Writer Maria Papayanni talks about the magical world of children
Interview with Sandra Voulgari, for Kathimerini, 03-11-2012
The Lonesome Tree, an unusual story, taking place on the rocky outcrops in the shadow of a Cretan mountain, earned writer Maria Papayanni the State Prize for Adolescents’/Youth Book of Fiction. This piece of news happily coincided with a second one concerning both the writer and children’s literature in Greece, as the contract was signed with minedition press for publishing yet another of Papayanni’s stories with the title, Another day, it will be your win.
The latter book is addressed to preschoolers and will be illustrated by the well loved and much acclaimed illustrator Eve Tharlet. In tandem with her voluble and very interesting writing, Maria Papayanni has translated several of her titles published by Patakis, and has dreamt one day to see how Tharlet might paint one of her stories.
When I called her, I found her in the abandoned village in Crete that was the setting for the Lonesome Tree. I thought that was very exciting. Our conversation took place through the internet and over the phone in the middle of several adventures, as, last time we spoke, the house she was staying in, was flooded by the rain…
-What inspired the Lonesome Tree?
All stories I think are born in a place. Certainly, they carry along seeds and pebbles from all the journeys. My tree looks out to the south. In the outskirts of an isolated village in the Asterousia mountains, gazing out to the Libyan sea. Here live people who may have never traveled in their life but can tell you countless stories about every village stone. According to those tales, the village was always chosen by strange beings.
Elves and things that go bump in the night, spirits that arrive from the sea, visit one of the houses and never let it be in peace. So, then, I thought what it would be like for a young child to grow here carrying all the local beliefs and legends, growing up in a place far removed from the urban alienation. And then, I used this adolescent, whom I christened Simos to talk again about my own obsessions. Namely, that the deeper the roots grow, the larger the branches. That the more solidly you tread your home ground, the farther you can fly, travel, explain and get to know the world.
Also, that you need every so often to empty yourself out of everything you hear daily and remember your on weighing scales, the ones we all carry inside us for things small and large. But with the world’s din, we forget ourselves and use other people’s scales.
- What inspires you as a writer more generally?
I have always loved unusual people, those who are different, whether they’re silent or passionate about some thing. On the other hand. I observe everyday life through my own magnifying glass. A minute detail, a gesture, a phrase, a dream, assume the leading role. I like seeing small miracles in the everyday, which is to say, seeing through the eyes of children, as much as that is possible, of course, because their imagination is limitless. I love fairytales. As you know, fairytales don’t say that everything is perfect, they say that we all lived happily ever after. How? Only if we cross the dark woods, if we dare confront the wolf and the wild beasts and, especially, if we spend the time to listen to the advice of an old woman, a bird, a beggar.
The magical advice is only given to those who keep their eyes and ears open, their senses vital in a mill that grinds up everything. All this is my starting point, true enough, but with one precondition. Even when I immerse myself in tradition, in terms of space and time, I endeavor for my writing to be contemporary. I don’t believe in realistic representation in the sense of depiction, but in the magnification of the real in the sense of magic.
-Are you crafting a new story?
It’s not possible to turn our back to the unbearable everyday life, the difficulties we are all experiencing and which put us under so much strain and pressure. For some time now, I have been thinking about a story with children as main characters, who see the circumstances of their lives change dramatically. My goal is for unemployment not to be a strange and exotic experience but part of the reality of people who, up till yesterday, were employed and living normal lives. The next story, then, will be taking place in the years of the crisis.
-Do you believe that children are ready to hear it?
Children don’t live inside some glass ball, they live in the same everyday as us, with their antennae always on the lookout. It seems to me wrong to keep children away from problems. Children are peers in any discussion and that is how I treat them. Those who think they need to make a fake oasis for their children, evidently don’t know how to prepare them for this world but for some other, ideal world which I, personally, have no idea where it might be located.
It’s a shame to let kids try and piece together the puzzle of reality from things that come under the crack of the door, because they might build an even more dismal reality. Besides, they are getting daily bombarded through that big door, television. The point is to bring up strong children who can resist wretchedness, who will dare stand up for what they believe in and, even more, who will not clip their dreams down to the size of necessity but will try to make their own dreams reality.
- Do you prefer writing for children?
The truth is that, when I write, I am not thinking of the age I am addressing. Yet, I do love children very much and I envy the way they dream, I admire their ability to overturn everything, the great sense of justice they possess. Personally, I had quite a hard time making up my mind that I am grown up and, to be honest, I still think about what I want to be when I grow up and, in fact, have quite a long list in mind. I don’t know if that’s the reason I write for children.
At all events, when I write a story, I don’t tailor it to any particular age. I do have a tendency, though, to taint even my evil characters with goodness and seek their other side. I love life a great deal, despite how disappointed I am in people, despite all the difficulties. And maybe it’s this unwavering persistence in always choosing life, in trying to reverse misery, that fits in with childhood. One storyteller used to say: “The world is unbearable. Life is beautiful. We always have the option of choosing. The narrator of tales chooses life.”
Maria Papayanni was born in Larisa. She has studied Greek Literature and worked as a journalist for radio, television, newspapers and magazines. In recent years she has been writing children’s stories and translating fiction for children. He last novel, As if by magic, was awarded the Prize of the Circle of the Greek Children’s Book as well as the prize for Children’s Book of Fiction, of the literary magazine Diavazo. She wrote the libretto and the verses for the play Strange, isn’t it? (musical theatre performed at the Athens Megaron Concert Hall in 2007 and 2008.) Also, the libretto (adaptation of the novel by Selma Lagerlof, Nils Hoggelrson’s wonderful journey) for the play Say it with a fairytale for narrator and orchestra, to the score by Thanos Mikroutsikos, produced in Christmas of 2002-2003, at the Athens Megaron Concert Hall.