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Kiki Denis: “I Am Inspired by Everyday Life”

Kiki Denis, originally from Greece, has lived in the United States since 1990. She holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College and an MA from Exeter University. Her first novel, The Last Day of Paradise, won the 2005 Gival Press Novel Award and nine script awards. Her second novel, Life is Big, is a ‘super-novel’. 

She lives in Manhattan with a man, two identical little people, one small Korean man, and 2479 books.

The National Herald: Tell us about your background.

Kiki Denis: I was born in a small Greek town Aiginion, located 25 miles south of Thessaloniki. I came to United States after high school to attend Mount Holyoke College. I received a scholarship which gave me the chance to escape my provincial life once and for all. At first, I felt lost, overwhelmed but at the same time excited and free. I majored in Economics and Philosophy. I was terrible in Economics. I remembered I used to spend hours on a single page that explained demand and supply for instance, but when it came to Philosophy everything made sense. Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals were comprehensible and really enjoyable.

After graduation, I wasn’t ready to go back to Greece, so I applied for a Masters in the UK and was accepted at the University of Exeter where I studied Psychology. My then-boyfriend (and now my husband) was in Boston finishing up his PhD, thus by the end of my Masters I decided to come back to the States and look for a job. I applied to different positions in Boston and New York. The only offer I got was in New York City in a fashion company that was about to launch a new line, ‘Theory’. Thus in the spring of ’98, I headed for New York City where I still live.

The first few years I found the fashion world fascinating; its glamour and fast pace matched the city’s magical energy. But a few years later and as I was approaching my 30th birthday I started questioning the meaning of that repetitive buzz at work. A friend of mine convinced me to enroll in a creative writing class, and so I did. That class marked the beginning of the end of my fashion career. The following year I took three more classes and a year later I began working on my first novel.

TNH: Tell us about your work, including your latest book

KD: My first novel, The Last Day of Paradise, tells the story of two Greek women, a mother and a daughter, and it’s set in two chronologically different periods; the 60s and the 80s. It begins with the 80s and the daughter, Sunday; a young, cool, confident teenage girl who leads a carefree life while her happily married parents (Chrysa and Yiannis) run their convenience store. But all that changes when on an ‘ordinary day’ when her father enters the store furious and grabs her mom from her hair, demanding to know if his only daughter is his biological child. Then we go back to the 60s and we follow the love story of Sunday’s parents.

My second novel, Life is Big, is set in NYC and it’s about an 11-year-old girl, Alma-Jane who is the most genetically happy person alive but due to a rare mutation is about to die. Her older brother, Ayrton, (who loves Alma-Jane dearly), declares war against Death in order to save his sister.

Life is Big consists of 11 chapters narrated by 11 different characters. Each one of those narrators contributes to Alma-Jane’s story and fate. There is Socrates, Alma-Jane’s dead grandfather, and Dr. Harvey, a neuroscientist who conducts research on ‘Pure Mighties’, lab engineered mice that lack a fear gene. Also, there is Sabina, Einstein’s Kunderian mistress, and Pablo Neruda, who builds bridges for a living and loves kite flying. What connects all these characters is the belief that ‘wise-thinking’ leads to a longer and happier future, and that it’s the only way to guarantee a “Life bigger than Death.”

TNH: What is your inspiration for writing?

KD: My inspiration for my writing comes from everyday life. My first novel, The Last Day of Paradise, is based on the love story of my parents. Of course, I added a lot of fictional spice to it, but the village where the story takes place is similar to the village where I grew up.

My 2nd novel, Life is Big, is primarily set in two worlds: in the land of the living and the in the land of the dead or afterworld. In both lands the protagonists are based on real people. For instance there is Maria Antelman who is a real person and a great visual artist and I am a big fan of her work. In the afterworld there is Nikos Kazantzakis whose work I was obsessed with when I was young.

Re-imagining a character from real life is fun and risky but I love doing it. Whenever I can, I reach out to that person and ask for her/his permission. Of course in the case of Kazantzakis or Einstein, it was a bit hard to do but I do hope they didn’t get offended when they found themselves in my novel.

TNH: What awards have you received?

KD: The Last Day of Paradise won the 2005 Gival Press Novel Award and was published by Gival Press. Life is Big was self-published and was a finalist in 2020 Readers’ Favorite & NY City Book Awards, among other competitions.

Also, I have written a script based on my first novel. That script has won nine film awards (such as the 2020 NYLA Film Festival & the 2021 Berlin International Art Film Festival to mention a few), and was a finalist/semifinalist in 16 more.

TNH: What comes next?

KD: Currently I am working on a science fiction novel with the working-title Charley. It’s the story of five teenagers (one of them is Charley) who live in a fictitious, Internet-like world and travel from site-to-site chatting, playing/learning. Physical interaction is replaced by electronic communication, thus experience builds via icons on the screen. In this world, language has a neutral form; it is free from any gender bias. There is only one pronoun used for the third person: it/its. Thus personal characteristics are purely associated with the person and not influenced by the gender of a person. I am in the first few chapters so I won’t say, more but it’s been a stimulating journey so far.

Also I just launched a film production company, 2GIRLS&1MOVIE, with Liya Kebede who is a good friend that I’ve known for years. We are in the process of making a short film, based on a short story by an Ethiopian writer. We are working on the script now while we are looking for financing. It’s an exciting process. It requires a lot of work but I am learning a lot.

TNH: Where can we find your books?

KD: On Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Kiki-Denis/e/B001JP36U6.

TNH: Tell us an eccentricity of yours.

KD: I like heights! I am not sure if that counts as an eccentricity, but if it doesn’t then here is another one: nowadays I am obsessed reading about CRISPR (editing genomes) and the butterfly effect (chaos theory). Also my favorite drink is water! It sounds simple and pretty plain but in my opinion it’s refreshing and very tasty.

TNH: What do you most desire in life?

KD: Besides health, I desire to meet intelligent curious funny people and build strong lasting friendships with them and learn and explore new destinations – literary and emotional senses – I also like to live at least 50 more years if not more.

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