Greene learned to read at a very young age. Books became close friends and opened new worlds. She has always been a story-teller, introducing people to the joy of reading and exchanging ideas, where people could recognise and confront themselves through different characters. Greene feels that it’s important to face fears and conflicts but she endeavours to achieve this through stories which become symbolic.
Her first book, Shifting Islands, tackles the prejudice and limitation of a time when society considered women a means to an end, a property to be exploited and exchanged, something rather than someone with ideas, doubts and a free will.
She’ll be exploring these issues in more depth in her upcoming second novel, Shivering Land, where the protagonist will not only deal with the limitations of her sex but also with possessing unusual ‘gifts’, making sense of them and using them to her advantage. Readers will learn of a moment in History far removed from our time, but which is also hauntingly similar. Greene believes in the fact that antagonists are not always other characters but they can also be other things such as natural disasters or an event hidden in the past.
Hi Greene, thank you so much for joining me today. Can you tell me about your book, Shifting Islands and what inspired the story?
Shifting Islands is my first published novel and your first book is always like a baby. The sense of achievement when you see it becoming real is intoxicating! Its title is symbolic because it’s not only the islands (Malta, Crete, Sicily and England) where the protagonist lives at different times during her life that shift but also her identity. From the start, due to her father’s decision at her birth to raise her as a man, she has the advantages that a woman living during the 17th century wasn’t allowed to even dream about and we take for granted instead; things like education, the freedom to do what she pleases, travel on her own, meet people and, most of all, be able to choose her own path, what she wants and where she needs to be at various moments during her life. She assumes many identities and takes different names but I can’t tell you the reasons for this or it would spoil the surprise! She is lucky in a way, because in those times women were a commodity, a property and a pawn, with no voice, not even seen as human beings. Unfortunately, this is still happening during our time, in different cultures and places. Instead, she is able to rise above all that. It’s the story of a remarkable woman, living an extraordinary life, full of obstacles, adventures and challenges but, at the end, what she wants is to be herself, claim her name, her inheritance and a place where she belongs. They say that when you write a book, you open a window into a new world of inspiration, a different universe where you create lives. On this occasion, my inspiration came through my eclectic cultural heritage. I have grown up abroad and travelled a lot. I speak different languages and this enables me to empathise with people more directly, also your dictionary expands as well as your horizons. I consider myself a citizen of the world and I feel it’s not important where you come from but where you are going. I have a very interesting family, with a grandmother who was keen on telling stories about our ancestors, part of our family lore. She always said that we have several cupboards full of skeletons. Later on, I decided to unearth them and did some genealogical research that took me back to 1692 and I found so many interesting characters among my ancestors, a kind of private ‘Who do you think you are’. I guess my characters are inspired by that: the heroes as well as the villains but sometimes the villains are not even people but events, like an earthquake or a storm.
What are the challenges of writing a historical novel?
I would define my books Fiction set in History. I have always had a huge interest in History and I am very lucky because I really enjoy researching and finding out more about the times and places I write about. I like to make a story authentic. For example, I weaved some real historical people in to my novel as secondary characters. One of them is the painter Caravaggio. He lived in Malta for a little while, seeking patronage there, just at the time when my protagonist is an adolescent. Historically, the painter left Malta under a cloud and unclear circumstances. It’s quite plausible that he could have met my heroine and painted her portrait. What happened in the book could be the cause for Caravaggio leaving Malta. The challenge when one writes about the past is trying to make the story credible, for example, you have to make sure you don’t introduce or mention something that wasn’t used or hadn’t been invented yet. Most of all, you need to check the timelines, look at what people were wearing, drinking, eating etc. and only research can help you with that.
What’s your typical writing day like and where do you like to write?
I wake up always feeling motivated because I know that eventually a new idea is around the corner. Sometimes I get lost in writing and I forget that there is a dinner to prepare. A few times, I woke up in the middle of the night and I had to write because something new came to mind and I didn’t want to lose the thread of my thoughts by waiting for the morning.
My laptop is situated on a big table, in front of a huge French window facing my garden. I have plenty of light and a basil plant in a pot. My cats keep me company too and check on my progress, when not walking annoyingly on the keyboard!
How do you approach the writing process from first idea to final draft?
Ideas are the easy part for me, stringing them together in a semblance of order is the real challenge! They say that some writers are planners, while others are pantsers. I think I am a bit of both. I plan in big lines and broad strokes but when it comes to details, I am a pantsers. I let the story take control and my characters often run wild, with a life of their own. Sometimes my intention is ‘she is going to do this’ and then find myself writing something completely different. My characters often rule the roost and I have to rein them in, while they clamour to be heard. Then, seriousness kicks in and I make order among the chaos.
What’s your favourite word and why?
Serendipity. I like the sound of that as it makes me think about destiny, things about to happen, people meant to meet and share something significant that can last a lifetime or just a few days or even hours but they can change the course of events significantly.
Which authors do you admire?
I love Philippa Gregory, Kate Mosse, Wilbur Smith and Ken Follett as modern authors, but also classic ones like Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde and Mary Shelley, because of the way they paint the duality of human nature. For example, I feel that Dr Jekyll and his counterpart, Mr Hyde, are the opposite faces of a same coin. Is Henry Jekyll a dipsomaniac or a drug addict and is it his addiction which creates his counterpart, rather than a potion?
It’s a story which a writer could apply to any time and anybody, no doubt.
I also like HP Lovecraft and his idea of cosmic horror, as well as the stylishly Gothic shivers Edgar Allan Poe can still make his readers feel.
Do you have any advice to combat writers’ block?
Yes, writer’s block exists and, alas, it does happen to all of us. Your story stalls and your characters suddenly fall silent. What do you do? I treat them as I would a recalcitrant, spoiled, demanding child. If you give too much it will not be truly appreciated, he or she needs to miss you so you just take a holiday away from them. If I do, inspiration invariably comes back from any angle or direction at any time, like when I take a walk, or listen to a song or look at a painting or simply talk to the people who mean so much in my life, or, sometimes, even perfect strangers.
Which historical figure would you like to meet and why?
OMG! Where do I start? I’d love to meet the writers from the past I mentioned before, for sure. How wonderful it would be to listen to Oscar Wilde’s witty remarks, for example. I’d like also to meet powerful women who shaped History such as Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and Catherine De Medici. I feel that women are the focal point in my stories and that’s why I’d love to learn how they did it, how they managed, getting to know the real women behind their story and History itself.
What’s next for you?
I have completed a second novel, entitled Shivering Land, which is currently going through editing. I hope to publish it in the coming summer or autumn at the latest. This second novel is also set during the 17th century, at the backdrop of the Thirty Years War. The frame is much of an unknown reality: life lived mainly in a small town so far back in time in Southern Italy. However, I have introduced some elements of Magical Realism in my story. It’s about a woman who can do things that others can’t. She is also the victim of a deception but finds the strength to pursue the truth about herself and achieve fulfilment and freedom.
I am currently writing a third novel which starts on a beautiful beach in North Devon and it’s set in the 18th century, during a time where press gangs were kidnapping young men to serve in the Navy. The characters of the second and third novel are all descendants and relations of the heroine in my first novel. The blood connections are very strong throughout my novels but they are not a family saga or a series. That’s not my intention, anyway, but things can always change…
I have also written several short stories. A very brief one, which retraces Odysseus’ steps, has been published in an anthology of short stories. Currently, I am also trying my hand at writing horror. My take on horror is not of the slasher, gory and bloody type but the one where unusual happenings weaves themselves into everyday events and twist the fabric of reality. The monster can be any of us!
Do you have any other advice for new writers?
If you have a story in you, it’s time to let it out. Don’t procrastinate, or say “I’ll write another time/day/month/year”. The time is now. Give a voice and a life to your characters, let them run free and enjoy what they feel. They are yours, while you become theirs. Be disciplined and I don’t mean of the type “I have to write 3000 words everyday”. One day, all the inspiration is there and you write entire chapters, another day (or night) you might write a few lines. The important thing is that you write and be there with your new friends.