Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Marianne Apostolides

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On Writing, with Marianne Apostolides

Marianne Apostolides tackles a big subject in her new novel Sophrosyne (BookThug) — but it's not something you're likely to have heard of. Because the book is concerned with the titular concept, sophrosyne, an idea put forward by Socrates that has been pushed aside in modern society.

Read on to hear from Marianne about just what sophrosyne is, about the complicated nature of mother-son relationships as explored in her new book and belly dancing as a day job.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Sophrosyne.

Marianne Apostolides:

It’s a luscious book, but also somewhat intense and atypical…. I guess that also describes the protagonist, Alex, a young philosophy student who’s attempting to define ‘sophrosyne’ — the Socratic virtue often translated (inadequately) as self-control or self-restraint….

Sophrosyne is also the stage-name taken by Alex’s mother — a belly-dancer whose past is dark and unknown, revealed to Alex in teasing glimpses. She demands performance from him, intellectually and physically. He senses the urgency of her demands; it’s as if his performance might rehabilitate her past — the life she abandoned when she left Greece, alone and pregnant.

To put it more bluntly: Alex is attempting to define his erotic relationship to his mother, Sophrosyne, while also examining what ‘self-restraint’ means in contemporary culture.

OB:

The title comes from a concept for which we don't have a direct English translation. What does sophrosyne mean to you? And what role do you think it plays in contemporary society?

MA:

To me, sophrosyne is a state of gorgeous potency — one in which your appetites/ impulses don’t dictate your behavior or control your ‘self’…. Desire isn’t denied or bound; instead, it’s held and savoured… sensation and thought have time to merge… our actions, then, aren’t knee-jerk reactions to every stimuli. Instead, we are responsive to the needs/ wants of ourselves and our world….

Right now, sophrosyne doesn’t play any role in our society! That’s why the concept fascinated me so much…. If this book does anything, I hope it brings ‘sophrosyne’ back into our consciousness/ vocabulary as we ask a vital question: How do we deal with desire and appetite in contemporary culture?

This question is becoming increasingly pressing — especially as technology is incorporated into our bodies/ selves while the natural, physical environment hurtles toward collapse….

OB:

The mother-son relationship is a complex one, especially in the case of Alex and his mother. What led you to explore this dynamic in your novel?

MA:

I knew I wanted to write a narrative centred around a belly dancer (…I’ve worked as a belly dancer; it helped pay the rent for a while…). I was curious to see how I might turn the dance into a narrative.

I sat with that idea for a few years, without yet knowing the relationship/ conflict that would drive the book. Then I started to imagine this dancer with her son; then I happened upon Plato’s early Socratic dialogue called “Xharmides,” in which Socrates attempts to define the term sophrosyne. Once I read that strange little piece of philosophy/ theatre, the narrative started to fall into place….

I didn’t know who my characters were; I didn’t even realize I wanted to write such a highly erotic relationship. In fact, that tone shocked me…. I’d have days where I’d sit at my desk and wonder where the writing came from! But the eroticism of the mother-son relationship is as old as Oedipus, and much older. So I followed where the rhythms of the language took me.

OB:

There's a musicality to the prose in Sophrosyne. Do you consider prose and poetry to be distinct genres or do you see a blurring between the two in your work or the works of others?

MA:

There’s definitely a distinction, but there’s also blur/ blending, which is where a lot of interesting work is being done. Poetry and experimental prose tend to mess with syntax, breaking the normal flow of meaning. In writing that isn’t prosaic, the reader is brought to a heightened level of alertness; s/he’s alive to the risk and excitement of language — namely, its ability to draw us toward the origin of meaning/ thought.

OB:

Do you have any habits or rituals when you're sitting down to write? What does your work space look like?

MA:

Coffee is my ritual…! My best writing session starts at 6am. I make myself a double Americano — the first of several — and head directly to my desk.

I work in the corner of my apartment beside the window. I use a wooden chair from the Greek diner my grandfather owned in the 1950s; the desk is a crappy Ikea model — pressboard and melamine precariously kept together by extra screws…. The desk serves its purpose, though, which is to hold a row of my favourite books, a pile of paper, and a blue Bic pen. I compose by hand, not with a computer; the muscular connection is important to me as I write.

OB:

What have you been reading lately? If you could recommend one recent read to others, what would it be?

MA:

I’m currently rereading War Music by the poet Christopher Logue. I return to this retelling of the Iliad every couple of years; it sustains me…. I’m also reading A Century of Greek Poetry 1900-2000, translated by Peter Bien et al. I’m thrilled by the urgency in this writing — the risk and physicality of it. Finally, I’m dipping into Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism by Walter Burkert. I need this one for my next book….

OB:

What are you working on now?

MA:

I’ve got two main projects on-the-go: a new novel, and a play called Feast: A Modern-Day Symposium of Daemonic Proportions.

In many ways, Feast is the evil twin to Sophrosyne…. They were both conceived from the same pool of thought — namely, the notion of self-restraint in contemporary culture.

As for the new novel: all I can say is that it’s got an omniscient narrator — more of a presence than a person. After living with Alex’s idiosyncratic voice for five years, I wanted to write from a place of omniscience — and also humour. I’m having fun with it so far….


Marianne Apostolides is the author of five books and one play. She's a recent recipient of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship; her previous book, Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life, was listed among the Top 100 Books of 2012 by Toronto’s Globe & Mail. Her latest novel is Sophrosyne. She lives in Toronto with her two children.

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