Stories Talk | Presentation Skills and Effective Storytelling
Alexis Stamatis is a prolific writer, a beloved writing teacher, a "traveled" mind which takes us on a journey with his thoughts. His famous "Bar Flaubert" was followed by many books full of sensitivity, twists and turns – exactly as it happens in real life.
By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos
- Your studies had nothing to do with writing; you studied architecture, a mix of art, science and practice. What were your childhood years like?
My father, Kostas Stamatis, was an architect with a great career, having collaborated with great architects of his time such as Zenetos and Konstantinidis. Also, because he was making Xenia, he came into contact with artists and thought that it would be nice in every such hotel to have an engraved work like Moralis's at Hilton. Therefore, his first one was a work by Fassianos. After my parents got divorced, I used to live in both houses, which had very rich libraries, and I think I was influenced by all these. Because of the problems in my family, I decided that my education, in a way, would be taken care of by me, and the best way to do that was by reading books. I absorbed the adventures of the heroes and believed what they said more than what I heard at home.
So one house was full of architecture books and dominated by a more scientific approach to things, and the other was more of a theatrical-artistic approach. My mother, Betty Arvaniti, was an actress and the elite of all the arts of the time passed through our house. Taking into account this environment, I, at some point, had to decide what to do in my life. I ended up in architecture, considering that it combines many arts. As a consequence I enrolled in the School of Architecture of the National Technical University of Athens, in 1979, a very politicized era.
- It is important for a writer to experience changes and social transformations, don’t you think?
Well, back then, the situation was, indeed, intense, both from a political point of view but also from a general-life point of view. Summers were magical, we went to deserted beaches in Amorgos and Astypalaia, with large groups, all within limits. After graduating from the University, I went for a master's degree in energy architecture in London. There began another terrific four-year period. That era was about the end of Thatcher and the end of the punk movement, with London at its best. The professor used to send us out into the city to make recordings - something very interesting. Then I continued my PhD for another two and a half years, on the topic of the Greek organisation of workers' housing and I often went back and forth to Athens.
Essentially, this was the period that took me out of the ordinary and completed the cycle of my studies. After that I joined the army and when I completed my service I was around 30 years old. I worked in an architecture office, I managed to make an apartment and I realised that architecture back then was about waiting endless hours in Urban Planning to get a piece of paper imposed by some unbelievable laws like the one with the balcony that was only allowed to be one and a half meters in a country with so much sunlight and things like that! At some point I started to get tired of this whole business and along with various other personal difficulties, in 1996, the time came and I decided that I was going to do something that I really wanted to do in my life: writing.
- So how did the need for writing arise?
Because of my great love for books, with which I grew up after all, and because of an indirect influence that has to do with cinema. When I was a kid, I used to go to the movies my mother played in, the Finos Film comedies, which was a lot of fun for a kid. I saw what was happening behind the scenes and I really felt part of it. I was more interested in the making of a story. I wanted to make something. I also watched a lot of cinema and theatre in the UK. All this led me to writing.
- Can you remember the first time you wrote something?
When I was a little child, I used to write poems. I was influenced by my aunt, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, who was an amazing poet and I think I always understood what she wrote although I was very young, because her writing had a clarity and she had a simplicity as a person. From time to time I also lived in her house in Aegina, where there was also a great artistic atmosphere, with foreign poets coming from California and various others. So at some point I showed my poems to some of my mother's friends and one of them, Kostas Papageorgiou, encouraged me a lot and that's how I published my first collection, in 1992, entitled "Kosmos gonia".
Then Kastaniotis contacted me and I published my second book of poetry, entitled "Architecture of interior spaces". Later, they called me and told me that I got the first prize of the Municipality of Athens, in memory of Vrettakos, and so I slowly started to get some confirmation of my work. I remember I was on a ship to Aegina and taking notes for a poem which would be quite long. At some point I looked at them and thought that these notes were for a novel. Prose logic entered the poetic body. It was of course quite an experimental book, with internal codes, but it was also considered to be good.
Thus, a great period of my life started, with lots of traveling and the idea came to me to write "Bar Flaubert", which was also the ticket to the next stage, to what followed later on. Due to the "Bar Flaubert" I've been all over the world, I've been to at least 20 book festivals and forums, from Sydney to Montreal. Another book of mine, "American Fugue", has traveled to America and within 25 days I made 40 presentations in all the States.
So from then on I started to be able to make a living from my books, while at the same time, I wrote texts for various publications, which again led me to travel around the world. At some point, the economic crisis came, which of course also affected literature. Then I thought of starting to teach creative writing classes. I have worked with so many agencies, although it was something I never imagined I would be able to do. But I discovered that it's very beautiful to try and sometimes to manage to bring out the other person's personal voice, because that's what it is all about. As of today, about 35 of my students have published a book.
- What do you think makes a good writer?
I think a good writer is the one who can whisper in your ear, speak inside you. At least that's what I want from a book, to communicate.
- Your books have a sense of travelling; I feel like they have that feeling that travels you far away and then back again…
Yes, I understand what you are saying and I have to relate it to my childhood, which has to do with my twofold approach to things. That is, on the one hand, I live something in its 100% and on the other hand, I have the ability to watch it from the outside as the author of a situation in which I participate and change its course in my own way. Hence the inside-out game.
- Can writing also have pieces of architecture in it?
Yes, of course, I have also written about the relationship between architecture and literature. They have a lot in common. The main thing that helped me from architecture to literature was a sense of structure. Buildings have a frame, columns, beams, etc., to stand on. Similarly, books have a frame that supports them but it should not be visible. They must have an underground organization and at the same time constitute a living space. Also, just as a building is made of certain materials, concrete, wood, glass, so a book is made of materials - memory, repulsion, revenge, fear, etc.
It is not only architecture that has a relationship with literature, even medicine has such a relationship, which has to do with our hybrid condition. In general, all things have a common origin in their background. Man is the protagonist in everything, who knows two things at the same time: that he will die one day, something that defines him for life, and at the same time there is also the “galaxy sense”, that is, that we can do so many things as human beings but we are still a grain of sand in relation to the galaxy.
- Is writing the medicine of the soul or do you have to be well to write?
That’s a very nice question. In order to write, you can't be a tabula rasa. There needs to be something behind that need, some kind of trauma maybe. Many times, of course, if trauma is combined with great success, it can have disastrous consequences - and we have many examples of that, from Truman Capote, to Tennessee Williams, to Rimbaud and others.