It’s no revelation that writing can often be a tiresome, thankless job. Authors can spend weeks, months even years weaving their narrative without any sort of significant feedback, so when something positive comes out of that process, it can be an overwhelming experience.
Just ask local scribe Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, whose debut novel Nicolai’s Daughters was recently commissioned for a Greek translation.
“That’s what happens when you work at something so long and then something good happens, it’s just really emotional. It’s almost kind of draining,” said Harvey. “It’s this kind of relief, not necessarily a sadness. You’re going and going, putting one foot in front of the other and then somebody comes and gives you a hand up.”
Nicolai’s Daughters is a sprawling drama that examines the ways a monumental tragedy, in this case the 1943 massacre of a small Greek village at the hands of a troop of Nazi soldiers, affects a family over the course of several generations.
“I wondered what the impact (of a tragedy) would be on a family even if they left, even if they changed their names, or changed countries,” said Harvey. “I think the important thing (the novel) looks at is how you come to terms with your history, whatever that history is. In this case, it’s a war and a tragedy, but I think we all have family histories that we have to come to grips with.”
Since its publication in October, Harvey said the book has gotten a lot of positive feedback from Greek and non-Greek readers alike, thanks to its universally recognizable themes.
“I’ve had all sorts of positive comments and little Greek women coming up and hugging me. I love that,” she said.
Harvey drew on her heritage during the six years it took to pen the novel, and despite the fact she’s only ever visited the country that’s featured so prominently in her book, Greece is a place she’s always yearned for, just like Alexia, the protagonist in Nicolai’s Daughters.
When someone at a Calgary reading of the book asked Harvey why she didn’t miss her birthplace, Cairo, the same way she misses Greece, she had a very simple answer for him.
“The only thing I could say to him, was ‘I was raised Greek’ and that’s the difference. I’m Greek Orthodox by religion, I was raised with Greek traditions that I still carry on, all the superstitions that Greeks have in their culture, I was raised with all these things,” she said.
Imbuing her novel with an authentic sense of the culture she grew up around wasn’t much of a problem for Harvey, who also spent several months in the mountainous village of Kalavryta, where much of the book is set, prior to its release.
“It was easy for me because of my family,” she said. “It’s the voices that I heard growing up and it’s also having gone back and spent a lot of time in Greece, it is something that I think is inside of me.”
Harvey is gearing up for a second book tour promoting Nicolai’s Daughters as part of the Fictionanistas multi-author tour celebrating independently published Canadian female authors. The tour kicks off May 27 in Victoria with stops planned for Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
Building on the success of her debut, Harvey’s story Step 5 was selected from thousands of submissions as one of 32 finalists for CBC’s Short Story Prize. The winner, announced in the coming weeks, will be awarded $6,000, a two-week residency at the Banff Centre’s Leighton Artists’ Colony, an interview on CBC Radio and will have their story featured on Canada Writes’ website and Air Canada’s enRoute magazine.
Step 5 is a “strange story,” said Harvey, about an alcoholic working through the AA program, and is told entirely through a letter to his mother in an attempt to right the wrongs of his troubled past. Harvey drew upon her experience as a social worker for the story, which she says will likely be the second chapter of her upcoming novel. Harvey said she was honoured just to be recognized by the CBC.
“When you write fiction, you don’t get that constant feedback, so when I opened the letter I couldn’t believe that someone had actually read it and liked it,” she said. “It’s gratifying and it feels like validation because you spend a long time producing something.”
Harvey, who organizes the annual Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, has been a whirlwind of emotion in the last few weeks, with the good news continuing to roll in. The municipality announced on Feb. 5 that the 12th edition of the festival would receive the full $30,000 they requested to bring in “a name that is very well known in the literary circles that would attract a lot of people.” The 2012 festival saw record numbers for Whistler’s premiere literary event, a positive sign for Harvey, who said over half of the fest’s attendees return in subsequent years.
“It’s another form of validation because we’ve been doing this for 12 years,” said Harvey. “It feels as though somebody is saying ‘You guys have done good and we want to see how far we can take this.’”
Visit www.stellaharvey.com for more information.