Interview by Margaret Reynolds, taken from Louis de Bernieres Vintage Living Text.
Why did the moment come when you changed your scene from an imaginary South America to Greece?
I was going to do five Latin-American books, including one about a dictator. But by the time that came along, Latin America had democratised completely, apart from Cuba, so the book would have been out of date – there was no one left. The Argentine junta had gone, Pinochet had gone from Chile, and Noriega had gone; there was really no one left apart from Castro. So that would have become an anachronism. And the other thing was that by the end of the third novel I realised that I was spending much too much time recapitulating what happened in the first two novels in case the reader hadn’t read them. And I thought, My God, if I get to number five, it’ll be entirely about what happened in the other books. And so I just stopped. In the meantime, I had written a novel about Yugoslavia which hasn’t been published, so I wasn’t in any case all the time in South America. And then I had a girlfriend at the time who was really sick of going on a summer holiday to France all the time. We used to take my Morris Minor over the Channel and drive around France. She said, ‘Please can we go somewhere else?’ So I said, ‘OK, you arrange the holiday’, and she chose Greece and this particular island, and when we went there the story of Captain Corelli just fell into my lap.
How? The idea just came to you?
Well, as soon as you get into the tourist coach, the tourist guide says, ‘After the earthquake in 1953,’ and that’s when you think, ‘What earthquake? I haven’t heard of this.’ That’s what got me interested. And then I heard stories about the Italian occupation and the massacres by the Nazis, and I heard that the Greeks and the Italians on the island had got on reasonably well, so it seemed an obvious idea really to have a romance across the national boundary lines.
You mention the earthquake, the occupation and the massacres. Did you do a lot of research for this?
I did. Much of that holiday was taken up with riding around on a motorbike, getting the feel of the place and spotting things, and when I got home I wrote to the librarian of the cultural and historical museum in Argostoli, which is the capital of Cephallonia, and she sent me a reading list, and really, it all started from there. And then fortunate things happened, such as a man turning up at my neighbour’s who’d been in the earthquake. I had to write to the Greek ambassador and all sorts to get information. It’s amazing what you have to try and find out. I mean, when was the Orthodox Easter Day in 1943 – and that kind of thing. I just did masses of reading and masses of talking to people. Much of the book is based on The Odyssey – it’s absolutely stuffed full with references to Homer – that’s just a clue for readers.
Captain Corelli doesn’t actually appear until page 188. Would you say something about this delay?
The delay was simply because I was setting up the scene. Captain Corelli has a pyramidal structure. It has a very wide base, with lots and lots of characters, including Mussolini and the Greek dictator, and as the story progresses, it gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it’s a little point. It’s just Pelagia and Corelli at the end. So the whole thing is a triangle, and that meant that Corelli had to come in later, that’s all. Really the book isn’t about him anyway. It’s about Pelagia and Dr Iannis.
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