Last Days in Plaka
by Henriette Lazaridis
(Pegasus Books, 9 April 2024)
Interview by Anna Roins
Today’s Athens is a city of contradictions and complexity–it is grand and scruffy, ancient, and modern, full of strivers, refugees, and old-timers–and nowhere more so than the neighborhood of Plaka, where the Parthenon looms overhead and two women grapple with what is right and what is true, and how to live your life when you are running out of time.
Searching for a connection to her parents’ heritage, Greek-American Anna works at an Athens gallery by day and makes street art by night. Irini is elderly and widowed, once well-to-do but now dependent on the charity of others. When the local priest brings the two women together, it’s not long before they form an unlikely bond. Anna’s friends can’t understand why she spends so much time with the older woman, yet Anna becomes more and more consumed by Irini’s tales of a glamorous past. As they join the priest’s tiny congregation to study the Book of Revelations in preparation for a pilgrimage to Patmos, Anna sinks deeper into Irini’s stories of an estranged daughter and lost wealth and the earthquake damage to her noble home.
Looking for a revelation of her own and driven by a sense that time is running out, Anna makes a decision that puts her in peril, exposes Irini’s web of lies, and compels Anna to confront the limits of her forgiveness.
AUTHORLINK: Henriette, thank you for joining us on AUTHORLINK today to discuss your beautifully written book, LAST DAYS IN PLAKA. It is palpable, poignant, and rich with details. The colors, scents, and heat of Athens were upon us as the story of an unlikely friendship elegantly unfurled.
It’s the story of a young American woman spending a year in Greece when her local priest asks her to drop off fresh figs to an elderly widow who lives in the old part of Athens. A unique friendship is formed, which profoundly affects both women.
We understand you wrote LAST DAYS IN PLAKA during the pandemic, spurred by how much you missed Greece.
What gave you the kernel of the idea to write about the dynamic between Irini and Anna?
“Just before I went to sleep one night, the first two sentences of the novel popped into my head.”
LAZARIDIS: One answer is that I don’t really know. Just before I went to sleep one night, the first two sentences of the novel popped into my head. I remember kind of saying to myself, “huh, look at that,” and then turning out the light. But when I woke up, the sentences were still there. I was in a kind of a stall with the other novel I was working on, and so I followed the whisper of those two sentences and went right into what would become LAST DAYS IN PLAKA. But more substantively, perhaps, I believe the sentences even happened in the first place because it was August and the summer had gone by and I hadn’t been to Greece, and I knew that a November trip I’d planned wouldn’t happen either, and I missed the country, the culture, my family, terribly. Add to that my feeling of a kind of panicked impatience at how every day during the pandemic was being stolen from us as our time alive wound down, and you have a novel about two women in Greece reckoning with the finite nature of our days and with their desperation to make something more of them.
AUTHORLINK: Oh, how eloquent. How beautiful! We feel your longing and that of your characters.
Has LAST DAYS IN PLAKA gone through many incarnations, or is it much the same story with which you started?
LAZARIDIS: It hasn’t changed much at all, and I think this has something to do with the fact that it’s a short novel and it’s designed to sort of hold all its parts together all the time. I wrote it both slowly and all at once, if that makes sense, with multiple writing sessions each day (it was the pandemic, after all, what else was there to do?!) but going slowly during each session.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds intentional – and lovely. Bravo! Were the main characters based on any one person or group of people you know?
LAZARIDIS: No, except that we had one family friend who went to church on a regular basis and this always stuck with me as unusual among Greeks of her generation, and even unusual for this friend. It was sort of out of character for her, but I made it part of Irini’s character.
AUTHORLINK: Ah! So interesting!
You drew quiet observations between each character’s piousness. What about the theme of religion did you feel would layer an extra richness to the storyline?
” I wanted to give Irini a counterpart in the character of Anna…”
LAZARIDIS: Since I had begun with this Irini character who attended church, and since I was thinking very much about mortality, I wanted to give Irini a counterpart in the character of Anna, who comes at religion and faith from a different angle. Each woman is reaching for meaning, for transcendence, and they go about it in completely different ways. You might say that Anna does it the “wrong” way–because there is just so much she doesn’t know or understand–but then the question is, does Irini do it the “right” way, considering everything in her past that she is hiding in various ways?
AUTHORLINK: Yes, religion spews forth many questions for us to debate. We appreciated how you tackled these themes here. Irini and Anna are parallels, in a way…
Moving on to another very important subject, how does one write an omniscient point of view effectively? It’s so tricky. Do you have any tips for our readers? Was LAST DAYS IN PLAKA written with other POVs in mind originally?
“The challenge with omniscient was to avoid “head-hopping…”
LAZARIDIS: I think the omniscient was kind of baked in from the very beginning, since the two sentences announced themselves to me as they did. What interested me right from the start was that voice, of the narrator. I wanted the novel to be, quite explicitly, a story that is told. Of course, every novel is a story that’s told, but my narrator asks you questions every now and then, and gestures clearly to the fact that they are storytelling. The challenge with omniscient was to avoid “head-hopping”–to not give the reader a kind of vertigo from bouncing back and forth from one consciousness to another. The way I tried to do it was as a sort of baton-passing, taking the narration up and away from one brain a little before landing in another. You have to rely on the voice, on that posture of the narrator. If you establish that the narrator can float above and observe and comment from on high, then you can, in a fashion, come in closer when you need to. For instance, when Anna is in her apartment in Anafiotika, she’s alone, or when Father Emmanoil and Nefeli are in bed together, no one else is there, but the narrator can stay with them because the narrator has already made it clear that they can.
AUTHORLINK: Terrific. Thank you for that explanation. We will keep working on our omniscient POV.
Does it take you less time to write the first draft of a novel nowadays? How many times do you edit it? Who is your first reader?
“As for edits and revisions, every novel is different…There are some that have required three rewrites…”
LAZARIDIS: I wish it did! What I’ve learned is that, while you do learn more with each project, every novel is its own thing, and you begin each one with new and specific problems to solve. As for edits and revisions, every novel is different. There are some that have required three rewrites, and others that have needed editing touchups of a lighter sort. My first reader is really my first listener, because I’ll usually read aloud pages of new work to my husband, and he mostly offers encouragement but occasionally asks questions–which help me figure out my thinking.
AUTHORLINK: Ahh, how lovely are husbands!
Your parents moved to the States from Greece in the mid-1950s and settled outside Boston. Your father was an engineer and came to join the technology company a friend had started. So you grew up attuned to language and story as the only child of Greek immigrant parents. We understand your parents told you tales from the Odyssey and Greek mythology when you were young. How enchanting. How did you understand it, at such a young age, that by high school, you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Did you encounter any roadblocks or challenges in achieving your dream? Did you ever waver to try something else?
“…I always stick with it, because it’s what I deeply love…”
LAZARIDIS: I wavered in a very large way by seemingly “forgetting” my youthful dream and going to graduate school and eventually becoming an English professor. It wasn’t until I was already 10 years into this work that I had a moment of what I’ll call creative yearning and head-smacking. I was supposed to be a writer! Eventually, after a few years, I quit academia and began to take myself seriously as a writer of fiction, a process that took several years, really. As for setbacks, a writer’s experience is full of setbacks and roadblocks. It is just so difficult to find an audience for your work, and the gatekeepers in place are quite demanding. There are some that have required three rewrites, and even once considered burning all my manuscripts to make it official. But I always stick with it, because it’s what I deeply love, and it’s how I exist in the world, how I think and behave–through writing.
AUTHORLINK: That’s extraordinary. Thank you for sharing this. You have earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where you were a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having taught English literature at Harvard, you now teach creative writing at Grub Street in Boston.
Can a good writer be taught to be a great writer, or is it an inherent gift? How does one teach cadence, tone, and vocabulary?
“I care very much about helping people find…the meaning behind what it is they want to say.”
LAZARIDIS: I do think a person can be taught to tell their story better. I care very much about helping people find the structures and points of view and the meaning behind what it is they want to say.
But I also have seen that certain writers lack an ear for language, and so their work struggles to acquire a style. I think the best way to teach those elements is at least to show people how well-crafted sentences work, to alert them to rhythm and cadence so that they can begin to think about how to bring them into their own work. I call it micro-editing, when we take a sentence and do a kind of demonstration of how simple changes to diction can make a sentence significantly more powerful.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds super helpful.
You are also a fantastic athlete. You row, trail run, and ski as much as you can. It’s inspiring. Studies have shown that writers always benefit from walking when they’re untangling a plot in their heads. Does this apply to you with your more intense training and fitness regime?
LAZARIDIS: Absolutely. I very often will go out for a run or a row and, without even realizing I was thinking about it, come back with a solution to a problem I’ve been having with a manuscript. There’s something about occupying the brain (and the body) in a not-quite-attentive way, while also occupying the brain in an attentive way around the technique of your sport, that seems to allow for ideas to grow.
I do think the best sport for this is running, at least for me. With rowing, there’s too much technique to think about, and it doesn’t let my brain do its creative thing. With skiing, you have to pay attention to everything, since you’re going at speed. Running is that perfect activity that you can do without thinking–so your creativity can work quietly in the background.
AUTHORLINK: What valuable insight!
What is your writing day like? You once said, “I keep a pad of A4-size paper beside my laptop and maintain a running conversation in its pages. Sometimes it’s a to-do list for the upcoming section; sometimes it’s a scolding I need to give myself; sometimes it’s notes as I work out a narrative problem.” Caroline Leavittville, 31 May 2023
Why a scolding? 😊 Describe your usual writing day ritual and whether it has changed in the last few years.
LAZARIDIS: My writing day varies all over the place, with each book taking shape in a different routine. But I do prefer to write in the morning, first thing, if I can manage it, before my brain becomes occupied with the demands of real life. I prefer not to write at my lovely desk, because that’s where my laptop is set up and where I teach from on Zoom. So I will take my notebook (I’ve moved to the large soft-cover Moleskins now that I can’t find A4 in the thickness I like) to the dining table instead. Lately, I’m very mindful that I sometimes have a tendency to hurry, setting deadlines for myself that I’ll meet but at the cost of carefulness. So if I set a word count, it’s tiny, like 200 words a day.
AUTHORLINK: So, you would rather write away from where you teach, and you would rather be kind to yourself by limiting your word count. We love this – and the quality of your work!
We also truly love Audible books, especially read by their authors. You created something similar in THE DRUM, in 2009, a literary magazine that publishes short fiction, essays, and novel excerpts exclusively in audio form. In this way, it acknowledges the inherently performative nature of all writing.
How do you juggle writing acclaimed novels, teaching at Grub Street, and overseeing THE DRUM? It all sounds like so much fun. So, we must ask, how many hours a day do you try and allocate to writing? Do you aim for a word count?
LAZARIDIS: Actually, I closed The Drum in 2020, though the website and the content are still available. For the last two years, I’ve been in the process of starting up a new publishing company with a writer friend, and colleague. Galiot Press will be open for submissions this spring, and we will be very busy re-envisioning book publishing in every way. It’s important to us to preserve a balance so that we can continue to create our own work, so I’ll be working on my writing in the mornings and Galiot Press in the second half of each day. Let’s see if a word-count will be the way I choose to go!
AUTHORLINK: Amazing. Congratulations! We will look out for Galiot Press! What is next on the agenda for you? Are you working on another novel? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
LAZARIDIS: I’m rewriting a novel about a 24-year-old woman physicist in 1972, dealing with the ongoing mystery of what happened to her mother who disappeared in what looks like a violent crime. It’s about entropy and how we can go on living when we know life tends to disorder.
AUTHORLINK: We can’t wait to read it! One last question, just for fun: Which three authors, alive or no longer, would you invite over for dinner and why?
LAZARIDIS: Tom Stoppard, Kate Atkinson, and New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane. Weirdly, these three are all Brits, but I think that’s just a coincidence. I’d have them all together because they are all incredibly smart and funny and would shape a conversation that took in all sorts of references and ideas, to all aspects of culture and history.
AUTHORLINK: Oh truly! You are right. Henriette, it was a pleasure and a privilege to chat with you today on AUTHORLINK. We wish you all the best for LAST DAYS IN PLAKA and continued success in your endeavors!
LAZARIDIS: Thank you! These were such good questions, Anna! Thank you for the conversation!
AUTHORLINK: Our absolute pleasure.
About the Author: Henriette Lazaridis is a first-generation Greek-American who has degrees in English literature from Middlebury College; Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar; and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Harvard for ten years, serving as an academic dean for four of those. She is the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing exclusively in audio form.
Henriette Lazaridis’ novel LAST DAYS IN PLAKA is the forthcoming novel from Pegasus Books in April 2024. She is also the author of the best-selling novels THE CLOVER HOUSE and TERRA NOVA. Her short work has appeared in publications including Elle, Forge, Pangyrus, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, New England Review, and The Millions, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Henriette earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. She teaches at Grub Street in Boston and runs the Krouna Writing Workshop in Greece.
You can find out more about Henriette Lazaridis at…