LOS ANGELES – Dr. Jim Birakos recently published his latest book, Unlucky Tuesday: Will Civilization Die on a Tuesday? Birakos received a doctorate from UCLA in Environmental Science and taught air pollution control planning and environmental science at the University of Southern California and at Pepperdine University. He has written 14 books – mostly concerning the effects and control of air pollution. Unlucky Tuesday is his first novel.
This interview with Professor Sharon Gerstel followed his book presentation for a series on Hellenic authors organized by the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture.
SHARON GERSTEL: After writing so many works of non-fiction, why did you decide to write a thriller?
JIM BIRAKOS: It has always been a core objective of mine. I wanted to introduce numerous Hellenic events that illuminated today's world and acquaint the reader with inimitable Mani. The historical novel was the best vehicle, and a thriller was the best means. Hopefully, the story is captivating and the reader travels with the protagonists, reflecting en route.
SG: How long did it take you to write this book? What was your process as a writer?
JB: Writing the book took about two years. The process was complex and deliberative. I had outlined each chapter in my head and had a good feel of where the story was going. Journeys to places mentioned were significant in structuring the plot. Research of numerous historical events and military tactics and weaponry was undertaken. Personal, intimate knowledge of governmental operations played a key role. The prewriting was brief, essentially a few paragraphs for each chapter. Discussions with friends during the process sharpened my concept and storyline. Writing followed, and again images lodged in my mind for each chapter sprung forth and were carefully described. My experience as a reporter added to the clarity I sought since I was able to see each paragraph as a reader would see it. The final editing and revision took the longest time. There, the story was tightened and given fluidity.
SG: Many of your characters are based on people you know. Tell us about some of the `real people' who appear in your novel and how they inspired the characters.
JB: Qualities and attributes of friends I met during my life's foray, unique and treasured, appear in the novel. For example, Stavros, the pirate taxi driver with his instinctive and skilled natural magnetism, was my Cretan friend John of many years. His awkward and inherent approaches always produced results. And if they did not, no one really cared. The German, Herr Wagner, was like the German judge I met aboard an ocean liner, informed about Socrates, but only when it suited him. The FBI and Homeland Security bureaucrats came across my life numerous times when I served on the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) committee. Captain Takis was a Maniates friend (Vasilis, his real name), who was subtle and forceful and a real hero. The barber was my childhood friend in Gytheio, and Father Michael of Redondo Beach is real and whose suggestion it was to have the icon of St. Nicholas go to the ground-zero Church of Saint Nicholas. Niko, the protagonist, is a constant keepsake of my son by the same name.
SG: There is a lot of information about the Mani in your book. What did you hope to convey to the reader about this region?
JB: Elsewhere, freedom may be a notion uttered but not lived, but not in Mani. There, it is inbred, inherited. It is not a theoretical virtue, an asset to be acquired. It is life. Maniates do not have to think twice about protecting their freedom; some mysterious trigger in their consciousness sparks an immediate reaction. This has kept the soul of Mani fresh. It has always been like this. A father becomes the example for the son; the mother is the tutor. And the daughter learns from her mother and in turn becomes the tutor for her sons.
That qualities of the characters and the stark landscape shape Mani's persona and fortify the values and the norms of the area. In my book I wrote that Mani was not forgotten by time, it forgot time, and by doing so, it held on to its traditions. Does unbounded freedom yield flaws? Yes, flaws and shortcomings like vendetta and hubris. But there are local procedures that can deal with these blemishes.
What I hoped to convey to the reader about Mani is that an isolated area has kept its prized traditions; that Greek history, past and present, reside there in abundance; that freedom will never be lost. That Mani is the real Greece.
SG: How much did your background as an environmental scientist play in your discussion of Greek fire?
JB: Control of airborne chemicals and contaminants at varying concentrations requires collection and analyses to determine their severity and how best to mitigate negative impacts. For a long period, my agency also assisted the Army in its demolition of imperfect munitions. Using these professional explosive contacts, and chemist-friends in nanotechnology, etc., and based on my own experience, I was able to piece all recorded data on Greek Fire and produce a correct formula. Of course, the missing ingredient from many earlier attempts to replicate the formula, was gun powder. Research into the work of early Byzantine chemists proved that gun powder was known to them. Its inclusion in Greek Fire was natural. Along with the other chemicals, the explosive nature of the weapon was the result of this ingredient.
SG: Both you and Linda Reid include Mount Athos in your thrillers. What is the lure of Mount Athos for a writer?
JB: The lure is faith and history, a place of mysticism. It is an unbroken link to our culture and heritage. Mount Athos is ageless. These are things that attracted me to Mount Athos. It was only natural to place official parchments there and to meet the old monk, keeper of the archives, to hear his story. While prayer and contemplation are the only items on the daily agenda, what do the monks really contemplate? The old monk in the novel was trying to save God.
SG: The St. Nicholas Shrine plays an important role in your book. Can you discuss your decision to link it to the plot resolution?
JB: Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, now named a National Shrine, was the only house of worship destroyed by the terrorist attack of September 11 – a Tuesday! The Saint Nicholas icon, the only road map to the `Kivotos' buried in Mani, led to its discovery. In consideration of patrimony laws that declare that anything found in or under the ground, even if not yet discovered, is owed by the government, it was best to return the portion of the True Cross to the monastery at Mount Athos that had the parchments, but to also strike a lending agreement so that once every three years the Saint Nicholas Shrine would display it. The fact that terrorists were involved in both the discovery of the Kivotos and the collapse of the Twin Towers made it a natural conclusion.
While I was contemplating the eventual placing of the chunk of the True Cross, and pondering the patrimony laws, Father Michael of Saint Katherine's in Redondo Beach, suggested Saint Nicholas Shrine. It was a perfect decision.
SG: Where do your characters go from here? Is there a second book in the works?
JB: A second book is being contemplated and it will also involve Mani. I have purposely kept the main characters alive and may, or may not, use them. First, I want to clarify in my mind the purpose and the plot of the second novel.
SG: How do you feel about the connections between your book and events that transpired – related to the book – after you had already completed it?
JB: The recent desecration of Aghia Sophia by Turkey drew comments to my book which prefaces with the desecration of Aghia Sophia at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453. I have received numerous calls that related the two occurrences.
Since then, additional desecrations of Greek Orthodox sites have taken place: a historic Greek Orthodox churches in the region of Bursa, north-western Turkey, have taken place; Turkey's decision to turn the Byzantine monastery of Chora into a mosque, etc.
If Turkey is unrestrained, these provocative events will continue. Although Muslim clerics have said that churches built for other religions cannot be converted to mosques, Erdogan follows a course of constant confrontation in pursuit of a neo-Ottoman empire.
Writing to inform and entertain a reader must turn to writing that educates a reader that actions like the ones undertaken by Turkey are giving birth to an awful age of barbarism.
Additionally, I am constantly surprised to hear stories of `Unlucky Tuesday.' Some claim that no contracts were signed by their parents or grandparents on a Tuesday; nothing of importance could transpire on Tuesday; that some even avoided going to work on a Tuesday.