IFOA: The Scapegoat is based on the real-life murder of famed CBS reporter George Polk. What about this story interested you?
Sophia Nikolaidou: The Polk case—which many people regard as the start of the Cold War in Europe—has everything: innocent blood, a set-up trial, interference of foreign powers, history, politics, love.The idea of writing a pure historical novel and bringing a whole age to life has never intrigued me. Different historic periods reflect each other in my novels. This is my way of perceiving history.To make a long story short, I was really interested in putting together two different ages: A.1948–49 (Greek civil war, Polk’s murder) and B. 2010–11 (Greek crisis). I wanted to capture the historical adventure of my country. Some things change just because the circumstances around us have changed. Other things stay hidden and unpunished—they poison everything. Some of them are inherited from one generation to another. We think that we have left our past behind. Alas, we always find it ahead. The American title of my novel (The Scapegoat) underlines the connection between the two ages (a now 2010–11 and a then 1948–49). The parallels between the Polk case and the current situation in my country are simple: both then and today basic political decisions are taken somewhere else. It’s like a game of chess or Monopoly. Some are playing the game miles away and their moves determine everything in the country. Thus, are money and influence—that is, everything—at stake? That’s the question.
IFOA: Beginning, middle or end—which do you find the most challenging to write?
Nikolaidou: I love the beginning; it’s a fresh start. I have an immense passion (other people call it obsession) for the subject and the characters, but no idea of how I will be able to domesticate the raw material of my novel. Every time I start from scratch. I enjoy the middle. That’s real life and real writing. All problems arise together. It’s hard and deeply satisfying at the same time. Just like real life. You fly in the sky, you are in pain, you play games, you know what to do, you don’t know what to do. You dig into life, you dig into yourself. The end is bitter and sweet. I love the pure satisfaction of giving a plot life and the sweet bitterness of the last period. Writing is memory then. The story is not mine anymore.
IFOA: How would you describe the literary scene in Greece?
Nikolaidou: Fresh, pluralistic, waiting to be discovered. Greek literature isn’t known abroad. We don’t have a regional literature brand name (Skandinavian and Ibero Spanish authors have, for example). My country has generated a great interest in the international press in recent years. Maybe this is a big chance for Greek literature. The Crisis is a subject that Greek writers can talk about and people will listen. The timing is good. Now we can talk and exchange ideas about this small spot on the world’s map called Greece. We can investigate its recent history, finger the historical and social trauma. The novel seems to be the ideal cognitive tool for that. It is our empirical way to perceive real life and comment on it. As I grow older, I’m more convinced that writing (and reading) a novel is the most efficient way we human beings have to build a world like the one we’re living in and to understand what’s happening around us—but maybe I’m saying so because I’m an obsessed novelist.
IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.
Nikolaidou: Homer’s Odyssey. I read it again and again. An everlasting text. I’ve learned so many things from it about life, human nature, writing. Every time I read it I discover diamonds. It’s the archetype of classical, deeply human literature.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: “The best part is…”
Nikolaidou: In literature I prefer fullstops, but in real life I choose ellipsis. That’s why I won’t finish this sentence. I prefer things to remain open.
Sophia Nikolaidou was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. She teaches literature and creative writing and writes criticism for various newspapers, including Ta Nea. She has published four novels and two collections of short stories, several of which have been translated into eight languages. Her previous novel, Tonight We Have No Friends, won the 2010 Athens Prize for Literature. She presents The Scapegoat, a sweeping saga that brings together the turbulent Greece of the postwar period with the struggles it faces today.