Often, my fiction is inspired by experiences in my own life, but occasionally the reverse can be true: my fiction can inspire me to try something new. That has been the case in the past few weeks, and it has been a rewarding experience indeed.
My upcoming novel Aphrodite’s Tears is set on the Greek island of Helios in the Ionian Sea, which is privately owned by the Theodorakis family. The head of the family, Damian, is responsible for all the people who live on the island, and a major source of income for them all is the Theodorakis Press, which takes the olives that are grown on the island and turns them into olive oil that is sold to mainland Greece and Italy.
A chapter of the book is devoted to Damian taking the heroine, Oriel, to his olive press and educating her on the business. Here is a peek of the setting, Damien’s ‘olive heaven’, through Oriel’s eyes:
They had driven up to a building that looked like an old Roman monastery, its domed tower presiding over thick stone walls of pale pinkish ochre, and its different sections covered with tiled, pitched roofs. It was a strange and beautiful place. Surrounding the building, row after row of noble olive trees surged up from a parched, rocky, calcareous soil, gnarled in the calm stillness, their silvery-green leaves shimmering against the bright Greek sky in the sun-drenched afternoon.
As they tour the press, Damien explains the process to Oriel.
First, he shows her the traditional stone mill – the likes of which have been in operation for thousands of years. The olives are placed on a conveyer belt, which runs them through a stream of water to clean them, before tipping them into the grinding mill. There, great millstones laboriously rotate, grinding the whole olives into a brown, gluey pulp. Eventually, bright beads of extra virgin oil began to appear along the edges of the pulp, and as the pressure is increased, they become a golden stream of oil that glitters like liquid gold.
Then Damien shows Oriel a more modern way of making olive oil, which the Italians call affioramento (afloat). The pulp is mixed with water and put into large containers and then left, until the oil naturally separates, floating to the top. This process takes a lot longer, but yields a more delicate – and therefore valuable – oil.
Why use two different olive-oil production methods on the island? Because Damian is a man with one foot in the past, in tradition, and one in the future, in progress. The traditional olive press has been in his family for generations, and he and the islanders see it as a precious and artisan craft. But with the responsibility for his people sitting weightily on his shoulders, Damian must also make sure that this little isolated island is connected to the modern world and able to be self-sufficient, and thus he also employs the modern method in order to create products that yield a good profit.
I found it fascinating to research for this novel how olives are harvested and processed for oil, not least because in the garden of my French home I have an olive grove of my own. After writing Aphrodite’s Tears, the idea struck me: why not try to harvest my olives? Here is the culmination of that idea…
I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to harvest my own olives! I had a rather romanticised notion of picking the olives from the branches by hand, but soon realised that was not feasible, and so I had a little help from a gardener, who used a vibrating tool to shake the olives off the branches and onto nets spread under the trees (see the video).
Altogether, more than 200 kilos of olives were collected, and I had these sent to an olive press, which means I will have my very own olive oil for Christmastime. I hope it will be as delicious as that made by the Theodorakis Press which sparked the idea. I expect it will, for I feel sure that Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, was smiling on me as I gathered my olives.
In an unassuming building, just a short walk from the Acropolis of Athens, there lies a veritable treasure trove – a collection of items so special and beautiful, they are among my favourites of any museum or gallery in the world. This is the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum, devoted to the life’s work of goldsmith and jewellery maker Ilias Lalaounis (1920–2013). And what a collection: more than 4,000 pieces of jewellery and decorative items, all beautiful crafted and born of the most fantastic imagination.
The Ilias Lalaounis brand is iconic: open Vogue and you may see a model draped in his gold jewellery; attend a red-carpet event and his may be the jewels glittering in the lights. Lalaounis is synonymous with luxury and glamour and style. But also – and this is why I so love Lalaounis – with history.
Take a look at the collections over the years:
1960s: Classical & Hellenistic; Minoan & Mycenaean; Paleolithic & Neolithic; Dawn of Art; Archaic
1970s: Byzantine; Wild Flowers of Greece; Biosymbols; Motion in Space; Choreographism; Cycladic; Neo-Geometric; Owls & Anthemia; Hercules Knot; From Luristan to Persepolis; Seashells; Microcosm; Drops and Chitons
1980s: Far East; Ilion; Tudor; Amerindian; Arabesques; Celtic; Cyprus; Mesopotamia; Place Vendôme; For Every Woman’s Victory; The Shield of Achilles; Golden Memories of the Holy Land; Symbols of Magnificence
1990s: Vikings; Pre-Columbian; Late Byzantine; Scythian; Pastorale; Suleiman the Magnificent
2000s: DNA Jewellery; DNA Objects of Art; Harmony in Chaos Jewellery; Chaos Objects of Art; Phaistos Disc; Africa; Nubia
The range of inspirations is so wide, and so many ancient civilisations are included. In my fiction, I love to explore different cultures and their histories and mythologies, and Lalaounis was the same in his work.
I am especially drawn to the Lalaounis collections that are inspired by Ancient Greece. In fact, it was the History of Ancient Greek Art section of his museum that helped spark the idea for my latest novel, set on a Greek island: the fusion of art and mythology; the glorious colour and lustre of the yellow gold – my muse was swept away by the beauty and romanticism of it all.
Along with the historical inspirations for the pieces, it is the history of their styles and creation that appeal to me. Lalaounis employed techniques in his crafting that date back thousands of years: filigree, granulation, hand weaving and repoussé, all requiring a great deal of knowledge, skill and time. To think, when you wear a Lalaounis hand-woven chain, you are wearing an identical piece of jewellery to that worn by a noblewoman of Ancient Greece. (If you are interested in how the jewellery is made, at the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum you can watch the resident goldsmith in action in the workshop.)
Over his career, Lalaounis was inexhaustible, creating more than 18,000 pieces of jewellery and decorative items. He is widely credited with having revived the Greek jewellery industry and brought it into the modern era, and in recognition of his hard work and his vision, he was granted membership to the prestigious French Academy of Fine Arts – the only jeweller ever to be bestowed with this honour. His work is a real inspiration to me, and to many others.
If you’d like to learn more about Lalaounis, you can visit the website for the brand at http://www.iliaslalaounis.eu. There are various stores in Greece (Athens, Thessaloniki, Mykonos, Santorini, Corfu) and in New York, London and Doha (the window displays alone are worth a look!).
Finally, if you are ever in Athens – and I do hope you are able to visit someday – the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum is a must-see. They say every piece of jewellery tells a story. Well, in that museum there are so many age-old stories to discover. No wonder my visit there made me dream up my own story, Aphrodite’s Tears…
Recently, I was reflecting on a trip I took to the Greek island of Santorini, whose culture, history and mythology helped to inspire my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, which will be published in January.
Santorini is a volcanic island, and thousands of years ago it was the site of the Minoan eruption, which was incredibly destructive, wiping out settlements on the island and on neighbouring islands. One such settlement on Santorini was Akrotiri, which was buried in volcanic ash. Some historians believe that this eruption and the decimation of Akrotiri were the inspirations for a very famous story by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato: that of an island that sinks into the sea and is lost. Its name, of course, is Atlantis.
The lost island – often known as the city of Atlantis – is a mysterious and compelling idea that has captured imaginations for many hundreds of years. Some ancient writers believed that Plato’s story was fact, not fiction; but these days there are few who see the tale as anything more than an allegory meant to serve as a lesson.
Still, Atlantis is not the only island/city believed to be lost. Are other stories to be believed?
Take, for example, the ghost island of San Borondon, the eighth of the Canary Islands. It is so called for Saint Brendan of Clonfert (484–577), an Irish monk who first set foot on the island. But then the ‘whale island’ began moving, and so the monk jumped into a boat and watched, astonished, as the island disappeared into the blue. Are you dubious? Of course, this is a legend, beloved by the Irish and the local Canarians alike. But one has to wonder: many sailors reported seeing the island through winds, rains and mists but found it had vanished as they approached, and in the 18th century an official investigation was made when 100 islanders on El Hierro claimed to have seen San Borondon.
San Borondon is just one of a list of more than 50 ‘phantom islands’ that have been logged, usually by sailors, over the years. All kinds of explanations have been given for these islands that have been sighted but cannot be located, from their having sunk into the sea following volcanic activity (in the style of Atlantis) to their having been misidentified icebergs. The Fata Morgana is my favourite explanation. It’s a kind of fast-changing mirage that you can see on the horizon (so named for Morgan le Fay, the enchantress of the legends of King Arthur, because sailors would say she conjured up mirages of land to lure them into dangerous waters).
What of the lost cities? Surely a city is harder to lose than a glimpse of an island through sea mists? If Atlantis had been in the middle of the Greek mainland, it would be far easier to rediscover – would it not?
Some cities termed ‘lost’ are not really lost; they simply exist now in known locations as ghost towns. But other cites truly did get lost, abandoned due to war or disease or natural disaster and their location not recorded on any map.
Take, for example, the Lost City of the Incas. Machu Picchu was built at the top of a mountain ridge in Peru in the 15th century and was abandoned (most likely due to a smallpox epidemic, it is thought). By the turn of the 20th century, only the native people who lived in the immediate area knew of its existence. So easily, it could have been dismissed as the stuff of legends. Yet today, the ruins of the rediscovered city attract visitors from all over the world.
An even more interesting example is that of Helike. This city in Greece disappeared in 373 BC, consumed by the sea. A story? Certainly, Helike inspired a tale told through the centuries that was rich in mythology: so the the story went, the sea god Poseidon had wiped out the city in vengeance, for the people of the city had enraged him. Until recently, many people assumed Helike was nothing more than legend. But the city did exist!
In 1988, the Helike Project was launched, headed by a Greek archaeologist, Dora Katsonopoulou, and a scientist, Steven Soter, of the American Museum of Natural History. It took many years, but eventually, in 2001, the lost city was discovered beneath an ancient lagoon. To this day, excavations are still underway to find as much as possible of Helike – and all thanks to the dedication of the archaeologists.
In my new book, Aphrodite’s Tears, the heroine Oriel is an archaeologist, passionate about uncovering artefacts and architecture of the past and preserving it for future generations. She is everything an archaeologist must be: tenacious, knowledgeable, careful, curious – but most of all, willing to believe.
It is so easy – too easy – to dismiss fantastic stories as fantasy. But sometimes long-forgotten truths are unearthed, and when they are, it is a lesson to us all: that we must be open-minded and enquiring; that we must respect stories handed down over generations; and that if we wish to make fantastic discoveries, we must dare to have faith in their existence.
I’m delighted to be able to introduce to you today my new novel, which will be published in January. Aphrodite’s Tears is a passionate and dramatic romance inspired by Greek mythology and set in one of my favourite corners of the globe, the Greek Islands.
Here’s what you can expect in my new story:
In ancient Greece, one of the twelve labours of Heracles was to bring back a golden apple from the Garden of Hesperides. To archaeologist Oriel Anderson, joining a team of Greek divers on the island of Helios seems like the golden apple of her dreams.
Yet the dream becomes a nightmare when she meets the devilish owner of the island, Damian Lekkas. In shocked recognition, she is flooded with the memory of a romantic night in a stranger’s arms, six summers ago. A very different man stands before her now, and Oriel senses that the sardonic Greek autocrat is hell-bent on playing a cat and mouse game with her.
As they cross swords and passions mount, Oriel is aware that malevolent eyes watch her from the shadows. Dark rumours are whispered about the Lekkas family. What dangers lie in Helios: a bewitching land where ancient rituals are still enacted to appease the gods, young men risk their lives in the treacherous depths of the Ionian Sea, and the volatile earth can erupt at any moment?
Will Oriel find the hidden treasures she seeks? Or will Damian’s tragic past catch up with them, threatening to engulf them both?
And here, without further ado, is the cover. What do you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts.