From Mykonos to Lesvos

Billy Cotsis sits down with bestselling author Jeffrey Siger

Jeffrey Siger is a former Wall Street lawyer who turned to murder mystery thrillers. Having penned eight bestselling novels set in Greece, Siger has just released his ninth in a series based on Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis. On the island of Mykonos, Neos Kosmos sat down with the author of Murder in Mykonos and his new book, An Aegean April, to talk about his series and career change.

Having accepted, reluctantly, that I would not live forever and knowing writing was my true passion, making the decision to change my life was remarkably easy.

Sitting on the veranda of Rhenia Mykonos Hotel, overlooking Tourlos Bay, would you have ever thought this would be your life, Jeff?
I distinctly remember a summer evening when I was about nine, sitting on a wooded hillside in my hometown of Pittsburgh, watching a line of cars snake along a roadway on the other side of a ravine, headed down to one of the city’s rivers below. It was just past twilight, and as the drivers turned on their headlights in order to better see what lay in front of them, I began wondering much the same thing about my life. Yes, heavy thoughts for a nine-year-old, but nonetheless, that’s what the moment had me doing. Having said that, I can unequivocally assure you that of all the possibilities running through my young imagination, nowhere to be found among them was even the scintilla of a thought that I’d end up living on a Greek island writing mystery novels. Perhaps that’s because before I had the chance to ponder that possibility, my mother had called me home for bedtime.

Take us back to your time in America. You grew up in Pittsburgh and ended up in New York as a lawyer.
Growing up in the mill town days of Pittsburgh seems a lifetime away. I always seemed to have a job after school, or some class to attend, or a ball game to play in. Television was a waste of time, boys didn’t think about girls (or at least wouldn’t admit that they did to their buddies), and the random drug dealer dumb enough to come into the neighbourhood got his butt kicked. The focus was on family, and getting the children educated so that their lives would be better than their parents’. The Great Depression loomed in the minds of our parents, and subtly directed our lives. I became a lawyer because I had to have a profession, in keeping with my parents warning that only a profession protected you if things “ever went bad again.” And taking a job with a major Wall Street law firm, after finishing law school in Boston, was in keeping with their advice to “get the best job possible.” That’s my story… at least the beginning of it.

How does a successful lawyer transition to fiction writing? Why would you give it all up for the unpredictable life of being a writer?
When I decided to write full-time I was at the peak of my legal career as a name partner in a very successful and respected New York City law firm. Having accepted, reluctantly, that I would not live forever, and knowing writing was my true passion, making the decision to change my life was remarkably easy. Many who sincerely want to take such a step fear that making that change risks losing whatever status they’ve achieved in their society’s hierarchy. I’m not one who worries about that sort of thing; I believe your best years always are ahead of you. But I’m also a realist, and in making my decision I knew and appreciated that writing, as with any career in the arts, is a lousy way to make a living, but a wonderful way to make a life!

Your novels seem to have a commentary on the politics and current realities of the Hellenic Republic. Is this on purpose? How hard is it to find a balance between the fiction element and providing an insight into the country, particularly political affairs?
I never intended on becoming a chronicler of Greece’s trials and tribulations. I wanted to write what I thought should be said in a way that told the truth as I saw it about a country and a people I cared very deeply about. I’d promised myself not to write fluff, so I addressed serious issues confronting contemporary Greece that touched upon its ancient roots. The fictional elements of my stories just blossomed from there. For some unfathomable reason, my approach has led to much of what I write coming true. That label came out of my second Kaldis novel, Assassins of Athens, with a character whose life roughly tracked the formative years of Greece’s current Prime Minister, including a description of how he went about forming his political party. I wrote it long before he and his party became a public phenomenon, or I even knew of his existence. The most recent such ‘prescient’ example arose from a book I wrote five years ago, Mykonos After Midnight. It’s based on the preposterous notion of a casino and all that portends coming to Mykonos. Guess what? This month the big story on the island is the casino headed its way.

Today I met a charismatic man who runs the hotel, who happens to have the name Andreas. He even looks like the visual image I have of Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis in the series, is there a connection?
You don’t say? Wow. Never realised that… and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I think it’s important to bear in mind that we writers are inveterate body snatchers. We’ll borrow physical details from one person to fit with the personality traits of another in order to create a new character. For example, friends have told me that Kaldis and I share the same sense of humour and way of addressing problems. As for Andreas’s physical description, let’s not make life any more difficult than it is by giving a ‘charismatic man’ a big head.

An Aegean April is the ninth book in the series. It is set on my native Lesvos. What drew you to the island? What were your impressions of what you came across and how it informed the storyline?
Although I have many friends who proudly call Lesvos home, what drew me to base my storyline there was not its quiet beauty, storied history, sacred shrines, and legendary hospitality, all of which contribute to making Lesvos one of the most beautiful and enjoyable places to visit in the Aegean. What drew me there was the drama I saw in the desperate refugees passing through a largely pastoral island of less than 90,000 inhabitants. My friends shared stories of daily events played out among locals not used to processing such experiences, and of a Greek central government and EU seemingly at a loss over what to do, leaving local islanders largely to fend for themselves. Sadly, little seems to have changed, except for the (small) numbers of refugees yet held on the island, and perhaps the attitudes of some still trying to come to grips with what they’ve been through.

Does any of the story take the reader to my favourite swim spots of Melinda and Petra? I might be a bit brazen trying to promote the island!
You have every right to be brazen. Lesvos is a heavenly place to visit. Regrettably, I’d already written An Aegean April when we met, or I most certainly would have included your favourite swim spots… and likely fictionalised some of your carryings on around there that I’m sure Melinda and Petra locals would love to share stories about a favourite son.

There are 227 inhabited islands, and this is the ninth island that has been a focal point; will Kaldis get around to a few more islands, and what are your plans for him now that he is a family man?
It always seems to me that there are more than 227 inhabited islands. Probably because there are 6,000 in total, and some of the uninhabited ones manage to work their way into my books. As for plans for Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, let’s just say that he creates his own destiny. I just write what he tells me is happening in his life. In fact, the same holds true for all my characters. True, Kaldis is my dominant character, an Athens-born second-generation cop, and a politically incorrect, honest observer of his times, who endures and grows, despite all that life and the powerful throw at him and his beloved country. One could properly say he is the orchestral conductor of my books, but without the plethora of other characters: good, bad, and venal; there would be no music.

Your attention to police procedure alone seems meticulous and allows the reader to feel as though they are part of the police team. Is this deliberate? Is it also a result of your background?
I’m glad to hear that you see my work as including the reader as part of the police team, for that’s my goal, but I’ve never been arrested, if that’s what you’re implying. However, as a lawyer in New York City, I served as special counsel to the New York City Board of Correction where, among other things, I participated in investigating what correction officials characterised as prisoner suicides in city jails.

Aside from a catch up with friends in Mykonos, what is next for you?
Catch up is good. I just finished a standalone mystery, based in Greece of course. It’s a bit different and told in the first person. Now it’s on to writing Kaldis #10.

Jeffrey Siger’s ‘An Aegean April’ is out now and available at bookstores, on Amazon or via jeffreysiger.com/
* Billy Cotsis is the author of the ‘Many Faces of Hellenic Culture’.