditation, her travel papers, and her ration entitlements. She was confined to a nurses’ training camp until she could be shipped back to the U.S.

So here’s what she did: She hopped the fence, hitched a ride on a plane to Italy, and covered the war without the benefit of her swanky military credential, sweet-talking wireless operators into send her work out, while all the time looking over her shoulder for the military police charged with apprehending her.

While the male correspondents went wherever they wanted, and returned to nice warm press rooms in chateaus and 5-star hotels, the women correspondents who managed to get accredited to France were largely confined to hospitals. They worked at tables they set up in fields when the weather wasn’t terrible, which it mostly was. While men were able to negotiate changes to copy with on site censors at the press camps and send work by wire, women journalists’ work went by pouch—much slower, so not as timely—and was censored in England, where the journalists had no ability to make changes to accommodate the censors. Whatever was left after the censors did their dirty deeds—often not quite the truth and sometimes pure gibberish… well, off it went to their editors anyway, with their names on it.

For many women, the only option if they wanted to cover the war in a meaningful way, was to go AWOL—absent without leave—leaving them without resources, often in danger, and with the added challenge of having to evade military police send to take them into custody. Several who did so, including Lee Miller, Catherine Coyne, and Dot Avery, were taken into custody and held at Rennes, and so missed covering the liberation of Paris.

When you just look at what these women did during the war, they seem daring and risk-taking and sort of superhuman. But if you peek behind the curtain… Well, let’s just say that as a child attending fortnightly dance classes, Martha Gellhorn hid with a friend in the coatroom rather than have to stand unselected by the boys.

One of the things I wanted to do in The Race for Paris was explore how very human and like the rest of us these women really are. I’m not saying they didn’t do extraordinary things—they did. But a lot of women in a lot of circumstances in WWII did, too, and I like to think that even if I might not have, many of my readers would.

L.L. So, the Race for Paris…it’s a real thing, then? Can you tell us about that?

Meg Waite Clayton: I came across the term in Andy Rooney’s autobiography; he wrote for Stars and Striped during the war. He describes it as a spirited competition among the journalists over who would be the first to report the liberation. They all know Paris wouldn’t be the end of the war, but everyone imagined the liberation of Paris would mean the war was going to be won. The war didn’t end there, of course—the fighting continued to Berlin—but the liberation was symbolically so important.slide-2-1024The epigraph I use for the novel was written by Martha Gellhorn in late 1943, shortly after she was accredited as a war correspondent and headed for London:

I would give anything to be part of the invasion and see Paris right at the beginning and watch the peace.

The two were intertwined in people’s minds: Paris being liberated was the peace.

L.L.: Gosh, Paris! I’ve been once, but how fun was it to write about? 

Meg Waite Clayton: Paris is such a romantic, evocative city, even in war. Or perhaps especially in war. If you can walk along the Seine, or just sit out on one of the bridges at night with a bottle of wine … the lighting is lovely, the reflection off the Seine. Now you have the young kids gathering at the tip of the Isle de la Cité just to be together. The warm colors of the sunset and that very fun moment of the Eiffel Tower lighting up. The Hôtel de Ville at night—where the novel opens—is just stunning. Really, if you can’t fall in love in Paris, then you’re probably doomed. If you can’t write in Paris, or about it, you certainly are. [Check out Meg’s literary guide to Paris here]

L.L.: This is a definitely a research-intensive novel. Can you tell about how you went about researching THE RACE FOR PARIS?

Meg Waite Clayton: I did the really fun stuff, of course—like spending a month in Paris not once, but twice. I really enjoyed learning about how the press operated during the war, and all the details of what they did. I stayed in a chateau that was a press camp in Normandy, now owned by a man who was born there during the war. That was amazing, to sit by myself and watch the sun come up in a room where extraordinary journalists like Ernie Pyle wrote during the war.

And I covered the path my characters cover in the book—an excuse to see a lot of Europe!

I also immersed myself in books about the time, and in primary source materials. Letters and journals of real WWII correspondents. The pieces they wrote and, in the case of Lee Miller, some earlier drafts of pieces she wrote. For me, seeing the world directly through their eyes that way makes their world come alive.

I loved gathering the little details of the everyday lives: for example, that they washed their laundry in their helmets, and often stopped menstruating due to the stress. And funny things like that the photojournalists—because it rained all the time in Normandy—would put their spent film canisters in condoms, tie them to keep them dry. 



slide-3-1024 The problem wasn’t finding the interesting bits to include in the book, but choosing which to include, because there was so much great material. And then knowing when to stop. I love the research. I was a history major in college with a focus on 20th century American wars, so this is a real sweet spot for me.

I have to say I just loved drawing from the real experiences of women correspondents who covered the war. I couldn’t have made up some of the things that really happened. It might have been fun to do nonfiction, but the form of the novel allowed me to collect the most interesting of their experiences into one narrative arc that I hope will appeal to readers, but isn’t always there in real life.

L.L.: I’m always curious if there a character authors identify with most in their work. Is there one for you in The Race for Paris?

Meg Waite Clayton: I think maybe you have to be able to identify with anyone to deliver them well. So I hope I identify with all of them. Fletcher, my British military photographer–– he’s this really lovely guy who has the habit of falling for the wrong person again and again. Who can’t identify with that? I even identify with Charles, Liv’s husband.

But I’d say I most identify with Liv Harper. And I should say that she was Harper long before Harper was my publisher, and I just realized about two days ago that the two were the same! slide-10-1024

Liv is my ambitious photojournalist who comes to France intent on covering the liberation of Paris and in the process making both history and her own career. She’s not uncomplicated, no one is. And she’s far from perfect. Perfect in a character is boring. But I think it’s a hard thing for women to embrace ambition. It ends up leaving us considered “bossy” or “unfeminine,” “undesirable.” But she does embrace it, much as she struggles with doing so and tries to balance her ambition and her family obligations, and that’s a struggle I’m quite familiar with.

I also identify with Jane, though. She’s single and in some danger of becoming an old maid, and I certainly remember those years! She’s a Nashville gal from the wrong side of the tracks, who sort of backs into being a war journalist—she’s a secretary at the Nashville Banner when the war breaks out, and she’s smart, and so when the boys go off to war and the editor needs more writers, he turns to her.

Jane actually started as a small player who disappeared after the early chapters, and was a small homage to my Aunt Annette, who was in Normandy with the Red Cross. When I asked my aunt why she chose to go to war, she said, in a southern accent I can’t replicate, “Well I wasn’t getting any younger, was I? And the boys were all over there and I was going to be an old maid before they came home, so I thought I’d better get on over to where they were and find me one!” As befitting any character modeled on my Aunt Annette, she eventually took over the telling of the story, and that’s when it all starting falling into place finally. So I suppose that suggests I identify with her even more than I think I do.

L.L.: Oh, wow–thank you so much for being with us today, Meg. I can definitely see where your passions lie. 

Meg Waite Clayton: Thank YOU, Leslie! 

Meg Waite ClaytonBio: Book club favorite and New York Times and USA Today bestseller Meg Waite Clayton is the author of five novels, including The Race for Paris (HarperCollins, August 11), and The Wednesday Sisters, one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all time.

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[All images retrieved from Meg Waite Clayton’s website and used with permission from the author.]