PUBLISHED: 12:13 31 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:15 20 February 2013
Joy Hales meets award-winning writer Anne Zouroudi
For anyone who loves to read, theres no greater delight, after discovering a new writer whose book has held you enthralled, than to find the lead character youve come to like/care about features in a whole series. Having discovered Anne Zouroudis The Bull of Mithros, an intelligently plotted, beautifully written mystery set on a glorious Greek island and starring the elusive Hermes Diaktoros, it was a real pleasure for me to track back and read the five preceding novels, and then to make a note to look out next June for The Feast of Artemis, the final book in her series based on the seven deadly sins.
Because Annes scene-setting captures so perfectly the idyllic landscape of her fictitious island, with its Aegean blue sea and skies, sun-drenched land dotted with stone churches and little bleached white cottages, and scent of herbs wafting on the breeze, I was surprised to discover that she was originally a Sheffield girl and has been living and writing in the Peak District for the last eleven years. Indeed, as I drove down a grey Derwent Valley in a thunderstorm to meet Anne at Caudwells Mill, I couldnt imagine anything less like the island landscapes of her books.
Back in the Eighties, Anne tells me, she was the archetypal yuppie. She says: I had a job in IT, wore power suits and high heels and drove a smart black BMW. I worked on Wall Street, then lived in Denver, Colorado, and had a pretty exciting life. But, after six or seven years, I began to long for home and decided to come back to Britain.
On her return, Anne took on another high profile job, which sounded glamorous but was highly stressful, involving day trips to America for two-hour meetings. She was soon earning plenty of money but had no time in which to spend it and, by the time she was 28, had even developed stomach ulcers. However, she would not have made the life-changing decision to exchange her hectic schedule for the life of a writer if fate had not taken a hand. Deciding it was time to take a break, she persuaded one of her two sisters to accompany her on a holiday to a Greek island. She uses a Chinese saying to sum up the sojourn that followed: You never know when youre having good luck.
It was night-time when she and her sister arrived on the tiny island and booked a hotel. Describing what they found, she says: It was just chaos; there were grandmas and little kids, boxes of cabbages lying around the dock and people shouting. We were exhausted and were taken to a rather shabby apartment, where we just collapsed into bed and went to sleep. But Ill never forget the next morning. I opened the shutters, looked out on this view and thought Id died and gone to heaven. At that moment I decided that this was it; this was home.
Fate seemed to take an even greater hand when the sisters left their hotel. As they were walking round the harbour in search of breakfast, one of the fishermen who make money in the summer by ferrying tourists to beaches called out to offer a boat trip. Less than a year later, Anne was married to him. In the meantime, she had returned to England, handed in her notice and made two return trips to the island before moving there permanently in the January after her summer break.
Of course, life is never quite like fiction, and a Greek winter includes its share of rain, damp cottages and rats scuttering in the streets. Getting through the months until summer involved reading plenty of Dickens, drinking brandy in the mornings (as the Greeks do) and going fishing a lot, which sounds like an idyllic way to pass the time, even if, as she says, it was rather hand to mouth.
When Anne gave birth to her son Will, new priorities took over. After six years on the island and with the break-up of her marriage, she decided to return home to England and Sheffield. With a young son depending on her, she saw her return as a now or never moment and decided to commit herself to making a success of her writing. After leaving Sheffield High School, she had tried university for a while before realising that it was not for her, but she had always enjoyed writing and had even penned two novels one a gritty northern thriller based in Sheffield but they had not been accepted by publishers. Acting on the advice she now gives to budding writers that they should be prepared to accept rejections, she set to and wrote what became her first Greek detective novel, The Messenger of Athens.
Almost immediately after she sent off her manuscript to agents, her phone began to ring, bringing the great news that no fewer than three agents were eager to sign her. She chose Christopher Little as her agent and soon found that publishers Bloomsbury were keen to accept her book, which turned out to be the first of a series of seven novels, the fifth of which, The Whispers of Nemesis, won the 2012 East Midlands Book Award.
Anne believes that she was born to be a writer. If she isnt writing, she either feels guilty or is constantly looking around for new ideas. Greece has proved to be a major inspiration and her love of the country is evident; she is proficient in the language, which apparently has its pitfalls (depending on how you stress a syllable, its easy to confuse pencil with telegraph pole; ice cube with park bench; and boy with cucumber!), and returns each year, when she takes copious notes and photographs to help with her books. She is also keen to highlight the economic problems currently being faced by the Greeks and how we can help by holidaying in what is a stunning location. A further unlooked-for connection is that her son Will to whom The Bull of Mithros is dedicated has had to return to serve his compulsory National Service there.
However, Anne has written all her books while looking out over the Derbyshire countryside she cites a time when she was writing copy for travel brochures on places she hadnt visited as good practice. Although she would love to live part of the year in Greece, she also loves living in Derbyshire and would even like to try writing a novel set here. Her move to the county was another now or never moment that coincided with deciding on a school for Will. Ever since childhood weekend visits, Anne had yearned to live in the Peak District, so she bought her current house looking over the Derwent Valley and says that never a day goes by when she doesnt look at the view and think its a privilege to live here.
Annes approach to writing is certainly disciplined when her son was young, she would even set her alarm for 2am just to enable her to have some quiet writing time. She first writes a rough outline of a book from start to finish in longhand in notebooks what she thinks of as a pencil sketch then transcribes her first draft to computer and makes it readable. The third draft is the tidy and polish script that is sent to her agent, then to her publisher. The version that is finally printed may be the tenth or twelfth.
This attention to detail certainly pays dividends in the field of crime writing. Her novels are elegantly written with atmospheric descriptive passages; they are also cleverly sequenced, with no gaping holes or inconsistencies. As a reader, you care about her characters, whether that means concern for their happiness or the satisfaction of knowing theyve got exactly what they deserve. Fate always has a major role to play in her stories: Hermes is an attractive, enigmatic nemesis figure (is he really his gradually-aging namesake god who is still wandering the earth?) who operates by heart and soul and by understanding human nature and what people are capable of. Justice usually fits the crime and, as Anne confirms, the books work as morality tales as much as crime novels.
As we return from thoughts of sun-drenched Greece to a grey day in Derbyshire, the rain has finally stopped and Anne prepares to get back to The Feast of Artemis and plotting how Hermes will solve his deadly mystery of this series, based on the sin of gluttony. She already has plans for a follow-up series, perhaps based on the Ten Commandments, or even the seven heavenly virtues, and we can also hope that some enterprising television producer will realise that a crime novel set on a sun-drenched Greek island is a perfect combination to keep you company on a dark British winter night.
The Bull of Mithros is published by Bloomsbury, ISBN 1408819384, 11.99. www.annezouroudi.com