Olympia Panagiotopoulos is a Premium member and also newly published author of her first memoir, Beneath the Fig Leaves. We sit down with Olympia to explore how her journal entries turned into a book and her advice for other authors. You can order her book here.
Tell us a little bit about you and your first memoir, Beneath the Fig Leaves.
The spring of 2009 was a pivotal point in my life. I was seeking direction – a way in which to be truer to myself and find the courage to pursue the things that mattered most to me. My eldest daughter had left for a year abroad and my youngest was finishing high school. Life was changing and I felt a certain restlessness within; a desire to explore and reconnect with myself. I began to make visits with my then 90-year-old mother, Giannoula, an almost daily practice, and found sanctuary in the tranquillity of her garden, the perfect setting for contemplation. Fruit trees towered over a meadow of vegetables and herbs below, chickens roamed among the green splendour and the birds visited daily to feast on fresh produce. My mother had transformed her suburban backyard into a haven reminiscent of the fields of the Greek village where she was born. On an old wooden garden bench under the shade of a fig tree, she and I shared stories, recipes and reflections on life and love. Beneath the Fig Leaves is the result of this time spent together, of our mornings in the garden and afternoons in the kitchen preparing generations-old recipes. Beneath the Fig Leaves is a heartfelt personal and family memoir that pays tribute to an extraordinary woman, mother and teacher.
When you reflect on your childhood, what are some memories that come to mind?
I was a spirited child charged with curiosity. My fondest memories are of our narrow street and its laneways; everything was an adventure. What was hiding in the garden behind the stack of fence-posts, and what had I missed in the pile of old stuff in the hallway cupboard? Was there really a ghost in the church where we played on the walk home from school? Make-believe and storytelling were my favourite pastimes— they still are, though as an adult, make-believe might best be described as visualisation. My parents worked several jobs and I had to find ways to entertain myself. Each Saturday my mother would come home from work with a marble cake covered in thick pink frosting— it was the beginning of my obsession with cake. I always loved books and often imagined myself stepping into the worlds they represented, hosting tea parties for my friends and reading stories aloud to them. My brother Andreas was my best friend; he and I loved to play street games. When I was five years old, he died in a tragic accident. It was a time of great sadness for my family and it wasn’t until I was older that I realised the impact this had on my life.
What has inspired you to write a memoir?
I have always felt such strong admiration for my parents and the sacrifices they made to better their family’s circumstances. I love Greece; its people and history and I revelled in my mother’s tales of village life. One afternoon, as she recalled an especially heart-warming tale of cooking with my great-grandmother, I felt compelled to put pen to paper. I didn’t want these stories to be lost; to end with me. Who would pass them on? I had grown up listening to my parents’ stories, but I had never documented them for my children or future grandchildren.
I also wanted to capture something of my mother’s essence, her indomitable strength, wisdom and loving nature; to paint a picture of our time together in the garden and kitchen so that one day, I could revisit and relive the spirit and love we shared.
Through my garden adventures, that became dearer to me than anything, a new me was emerging and I wanted to share some of what I had discovered. Beneath the Fig Leaves really is a love story – it’s the best way of saying it.
We often hear people have the idea of a book but it’s many years later they actually write and publish. Was this the case for you?
I started writing in the 80s. I have published short stories and written two novels and a collection of inspirational verses. Beneath the Fig Leaves began as a series of journal entries penned during my visits with my mother over a period of one and a half years; it took several years of writing, editing and re-editing to bring the story together in its current form. But, like the garden through the seasons, everything has its time and place. Like most authors, I have persevered through rejections and held on to the belief that my love of writing was a gift and I couldn’t have such passion for it if it weren’t for some greater purpose.
To others looking at publishing and spreading the word, what three pieces of advice do you have for them?
Polish your work as much as you can and if possible, work with an editor. Be authentic in your voice – tell the story your way. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else or anything that’s out there. You are unique. This is what will connect you with readers. A big reveal for me was that not everyone is going to be supportive and not everyone is going to get back to you, but don’t take it personally, just keep going. Become your own taskmaster and cheerleader.
Be disciplined and committed to your craft. Join a writing group or try to connect with like-minded people. A lot of love, time and effort has gone into your project and it is important to honour and celebrate yourself and what you have created, and believe without a doubt, that the world is waiting to see you, to hear your voice and be inspired by your gift of love.