Guest Post: Eve Makis on Writing The Spice Box Letters

Thursday 19 March 2015

Today it's a real honour for me to be able to share this guest post from Eve Makis, author of my Book of the Month for March, The Spice Box Letters. I've attempted to explain in my review why I found the book such a special read and hope I did the book justice and hopefully convinced a couple of people to pick it up.

Eve is discussing writing The Spice Box Letters and I can't believe it's a book that almost didn't come to fruition. It also explains just why certain characters felt so real, and reveals just how much research was carried out, quite remarkable! As a fan of Cyprus I am also intrigued at the mention of Eve's next book, and hope this is something that goes ahead. Great fiction set in Cyprus is sparse, so I am thrilled to have discovered Eve Makis.

Eve Makis on Writing The Spice Box Letters

The Spice Box Letters evolved in a very unplanned way and contrary to all the rules of writing I teach in my fiction class at Nottingham University. I had written three novels set in and around Cyprus and felt it was time to branch out, write something different and show my versatility. I started a novel set in the Ukraine but seventy pages in I lost my way and decided to put the book aside.

I returned to my usual stamping ground and comfort zone – Cyprus. My parents left the island in the 1960’s and I grew up in England but the place was a constant presence in our lives, frequently the topic of conversation at our Sunday dinner table. Troubles on the island, political and social, were discussed and stories were told about uncles and Grandfathers who fought alongside the British in WW2, who rebelled against colonialism in the 1950’s and resisted the Turkish invasion in 1974. I didn’t know it at the time, as I half listened to these stories, that Cyprus would feature so prominently in my writing.

Returning my focus to Cyprus for book four I sketched out a loose plot for another story and decided to make my characters Armenian, an opportunity to explore one of the minority communities on the island. In order to understand my characters, to make them authentic and believable, I had to delve into their past, find out how and why they had come to settle on the island. During the course of my research I discovered a much bigger story than the one I had intended to write, the Armenian tragedy of 1915. Many of the Armenians who lived in Cyprus had settled on the island after being expelled from their homelands in Eastern Turkey. Over a million people died from starvation, sickness and massacre on forced marches across harsh terrain to the Syrian Desert.

I researched the subject extensively, interviewed the relatives of survivors and took many months to sift through a growing collection of stories, trying to decide which ones to tell, the plot in flux. I had an end in mind but the rest was fluid. I tried out different perspectives, different narrators, killed off one of my main characters, changed names, settings, rewrote the beginning at least 50 times and couldn’t get it right, couldn’t tell the story the way I wanted to. My main problem was tone – the book was overly reverent to the subject matter, too sentimental, my characters remote, aloof. I was advised by my agent at the time to ditch the book but I couldn’t let it go so we parted ways.

Two years into the writing process I had my breakthrough - one of my characters finally came to life – a man in his seventies called Gabriel Arakelian. He was based on someone I had interviewed and I thoroughly enjoyed writing his part in the novel. Gabriel is the heart of the book, a victim of the genocide but also flawed, a curmudgeon with a wry wit, a stickler for tradition, a flawed hero. Gabriel was my break through, a way of injecting the book with the lightness it needed and this fictional character won me the support of a real life agent, Diana Beaumont of The Agency Group. She believed in the importance of the story I was telling and supported me through the writing process, finally securing a deal with Sandstone Press.

I think of The Spice Box Letters as the book I cut my teeth on, that took me on a very steep learning curve as a writer. It challenged me to the hilt, but unlike the Ukrainian novel I never lost interest and though I veered off the path many times I knew I would get to the end. At the moment I’m skirting around book five, a mystery set in 1930’s Cyprus - I’ve given up all pretence at being versatile. I’m approaching this book cautiously, trying things out before I commit, before I’m sucked into a black hole where I will probably be stuck for the next couple of years.

The Spice Box Letters is published by Sandstone Press and is released March 18th 2015. 

Eve Makis studied at Leicester University and worked as a journalist and radio presenter in the UK and Cyprus before becoming a novelist. Her first book Eat, Drink and be Married was published in five languages and awarded the Young Booksellers International Book of the Year Award. A screen adaptation of her third book, Land of the Golden Apple, will be filmed in June 2015. Eve is a part time tutor in creative writing at Nottingham University. She is married with two children and lives in the UK and Cyprus.

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