Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.
Greetings, Displaced Nationers.
My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.
Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:
“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”
Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.
At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.
“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”
Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.
Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.
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Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?
When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?
For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.
Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?
For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:
The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.
On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.
It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?
With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.
Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place
Thanks so much, Marjory, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.
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Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below. And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address email@example.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**
Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.
À bientôt! Till next time…
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Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —ML Awanohara
Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).