By J. N. Duncan
I would like to welcome author, Jeffrey Siger, to the BIG THRILL this month for the release of the fifth book in his Greek crime series, MYKONOS AFTER MIDNIGHT. The Greek Press said his work is “prophetic.” EURO CRIME crime called him a “very gifted American author…on a par with other American authors such as Joseph Wambaugh or Ed McBain,” He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He practiced law at a major Wall Street law firm and while there served as Special Counsel to the citizens group responsible for reporting on New York City’s prison conditions. He left Wall Street to establish his own New York City law firm and continued as one of its name partners until giving it all up to write full-time among the people, life, and politics of his beloved Mykonos, his adopted home of thirty years. When not in Greece, he enjoys his other home, a farm outside New York City. Now then, on with the good stuff!
First, a question about you personally. International writers are always intriguing, and you are a migrated American living in Greece (or mostly so). You have a long-time connection with the Greek island of Mykonos, so I’m clearly interested in what brought you to love the place so much that you desired to live and write from there.
More than thirty years ago a friend told me to try Greece for a holiday. She said I’d love it, Mykonos for sure. She was right for even though I’m not Greek by birth, from the moment I first set foot on Mykonos, I felt in my heart I was home again. What attracted me to Greece then, and still does, is the Greek people, in particular the Mykonians who’ve always treated me as family—in both the good and sometimes not so good connotations of the phrase.
Sticking with the personal, you had what sounds like a very successful career going as a lawyer in New York City. Giving this up to pursue writing halfway around the world is quite a step down a different path in life. Can you speak a bit to how this came about and why?
About twenty years ago I bumped into a friend at a party and we fell to talking about things we had in common, one of which was a shared desire we’d each suppressed while building our careers: creative writing. A day or so later I received an email from her that started out, “Once upon a time.” She’d written a scene. I wrote back with a scene picking up where she’d left off and over the next few months a fantasy novella evolved. We’d not exchanged a spoken word the entire time, just emails. Then one day out of the blue she called and said, “Jeffrey, you’re very good at this, you should try writing real books.”
At the time, I was name partner in my own New York City law firm. I had a lot more important things to do than start down that struggling writer’s road. At least that’s what I thought. Still, I became more serious about my writing; finished a couple of novels, had a few agents, and received a plethora of publisher rejections. But still, I couldn’t bring myself to give up my day job even though I realized how much more I preferred writing to practicing law.
Then I made a startling discovery: I would not live forever. I decided to unite my loves of Mykonos and writing, walk away from my law practice, and write full time among the people and politics of Greece. And I’ve never looked back.
Your new book, MYKONOS AFTER MIDNIGHT is the fifth book in the series, following its main character, Andreas Kaldis, and his crime-fighting adventures in Mykonos. Can you catch us up a little on who this man is and what makes him tick? I understand the man leans toward the politically incorrect.
Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis is an Athenian born second-generation cop, a politically incorrect, honest observer of his times who endures and grows, despite all that life and the powerful throw at him and his beloved country. His life moves forward through the series, never static, always growing. And I like the way serious issues, political and otherwise, are expressed around him, and as my writing is intended to explore issues confronting modern-day Greece in a way that accurately conveys to non-Greeks what I see, Andreas is the perfect character for such expression.
Friends tell me that Andreas and I share the same sense of humor and the same way of addressing problems. I never intentionally set out to do that but I think ultimately a writer cannot help but put part of himself into many of his characters. Now, I find that with each new adventure Andreas keeps evolving in ways that surprise even me—hopefully bringing me along with him.
What can we expect from Andreas in this latest installment? What sort of trouble is he getting involved with this time?
The latest installment in the series (#5) is MYKONOS AFTER MIDNIGHT and returns to my home island in a story driven by the murder of a legendary nightclub owner who helped transform Mykonos from an impoverished Greek island into a wealthy, world-renown tourist paradise. His death puts politically explosive secrets into play and Andreas into battle with a powerful, clandestine international force intent on doing whatever necessary to wrest control of Mykonos away from those who’ve dominated the island for generations. It is a struggle of the sort playing out across much of Greece during this time of dire economic crisis amid a society rooted in the past trying to catch up with the present.
International writers have a different style or flavor to them relative to American-born writers. There are lots of reasons for this obviously, but you have the more unique quality of being an American living in a foreign land long enough to adapt or assimilate to the cultural differences, ideologies and lifestyle. Do you think of yourself as a Greek crime writer? Can you speak to the differences you’ve seen in American crime writing compared to those of international writers?
I think of myself as a writer. But I’d be less than candid if I didn’t admit to being overjoyed at how the Greeks view me. My debut novel, MURDER IN MYKONOS, became the #1 best selling English language book in Greece, among Greece’s top ten best sellers in its Greek-language version (MYSTIRIO STI MYKONO), and Greece’s ESQUIRE MAGAZINE wrote, “With ten million Greeks, half of whom think they’re writers, why did it take a foreigner to write this book?”
Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner writing along the edges of societal changes in a land where I did not grow up that gives me the advantage of viewing things without preconceived notions and biases that come with being native to a culture. But whatever the reason, I’m eternally grateful for the reception I’ve received.
Beyond the obvious differences of culture, I don’t see any structural differences in the Greek or other international crime novel from those of the American, for when it comes to the mechanics of the mystery itself, crime writers from around the world all follow the same universal principle: Above all else, tell a damn good story.
On a personal level, there is a characteristic to my writing that differs from those who write primarily for a Greek audience. I address issues confronting modern-day Greece in a way meant to accurately convey to non-Greeks what I see, which means at times employing a manner of speech or conduct that is not what one would observe in Greece but is readily recognizable to foreign readers. It is the emotion rather than the act that I am seeking to convey. The Greek-language versions of my work, though, stay true to Greek expressions and conduct.
International crime stories definitely have their appeal. What is it about Mykonos that made you feel like it would make a great setting for crime fiction?
What makes Mykonos, and to a larger extent Greece, a great setting for my novels is that without Greece they would not exist. Greece is the heart and soul of my work. Greece’s neighbors are Balkan countries to the north, Turkey to the east, and North Africa to the south. There’s also Italy to the west, but as any reader of the “Aeneid” knows, they’re really Greeks. J Greece is the birthplace of the gods, the cradle of European civilization, the bridge between East and West, and the land of Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles. Spartan courage, Athenian democracy, Olympic achievement, and Trojan intrigue all call it home. It is a place of island, plains, and mountain villages, and cities filled with émigrés. A country whose modern problems lay spread out before the world, while the secrets of Byzantium stay hidden in unnoticed places protected by reclusive lives led much the same as they were a 1000 years before. Greeks are the flesh and blood embodiment of the ambiguity that is and always has been Greece. What better source could a writer hope to find for inspiration?
I’m going to guess that you didn’t just decide to become a writer a few years ago and pick up and move to Mykonos to do so. Can you give us a little history about the writer’s path you took that led to the publication of your first published book in the series, MURDER IN MYKONOS?
As a matter of fact that’s pretty much what I did do. I realized when I made that decision that in one year as a lawyer I would likely earn more than I’d do in my entire career as a writer (luckily it doesn’t seem to be turning out that way), but I did not care. Besides, it often isn’t money but fear that keeps many who sincerely want to take such a step from doing so. Fear of losing whatever status they’ve achieved in their society’s hierarchy. I’m not one who worries about that sort of thing; I believe your best years always are ahead of you.
As for the genesis of my debut novel in the series, MURDER IN MYKONOS, I always wanted to place a novel on Mykonos that showed the real beauty of its people and their way of life. But, since writing about pelicans, flowers, and Greek tavernas wasn’t my thing, I decided the best way for me to excite the reader’s imagination was through a fast-paced mystery. While I was trying to come up with the right story line to tie my ideas together, my best friend on Mykonos passed away unexpectedly. He and I had talked a lot about my ideas for the book, and as I was in the church for his funeral the whole thing spread out before me…as if his spirit were saying, “Okay, Jeffrey here it is, now write your book.” And, so, I did—in tribute to his memory, turning his island’s MAMA MIA style setting into a NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN sort of story.
You have the opportunity to sit down for dinner with a fellow crime writer to talk writing. Who would you pick and perhaps more importantly, where would you choose to eat?
I’d be happy with any of my buddies from Murder is Everywhere, a blogsite where each day one of seven renown mystery writers from around the world writes about the places where our tales are based: Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland), Caro Ramsay (Scotland), Lisa Brackmann (China), Cara Black (France), Annamaria Alfieri (South America), Michael Stanley, (Southern Africa) and I (Greece). There is no doubt in my mind we’d pick a Brazilian place, where we’d spend the night toasting the memory of our recently departed much loved colleague, best friend, and inspiration, Leighton Gage. God bless his soul.
Being a lawyer gives you particular insight into crime. How/has this influenced your writing of these novels?
I’ve written for what seems all my life. As a litigating lawyer I was trained to be factually accurate and convincing. It disciplined me to be internally consistent, succinct and persuasive. My instinct as a lawyer is to get to the facts quickly and be as accurate as possible in my descriptions. Over the last fifteen years I’ve worked very hard at using those same skills—coupled with an imagination allowed to run wild—to create mystery-thrillers that tell more than just a fast-paced story. The stories may be fiction, but you want to be honest with your readers on the verifiable details so that when the moment arrives to leap on to the imagined they’ll come along with you.
Because Greece is something of a vacation destination, where would you take the uninitiated like myself, to show me, “This is Mykonos. This is why I love this place.”?
It’s tempting to start naming my favorite bars, clubs, and restaurants, the whitewashed old town’s maze of streets, or any of the island’s more than two dozen breathtaking beaches, but in truth naming my favorite place is easy: Standing on a beach at the edge of the sea at sunset, watching light play off the water, staring toward the neighboring holy island of Delos and wondering what travelers from thousands of years past—maybe even a few gods—who’d stood in that identical spot watching the same scene may have been thinking.
For those writers out there who have a desire to write international crime, but not the means to actually live there, what advice would you want to give to them?
Immerse yourself in its culture, traditions, history, geography, and politics. And once you think you have all that down pat enough to write your story, RESIST the temptation of taking cheap shots to show how much you know. Be hard, be firm, be accurate, but don’t be petty. That is if you ever wish to be welcomed in the land you wrote about, though some overcome that risk by never publishing in their subject’s native language.
And just because I love food, if you were preparing us a true Mykonos meal, what would be on the table?
My best meal continues to be each July at a party thrown by friends honoring the name day of the saint to whom their family church is dedicated. It’s called apanayeri and all the food and drink is from their own land. The meal begins with a piece of bread blessed by the priest and a cup of broth derived from the boiled meat to come. Then comes the real food: tables full of batter fried cod fish with skordalia garlic sauce, delicacies prepared from the lambs, appetizers of every kind (spanakopita, tiropita, taramasalata, tzatziki, melitzanosalata), fresh garden salads, black-eyed beans and dandelion greens, and homemade wine, wine, wine. The boiled meat is next, followed by the yahknee—a savory, rich stew begun with the broth, developed with simmering fresh island tomatoes, potatoes, onions, spices and herbs, and finished with the tastiest of the meat. If you’re not yet full, don’t worry, lamb chops off the grill are still to come, and later, pastries, custards, yoghurts, and fresh fruits.
Finally, a question I like to ask all writers. If a bookstore customer came up to you with your book in hand and asked, “Why should I buy this book over all the other crime stories over there?” what would you tell them?
There’s renaissance of sorts underway these days in the Greece-based crime-writing scene offering the reader a wide array of styles to choose from. THE NEW YORK TIMES, in selecting the fourth in my Kaldis series (TARGET: TINOS) as one of its five picks for the beach in 2012,described my body of work as “thoughtful police procedurals set in picturesque but not untroubled Greek locales.” But the essence of what sets my novels apart from the others appeared in the NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS: “Mr. Siger is one of those rare writers whose finger is always on the pulse of modern day upheavals. He is never afraid to tackle and expose uncomfortable subjects—subjects most writers avoid.An authoritative and compelling voice, Mr. Siger is a master storyteller.”
Thank you so much for the wonderful responses, Jeffrey! And holy cow does that meal sound great!
Jeffrey Siger was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He practiced law at a major Wall Street law firm before leaving to establish his own firm and continue as one of its name partners until giving it all up to write full-time on his beloved Mykonos. The NEW YORK TIMES described his work as “thoughtful police procedurals set in picturesque but not untroubled Greek locales,” the GREEK PRESS called him “prophetic,” EURO CRIME said he’s a “very gifted American author,” and San Francisco awarded him its Certificate of Honor citing that his “acclaimed books have inspired political change in Greece.”
To learn more about Jeffrey, please visit his website.