Welcome, Jeffrey. I am delighted you agreed to answer a few questions. What is your book about?
I originally planned on restating the back cover description for TARGET: TINOS. That’s my new Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis mystery coming in June; it’s rooted in a modern secret society practicing 200-year-old ways amid the Lourdes of Greece. But then Publishers Weekly kindly obliged with a starred review and a whole different sort of description. Here’s what PW had to say:
“Set on the Aegean pilgrimage island of Tinos, Siger’s superb fourth procedural featuring Chief Insp. Andreas Kaldis (after 2011’s Prey on Patmos) cleverly integrates the ancient with the modern. When Andreas looks into the mysterious immolation of two gypsies on Tinos, apparently a hate crime against immigrants, he faces formidable pressures from his fiery fiancée, Lila, whom he’s to marry in six days on nearby Mykonos—and from his wily boss, Spiros Renatis, who abruptly orders him to close the investigation. While the Greek government can’t afford bad publicity during the country’s current financial crisis, Andreas, aided by his feisty chief assistant, Yianni Kouros, and his friend Tassos Stamatos, chief homicide investigator for the Cyclades, pursues this eerie case, which soon involves ruthless Albanian mobsters, the history of Greek independence from Turkey, and a Tinos-based esoteric cult. A likable, compassionate lead; appealing Greek atmosphere; and a well-crafted plot help make this a winner. (June 2012)”
What inspired you to write this particular story?
Have you ever wondered how many times a day your eyes see something that your mind never gives a single thought? Your neighbor’s house for instance, or the color of the floor in your apartment building’s halls. Don’t worry, I’m not segueing into some sort of The Alchemist moment. I’m alluding to the relationship I once had with Tinos, the fourth largest of Greece’s Cycladic islands. It sits a few miles across the Aegean Sea from my front porch on the island of Mykonos. With its high ridged backbone looming above the shoreline, and mountain peaks often lost in clouds, Tinos resembles a haunting, second millennium BCE Mycenaean fortress.
I knew of Tinos’ Church of the Annunciation (Panagia Evangelistria) and of the more than one million pilgrims who flocked there each year seeking to invoke the healing powers of its Miraculous Icon of the Virgin Mary (the Megalochari). As perhaps the most revered religious shrine in Greece, it was only natural for it to become known as the “Lourdes of Greece.” I also knew that every August 15th the island was overrun with gypsies coming to pay their respects to the Virgin during the annual religious festival celebrating her assumption into heaven.
Many times I’d stood on the deck of a ferry stopped in Tinos’ port and watched pilgrims head off to begin their half-mile crawl up the steep hill from the harbor to the Church. But I never had much interest in visiting there. It seemed too close to bother, much like the Statue of Liberty is to New Yorkers.
About two years ago I was having morning coffee on my front porch with an American friend. Her late husband had been a jeweler on Mykonos. We were talking about a new book I was working on and she said, “You should write one about Tinos.”
When I asked why, she said, “It has all that hidden treasure.”
She sure knew how to get my attention. That’s when I learned that her husband was one of the few jewelers entrusted to restore and maintain hidden caches of gold, silver, and precious gems given as gifts to the Church of the Annunciation by grateful pilgrims. Not long after that I learned that this treasure was not controlled by the Greek Church, but by a two-hundred-year-old private foundation so wealthy and powerful that some referred to it as “The Vatican of Greece.”
A miraculous icon, vast hidden treasures, a mysterious foundation, and gypsies. How could I not be inspired? Still, it took until the following year before I got around to seriously exploring Tinos. Now it’s one of my favorite places in Greece.
Most who come to Tinos are only aware of the Church and its surrounding harbor town. But for those who venture out onto the island, there are serious surprises in store. Fifty villages as quiet and undisturbed as a dreamer’s quaint fantasy of Greece; brilliant vistas at every turn; a meandering two-hundred-mile network of cobblestone trails and old farm paths running from hillside to hillside and dipping into valleys in between; and a history of fabled marble quarries and artisans linked to some of Greece’s greatest artistic achievements.
And unlike other Aegean islands, Tinos successfully resisted Ottoman rule for most of Greece’s occupation, making it a Christian oasis amid Turkish domination and the Cycladic island chain’s economic center and most populated island, earning it the nickname “Little Paris.”
What a setting for a story.
Wow! You’re right. What a setting for a story. Tell us a little about your main characters. Who was your favorite? Why?
Andreas Kaldis, head of the Greek Police’s Special Crimes Division, is my dominant character. An Athenian born second-generation cop, and a politically incorrect, honest observer of his times, Andreas endures and grows, despite all that life and the powerful throw at him and his beloved country. 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 and why I so love the country—within the confines of a fast-paced mystery thriller—Andreas is perfect for the role.
One could say Andreas is the orchestral conductor of my works, but without the plethora of other characters—good, bad, and venal—there would be no music.
How long did it take you to write your book?
Generally it takes me about a year from inspiration to having the book ready for publication, but for a unique reason TARGET: TINOS took two years. At least I pray it was unique.
At the end of 2010, “book four” was set to go for a January 2012 release. Then came the Arab Spring, initiated by a Tunisian ending his life through self-immolation in an effort to change the world. Across the Mediterranean my antagonists were employing the exact same method for precisely the same purpose. Then my principal bad guy character decided to come to life in the form and behavior of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
In the face of being scooped by world events (or shall we say having prophetic visions confirmed), Poisoned Pen Press and I decided there was no choice but to kill that book because inevitably it would be judged as derivative rather than original.
Oh, well, such is life and after my fist healed from where I drove it into the wall (between the studs, thankfully) I began writing TARGET: TINOS. But there was no way it would be ready in time to meet my publisher’s schedule for a January 2012 release so we pushed it back to June. I couldn’t be happier with the result. And that was before its starred review from Publishers Weekly! I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that certain things don’t happen on a certain idyllic Aegean island before June. ☺
Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)
I spent about six months immersed in research for TARGET: TINOS. Of course that involved the Internet (what did we ever do before it?), magazines, books, etcetera, but much of my insight came from conversations with persons possessing first-hand knowledge of the issues, experiences, and intrigues I described. I also took great care to verify that geographic and historical data were accurate—adding a modest bit of literary license only when necessary. Onsite visits to verify settings and conduct interviews supplemented off island research into the history of the most revered icon in Greece, the church on Tinos in which the icon is visited each year by more than a million pilgrims, and the relatively unknown but extraordinarily rich and powerful entity that has stood been behind it all for nearly two-hundred years, The Evangelstria Foundation.
Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?
My goal is to write riveting, thought provoking mysteries that immerse readers in the exploration of the ambiguities of a fascinating foreign culture. That may sound a strange mission for a mystery, but when you think about it mysteries are a natural fit for just that purpose. I’m not suggesting a The Brothers Karamazov sort of book here, but as I once heard said, “The return of order to a broken society is the basic underpinning of virtually all mysteries.” (Excluding noir, of course).
I’m all for restoring order, but to do so one first must understand the scope of what’s broken. Those are the details I hope for my readers to grasp through my work.
What challenges did you face as you wrote this book?
I always like to immerse my characters in what I see as significant looming issues, but as I mentioned in response to another question, the book originally planned for a 2012 release was scooped by world events thereby requiring me to scrap it and write an entirely new one. That experience left me a bit gun shy about picking another issue to wrap my story line around. But as I’m sure happens to so many writers, when you relax and just let the keyboard pull you up, voila, magic happens.
This time the wizard put me smack dab in the middle of gypsies, immigrants, and one of the least known but richest and most influential entities in all of Greece. This is not a romanticized or sensationalized tale of stereotypes. It tells it like it is, which might be painful for some—except, of course, it’s all fiction.
How has your background influenced your writing?
I was trained as a courtroom lawyer to be internally consistent, succinct, and persuasive in my writing and I’ve always written creatively, though as a lawyer my prose was stylistically—not factually—so. My background as a practicing lawyer disciplined me to get to the facts quickly and be as accurate as possible in my descriptions. Even today, my stories may be fiction but I want to be honest with my readers about details, such as geography, weather, and locales. And since much of my practice involved litigating high profile society scandals and international and domestic disputes, I gained considerable insights on the sorts of characters and intrigues running around our planet.
What was the first story you remember writing?
Two decades or so 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 a 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.
Have you written any other books?
I’ve published three other novels in my Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series in addition to Target: Tinos. The first in the series, MURHER IN MYKONOS, was my way of showing my love for that island: I dropped a serial killer into the midst of Greece’s #1 tourist paradise, creating a sort of “Mama Mia setting for a No Country For Old Men story.” Some thought I’d be lynched by my Greek friends for threatening their island’s tourist image. But instead, they embraced the book; so much so that it became the #1 best selling English-language book in Greece.
The second in the series, ASSASSINS OF ATHENS, focused on the Byzantine relationship between Greeks and their government—a far less controversial subject than tourism—but that too yielded unexpected results. The Greek press called it “prophetic” for its description of social unrest and attitudes that later came to pass and still haunt the country today. American reviews were best summed up by Booklist in a starred review calling it “international police procedural writing at its best.”
And in #3, PREY ON PATMOS—or An Aegean Prophecy as it’s called by my U.K. publisher, Piatkus Books/Little Brown—I decided to risk whatever good will I’d built up with the Greek people by exploring their relationship with the Greek Orthodox Church. It’s a story of modern world intrigues amid A Name of the Rose-like setting, a touchy subject for sure, especially for a non-Greek. No one was more relieved than I when the Greek press praised its explanation of Eastern Orthodox history and politics. And as much as I was honored by the Greek press calling me “Attuned to the ways and concerns of everyday Greeks,” and “an equally astute observer of the movers and shakers,” my most satisfying moment with PREY ON PATMOS came later. When it first came out some thought its central plot element a bit “far-fetched.” Five months ago that very plot proved true! Oh ye of little faith.
I’ve also written four other books, all of which I consider “drawer novels,” as in that’s where they shall remain…at least for the time being.
Do your characters ever take on a life of their own?
Oh yes. They’re off and running all the time. I try my best to keep up with them because from experience I know they’re adept at finding places only my subconscious could imagine. But then there are those days when I think I’m purring along in synch with them and suddenly, POOF, they’re gone, leaving me stuck in the middle of nowhere hopelessly trying to find my way out of there on my own. Thankfully, they’re a rather disciplined crew and don’t do that too often. Otherwise I’d have to cut down their chocolate allotment.
Thank you again, Jeffrey, for this fascinating interview, but then, you seem to lead an fascinating life. One last question: Where can we learn more about you and your books?
At my website: http://www.jeffreysiger.com. I blog on Saturdays at Murder is Everywhere (http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com). Or you can find me at my publisher’s website: http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/jeffrey-siger/