In a columnist and novelist THEO PANAYIDES finds a man dedicated to both realism and magic, a control freak with a passion for theatre and travel
Back in the day, when he was interviewing people, muses Stavros Christodoulou, “one of my favourite questions was always: ‘What would you say was the moment when you truly came of age?’ I loved that question…” (Note to self: trying to interview veteran journalists is hard; not only have they done this before, they ask better questions.)
If Stavros were interviewing Stavros, he’d presumably ask himself that question – then again he’d also have the advantage of knowing just how pertinent the question is, because this particular veteran is what you might call a late bloomer. “I’m in the category of people who took ages to figure out what they wanted to be,” he admits, sitting in a conference room which is also, I presume, where he meets with clients for Whiteboard, his new communications consultancy (motto: ‘We Tell Stories’). We don’t really talk about Whiteboard, though. We talk about his 30 years in journalism, the books he started to write in his 50s (he’s now 58) – and partly about the Turkish invasion, which may indeed have been the moment when he truly came of age.
Was it, though? Hard to say. For a start, he was only 11 – and not a refugee, not among those who experienced “the violence of the moment”. He did experience the aftermath, though, the devastated island of his adolescence, and became part of what he calls a “traumatised generation” – a trauma he’s now explored, indirectly, in his third novel Treis Skales Istoria (loosely translating as Three Hectares of History), teasing out the scars of the invasion. Then again he’s also a man of the Left – the texture of life under Communism informed his first two books, Hotel National and Ti Mera Pou Pagose o Potamos (The Day the River Froze) – and witnessed the decline and fall of the Eastern Bloc, adding to a general sense of disillusion that made him grow up fast, philosophically speaking. “There’s a line by Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire: ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic!’,” he notes with a rueful chuckle – and that’s the point, his generation were forced early on to be grimly realistic. The un-romantic 80s were a bad time for magic.
Maybe that’s why he took so long to settle on anything – or perhaps it’s just his personality. When someone starts writing novels in middle age, and indeed writes three in seven years (he’s now working on a fourth), it’s tempting to assume that writing novels was a lifelong dream, suppressed for decades till allowed to burst into bloom – but in fact that was never the case. “I didn’t write,” says Stavros of his childhood self; partly that was due to an unsympathetic teacher stifling his creative spark – but he wasn’t scribbling in a notebook at home, either. He read a lot, and also had “a passion for the theatre”, but actually telling stories – even to himself – was never a deep-seated impulse.
Instead he went to Budapest to study Medicine, dropping out in the second year at the behest of a wise professor (the professor had a point: if you’re not sure that you’re going to be a good doctor – and he wasn’t – you owe it to the world not to become one), then to Athens to study Law, a degree he completed even while knowing he was never going to practise. It didn’t matter; student life agreed with him. “I had a wonderful time as a student. I was the kind of student who just wanders around, going to plays, hanging out in cafes… Athens was superb in the 80s: lots of theatre, books, political discussions, a whole vibe”. He also wrote letters – actual letters – to friends back in Cyprus and at some point, towards the end of his degree, was startled to discover that his friends would often meet up and read his letters out loud to each other; in fact, without meaning to, he’d been doing a kind of travel writing, turning his life in Athens into a regular column. For the first time – and by now in his mid-20s – he wondered if he should perhaps become a writer.
Not literature, of course – but journalism, which is to literature roughly as a short-order cook is to a restaurant chef. (No disrespect intended; rustling up tasty nosh at a moment’s notice is an art, and you can’t hide behind pretentious ingredients either.) Nor, crucially, was he just a writer. In fact, he explains, “I have two sides. One is the creative side, which is more free and easy – and I have another side which is more structured, more definite. You can’t imagine how extremely organised I am, as a manager”. He worked in magazines, editing Omikron in the 90s and Time Out Athens in the early 00s – then, back in Cyprus from 2006, was placed in charge of all the magazines then being published by the Phileleftheros Group: “At some point it was 18 titles, 18 magazines. I had a whole floor full of journalists”. Meanwhile he churned out his own copy, interviews and lifestyle pieces, political columns and even satire: Ta Iouliana, a long-running column featuring Mrs Ioulia Paleologou Wilson – an elderly, reactionary bourgeois dowager who’s the polar opposite of progressive Stavros himself – is currently one of two weekly pieces he pens for Kathimerini.
Unlike Blanche DuBois, he seems fine with both realism and magic. As an editor, he was famously strict, indeed, says Stavros candidly, “if you asked me to summarise my management style in two words, I’d say I’m a control freak”. It wasn’t that he yelled at people, he was just a stickler for the rules: “If you hand me an incredibly brilliant and creative piece and you hand it to me after the deadline, I’m not interested – because we’re doing journalism here, we’re not running a literary society… I mean, I set the same rules for myself. I have to write a column for Kathimerini that’s 620 words – so I’ll send 620 words, because I know it has to be laid out and so on. If I get ‘inspired’ and send 650 words, where are we going to put those extra 30 words?” He’s right, of course – though it’s also worth noting that his rules hail from the days when media was predominantly print, not online (there’s more than enough space for 30 extra words on the internet). You can tell he’s spent the past eight years writing books.
The books have been highly acclaimed, The Day the River Froze winning the European Union Prize for Literature in 2020 (though it should be added that the prize, despite its name, is voted on by a national jury rather than the EU as a whole). His latest is perhaps the most ambitious, insofar as he’s writing in the voice of a young Greek Cypriot woman repeatedly raped by a Turk in the weeks after the invasion – yet the Turk isn’t wholly villainous (which of course is not to excuse his actions in any way), another Christodoulou trademark. “I approach my characters with a certain tenderness, even the negative ones.”
Character-building is actually a huge part of his process; before he even starts a book he’ll write extensively about the characters, their quirks, their background – not for publication, just to feel like he knows them better. He’s going to Athens a few days after our interview, doing research for the book he’s preparing now – and Athens is a city he knows well, of course, but “I have to go and look at the locations through my hero’s eyes. I have to know, when he wakes up and opens the window, what he sees through that window. Only then can I really understand him”. Chloe, the heroine in Treis Skales, lives on Klimentos street in Nicosia, not far from where Stavros himself lives; during lockdown, he recalls, he used to go running in the early mornings, before heading home to write – and, as he jogged past Klimentos, “I’d always think ‘Oh, Chloe’s sleeping now’. You live with them, in a way.”
It’s an interesting point – because, for many years, living with (non-fictional) people wasn’t something he especially aspired to. “Up till about 14 years ago, I wasn’t really into relationships. I didn’t like them, I didn’t want to have long-term relationships. All my life it was just superficial ones.” That did indeed change 14 years ago, and he’s still very happy with his partner – but it’s intriguing how his life (a long, gradual process of coming-of-age, you might say) seems to segue from a mercurial magpie existence to something more settled and perhaps profound, juxtaposed with a subtle shift away from the self and towards other people.
Consider: his initial subject was himself, in the letters he wrote from Athens. As a journalist, especially a columnist as opposed to a news reporter, his own slant was always in the mix, his own opinions – and of course journalism is a restless, superficial game, forever shifting focus and living in the moment. (“Time swallows everything,” says Stavros at one point, then wonders if any of his journalism – unlike the books – will survive the test of time.) His life, it appears, was also restless, from the aimless years of youth to always living in the centre of town (where the action is), not pursuing long-term relationships, getting on a plane as often as possible: “If you asked me what’s the most valuable thing in life, I’d say travel”. He’s a serious traveller, of course, drawn to big-city energy (London, Paris, New York, Istanbul), visiting theatres and galleries, walking for hours on end – “Travel for me is like oxygen, it always has been” – but travel, by definition, is a short-term commitment, and also a case of nourishing the self. Even his books had bits of himself, thus for instance the second one is set partly in 1980s Budapest (where he studied Medicine) and features a journalist named Stratos who has much in common with the author – yet, with each one, he also seems to be spreading his wings, and Chloe in particular is a bold step forward. Maybe even too bold, for some people – though Stavros is scathing about the current fashion for artists staying in their lane and being careful not to ‘appropriate’ other voices: “If there’s one thing I loathe, it’s the dictatorship of political correctness”.
When did Stavros Christodoulou actually bloom, if we’re going to call him a late bloomer? Surely being one of the top media people on the island ought to count for something? But perhaps it’s just in the past few years that he’s really come into himself – from the time in 2013 (maybe turning 50 had something to do with it?) when he suddenly felt like “I wanted to tell a story”. He decamped to a house in the mountains, “alone, for a week, in winter – and I wrote so intensely that I actually got tendonitis. I wrote, and wrote. I had a lot piled up inside me, without realising it”. He still writes intensely, every day, weekends and holidays – and will even vacation (or did, pre-Covid) on a small Greek island instead of his buzzing big cities, where he writes in the hush of the early morning.
In any case, trying to reduce him (or anyone) is a mug’s game. “I’m not interested in people who are only one thing,” he opines. The books, for instance, are notably un-funny, unlike Mrs Ioulia Paleologou Wilson. The strict, demanding former editor has little in common with the jaunty traveller, or indeed the witty, relaxed interviewee who muses that “what makes life interesting is the sidelong glance”, a wry way of looking at the world that makes you smile but also touches on some hidden truth. On the other hand, even though he’s impeccably friendly, you do catch a hint of the steel in his personality; he has a touch of the actor Billy Bob Thornton, that same languid air with a lupine suggestion of banked power.
There’s one vital thing we’ve barely mentioned, and that’s theatre. It’s his passion, he’s watched thousands of plays, and would surely have studied Drama had he been born a generation later. Even as a child, he recalls reading plays – not admiring the language, however, as a writer might, but “doing the casting, thinking how the actors should move”, which is what a director does. Stavros should perhaps have been a theatre director, it would surely have encompassed all his strengths – the restless creativity, but also the management skills and control-freak tendencies. Maybe he could even do it now, pushing 60, given his penchant for late-blooming – but meanwhile he’s settled, and successful, and very definitely come of age as a writer. “I am my books,” he tells me simply. And all the other stuff, of course.