Greek-Canadian author Tess Fragoulis is known for her focus on sex, drugs, and rock and roll in each of the three books she’s published: Stories to Hide from Your Mother, Ariadne’s Dream, and, most recently, The Goodtime Girl. Her work is also intensely focused on women and their experiences, portraying them in an honest way.
While Fragoulis says Stories to Hide from Your Mother, a collection that focuses on the raw and erotic end-of-life period, and Ariadne’s Dream, which imagines Eros versus death as a woman in contemporary Greece who falls in love with a deadly musician, were quick and easy to produce relative to her newest publication, The Goodtime Girl took a decade to complete. The novel, which looks at those themes of sex, love, and music from the vantage point of the 1920s, is set in Greece; she thus spent two years researching a subject on which there is little information written in English.
The Goodtime Girl takes on a subject rarely seen in Anglophone literature and often rarely known in Western circles: the burning of Smyrna by Turkish armed forces in 1922. Known as the Great Catastrophe in Greek history, this event marked the loss of all remaining Greek territory in Asia Minor; the city itself would become Izmir and the land would become part of the Republic of Turkey. Fragoulis’s novel doesn’t focus on the fire so much as it does the story of a survivor, Kivelli, who, though born to high society, escapes the city and makes her way through the underworld of Pireaus, the port city of Athens, as a rebetiko singer.
Rebetiko, a type of Greek and Turkish music popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries, was rooted in heartbreak, drugs, and exile; it flowered in the places where refugees ended up, having been forced during the 1923 population exchange to leave their ancestral homelands. Aptly, Fragoulis roots her novel in this genre of Greco-Turkish blues, including lyrics of well-known songs that she has translated to transport the reader into the world of Kivelli who, like many of her fellow refugees, pours herself into music to forget the trauma of losing everything she has known.
I recently spoke with Fragoulis about taking on the monolith of Greek nation-building mythology, the trials of researching a historical novel, and writing about giving stories to the women of history.
Maria Eliades: I work with writing that deals with Greece and Turkey, and the interested audience is very niche in my experience. Was that something that gave you difficulty in marketing The Goodtime Girl, or in getting a publisher to sign on for the story?
Tess Fragoulis: Oh yes. It’s my third book and it took the longest to sell and to actually get published after it was sold. I thought it was really weird because there was already a refugee crisis going on [when the book was being shopped around] and historically, we can look at what happened in the 1920s and look at what was happening the world over and plug that into a more universal story—not to mention the sex and drugs and rebetika that I wanted to introduce to the world—but there really wasn’t that much of an appetite for it, so that was really quite frustrating. Most people have not even heard of Smyrna.
It was more difficult to sell than my second book, which is also set in Greece, but is more contemporary. On the flip side, it took a minute for the Greek publisher to accept it, so it was such a huge difference trying to sell it in Canada versus in Greece where they have a vested interest in that story. It’s that thing no one wants to speak about yet everyone wants to hear about.
ME: The loss of Smyrna and the loss of Asia Minor is such a defining event for what becomes Greece as a modern country. How did you focus on the characters and keep the history from overshadowing the characters themselves without feeling there’s this task to tell the history? As you’ve said, people don’t really know it.
TF: Exactly. I’m a fiction writer, and the danger—this is the first historical thing I’ve written, and possibly the last, because it was so much God damn work—but one of the struggles was because the history is so potent and so full of its own story—that the only thing I could do is what I know how to do: focus on the character and what is important to that character.
That’s why I researched for about two years before I started writing, and at some point, I thought, what is going to happen is I’m going to get so much into the research and the history that I’m just going to be repeating it with not as fully realized characters as I want. So I had to do some very weird things to understand my character and make sure everything that I reported was coming through her experience and through her eyes.
It was really about trying to immerse myself in the character. One of my fears was that I wasn’t going to understand a woman of that period and that circumstance, so a lot of work had to go around wondering: what is a young woman in the early 1920s in that place going to be like? What is she going to like? What is she going to aspire to? What are the possibilities of her thought?
Again, the history was always behind that. I won’t say it was the setting. It was more than that; it was the driving force of her story. But I really just wanted to get her and her relationships right, which for most novels is the most important thing.
ME: How did you know you had enough history in order to start writing?
TF: You get that moment when you’re reading something and a scene occurs, or a line occurs. For me it’s often a line, and I need to write it down. If it’s a good line I’ll write another line.
If I understood something in that research, I would stop what I was doing at that moment and try to write something of the story I was going to tell. Compared to my previous novel, which was more or less written in a linear fashion from beginning to end, this one was written all over the place. So I would just write those few pages and put them aside. Write a little index card for it and move it around.
There was just so much that was interesting both in the history of Smyrna and the history of the refugee crisis and the history of rebetiko. So those were the three things I was thinking about and it would have been too much to do all the reading and then say, okay now I’m going to sit down and write the novel.
ME: I love the translations you did of the rebetiko songs in this book, because they’re really fresh and they feel really contemporary to now. I could hear the soundtrack in my head as I was reading; I could see the tekke, the dives where the characters would listen to and play rebetiko, even though I’ve never been to one. You’re in the space. It’s beautiful. Was a conscious choice with the rebetiko lyrics to make them feel fresh, for lack of a better word?
TF: I [had] never really translated anything before, so it was a quite a challenge. I think the thing I wanted to do was—even the harder songs, they have this attitude and this joyfulness in them, even when they say, fuck off and I’m going to kill you. There’s something about the attitude that I wanted to make sure came across and maybe that’s the only way I could do it because those were the skills I had, but I also did want it to seem dated.
I encountered them now, and I like them because they bring me back to a time. But I also like them the way I like Nick Cave. Nick Cave and rebetiko somehow are on the same plane for me. Of course it’s different sounds, but these were strange, extraordinary people who were involved with this. Whether they were drug addicts or idiots or whatever. I encountered a lot of different characters. I’m attracted to the underbelly of things; I’m attracted to the darker side of things, and I like the mánges, even though I know many of them were just sexist assholes. Nonetheless, I wanted the joy and the coolness of that music to be reflected.
Their problems are our problems. I just think they’re super cool songs. I don’t know how else I would have done it. I have the language I have and I don’t have some attachment to verisimilitude.
ME: What I also thought worked really well in your novel is that it jumped back and forth to the sections where Kivelli is in Smyrna and in Pireaus, because it was a really great way of portraying trauma—and Smyrna is not a plot point. It is not a device. It is the motivation for what’s happening to Kivelli as she’s trying to make her way through this strange, new world that she never expected to be in, that she was not brought up to be in. It is still so contemporary of what it means to be a refugee. You grow up preparing for an entirely different life, and then in the matter of moments, days, it no longer exists.
ME: Yeah, it’s gone.
TF: Burning down the city, it’s absolutely gone.
But some of it’s still there. You can still find bits of the neighborhood that were not burned down, and I was lucky enough to have a very lovely woman guide me and show me these places so that I could get a little flavor of what the place was, but that way of life was absolutely annihilated.
In doing the research, I could not not honor what Smyrne had been. I was fascinated by its beauty and its architecture, its culture and its multiculturalism. I live in Montreal, which is also a multicultural city, and somehow I related the two places. I was really afraid I wouldn’t understand well enough to get under the skin of some of these places and some of these events, and without doing that I didn’t think I’d be able to write a good novel, convey it properly. But I fell in love with Smyrne through the stories and then I felt so heartbroken by its destruction, how this wonderful place—well, again, it still exists in a sense, but it no longer exists.
So apart from it being the building blocks of that character and who she is, apart from falling from grace, you are catapulted out of everything you knew. How do you rebuild? And how do you become this woman that she becomes? I guess I give her an interesting fate in terms of what could have happened to her otherwise. I had to have a character I could relate to a bit, identify with, who would not be absolutely decimated by it in order to tell the rest of the story. But I also needed to present Smyrna to the world.