Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bill Buschel, host of 91.5 FM's Cosmos Hellenic Public Radio, to talk about my short story collection, How to Get Into Our House and Where We Keep the Money. Our conversation ranged from writing to myths to why Greeks are “the happiest sad people.”
Below is the edited, condensed text of our conversation.
If you'd like to listen to the radio program in its entirety, click on the audio link.
Bill: Why and how did you become a writer?
Panio: I loved reading from a young age. I read ravenously. My cousin used to make fun of me because I spent an entire summer in Greece sitting on the porch reading. It enraged him that I wasn't going to the beach.
If you look at family photos from that summer, in every single one you'll find me reading—sitting in a tree reading, sitting on the ground reading, leaning against the closet reading. It's like Where's Waldo. I spent so much of my life reading. And then I think it's natural to want to emulate what you love. So around 12 years old I started writing stories. Back then I was more ambitious—I started a novel when I was 13. It was really awful, a Stephen King rip-off.
I wanted to be a writer from that age on but it's hard to make it, and so of course I had jobs, I worked in publishing for a long time and still do, but I kept at it. Short stories were both a way to hone the craft and to get more immediate feedback. It doesn't take that long to write a short story, and then it works or it doesn't. It's less daunting than a novel.
The way I think of it is a short story is like a first date. It doesn’t take very long. You might have a great time. You might hate it. You might be surprised. A novel is like getting married. It's a relationship. It takes years and years. So as a writer there's something really attractive about, "I'm just going to spend a week on this story."
Bill: Was there something specific, a person or a story or something you read, that suddenly it clicked and you said, a writer, of course, that's what I want to be.
Panio: When I was younger, I was reading a lot of genre stuff—mystery, suspense, fantasy, science fiction—and then one day I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I don't know how. Maybe English class? Somehow it got into my hands, and as soon as I read that, I thought, this is what I want to write. I just loved it. I joined the ranks of thousands of people who have imitated Hemingway. His writing was so beautiful and spare and simple. Hemingway is the master of the short story, of saying so much but not having to say it.
And then I read Fitzgerald and all the early 20th century greats, Henry James, etc. But… if you're going to be my therapist, there was one moment in ninth grade. We had these weeping willows around the pond near the school, and I wrote a simile about how the weeping willows are dipping their branches in the water like women washing their hair, and the teacher was so smitten with it that he read it in front of the class. Of course, nobody cared, because a bunch of 14 year olds don't care about weeping willows washing their hair, but I was so flattered and excited. Until then I'd been a very methodical, math-oriented student, just getting the right answer, and it was the first time I got attention for something that was creative and poetic. The fact that I remember that moment and forgot most of ninth grade means that it stuck with me.
Bill: It's funny because when I have these conversations with people, I almost always ask the question and very often I get “there's no real story behind it,” but then when I press them, there's always a story.
Panio: You're right. There is absolutely a story.
Bill: When was it that you realized you were no longer a wannabe writer, and how did that feel?
Panio: Well there's a kind of a paradox in that realization because when I was a young writer, I thought I was much better than I was. Oddly, I think your confidence dips as your ability increases—they're inversely proportional, though they shouldn't be. When I was 18, 19, I had a nice sentence or two once in a while, but in general, my storytelling was pretty weak.
And then I moved to New York City when I was 22, and I found that suddenly I could write about where I grew up, Massachusetts, in this way that I couldn't before. Something about the distance gave me this safe space to write about it, it opened it up, and I spent a year and a half writing these stories and got all that home stuff out of my system, and then I started writing stories about life in New York City with characters that were very different for me.
That’s where, I think, that infusion of imagination really changed the caliber of the writing. Even so, there were hits and misses. When I was writing my novella, about [six] years ago, that also felt like I had hit the next level of ability. You feel this as an artist, I'm sure you feel it as an athlete too. I took another step into psychological self awareness, suddenly I got into the heart and the mind a little deeper.
Bill: Well you certainly got into the hearts and minds of your characters in this book. [“I’ll Be Your Fever”] is my favorite story in the collection. When I reached the end of it I was weeping. It's such a powerful story, as are so many of the stories.
A couple of things kept going through my mind as I was reading the book. One was the whole idea of magical realism—that's not what this is, but there is a magic to the stories. I don't really know how to explain it.
Panio: Yeah, I mean it's certainly not magical realism in the traditional sense, but I tend to think of writers I really admire, and I try to emulate certain things. John Cheever has these magical moments, a sort of transcendence, where a character will have this sudden bursting affection for life. And of course terrible things happen in the stories as well, there's disappointment and discouragement, but there still is this thing, like that feeling you get some time for no reason where you suddenly feel this burst of optimism or happiness, and as a writer and as a person, I'm reluctant to divorce that from experience, because I think that's a fundamental part of why we keep going on.
Bill: Part of me goes to the idea of myth. I believe myths have survived forever because of something underlying in them, something that's universal and taps into the collective memory or the collective consciousness, subconsciousness, and I think in some ways your stories do that too. There is a universality to them, and yet there's a specificity to them also.
Panio: Thank you. Yeah, I'm very influenced by myths. In fact my novella came from a myth about a Greek king. He was incredibly wealthy and flaunting it, which never works out well when you're Greek.
Panio: Hubris, right. He's flaunting it, and so his advisor comes to him and say, "You're in trouble, the gods are going to punish you. You’ve got to do something about this." So the king takes his most valuable pearl, this beautiful shining pearl, and he goes out on one of the royal boats. He's standing on the deck and he intentionally drops it into the water and pretends it was an accident. He cries, "Oh, my most valuable pearl." He's tearing out his hair and really carrying on, and then they take the boat back and he goes to bed and thinks it’s settled. “This is great. I totally pulled that off." The next day, the royal chef brings in the meal of the day, and it's this freshly caught fish, and as the king cuts it open, the pearl spills out.
That idea of trying to create your fate stuck with me. You can't. Your character creates your fate. In a way, that was what the novella was about. I had a character fabricating this myth about his repentance. It was a search for repentance, but it was false. You certainly can authentically find it, but he was trying to do it in a way that was a little manipulative.
Bill: Another thing that went through my mind as I was reading the stories had to do with my favorite movie of 2015, a Brazilian film by Gabriel Mascaro called Neon Bull.
Panio: I haven't seen it.
Bill: It's brilliant. When the movie ended, I just sat there wanting to know what was next. There was nothing extraordinary about the [events], but again there was that mythic quality to the storytelling.
I find really great movies are basically short stories that are woven together. I think of Ridley Scott: every scene in Alien is a story. Most of the movies that I really love are short stories woven together.
Panio: It’s why novels make for such bad movies most of the time, because there's too much in a novel, and then you have to cut it. You end up cutting the heart out. But with a short story, you can expand it.
Bill: In your acknowledgements, you say, “Thank you to my children Mathilda, Adele, and Roman who snuck into these pages as soon as they could speak, animating sentences with every unpredictable phrase.” That's such a great acknowledgement.
Panio: Thank you. They have such clever, funny, strange ideas. I have a note in my phone where I write down the things they say. The good ones—I mean, I'm not indiscriminate about it.
The other day Roman said, “Dad, if your name was Sarah Miller, you could go by your first name or your last name, but if your first name was Bob and your last name was Dragon, you probably want to go by your last name,” and I thought, if you give that statement to an adult, it's the start of a really fun conversation.
Bill: Today is the name day for Dimitrios. In America we don't have name days except if you're Greek or Greek-American. Did that go through your family?
Panio: Oh yeah. I always had to explain name days to my friends who were envious of them, because it's like a second birthday when you're a little kid.
There's a lot of Greek traditions—the red eggs at Easter, the Vasilopita at New Year's—that I’ve carried over into my family. My kids love it. They want to learn Greek. They can count to 100, they know the basics, but they don't know the real language. And they keep asking me, and I have to somehow make that happen.
Bill: Well there's certainly Greek schools all over the place.
Panio: I know, I know, there's no excuse. It's just my own laziness.
Bill: There are a couple of lines in this book that I just love and I'm going to read one of them and maybe if there's time I'll dig up some of the others. This one is from “I'll Be Your Fever.”
It was a small, but beautiful space with the endearing simplicity of a woman walking naked into the kitchen at night to get a glass of water.
I don't know what to say. It's stuff like that, that made me love these stories.
Panio: Thank you.
Bill: And there's a great part in the story where a bunch of the parents are getting together, and a gay couple, Jeff and Paul, are talking about how their son had once required his babysitter to watch him go to the bathroom.
“It was the only way he'd poop,” Jeff said.
“I mean the only way,” Paul said.
And so I tell him, “You need to get over it,” Jeff said, “because this habit's going to get a lot more expensive when you're 35.”
I was sitting there laughing out loud.
Panio: Yeah that was a dirty funny moment. I like writing dialogue. In dialogue, you get to be at your best, right? The funniest, most surprising, most profound you can be. I'd like to write a play one day. I think I would really enjoy it.
Bill: I do some writing and one of the things that I find that is, if I'm in the zone, it's like I'm not writing it anymore. Do you find that too?
Panio: I know what you mean. I never feel it in that absolute sense where people say, “I'm taking dictation, it's pouring out of me.” I'm always there. But there are moments when it speeds out of my fingers and then I think, “Where did that come from?”
I certainly don't feel like cognitively I'm inventing it. I feel like I'm editing it as it's coming out. Sort of cleaning it up.
Bill: Recently I’ve been doing a lot of flash fiction and I love the challenge. I'll sit down and write ten pages and then I’ve got to turn it in to 750 words.
Panio: That makes my heart race.
Bill: Yeah, I don't call it flash fiction anymore, I call it killing your darlings fiction. There have been times where that one sentence that I absolutely love doesn't really fit and I need to get rid of ten more words, and it's gone.
Panio: That’s a great exercise.
Bill: We're just about out of time. What are you working on now?
Panio: I’m writing a novel about a Greek-American family. It’s loosely based on my parent's experiences after they moved to America—my dad was 19 when he came to New Hampshire. They have children, raise them, and then move back to Greece to retire. Then the mother gets injured and the family comes back together for that.
It's been really interesting because I get to tap into all this personal material from growing up as a Greek-American that I haven't written about much. I've written about it in my personal essays, but in my fiction I haven't really delved into it until now, so it's very exciting. It's very emotional, too, though.
Bill: Oh, it's got to be. I've always said that Greeks are the happiest sad people I know.
Panio: Yeah, it is that mix of tragedy and comedy. They're inextricably linked throughout the Greek experience.