Pale Surface

Interview with Janey Bennett
by Barbara Rose Shuler

—You’ve written a novel, The Pale Surface of Things, that takes place on the Greek island of Crete.  Is your heritage Greek?

No, but I grew up interested in all things Greek: theatre and philosophy and ideas, so it felt familiar. Crete itself is an amazing place that encompasses more layers of cultural history than almost any place on earth, extending from the joyous artworks remaining from the Minoan culture, four thousand years ago, to the rembetiko music of modern times.

—What is rembetiko music?

Rembetiko music flourished around the 1920s, when the conflict between Greece and Turkey resulted in thousands of Greeks being driven from their homes in Asia Minor and fleeing to Greece, bringing the eastern sonorities from Asia Minor with them. The songs were underground songs of protest, of rebellion, and they are still a large part of the music of Greece.

—Of all the Greek islands, why did you choose Crete?

There is something compelling about the history of Crete—the number of oppressors who found the islanders impossible to control, their ways of resisting, the awesome courage of the people of Crete.  It is a culture still formed by traditions and volatile emotions, and those seemed the very qualities that are missing in our modern North American lives. The idea of setting one of our young men into that environment raised the questions ‘what would he learn?’ and ‘how would it change him?” Those questions started the book.

—Where did the title The Pale Surface of Things come from?

In my story, whitewash covers Byzantine wall paintings in the village church. It was put there during World War II to cover the bullet scars reminding the people of the Germans’ massacre of villagers inside the church. That whitewash needs to come off, so the beauty and the horror of the past will be seen again. Metaphoric whitewash covers people’s behaviors, and also must be removed. This is a story of truth-seeking on the White Mountains, Lefka Ori, of western Crete, where the wind-scoured limestone peaks look snow-covered even in summer. ( Also, in Metaphysics VII, Aristotle refers to pale and surface and examines whether each is a quality of the other. I only discovered that recently, though, so I can’t claim to have consciously swept Aristotle into the meanings of the title.)

—How did you come up with the character of Douglas?

I was living and working as a volunteer in Thailand, where my students were from the poorest region of the country and yet had laughter and joy in their lives. The contrast with the young Western tourists who were disaffected by everything and had no apparent
enjoyment from their lives of privilege fascinated me. I moved the story to Crete for a number of reasons, some of which even I don’t understand, but it was the right place to set the story.

—One of your central themes is the importance of personal accountability. Why is accountability such a compelling issue for you and your characters? What price do we pay if we run away from our responsibilities, as Douglas does?

Once we begin dodging the truth of our actions and their effects on others, we begin to live a lie, which leads to another and another until very soon we have no idea what the truth is. The price of being vitally alive and really present is that we must be true to the truth. Accepting responsibility for what we have done means we don’t have to remember what excuse we made up or who we blamed instead. We are what we are (not perfect, but present) and, as Douglas learns, we can stop running or hiding or slip-sliding away. Until we can stand still and be seen for all that we are, I believe we cannot begin to heal.

—Healing from deep wounds individually and collectively is another powerful theme in your book. What do you want your readers to understand most about the human healing process?

Life inevitably wounds all of us, but to the degree that we do not face the part we played in our own injuries, or own the impact of our actions, we are left merely victims, corks bobbing on the water, and there is no healing possible. To accept that we are not perfect and that we are active participants in our lives gives us the possibility of humility, forgiveness, accountability, and gratitude. Key ingredients of healing.

—The character of the priest is pivotal to your focus on healing and accountability. Tell us about the process of developing the character and role of Fr. Dimitiros.

 Fr. Dimitrios carries two cultural identities. He’s caught in divided loyalties to his parents’ wish that he acculturate to their new homeland of America and his grandfather’s fierce love for Crete’s timeless culture. He is both things, an American student and a son of Crete, and the way he sees to resolve the rift is to take his American education back to his grandfather’s village and use those skills to better the life of his people, through cleaning up their water system and improving their health care while also ministering to their spiritual life and reinforcing their efforts to be virtuous in their lives.

He is a bridge between Douglas and the village. He is part of both worlds, and without making an easy linkage, he helps everyone move toward greater understanding.

Most of the characters evolved over some preliminary writing and rewriting and adding telling details. The character of Fr. Dimitrios arrived fully developed. For me, he has always been the most interesting character in the book, mostly because I don’t think I had much to do with defining him. I don’t know where he came from.

—What did you learn about the wounds of war during the process of writing the book?

I recognized that two generations after the war, the inherent damage of wartime injuries has been passed down, unspoken, un-named, unrecognized. Naming is the beginning of healing, and Fr. Dimitrios’s actions stripping the whitewash from the church walls to earn forgiveness for his grandfather’s deeds in the war will also earn him a release from a shame he has lived with but not understood before.

—Do I sense a mythic structure to the book?

In a way, yes: Douglas leaves his known world and sets off with only his wits for weapons. These are the conditions for a hero’s journey. What happens beyond that is not a classically mythic story. It contains modern psychology, for a modern young man, yet the idea of lessons bringing us to a transformative point is, indeed, mythic.

Crete gives one a sense of its mythic past and its historic past crossing over and mingling. One isn’t quite sure whether to believe the legends as fact or as fable. But they are part of the texture of life on Crete, whichever they are.

—How did you do your research?

I had advisors in archaeology, sociology, medicine, animal husbandry, European history,… and a cave expert.  That, and my own observations on Crete, and a large library of books I found searching on the internet. I’ve put a list of the most useful and interesting of those books on my website, The possibilities of studying Crete are nearly endless.

—How were you changed by writing The Pale Surface of Things? What did you discover about your own creative process during the years in the fire of writing the novel?

In the fire? Yes, it was a searing experience to do this work. When I began to write Pale Surface, I tried to steer the story. Beginning fiction writers think they must do that. The story went off the track, became trite or predictable, and , even worse, became unimportant.  I quickly saw that if the story was to have any value for anyone, it had to be a search for the truth of each character’s healing process at every step along the way. Because there are elements of us in the characters we write, I sat with the part of me that related to each crisis and waited until I understood what was required to heal. So Spiros, the village bully, comes to realize that his wife has been his true friend all the years he has ignored her and longed for her sister, but he learns that truth too late to tell her. He suffers gratitude in silence.

—How long did it take you to write the book?

Seven years altogether. I spent five years writing and the next two years submitting it to agents in the US, while I continued to polish it. Several agents said they really liked it but couldn’t sell it because it wasn’t like anything else. And it isn’t. As novelist Joanna Catherine Scott says on my back cover, The Pale Surface of Things is “a novel that combines the fast-forward movement of a thriller with the authenticity of place and human frailty of literary fiction.”  It is a hybrid of serious and entertaining stories.

 When Keith Moen of Hopeace Press in Canada offered to publish it, I accepted. The book was released June 1, 2007 in Canada.

—How has the book been received?

I’ve been very pleased by the response by Cretan-Americans and Greek-Americans to the authenticity of the novel.  One woman told me that her mother, who left Crete many years ago, read the book straight through and when she finished, closed it and tapped it with her finger, saying, “This is Crete. This is MY Crete!”

Another woman bought the book because she was interested in learning why she spoke Greek with a Cretan accent, although she learned it from her mother and grandparents who lived in the Pelopponese. She found a character’s family name in Pale Surface, phoned me to ask if it was a Cretan name, and when I explained that it was an aristocratic family of Cretans allied with the Venetians, she burst out, “That’s my Grandfather’s name!  How would he get to the Pelopponese?” We tracked back information and found that his ancestors had gone in the 17th century with the Venetians to fight the Turks in the Pelopponese, and the village he and his descendants stayed in all retained their Cretan accents and passed them on.

—What about non-Greeks?

Book clubs have been enjoying Pale Surface. I’ve personally met with many of them. We discuss the ethical issues in the story, and why cultures are so different, and what happens to us when we leave our familiar surroundings and do more than travel, but truly live with people in another culture.

I’ve had positive comments from the specialists I interviewed while I was writing: archaeologists, art conservators, cave specialists, Orthodox priests, iconographers, sociologists.  Also good comments from specialists who met the book after it was finished.
It’s been well-received.

—I see the book has won awards.

Yes, we've received seven national book-industry awards, and now we've been short-listed for the Montaigne Medal from Eric Hoffer Awards as well.

—Do you have a favorite story about the book?

The day I went to the printer to pick up the Advance Review Copies in Victoria BC, I was waiting for the Sydney ferry to return to the mainland. I was very happy to have my box of new books in the car, and I and my dog were walking in the huge parking lot to pass time until the ferry arrived. 

I saw a number of men in black suits, clerical collars, and beards, and I thought “They sure look Greek…” so I approached one.
“Excuse me, Patera, are you Greek Orthodox?”
“Yes, of course,” he answered.
“Can you tell me how I would approach Metropolitan Sotirios of Toronto to ask him for a comment for my cover?” (I held out the book.)
“He’s standing right over there.  I’ll hold your dog.”
And so I offered a copy of Pale surface to Metropolitan/Archbishop Sotirios, the head of the Greek Orthodox church in Canada. He said he was pleased, because he needed a read for the flight back to Toronto.  He wrote a wonderful comment back.  It’s the top blurb on the back cover of Pale Surface.

Strange and splendid coincidences like that happened a number of times in this book’s journey.

—Where did you grow up?

I was born in San Diego, California, when it was a young city of 250,000 residents. These were my “good old days” when I could safely wander anywhere, downtown, the beaches, in Balboa Park. There were concerts, dance performances, plays, talks, football games, museum classes—I could choose from them all.

My mother taught American lit and Shakespeare at San Diego City College, and her friends (our friends) were interested in new literature, new ideas in theatre, writing, philosophy, psychology, and politics. I was the only child of a divorced parent, no siblings around, so there was no reason for me not to participate in their discussions. I grew up in their world of ideas. It was a pretty wonderful childhood for my needs, although I guess if I’d had a different childhood my needs might have been different, too. Anyway, it suited me.  I was treated as a treasure and given the opportunity to pursue my interests … in cello (which I still play), in theatre, in ideas of all sorts.

—And college?

I graduated from UCLA with a degree in broadcast in the Theatre Arts Department. It was my seventh major. My interests went everywhere. I wanted to learn everything I could and I had trouble deciding between engineering, classic languages, English, folklore, theatre, or art history. 

I actually used my broadcast training: I became the first woman announcer on the west coast, at KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. That was a great time to be in alternative radio. My co-workers there included Ruth Seymour, long-time manager of KCRW, David Ossman of Firesign Theatre, and Marc Okrand, who became a linguist and created the language, syntax, and vocabulary for Star Trek’s Klingon language. It was a lively time!

—You live in Canada now?

I’m a Canadian resident, but I still have a home in Bellingham WA. I divide my time between them.

—What have you written before this novel?

I wrote for architecture magazines in the US and Finland, and then theatre and music criticism for regional newspapers, along with general journalism while I edited a tourist magazine, and finally. . . fiction. I’ve been writing for more than 20 years. I also have worked as a copyeditor and proofreader for all those years, and it is a help in writing, or rather, in re-writing. Generative writing can be as sloppy as the subconscious mind wants it to be, as long as the writer cleans things up afterwards.  Generative writing is like weaving the cloth, and rewriting is like tailoring the coat.

—How did you begin writing?

My first serious writing was my master’s thesis in architecture history. I went to architecture school after my marriage ended, and I was lucky enough to write my thesis (about Erik Bryggman, a Finnish architect who flourished in the late 1930s,)  under Reyner Banham’s guidance. To my mind, Banham is still the best architecture historian there ever was. He wrote prolifically on whatever caught his eye. It was his way of exploring the world around him. He was interested in everything, and I learned from him that exploring details about a side issue ALWAYS enriched the main topic. I became a researcher. It still gives me great joy to uncover a missing piece of information that shines a light on some everyday phenomenon.

With his encouragement, my thesis grew to more than 300 pages, exploring some remote aspects of life in early twentieth century Finland that even Finnish scholars hadn’t gotten around to. Professor Banham submitted my thesis to his publisher for consideration. They didn’t take it, but the work led to a Fulbright research grant to write the key essay in a large catalog published by the Museum of Finnish Architecture.

—So would you say that Reyner Banham taught you to write?

He taught me to think, to question, and to go farther in looking for material. That was brilliant and it certainly informs the way I work. But my writing moved to another level when I worked with Carol Bly. She showed me techniques to sharpen my language and guided me in plotting and character development. I owe a great deal to both of them. I was very fortunate to have two such skilled and generous mentors.

—Will you still work with your mentors?

Both mentors are gone now, but I still have the legacy of the work with them.  Mentored writing has been an extraordinary journey for me. I received such fine training in fiction from Carol Bly that, in the wake of her death, it seems an appropriate time to pass on the lessons I received. I’m teaching now, mentoring people who are starting out on the writer’s journey.

—What advice do you give to writers setting out to write a first novel, based on your experiences?

Take your time. Write freely, write a lot, be willing to set aside great stacks of pages and start over, and then start over again, and finally, when you know the figures and places of your story, let the story emerge by itself, without you directing it, and if you’ve really listened, it will be true.   

—Do you still edit other people’s work?

Yes, but I prefer proofreading. It’s as if the writer is paying me to find those tiger faces hidden in the leaves of the tree in children’s magazines. Proofreading is a ‘catch me if you can’ sort of game.

—Do you have plans for another book?

Enough people have asked if there will be a sequel to Pale Surface that I have begun research for the possibility of a story about these same characters. 

I have another novel nearly complete, set in Central California and involving Finland and China. 

And there’s still a project on my shelf that I would like to publish: about the architect/philosopher I most admire. Juhani Pallasmaa is the dean of Finnish architects, known by architects but not by the general public.  His ideas of architecture’s responsibility to people --that architecture must offer comfort as well as shelter, that it must engage all the senses, not just create dramatic photographic images—have not had the exposure they deserve. If I can find a museum or fine arts publisher to sponsor that book, I will finish it.

My first job, however, is to see The Pale Surface of Things well received…

—Thank You


The End