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A shared vocation for writing

By Melissa Hekkers

Father and son, Chris and Alex Christofi, share a joint vocation for writing, with each of them releasing a novel in the past year, one of which has gained momentum internationally, garnering reviews from publications such as The Times.

For Chris, writing has always been a means with which to collect his thoughts and ideas in order to bring clarity to them. For his son, Alex, it was the vision that he could put a book bearing his name on a shelf, alongside a volume of his father’s, which was a driving force behind his endeavours.

Very different in their preferred writing genres, the Cyprus Weekly spoke to both authors who spoke more about their individual outlooks.

Cyprus Weekly: Writing seems to have been an ambition for you, for a long time. Can you say more about your drive towards authorship?

Chris Christofi: I have always gained great satisfaction from writing and have admired clever writers. Writing has been more than just a means of communicating, it has also been a way of collecting my thoughts and ideas and bringing clarity to them.

CW: Recently, you published your first creative piece, Life in Ootali, after having written educational books and articles. How different is educational writing as opposed to writing for pleasure?

CC: For me, all writing is pleasurable. Although educational writing comes across as utilitarian, as in the case of a text book, you have to be creative in order to maintain students’ interest. Also, a great deal of consideration needs to be given to length of sentence, syntax and appropriate vocabulary, particularly when students whose first language is not English, have to access the material. English not being my first language has made me more aware of this.

Writing my first novel was a particularly enjoyable experience. The thrill of taking an idea, researching the background and weaving together a story was an exciting process.

CW: How did you decide to write this first novel which refers to your home country?

CC: The idea took root many years ago. Although I have spent most of my life in the UK, the conditioning that comes from having traditional Cypriot parents is strong. My parents’ love for their respective villages in Cyprus was quite passionate. Their stories of the lives of people in those villages (Kalo Chorio and Livadia) enthralled me. It was a natural progression for me to combine the love of writing with a story based on life in a Cypriot village, my mother’s village.

CW: How much of the story is based on real facts and how easy was it to remain somewhat impartial, seeing as you are addressing two different cultures?

CC: The story is set in a historical context – this required a considerable amount of research and needed to reflect historical events accurately. I also took anecdotes from my mother and grandmother and used them to spin a story.

The village of Kalo Chorio (Ootali in Turkish) merely acts as a backdrop to the story. The question of impartiality is a very important one and I agonised over this. One of my early readers, before the book was published, was a Turkish woman, Nez Georgiou ( married to a Greek Cypriot). She felt the story was impartial. That gave me the confidence to go for it.

CW: Considering you and your family left before the war, how does this book represent your own experience?

CC: There is very little of my own experiences in the book. But, like most Cypriots living abroad, I feel the pain of the war and Cyprus’ suffering very acutely. There is much misinformation abroad about Cyprus and Cypriots. I wanted to use a fictional story to give a snapshot of how things were for Cypriot people. My story straddles a time period from the mid-19th to the early 20th century.

CW: Is the book published only in English? What was the response of the public in Cyprus, if any?

CC: Yes, the book is only published in English, although I’d love to see a Cypriot, Greek or Turkish publisher take it on. I’ve had some response from Cypriots (and others) in the UK and that’s been very favourable.

CW: Your son, who read English at Oxford, is now an upcoming writer. Did you expect this career path?

CC: Alex has always shown a creative passion for writing. All parents hope to see their children fulfil their dreams and ambitions, so I’m excited and delighted to see Alex doing so well. His mum and I loved his stories when he was a boy and we love his work now. My experience is that, when individuals like Alex work very hard and passionately to achieve something, they often succeed.

Cyprus Weekly [to Alex Christofi]: Your second novel, Let Us Be True, talks about love and the loss of the things we hide from ourselves and from others, and of the personal cost of Europe’s 20th century. What was it that prompted you to combine a love story with turbulent European history?

Alex Christofi: If you look at the 20th century as a whole, you might look at all the wars, the killing and conflict, and conclude that the whole century was dominated by hatred for other ethnicities, religions and ways of life. But we know, instinctively, that isn’t true. The whole time, people were meeting and falling in love. If it weren’t for that, none of us would be here today.

CW: How long did you work on this second novel? And how much of your work is driven by facts and how much of it is fictional?

AC: I spent five years on the novel in total. I wanted to take time to research the period properly and make sure that the history was all there, but perhaps the hardest thing was to find information about what day-to-day life was like – what did people have for breakfast? How did the windows open? What cars were on the roads? That’s the detail that makes it come to life.

None of the characters are based on a single historical figure, but their lives follow real life events very closely: Hitler youth camps, the D-Day landings, the student riots in Paris. Perhaps there wasn’t a man called Ralf on that particular barricade on that particular day, but it happened to someone – sadly even the grim stuff.

CW: Could you compare writing your first novel, Glass, to writing, Let Us Be True?

AC: Glass is a very different genre – it’s about a young man in contemporary London, and it’s supposed to be a bit comic, so I tried to capture that in the tone. In some ways, it’s just a bit more fun to write about a young man getting into scrapes and making jokes about it; I can’t say Let Us Be True was always fun to write, in fact it was harder, but, if anything, that has made me more proud of it.

CW: Your father coincidently published his own novel at the same time as you published your second. What does this mean to you?

AC: When I was young, my dad showed me a book in his study that had his name on the spine. Up to that point, I had thought of books as special artefacts produced by some sort of grand committee of knowledge. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would ever meet an author, much less that he had been living in the master bedroom all this time. That had a profound effect on me, and I made it my quiet mission to, one day, have a book that I could place next to his on the shelf (we’re very close in the alphabet, after all).

CW: The Times’ books commissioning editor James Marriott has said you belong to the school of Julian Barnes. How do you, personally, understand this?

AC: It’s a great compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence as a writer like Julian Barnes. There are some quite literal similarities with this book – for instance, Barnes writes a lot about France and French culture in books like Metroland and Flaubert’s Parrot – but I think he also puts a lot of faith in the reader’s own intelligence and depth of feeling, and doesn’t always tell you what to feel. I have tried to take a similar approach with Let Us Be True, and I’m delighted that people are responding so positively.

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