Effie Kammenou grew up listening to stories about her mother's childhood in Athens and her experiences during WWII, and her father's tales of how his family came to America. After her mother passed away, Kammenou felt inspired to write a family saga that spans fifty years and crosses two continents. As our Author of the Day, Kammenou talks about this debut novel, Evanthia's Gift, tells us more about her family and reveals why her books also contain all kinds of interesting recipes.
Please give us a short introduction to what Evanthia's Gift is about.
Evanthia’s Gift is a love story and family saga spanning fifty years and crossing two continents, chronicling the lives of a mother and daughter whose fate is determined by the men they choose to love.
This Greek American saga follows a multigenerational story of love, loyalty, and culture. An emotional novel about family bonds and the difficult pull between home and heritage.
What inspired you to write this book?
In 2012 my mother passed away after battling pancreatic cancer for two and a half years. I was trying to be the strong older sister, a compassionate mother and aunt, and a supportive daughter to my grieving father. I never allowed myself to fully express my emotions. One night I sat at the computer and just started writing. It was my way of working through my grief.
I’d heard stories all my life of my mother’s childhood in Athens, and her experiences during WWII as a child. My father had his own stories growing up in NYC—his tales of how his family came to America and their reasons for making that huge decision—as well as his own experiences as a flyer in WWII. I pulled from those stories to breathe life into several characters.
Although the story is fictional, drawing from true events was an inspiration, as well as the legion of emotions running through me knowing this was part of my history.
I’d always had a story in my head. I would sometimes daydream, and being the actress that I was many, many years ago, I’d create scenes in my head and develop characters. I thought that someday I might write it all down, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Then my mother passed away. I came up with a character inspired by her spirit and grace and worked it into the story I had in mind, developing the plot further to make her a central character. It was a way for me to honor my mother and the heritage she cherished. The result was a beautiful love story and family saga.
Your book centers around family bonds and the difficult pull between home and heritage. Why did you find this an important subject?
Greeks are very proud of who they are and where they came from. I know many people from other cultures who also have strong ties to their heritage, but the history of the Greeks and their contribution to society can be attributed to so much in our modern civilization. Also, ninety-five percent of the Greek population shares one religion. A religion they had to fight to uphold through many invasions and occupations. Greek children are brought up to feel a sense of pride and carry on the traditions that have been handed down for generations. I’d witnessed both ends of the spectrum as a youth myself and I see it now with the younger generation today. They either embrace all things Greek or, they are tired of their parents pushing, pushing, pushing. Sometimes it takes some maturity and perspective to understand that as Americans, part of our culture and what makes us unique is that we all came from somewhere else and we are all the richer for it. Also, the lessons to be learned from the ones before us are priceless and they shouldn’t be ignored.
Why did you decide to tell the story over multiple generations?
The story of Sophia and Dean was developing in my head for years. It was only meant to be a story in their timeframe. When my mother passed away and I decided to create a character based on her, I ended up going much deeper than I expected. The story went from a simple love story between two people to one that encompassed several generations of family members, some of which were no longer alive when the story began. Yet, they had great impact on the living through their legacy.
How much research did you have to do in order to write this book?
I researched a lot more than I realized I would need to when I began to write. Many of the ideas came from pieces of stories my parents and grandparents told me. But memories can be off. Our mind’s eye remembers events from our own perspective and sometimes from a skewed recollection. I had to research every fact, event and locale, as well as the timelines. Even my own memories had to be verified. Storylines evolved as I wrote that needed further research. For example, the deportation of the Jews in Thessaloniki. I knew about the Sephardic Jewish population, but not about how they lived side by side with the Christian community or how and when the Nazis came for them. I also had to research how the resistance operated.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I was a theater major in college and acting was my passion. I can’t call it a skill at this time, as I haven’t done any acting in many years.
I love to cook and bake, and feeding friends who like to eat is a joy for me. I write a food blog that not only shares recipes but also the traditions and stories that go with the food.
Your books contain a couple of Greek family recipes - why did you take this approach?
I did this for a couple of reasons. First, as a food blogger and a person who loves to cook, I couldn’t resist. But mainly I added them to enhance the Greek experience for the readers who might not be familiar with Greek food. The reader may never attempt to try one of the recipes, but by listing the ingredients there was a better sense of what the dish was.
Evanthia's Gift was your debut work. What has the experience been like?
This was probably the most rewarding experience of my life. When I began, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. I certainly didn’t think it would be a work of this length. I felt great satisfaction in completing it, in seeing it through. I knew nothing about the publishing process, but I learned and vowed that if I decided to make it available to readers I would do everything a professional publisher would do – beta readers, critique partner, professional editor, cover designer and inside formatter.
When I turned fifty years old I decided that I wanted to do something that defined me. I didn’t know what that would be, but I knew I would find it. The acting career never worked out. I raised a family, worked in an industry for forty years that was not what I’d originally planned, and now it was my turn to do what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until my mid-fifties that I discovered novel writing was my new passion.
What surprised you most from readers' reactions?
That they loved my book! As a debut novelist, I was so nervous. The reviews could have been awful. I prepared myself for the worst. I believed in the story. It was written from my heart and soul, but that didn’t mean the writing itself wouldn’t be criticized. Review after review came in positive. Readers of all ages wrote to tell me how they related the story to their life. That’s the great thing about a multigenerational story. There is something for everyone. Greeks related for obvious reasons. Younger Greek Americans recognized themselves in the struggle of teetering between two cultures. New Yorkers related for the locale. Non-Greeks from other cultures wrote with stories of similar situations. I love that readers take the time to not only review the book, but also write to me personally.
Throughout the book, you take the reader on an emotional rollercoaster ride - from laughing, crying and being very frustrated with a certain character. Was this intentional?
A certain character. Hmm, I wonder who that could be? That character had to learn his lessons the hard way. He needed to grow up, change his priorities and come to some realizations. I’m assuming you are referring to the male main character of the second part of the book. I’ve had readers tell me they were equally frustrated with the female main character.
The rollercoaster was simply life. This book spans over fifty years and some memories go back even further. Life has its highs and lows. Alexandros told his daughter, “To appreciate joy, you must experience pain.”
I love that this book had a range of emotions. Demi’s ‘tell it like it is’ personality was a fan favorite. But the sad moments touched readers, and many had gone through some of the same experiences.
What are some of the things you do to give your characters depth?
It’s different with each character. Mostly, I stayed away from stereotypes. Each person has his or her own quirks, history, way of speaking, and level of emotion.
When I’d prepared for an acting role in the past, I gave a history to a character based on what I’d learned from the script. This is how I approached the characters in the story. Each one had a past that made them who they were, and once I decided their history I was able to develop their personalities.
Tell us a bit about your writing habits - are you a disciplined writer? What is the best time of the day for you to write? Favorite writing spot?
I work during the day, so I write all evening and late into the night. I’m a night owl and I can last until one or two in the morning. I remember a few times looking up at the clock and reading, three AM. I also write on my days off when no one is in the house. I have an office set up on the first floor of my home off the kitchen. It’s supposed to be for everyone but I’ve hijacked it and I hate when someone invades my space! I don’t know if it’s my favorite space but it’s the space I have to write in. The theoretical, perfect place for me to write would be a little beach house on one of the Greek islands. Someday…
What are you working on right now?
The second book in The Gift Saga: Waiting For Aegina has been available since January 2017. Since then, I’ve been working on book three, the final book in the saga. Last summer I spent some time in Greece and visited one of the Greek islands that will be a locale for book three. Next month I’m visiting Champagne, France for further research, as one of the characters spends time in that breathtaking region.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I’m on Facebook, instagram, Goodreads, pinterest, and twitter. They can also access my author central page through Amazon. My food blog is filled with recipes. (Not just Greek ones) Signing up for my newsletter will keep readers informed of promotions, giveaways and upcoming news and events. I am also happy to answer emails. Below is the list of links.
Amazon author page
Fan contact e-mail
Newsletter signup page