Saturday, September 22, 2012

Recap: Jeffret Siger at the Poisoned Pen

Although I recap the events at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, sometimes the bookstore livestreams those programs, and they are archived so you can see them later if you'd like. Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, welcomes viewers to the livestream program. When Jeffrey Siger recently appeared to discuss his latest book, Target: Tinos, the program was livestreamed, and it is available here,, if you'd like to view it.

Jeffrey Siger and Barbara Peters
Peters was crossing paths with Jeffrey Siger. She was leaving for Europe the next day, and he was back in the U.S. He spends the summer in Mykonos, Greece. Poisoned Pen Press is Siger's American publisher. His first book, Murder in Mykonos, was already the number one English bestseller in Greece when Peters became his editor. She threatened him, saying other publishers were going to want his books, and she'd hunt him down and kill him if he went elsewhere. Siger, who had already retired at the time, asked her if they offered me a bundle of money, "What would I do, retire from my law practice and move to Mykonos?"

Siger started by saying he was an artist first. He was a sculptor, and won a national art award at fourteen. But, his father told him, do something so you won't have to work hard and go to work at 2 in the morning like I do. So, he went to college, planning to become a doctor. But, he fell in love with political science and became a lawyer. And, one night, after he was practicing law, he called his father at 2 a.m., and said you told me to do something so I wouldn't have to go to work at 2 in the morning. I listened to you, and here I am, at 2 in the morning, still at work.

Jeffrey Siger loves Greece and writing. He walked away from his law firm to move to Greece and write there. People asked, "How can you walk away from that money?" He said you have to decide what makes you happy.

Thirty years ago, Jeffrey went to Mykonos for the first time. He immediately felt at home. Siger's friends are locals. They want his books to succeed. They tell him things, and ask if they're in the books. When Jeffrey decided to write he made three vows. He promised he wouldn't write fluff - it matters. He would tell the story as it must be told. And, he doesn't take cheap shots.

Peters said they had been at a library earlier in the day, and she assured the audience that most of the violence and sex scenes in Siger's books are off scene. Siger said he is honored that he's been asked to go back to his college and speak. But, he was asked by the English Department. He took freshman English. But, he learned to write as a lawyer. He said when it comes to scenes, he believes it's better to have the reader's mind create the violence or fear, rather than to tell them what it is. He used an example, pointing to a television. I could tell you that the most terrible thing in the world is behind that screen, and your imagination will create all kinds of terrible things. But, if I tell you what is behind the screen, then you'll say, oh that isn't as bad as all the other things I could imagine. So, there's only some violence and a little sex actually described. He said he actually tones down the cursing because with the Greeks, it may be every other word. And, men are always screaming back and forth at each other in Greece. Siger's theory is, if it doesn't further the story, it's out.

Siger writes about murder in Greece. As Peters said, Siger's Murder in Mykonos was already the #1 bestselling book in English in Greece when he came to Barbara. He was writing about Mykonos. She said he was tapping into ancient Greece, while writing about modern Greece. His latest book, Target: Tinos deals with religious mania. His second book, Assassins of Athens, was about hubris and politics. He said it dealt with the way the Greeks react with their government. Sadly, it came to pass. The Greek press called him prophetic. Jeffrey said that was instead of saying, "Burn the witch."

He said there's so much to inspire you in Mykonos. When he watches a sunset, he wonders what the ancients thought when they were looking at the same scene. And, he said it was about the same. In about 250 B.C., give or take some years, husbands on Delos sent their children and wives off to Mykonos to escape the sailors. They were even then trying to escape tourism. Now, it's just the opposite. They leave Mykonos.

It used to be said there were 365 churches in Mykonos, one for every day of the year. Actually, some count as many as 1400 churches. In order to get electricity to a house, it needed to be a church, and then it was church property. There's a deep-rooted connection to Greek Orthodoxy there. The people are deeply committed to the Church. Prey on Patmos, the third book in the series, centered on the church. That commitment goes up to death. Once a person dies, they are interred for two to three years. Then, they brush off the bones, and they are put in a box put into the wall of the family church. There used to be a trap door, and they'd open it, and drop the bones in.

Don't underestimate the Greeks' deep commitment to the Church. All events are focused around the Church. It has a central role in Murder in Mykonos. And, Prey on Patmos deals with Mount Athos, that exists as it did 1500 years ago. There are twenty monasteries there. The monks live as they did 1500 years earlier. There are no women, not even female animals except hens for eggs. However, there have been a few issues. There was a major scandal three to four years ago. A monastery was tied into a land swap for property that had been taken for the Olympics that had then been transferred to the Church. The abbot was arrested on Christmas Eve, and put in jail.

There is a problem with writing on the edge of current events. You can be overran by current events. Jeffrey Siger had finished a book when, before the book was due out,  Michael Lewis came out with an article in Time that dealt with Siger's subject. He now calls that book 3 1/2, because he and Barbara Peters agreed they couldn't publish it then because it would look like he was writing about the events rather than predicting them. Peters said the book had Sparta in the title. It dealt with trafficking, sex and labor, and it was all set to go. A year before the book was due out, a man in Tunisia burned himself to change the world. Siger's characters had done the same. Barbara, his editor and publisher, said it looks like we've borrowed from the headlines.

Target: Tinos deals with how cultures deal with immigrants, but, fortunately, the current events dealing with that happened after the book came out, and was reviewed. Siger just finished the next book, and he thought the premise was unique. He had finished it, and a friend called to say the same event happened in Greece, but he's not telling what it was because readers won't realize it.

Peters told us that Target Tinos was named one of the best summer reads in the New York Times. Siger had one of his best reviews from the New York Journal of Books. It said he is "one of those rare writers whose finger is always on the pulse of modern day upheavals." He tackles subjects other authors avoid. One of the Greek papers said there are 10 million Greeks. Half of them think they're writers. Why did it take a foreigner to write it?

Siger has friends in government and business. He doesn't speak much Greek, so they talk to him in English. After they're daily business, they will tell it to him straight, in the bars. He has a scene in the new book when a man says someone is putting together a deal to put a topless bar in Mykonos. And, then it happened there at the harbor, that someone wanted to put in a topless bar. It's the perfect place. But, the people of Mykonos said no.

Target: Tinos has lots of action, an ongoing romance, and a treasure hunt.The story involves a church on Tinos, the Church of Panagia Evangelistria, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And, Andreas Kaldris is getting married the same week as he's working on the case. This church is the Lourdes of Greece. A million tourists a week visit, some of them crawling uphill to get there. This "Vatican of Greece" isn't even owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. It's owned by a private foundation. Much of the foundation's revenue is used to benefit the people of Tinos. It's used for schools, roads, and to support the Greek Orthodox Church. The titular head of this church is the bishop, but locals actually decide who does what with the money. Barbara mentioned that medieval pilgrimages were actually religious tourism.

Jeffrey told us Tinos is beautiful, and there are fifty villages there. If you take a tour of the Peloponnese, he recommends Tinos, because the fifty villages are all so different. Tinos is the third or fourth largest island in the Cyclades. It's bigger than Mykonos. The island survived the Turkish Occupation. They made alliances with the Venetians, then a deal with the Turks. Outsiders finally came in when there was infighting on Tinos, and the alliances fell apart.

Target: Tinos opens with two incinerated bodies, wrapped in a flag. The press goes crazy until they find out the bodies were gypsies, and then all attention disappears. The book deals with how people react to immigrants. Then, Siger read to us from the book.

Siger said he tries not to talk about the weather in the first line. He thinks the opening should set the scene and direct where you're heading. He's a seat of the pants writer. An idea hits him, and he writes. He finds the first paragraph the most important. It sets him on the course where the book is going, even if that paragraph doesn't end up in the book. The first line of the book is "Revenge or Death". "Freedom or Death" is the Greek motto.

There are a number of holy days when people flock the Tinos. On August 15, there is an influx of gypsies. The Virgin Mary is sacred to gypsies. They camp out on Tinos, and many people don't even come that time of year. The gypsies have a strong affinity for Tinos. Siger said he doesn't want to deal with stereotypes.

Peters told Siger he took a brave step with his series, one many authors avoid. Kaldis has been romancing a woman, and they get married. Some say a series loses tension that way. Siger joked that he's been divorced twice, so there is tension. He said the marriage was the natural next step. Kaldis is evolving in life. And, they had a child out of wedlock. It was time. He doesn't know where the marriage is going though. Some people live independent lives as husband and wife, and they are so busy, they only see each other on holidays.

Barbara Peters said they are crime books, but they're funny, with a lot of humor. Jeffrey admitted he has the same warped sense of humor as the Greeks. They say he's as crazy as they are.

According to Peters, Siger's next book should be out next fall. They're trying to coordinate the publishing schedule with Jeffrey's time in the U.S. He spends six months in Mykonos, and six months in the U.S. He said he's lived on Mykonos for six years, but he's been going there for thirty. This is the first September he hasn't been there. He doesn't live there year round because he has family here, and he's an American, and likes his country. Siger told us April to October in Mykonos is great. His friends are traveling from December to February anyways, or they were until recently. The financial crisis in Greece has had a deep impact.

Mykonos has three things going for it. It has ocean breezes. There are two dozen gorgeous beaches. And, there's the light from the birthplace of Apollo, Delos. He chooses to live in Mykonos, but he could live anyplace. Mykonos is the number one island for vacations in Europe. It's a party island.

Before wrapping up the program, he did discuss the problems in Greece, saying the unemployment in Greece is 24%. It's higher among young people eighteen to twenty-four. At the moment, they're trying to bring togehter coalitions to decide how to make the $11.5 billion they have to have in order to get $400 billion in debt forgiven. They have to do it. And, in answer to a question, he said Greece is till paying for the burden of the Olympics.

This was only the second time I heard Jeffrey Siger speak, but it's always fascinating to hear him talk with Barbara Peters about Greece, books, and writing.

Jeffrey Siger's website is

Target: Tinos by Jeffrey Siger. Poisoned Pen Press. 2012. ISBN 9781590589762 (hardcover), 259p.

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