In conversation with Andrew Pippos
Greek-Australian author Andrew Pippos joined us on Instagram to chat about his debut novel Lucky's. The interview below has been taken from his Instagram Live interview with us on October 29, 2020.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Writing is one of the earliest ambitions of my life; I've written short fiction, short narrative and non-fiction in the past, but this is my first novel.
I live in the inner-west of Sydney, and while I've also lived in London and Canberra, I've spent most of my life in Sydney and that's largely where this book is set. I've worked in newspapers but I left the newsroom in 2014 and started my Doctorate at the University Of Technology in Sydney where I’ve been working as a tutor and a lecturer.
My first experience of belonging was spending time in the cafes run by my grandparents, my uncles and my aunts. Some people may remember the cafes and milk bars owned by first or second-generation Greek migrants, in cities and towns all over Australia.
What is the story of Lucky's?
The central plotline of the novel traces the life of a man nicknamed 'Lucky' from his late teens to his 70s, but it is also about the people whose lives he shapes and who shape him. So, there are many narrative strands in the book, but they all converge at the site of a cafe franchise. Cafes during the period the novel is set were pristine, they were like the sets of television shows. They had it all, the jukebox, the soda fountain the checkered mosaic flooring. They were full of colour and I wanted the start of the book to reflect that, I didn’t want the book to be drab social realism - it didn’t fit the subject matter.
Most of those cafes have disappeared now, however that was the milieu I wanted to represent. It was a world that I knew and, to me, it was rich and its trajectory was complete. So when I started working on this novel, I had a few aims in mind: I wanted to tell a story set in that world, and I wanted the novel to span several decades and generations - to see how people changed over the course of a life and how a culture changed. I wanted the novel to be about the way people respond to success and failure, about people chasing the life that they most wanted - chasing art, love, family, or healing.
And, the characters! I wanted the characters to embody the people and cultures who owned and ran the cafes. it was important to capture the American, Anglo and Greek influences shaped early cafe culture.
In the novel Lucky is Greek/American and in your explores the challenges of migration, racism and multiculturalism in Australia at the time. What do you hope your readers will take away from your exploration of these topics?
Well, the novel doesn’t have a message. My favourite novels don’t have messages - they can’t be reduced in that way. The way I see it, fiction offers us an experience and sometimes we witness a transformation, we see into a character's life, we learn their thoughts and understand their actions. I believe there are truths about life that are best expressed in the form of stories.
In terms of immigration in Australia, the novel covers a lot of time through multiple decades, but a large part of the book is set in the assimilation era, a period when the Greek cafe institution gains a foothold in Australia; it was a time when Greek food was considered radically strange. Cafes could not put Greek food on the menu, it just wouldn’t sell. So instead they cooked Greek food for their families and Anglo food for the public. You know, mixed grills and T-bone steaks were the big sellers in the cafes at the time and menus were often very similar from one cafe to another.
There are two ways to come at that question. There is the more personal, like I mentioned, the cafes were the first community that I knew. My father, uncles, aunts and grandparents were uldn’t publicly retail what they were best at, and this was a kind of loss - cooking was how the cafe-Greeks expressed their culture, their ethnicity. Often the cafe-Greeks didn’t go to church and they were the only Greeks in town. They were cut off from a number of different communities and that dynamic was really interesting to me, the social pressure of assimilation and the private expression of their true culture. So these professional cooks cooked their best dishes for their families, and that was it. I was fascinated by what that did to people and I'm interested in characters who are conflicted, who are compromised, who are stuck between worlds.
Andrew, you spent a lot of your childhood at your family's café. Why was it important to show the connections between Greek-family run business and the rich, multi-cultural fabric of Australia within the novel?
Cafes communities were the first Greek community that I knew. My father, uncles, aunts and grandparents were the first people to talk to me about Greek myths and literature, and these childhood conversations are where my love of literature began. I believe we all have places like this, the places where our creativity is formed. I think a lot of novelists are drawn to that place inside themselves when they write their books.
Cafes were public-facing institutions in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s and they were very visible signs that Australia was changing, that it was slowly turning into the Australia that we have now. They were run by families, and families are interesting to me because, dramatically, they are complex. There is conflict in a family, there is love, there are ruptures, there are secrets, there’s tragedy. There is a lot going on and I completely understand why so many novels and films are about families.
The novel displays everything you know about growing up in a noisy, complicated, loving family. How important is your Greek heritage and community to you?
It’s really important. Firstly I should say that my mother is not Greek. My mother migrated from Northern Ireland in the 1970s and she left the country at a time the violence was, probably, at its worst. She was in her 20's and she felt that life was shrinking because of the unrest, and in your 20's you want doors to open, you want to feel life’s possibilities, so she moved to Australia. But, I always felt closer to my Greek side and to my Greek-Australian side than to my Irish side for a number of reasons, but probably mainly proximity to those communities.
There are layers to this question. I love Greek food, in particular the food of the savóro and pastia. This is what we eat every week, most of what I cook now is the same food that I ate as a child. I was taught to cook by professional cooks and it seems like a waste to try to master French cooking now.
As for religion, religion is a big part of Greek identity and I understand that. I'm an atheist, but my grandmother's icon of the three Martyrs of Lesvos is on my bedside table and we celebrate Greek Easter and that is still a part of my life. In short, Greek heritage means a lot to me and if you read Lucky's you can see it very clearly.
Australian writer Emily Bitto said that Lucky’s was one of the best Australian novels she’s read in years. Tell us how it felt when you received such amazing reviews from other remarkable writers?
It makes me feel good. One of the things that happens when you publish a book during a pandemic is you don’t get to do a lot of public events. You don’t get to hear from readers because you can’t meet people in the way that writers normally meet people, but I have heard from a few readers already, including Emily and others that have loved the book, and it's just mind-blowing. It's wonderful to imagine that someone, a perfect stranger, has spent 12 hours in this world that you’ve created and they enjoyed the experience or have been moved. I hope I am never tired of hearing this because I really don’t take it for granted; it really is kind of overwhelming and it does make you feel good. It makes me think all that time I've spent on this book is worth it.
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