Telling My Father’s Story

Arthur Alimonos in NYC, 1952

One day my father called me at work to tell me about Bill Clinton’s new autobiography. “He made 10 million dollars!” he told me. “You see, that’s what people want to read, true stories!” For decades, my father has harped on me about how people don’t want “fake” stories. In his mind, only nonfiction has any value. This attitude is shared by most old Greek people I know. Despite the fact that Homer was the first fantasist and that the word fantasia is a Greek word meaning “imagination,” modern age Greeks seem to have outgrown imagination, as if the country itself has turned into the grumpy senior citizen of the world. As for how lucrative a business fantasy fiction can be, my father apparently never heard of Harry Potter or Star Wars. But Bill Clinton he knows, since—for as long as I’ve known him—he only watches the news. Bringing up Clinton’s autobiography was his way of bringing up his own life story; the only part of my writing ambition that ever interested him was that I might someday relate his life to the world. I can’t count the number of times he’s started a sentence with, “When I came to this country . . .”

From what my parents have told me, my father’s life would make a pretty amazing story. As a young boy, he watched as the Nazis invaded his country. His five brothers were imprisoned by the Germans for being part of the Greek rebellion, but they each somehow escaped execution. Years later, he came to America as a penniless teenager, and after much hard work became a quite well-to-do restaurateur. He lost the love of his life, an American woman, due to his strict adherence to Greek tradition.

I have never been opposed to writing the biography of Arthur Alimonos. My only problem is that I have little experience writing nonfiction. I imagine the basics of story-telling are the same: you need scenes and summaries, a conflict and engaging characters. But I realize that, despite my father’s amazing life, it is not so unlike the lives of so many who fought in World War II or of other emigrants who landed on Ellis Island in extreme poverty. It is not enough to simply write a series of events. The book must have a central theme. Even a less than spectacular life, like that of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, can make for a brilliant story if handled properly. But the story I want to tell may not be what he wants. My telling may not be as flattering as he hopes it to be; he imagines his life a great success story, but a simple success story doesn’t make for good fiction or nonfiction in and of itself. If anything else, a biography needs to be honest; it needs to portray Arthur Alimonos for the man he truly was, with all the complexity that goes with being human, with every fault and foible.

To make it work, the story of Arthur Alimonos must also be my story, because I have never truly known the man. I am planning to record hours of interviews with him, and in this way, take my own journey into discovering my father. His book will be the story of my telling his story. In the end, I hope to create a portrayal that people will find relatable, sympathetic, maybe even inspiring. I hope to endear my father to the world, to immortalize him as he wishes to be immortalized.

Contests and "The Ballad of Titian and Midiana"

The first story I wrote for Mrs. Ciresi’s Creative Writing class at USF was called The Post Office. When I was done reading it, many of my classmates urged me to submit it to a contest, and stupid me thought that would be a waste of time. Now, ten years later, I deeply regret that decision.

I was never much for short fiction. It’s difficult to tell an adventure story in few words, and since I mostly write adventures, I don’t have many stories short enough for contests. But I have a few shorter, non-adventure stories that I am proud of, namely The Window and The Ballad of Titian and Midiana

I am not sure if I should send the latter since it’s quite melodramatic, and melodrama isn’t in vogue these days. If H.P. Lovecraft and Homer got together to write a story, it would go something like The Ballad of Titian and Midiana. It is essentially a retelling of the Greek Medusa myth, but unlike more recent adaptations as in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief or Clash of the Titans, the snake haired monster is not an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Instead, I have gone back to the original myth about a priestess transformed into a monster after an illicit love affair, retelling the story from the perspective of the lovers. It is a romantic tragedy and a sympathetic monster story ala Frankenstein. For the purposes of the contest, I’m considering changing the title to include the word Medusa, like, A Medusa Story, something like that.

If you haven’t read either The Window or The Ballad of Titian and Midiana, let me know what you think before it goes off to the judges.

Rejection Roller Coaster

You know, it’s strange, because getting these is a lot like a roller coaster, in a bad way, because I am not too fond of sudden ups and downs. It’s remarkable to think with how little ceremony it sits there, with all the other garbage from your mailbox, a plain white envelope on the kitchen counter in a pile of bills and coupons and advertisements for Chinese buffet. The sudden feeling of hope rises in your throat, despite your better judgment, despite knowing it’s better to “never get your hopes up,” and then, just as suddenly, there is a dull throb in your heart as you open it and realize it’s just another rejection. You can just feel the hope drop out of you. Just like a roller-coaster ride.

But these agents have this rejection letter writing business down to a science—it’s like they really know what it feels like to be me (maybe they were writers once). Honestly, if they ever need to find work, I think they could get into the business of helping people break up with their girlfriends/boyfriends/wives/husbands. Think of it:

“Thank you very much for considering a continued relationship with me. Unfortunately, you’re not meeting with my current needs, so with regret I must pass on the chance to marry/settle down/keep dating/etc.”

The Devil’s Advocate: Melodrama is Good!

In the 2004 film Troy, after a climactic battle where Achilles kills Hector, Andromache, beset by grief for the death of her husband, basically does nothing. The actress gives a performance of subdued shock, blinking heavily before slacking against the parapet wall. This is in stark contrast to the way Homer describes the scene in the Iliad:

stunned to the point of death, struggling for breath now and coming back to life, [Andromache] burst out in grief among the Trojan women: “Oh Hector—I am destroyed! . . . would to god he’d (her father) never fathered me! . . . and leave me here to waste away in grief!


and just look at how Hector’s mother, Hecuba, reacts:

And now his mother began to tear her hair . . . she flung her veil to the ground and raised a high, shattering scream.

In the Iliad, Andromache’s reaction is an example of melodrama. Like cliche, writing melodramatically is one of those things writers are warned never to do. It’s been taught to me by many a teacher and many a book. We are told that melodrama is exaggerated behavior, that real people in real life don’t act that way. In written fiction as well as in film, there seems to be a growing fashion of subdued emotion. Almost never does an actor cry with rage, as Charlton Heston used to in movies like Ben Hur. Tonight I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; and while I did enjoy the movie, Harry, Ron and Hermione’s portrayals left me cold. But I don’t blame the actors or the director. They did what resonates with American and English audiences today.

Examples of melodrama abound not only in Homer, but throughout Greek literature. In Euripides’ Medea, a wife slaughters her own sons to punish her husband’s infidelity. If you watch the play in the original Ancient Greek, women in the chorus run around the stage screeching (even in modern Greek soap operas, there is a lot of this going on). The Greek tradition of melodrama did not remain unique to Greece, but extended throughout Europe. The way Hamlet admonishes his mother for betraying her dead husband can only be called melodrama. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries also falls into this category. After the turn of the century, however, the trend was to move away from such theatrics. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, the author describes, with great pride, how calmly the British make for the life boats after their ship is sunk by a German U-Boat. It was not long before subdued emotion turned from a virtue into the only behavior accepted to be realistic.

Despite my sincerest efforts to adopt it, the notion that melodrama is over-the-top has never sat well with me, because my personal experience differs greatly. There are certainly people who take pain and suffering with quiet reserve, damning up their emotions and keeping a “stiff upper lip” so to speak. But I grew up in a Greek household, where screaming and hair pulling and table smashing was not too uncommon. My wife, who is from a much more subdued Moroccan culture, was horrified when first witnessing an argument in my family. She couldn’t understand how, the following day, we could all be chummy as if nothing had happened. Greece has a long storied history of civil war and reconciliation, because we are a passionate and forgiving people. One of my favorite movies, I Love You to Death, a dark comedy about an Italian family (which could have just as easily been Greek), illustrates the point beautifully. In the film, a wife attempts to murder her husband (played wonderfully by Kevin Kline) for his infidelity. After several failed attempts to kill him, and much hilarity, she is arrested. When her husband finds out about it, from the hospital where he is being treated for the bullet in his head, he immediately bails her out of jail—then begs on hands and knees for her forgiveness.

I am not opposed to the American and British ethos of subdued emotion, or subtext. In fact, I find it quite refreshing, because I am not a fan of arguments that leave your vocal cords sore (or having my wife try and kill me). But to be taught, for the sake of fiction, that people simply “do not behave that way” is absurd. Maybe not in your household, but they do in mine. If I were to write a piece of fiction portraying typical American life, a lot of hair pulling might be inappropriate. But in a fantasy setting, where cultures vary greatly from our own, how can we expect the characters to always react the same way we do? If we are to place our characters in settings inspired by ancient time periods, how can we not expect them to behave the way we are told by Homer people of that time behaved?

What constitutes melodrama is a matter of culture. In the early days of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, there was a bias towards women and sex. Today, we take for granted that women can play the roles traditionally reserved for men; women don’t have to be the damsels in distress; they can fight, even play the hero. We have also come to accept diverse sexuality as aspects of culture. No longer do we limit sex to monogamous man/woman relationships. And yet, the same cultural sensibility is not applied to verbal and emotional behavior. To me, it seems, every character, in every fictional universe, no matter how bizarre and alien, must conform to this credo of reserved emotion. Without even realizing it, a lot of fiction today is limited by American cultural biases. My wife has suggested that my novel might be better appreciated in foreign markets, since they can better appreciate its Greek influences. After all, I was not raised on a diet of Tolkien. My Lord of the Rings is the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Arabian Nights and the Kalevala. I’ve done my best to portray a spectrum of cultural diversity in Ages of Aenya, but I am unwilling to ignore my own social experience.

Often, critics will say, Who talks like that? And I have an answer for them. Greeks do. Or, more specifically, my father does. My father has been known to stand at the dinner table to recite, with perfect clarity, from Socrates or Solon or Herodotus. Nobody in my family finds this the least bit unusual. For the longest time, my father has asked me to write his life story. It is something I have been putting off due to my busy schedule, and to the fact that my writing style hasn’t prepared me for a biography. Still, I grin whenever I think of all the melodramatic things my father has said over the years.

Quick Blurb: Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Wow.

That pretty much sums up my review of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I just finished it, oh, about 5 minutes ago and couldn’t wait to write about it. My interest in the book started after the controversy surrounding the movie. Apparently, Pullman is an atheist, and His Dark Materials trilogy, of which Compass is the first part, is his answer to C.S. Lewis’ Christian themed Narnia series.

I was raised in a strict Baptist school for most of my life, where a literal interpretation of the Bible was hammered into my head until the 8th grade. Admittedly, I was once devout, but the world of philosophy and history and science and other religious doctrines opened my mind toward agnosticism. To this day I still feel a level of bitterness toward my Christian upbringing (brainwashing?), so I take pleasure out of anything that opposes my indoctrination. The movie, unfortunately, was a failure on almost every level. Even my wife, who loves Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, told me, “Never take me to these kind of movies again!” But I’d read so much about Pullman’s excellent prose that I couldn’t resist picking him up. And BOY was I surprised.

The book starts out slow . . . very much a kid’s book, but the main protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, shows a level of cleverness and heroism and passion I found sorely lacking in the Harry Potter books. And, unlike so many cliched fantasy novels littering bookstore shelves today, Compass is a fairly unique world, a turn of the century alternative version (you could say mirror image) of our world, with slight but significant differences, such as human souls that take the form of animals and an intelligent race of armor wearing bears. What really puts Compass over the top for me, however, is its willingness to tackle big concepts: religion and its relationship to science, the idea of God and elementary particles, alternate dimensions and original sin. As for Pullman’s style, it’s a perfect balance between beautiful prose and an easy read, a modern style I’d be happy to emulate. My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that in terms of perspective the book seems a bit too simple. I don’t know if this was intentional to make it easier for younger readers, but it seemed to have the opposite quality from Martin’s Game of Thrones in that there is really only one character to follow (Lyra). Other than that, a great read, **** stars, and I can’t wait to tear into the next one.

Editor: The Most Powerful Blade

 

There are many powerful swords in the fantasy world: Excalibur, Icingdeath and Twinkle, the Sword of Omens, Emmaxis, the +5 vorpal sword of annihilation—but none compare to the mightiest blade of all, Editor

Editor can do more than kill a character; it can wipe out entire cities, whole civilizations, threads of reality from ever having existed at all! Such is the power of Editor, a weapon often wielded by employees of publishing houses. But more often than not, an honest writer will use Editor on his own work, making him a kind of masochist. Sometimes, the cuts are small and painless, like removing useless adjectives or adverbs (the most common victims of the Editor). Other times, however, the Editor will amputate whole paragraphs or decapitate subplots that go nowhere. Such was the case with Forbidden Love, a story that, apparently, was too forbidden from being included in Ages of Ænya (I know, mixing metaphors here).

For those of you unfamiliar with my original novel, The Dark Age of Enya, the story was divided into five parts. The first three parts form the bare skeleton for Ages of Ænya.The fourth and fifth parts rolled off the chopping block. Whether any ideas from the fifth story The Princess of Mythradanaiil will be revived remains to be seen, but Forbidden Love is lost forever. 

Even as I was writing Forbidden Love, I was aware of the awkwardness of its inclusion. But I truly loved the story and had yet to realize that a good writer knows not only what to include but what to cut out. It is partly based on the original Greek myth about Medusa and it involved Xandr in a tragic love story. The problem was that everything in the book seemed to stop as the Forbidden Love subplot was shoehorned in. The more pressing problem, however, as my no.#1 fan David Pasco pointed out, was that it was “too tragic.” He told me this before the book went to print, but I stubbornly refused to listen. Now I understand what he meant. The story would have redefined Xandr’s character, shifting the focus of his life from the loss of his mentor to the loss of his first love, and as the events in Forbidden Love had no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the book, the story fell victim to the Editor. 

Of course, I hate to see a good story go to waste, and so I turned Forbidden Love into a myth, since every good fantasy world needs its own myths. All I had to do is change the protagonist from Xandr to Titian, birthing The Ballad of Titian and Midiana, a tragedy told in song by Emma in Ages of Ænya. 

Now, thanks to the Internet, I can give new life to Editor’s victims in my blog exclusive fiction series, The Lost Adventures of Ænya. Every week, I’ll be posting a new chapter, so if you’d like to check it out, please visit the World of Ænya (WARNING: may contain content unsuitable for children).