“I wanted to write about how someone changes over the course of a life, and how a culture changes.”

Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For November that debut is Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos, out now from Picador Australia.

Lucky’s is an exuberant, magical Australian saga about migration, mystery, tragedy and love spanning over 80 years. It is also about a man called Lucky. His restaurant chain. A fire that changed everything. A New Yorker article which might save a career. The mystery of a missing father. An impostor who got the girl. An unthinkable tragedy. A roll of the dice. And a story of love—lost, sought and won again.

Thanks for joining us for the KYD First Book Club this year. We’ll be back in 2021 with more fabulous debut books! Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.

Further reading:

Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Lucky’s in our November Books Roundup.

Read Andrew’s Shelf Reflection on his reading habits and the writing that inspires him.

Stream or subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Soundcloud / Google Podcasts / Spotify / Other (RSS)

Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!

TRANSCRIPT

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Alice Cottrell: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m KYD publisher Alice Cottrell and today. I’ll be bringing you our November First Book Club interview. Our pick this month is Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos, out now from Pan Macmillan. Lucky’s is an exuberant, magical Australian saga. A story of migration, mystery, tragedy and love. First Book Club host Ellen Cregan spoke with Andrew to ask him about the book.

Ellen Cregan: Hi Andrew, thanks for joining me today.

Andrew Pippos: Thank you for having me.

EC: We’re just going to start with a reading from the book.

AP: He still had time to make changes. Not to his nickname, which he could never shake, and not to his appearance, and there was little prospect of changing the flaws in his character, since the time had passed for great internal transformations, but Vasilis ‘Lucky’ Mallios supposed he could fix his own story—to be specific, how it ended.

Lucky sat tucked at his kitchen table, newspaper spread across the surface, stripping rigani from the stalks. The herbs had hung inside a cupboard for a week-not long enough to properly dry, but he couldn’t wait; this old ritual was necessary. It offered a moment’s accord with the past. He placed the stalks to one side and picked through the heap of flower-heads, plucking out grey twigs, as the smell drifted up like the spirit of someone dead. The apartment now otherworldly, dense with human life. He told himself we all have missing people: Our dead parents, or the spouse who left too soon, or the lover who betrayed us, the sibling who deserted the family, the friend we never found, the friend who walked away, the child we didn’t have, the person we couldn’t become the life we should have led. Or the missing person might yet arrive: The child we still could have, the family we were about to find, the lover or destroyer coming to the door. Lucky could briefly accept that his world was incomplete, and he waited for this moment to end before he switched on his television.

That afternoon he had rushed home from the bank appointment and straightaway cut down the rigani from the cupboard near the kitchen window. The expansive new apartment complex opposite looked like a tower with its pockets turned out. Lucky’s own building reminded him of a motor inn.

The Suncorp Bank loan officer had been kind when rejecting his application. The officer cited Lucky’s lack of income in the past twenty-four months, without stating that he was too old anyway to take on substantial debt. He possessed no assets; there was no loan guarantor. The officer said she liked the idea of a person starting over. She couldn’t be more sympathetic. Her parents, on special occasions, used to take the family to Lucky’s former restaurant in Stanmore. She remembered the jukebox, the fat chips, the decor like the set of a TV show. And she acknowledged Lucky’s later history, referring to the tragedy in your life’. If only Suncorp loaned on those grounds. At the end of their interview, Lucky admitted to the loan officer that her bank was the last in a list of lenders he’d approached. ‘What does that tell me?’ he said as he thanked her for the appointment, feigning concession, not wanting to come across sore, but what the final stop on his unsuccessful circuit of loan applications told him was this: The banks in Sydney were too conservative.

The light from his muted television faded and flared in the lounge room. An advertisement for a sports betting company ended and the middle segment of Wheel of Fortune began. They’d finished with the pointless speed rounds. The three contestants today all looked startled. They appeared miscast, thrown together behind the scoreboard. Lucky solved two puzzles before one of them even touched the wheel. Food: Bacon bits. Phrase: To go in pursuit.

Lucky Mallios scooped the rigani into a spiral jar and balled up the newspapers, sending green dust into the air. He got up when the phone rang, his eyes not moving from the television screen. Five beeps and a delay: An international call. ‘Lucky’s! He sang down the line.

EC: Thanks Andrew, that was really great.

AP: Thank you.

EC: So, very first question would have to be for those listening who haven’t yet read the book, could you give a brief summary of Lucky’s and what happens and what it’s about?

AP: Okay, well, it’s a novel that spans about 80-odd years, and there are several strands of narrative, but the main storyline focuses on a man called Lucky, or nicknamed Lucky, and we begin in his late teens and follow him through to his 70s. And in his 70s he has one last thing to accomplish. And the novel is also about the people whose lives he touches, and who in turn shape him.  The main milieu of the novel, I suppose, of course there are different storylines, there are different settings, but really the book centres around what might be called the Greek Australian cafe, a sort of obsolete institution that was once… you know, a, um… a sort of, kind of business that you would find on many suburban and city streets and in country towns. But no longer.

EC: This is a lovely revival of that, though, because I personally have never heard of the Greek Australian diner, and I’m, I now feel quite versed in it, and I’m really glad that I am. Do you have a connection to that former institution?

AP: Ah, yes. So the Pippos family, that was what we did, and my grandparents and my uncles and aunts, they were in, they were all in the cafe business, and you know, I used to visit those cafes as a child and, and it was a world that fascinated me from a very young age, and I always knew that my first novel would have something to do with the cafe.

EC: So this has been an idea that’s been in your head for quite a while in that sense.

AP: Yeah, I think, I think it’s been, it’s really been there from the very start. I mean, from the time that I wanted to be a writer, I think that the cafes were, my grandparents’ and uncle’s cafe, that was a place that I would visit very, very frequently, and it was a place where I would hear stories about the world, and stories about migration, and it was the place where I would, my relatives would talk to me about the Greek myths and literature, you know—it was the place where my imagination was formed. And everybody has a place like that, and so for me, it just seem natural that I would write about that world in my first book. But of course it’s not, Lucky’s is not just about the Greek cafes. It’s about all sorts of worlds and settings that intersect with the cafe.

EC: Absolutely. Something I quite like to ask on this podcast is sort of about the journey of the book from, from that first idea to the beautiful product that I have in front of me right now, and I think you do too, ‘cause you just read. So from, from the kind of first spark of an idea to to now, how did that play out for you?

AP: Well, it’s a long, long story…

EC: (Laughs) It’s always a long story, and I always love them.

AP: They’re always long stories full of, full of mistakes and, um, yeah, but it it’s always interesting, first novels are interesting and lots of, lots of reasons—just the struggle to, you know, this is someone who likes hearing about first novels, just the struggle to do it, and this, you know, the question ‘am I a writer, am I not a writer, will I ever be published, is this all for nothing…’ And then first novels are often, you know, not the most refined piece of work that a writer produces in our lives, but they often have a certain energy and a heat that later novels don’t have, that’s, that’s, I mean that’s, that’s a big generalisation to make, but I often notice that about debuts. Okay, so, it is true that a lot changed in this novel, and, like, I can talk about that, but some things did not change at all—certainly this desire to write about the Greek Australian cafe, this world that I knew as a child, that was my first experience of community, that was… like, it had a profound effect on me, and it was really the frame through which I saw the wider world. Um, and I also wanted to write a book about people… striving, how they responded to failure and success, that was very important to me. And I wanted to touch on, in certain chapters, the assimilation era in Australia, and I wanted to write about… like, how someone changes over the course of a life, and how a culture changes, and that would be strong along the whole trajectory of the Greek Australian cafe. Which, I dunno, I mean, there’s so many ways to date it, but let’s just say… from the late 20s to the 90s is really when they were, they were big, but they were disappearing by the early 90s at a rapid rate. And the heyday was probably the 50s and 60s, but I’m sure some historians would disagree with that. So look, that’s basically in the book, all of that stuff. But there was so many different stages of the book, there was so many drafts, and the characters changed a lot—there are many characters in this book, and I think they all went through radical changes through the process. Certainly Lucky was a very different person in those early drafts, and probably the second most important character in the book, someone called Emily, did not appear until halfway through the writing process, so I knew that there was a sort of a point where I realised that someone was missing, and it was Emily. And then the other thing was narrative time, of course the early drafts finished in the 60s, and then forward to the early 70s, so this is all like before I was born, and there was probably missing, you know, my own feeling for an era, and I realised that the story wasn’t quite long enough. So I, you know, I brought it, just expanded it by 30 odd years. So there were lots of drafts that involved… you know, just exactly how big this story is, and moving it around—the first draft was chronological, if you’ve read the book you know that the plot is scattered and not arranged chronologically. And it took a long time to get to know the characters. So I just persisted, and when there were times when I thought, this is not working, this is going to take months and months of work, or a year of work, you know, there was a point where I was just, you know, do I continue with this? You know, maybe I should just go write a novel about someone in their thirties living in the inner city of Sydney and you know, doing whatever I was doing in life at the time. But, you know, I always wanted to write about the cafe world. I always wanted to write a big book that had twists and turns and that covered a lot of time, and whenever I was at a sort of fork in the road, I just thought, ‘is there heat in this novel, is there something that’s dear to me, even though it’s a bit of a mess at the moment?’ And the answer was always just yes, you know. Yes, this is the, this is a, this is a milieu that was really important to me as a child, and, and it’s still important to me as a writer, so I’m going to just keep going. And well—the whole thing took about, the writing process took about 8 years. Now in that time I changed jobs, my father died, all sorts of family convulsions—I had a child, I did a doctorate, you know, lots of things happened. That list could, I could keep adding items to that list. Yeah, I mean. It was a, it was a long road, full of wrong turns, but also full of joy and these wonderful moments when you, you know, you sit down to write at 7 o’clock at night and the next thing you know, it’s 4 in the morning, you know, those moments when you make connections between storylines or between characters, or when you realise this problem that you’ve had, this problem with the narrative that you’ve been thinking about and thinking about, you finally figure out what it is, you know, how to put the solution in it. These moments are just, it’s just so blissful, like, writing is—writing is hard, but you have to love it’s difficulty. But I think writers also need to remember, just also need to remind themselves sometimes, there are so many moments of joy in the process, and yeah.

EC: That’s really good advice, and this is a very joyful book. Even though bad things do happen in the plot, but I just wanted to to say as well, you know, when I finished reading this book. I was almost kind of shocked that it wasn’t like a huge 800-page volume, because I felt like I read this massive, massive, really long book and I’d been immersed in this world for so long, and I was like, you know, I read that in three sittings, and it’s a pretty standard length book. So it does have this incredible feeling of like world building and authenticity in that world, and I just loved that so much about it.

AP: I think… Well, I had some good models for that. I also didn’t want to write, like, an 800-page book—I mean, I’ve read a lot of those, and I like, I like some of them too, but…the, um… I also really love novels like Commonwealth by Ann Patchett and above all, the Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, which are similar kind of…stories, novels that take place over many decades, but they’re only, you know, 300 pages, 350 pages.

EC: Mmm.

AP: And, so that was, you know, one of the things that I wanted to do about, I realised about halfway through was that I wanted to keep it as a certain size. And, you know, it’s for other people to judge how well I did that, but often when I read Joseph Roth, the Radetzky March, I see that these chapters are like, they’re just gems, like, his, his…even though he might move from one decade to another between chapters, you know, he’s gone into the world so deeply that you understand what’s happened, where a character is in their lives, and the sense of time passing, the effect of time is felt when you, when, when, when the chapter transitions from the one year to the next. So that was something that I thought of as a model, but, um… yeah.

EC: I think that absolutely happens in the book, um, and sort of on that note, I wanted to ask you about keeping track of those shifts in time, because we do have, as you said, you know, I think the earliest that you’re writing about is about 1913, and then you go all the way up to 2002, so how did you kind of manage the, the story moving through time so much?

AP: Um, well, what I had at the beginning, and I sort of mentioned this, that the first draft was chronological. So what I had was actually, like a kind of a cause-and-effect relationship between all the events, that starts really in the Benny Goodman chapters and takes you through to what we might call the Wheel of Fortune chapters. And… But what I did was, so I had, I had this plot that was basically, ‘this happened, and then because of that, this happened’, and so on and so forth. But because writing, ordering the novel that way would have emphasised the wrong things—like it would have been very Achilles heavy for example, Emily would not have turned up until halfway through the book, or two thirds of the way through the book. So what I did was scatter the plot, and the reader puts together the cause and effect. That’s, that’s something that they do as the story, the conversions between all the storylines becomes very clear, you know, some way into the book.

EC: It was very satisfying to see them all come together as well. I do have to admit I was, you know, when, when you see those lines crossing in a book like this, it’s just, it’s such a great feeling and it’s such a great reading experience as well.

AP: Oh good, good. I mean, I do like books where, you know, the reader is putting it together, the reader knows more about the plot than the characters, and the, and how everything fits together, so that’s what I tried to do here.

EC: So there’s also, as well as these multiple plots kind of running around, you’ve also got quite a bit of history in this book as you mentioned before as well. Did you do, as well as your recollections and the stories your family told you, did you do much formal research in the lead-up to writing this book?

AP: Look, there was quite a bit of research.

EC: Yeah.

AP: I think that, that looking at this, you know, I mean, yeah, if you read the book you’ll see that there’s so much going on. There are, you know, I can, a lot of the recollections were the things that I saw and felt as a child. The most important research is what I experience as a grown-up, what I know about love and despair and grief and so on—but also, you know, the stories that my father to tell me about playing cards at, you know, illegal gaming rooms and so on and so forth, I mean, I love those stories. I’m not a gambler, but I love those stories. And then of course, you know, I used to read, I bought a stack of issues of this magazine called Yank Down Under, which was a really well-produced magazine for American servicemen stationed in Australia during World War II. I read as much as I could about the poet Bion of Smyrna, there’s a, there’s a subplot in this novel about a failed classicist, and he’s working on the… the writing of a figure from the Hellenistic era called Bion of Smyrna, and so i read about that. I read a little bit about clarinet, and Benny Goodman, so yeah, I did, I go into these things, but who knows what I got wrong! (Laughs)

EC: What I loved and that I’d never sort of thought about so much before was, you know, probably to my detriment, is the—so, there’s the Achilles is the original Greek diner restaurant owner, and he’s the generation above Lucky, he’s Lucky’s father-in-law, and he’s kind of this like insane, violent person, but he’s so interesting, and I’d never really read that much about that generation of migrants to Australia, and you know, for the reason that they, you know, because of assimilation, I guess—so I loved reading about that and learning about that, even through this kind of awful character.

AP: Yeah, I mean they were…yeah, they were a different, they were a different type of, were a different type of person and, and, you know, in an island like Ithaca they all were, where they were, duelling was very common until quite late in the 19th century and vendettas were a thing. You know, they were, machismo was, sort of, a real curse on these men,  and they had ideas that were, ideas about masculinity that unfortunately were, in some cases disastrous for their families, and, I mean my grandfather, my Papou, he was, he’s a bit like Achilles, but I mean—I can’t, I shouldn’t overstate that. I shouldn’t overstate that.

EC:  I don’t think anyone could be properly like Achilles. (Both laugh)

AP: No, no, no.

EC: He’s quite a character.

AP: He was, he’s the character that people have—look, the book is only 2 weeks old, which is a really strange age for a book, but he seems to be a character that people have a lot of strong opinions about, like they hate him, or they find him fascinating, or…you know, that… Yeah, he is.  I think what I wanted, I mean, what I wanted to do with that character is just examine a very old, very old form of, kind of patriarchal behaviour that I think is, you know, its time, if it hasn’t come to an end already, it’s coming to an end.

EC: Mmm.

AP: And that’s what I wanted to follow with Achilles, I didn’t want to kind of, you know, worry about my grandfather’s so much, who was more complex, he was like, my grandfather was a more complex figure than Achilles but, you know, he did do some of the things that Achilles did.

EC: Mmm. Um, and then to move to the other sort of, oh, not patriarchal, but, you know, the main event, Lucky himself—He is this amazing character who is just like larger than life, and like I don’t think I will ever forget to him as a character, to be honest. When did you get the idea for Lucky? Like, where did he come from?

AP: I was interested in… He, he developed a lot. I was interested in this idea that… so Lucky is not the only person who perpetrate a fraud in the book, and there is a scene earlier in the book where Lucky pretends to be someone else. And Lucky’s a young man when he does it, this is not the sort of thing that a mature Lucky would do, but I definitely felt that when I was setting out to write the book, that I needed to become someone else in order to do this, that it would be that, the task seemed just enormous, and perhaps beyond me. And that was exciting, because I wanted to be someone else, you know, I wanted to be an author, I wanted to, to finally do the thing that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid. But yeah, I mean, that’s, that’s the sort of secret reason why that is in there. But I mean, who is he? And I mean, he’s many things, and what I will say is a bit, that… Lucky was a lot quieter in the early drafts. And I realised at a point, you know, there’s something missing from his character. You know, you reach these moments in the writing process where you have this problem, and it’s like a problem that you might have in a friendship. You’re thinking well, what’s gone wrong, how do I fix it? And you can go around like this for days or weeks, months, but there was a moment when I got a phone call from my father, and my father doing the writing, during the process of writing this book, he was dying of pancreatic cancer. But he was given four months but he ended up living 6 years, and there was a—he was, even though he was being battered by chemo and he didn’t know what the next scan was going to show, he had this incredible energy, and lust for life, you know, just as he was, just as he was leaving. And I remember getting this phone call from my father telling me about, like, he saw a drug deal go down at some park that he was walking through, and he was so excited to see this bizarre thing happening (Both laugh) that he’d never seen before, but he knew exactly what was going on, and he was describing all the way the people were moving and the things they were doing, and he would do this all the time, and you know, sometimes it would be something, something that he saw on sale at the shopping mall. And I remember putting down the phone and thinking Lucky needs to be a bit more like my father. He needs to have that energy. He needs to be, you know, really living—and that was the point where, that was the sort of breakthrough. There’s a way of discussing, I think, this book, and perhaps many other books, is discussing it in terms of breakthroughs in the process. And that was, that was the major breakthrough within, with respect to Lucky. But a lot of writers say this about their main characters, and I think… this next thing that I want to say is, it’s certainly true of this book, but it’s also true of other books. And, you know, Lucky really wants to find a way to be a good person. He wants to be kind, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. It’s not always a simple thing to do, but that’s, yeah, that is, that is one of his ambitions. And also, you know, part of that is finding family, finding the community that he never quite had in his life. That’s what he wants, and this cafe that he wants to, you know, establish right at the end of his life, that’s the vehicle for this…

EC: I love that you’ve been able…

AP: ..Family that he never quite had.

EC: Oh, sorry. I love that you’ve been able to immortalise that attitude that your father had, and kind of meld it into this character, because it just works so incredibly well, and I’m really surprised to hear that that’s something that got added in later, because that’s just so, you know, as you say it’s a breakthrough moment, but it just feels so integral to the character and to how the events play out around him.

AP: Yeah, I know—it’s funny when you talk about a book, and often when I listen to writers interviewed, they say ‘oh, you know, this element of the plot or this character didn’t appear until, you know, I worked on, until 6 months before I handed in the book’, and they’d spent ten years on the book or five years on the book or whatever. It’s kind of a, it’s mind-blowing in a way, and the (Laughs), it ruins the mystique around the writing process, you know, that everything is intentional, and everything is right there from the start, and it’s just a matter of work to get it out. But, I mean, that’s not how every book is written, and in the final product, everything is intentional, but… yeah, it’s not… it would be amazing if someone, you know, had an idea for a book that was, spanned 80 years, and they knew every aspect of the plot, and they knew what every character was like, and they was pretty sure which seems that we’re going to dramatise, and which they would summarise, which they would leave out. That would be amazing to have that kind of brain, but that’s not the brain I have.

EC: You’d need a lot of Post-it notes as well. (Both laugh)

AP: Look, I love Post-it notes, I’m looking at about seven Post-it notes right now on my desk. But look, there’s not enough Post-it notes in the world…

EC: There’s not, not in the world. (Laughs) So just to wrap up, I want to ask you about the book’s reception. Because as you say, it’s been out for about 2 weeks now at the time of our conversation, and it’s had a huge, huge response from booksellers, and people reading already. How’s that felt for your debut book to be received so lovingly?

AP: Well, um… It’s still, it’s a funny thing, you know, every day I wake up and I don’t read, I don’t read anything that’s written about me, unless someone, you know, someone would have to tag me on social media and then I would read it. But like, I’ve made this deal with my partner to read all the reviews before I read them, and only to, and then to just basically summarise the review. And if she thinks I really need to read it then I’ll read it, but I don’t want to! I just want to deal with this my own way and try to enjoy each day, so I’m enjoying, I’m enjoying the moment, and, and something interesting is happening, every day an interview or I’m getting an email from a reader or something like that. But when people tell me that they loved the book and it’s touched them in this way, or they identify with that character or this character, or they like what I’ve done, you know, structurally or they like a particular passage, or… that is really, it’s really moving. It really does touch me and it does… Makes me think, you know, wow, two years ago the whole idea that someone would be in this world I created and have any emotions to do with it at all, that was just a legendary concept. And so I’m still a bit shocked. I’m still a bit shocked that people are reading it, and that when someone expresses an opinion, you know, on Achilles or Sophia or Louis II, the pet snake at the end of the book, I’m just blown—I’m just, at first I’m just, what? Really? How do you know about that? But um, then it’s, yeah, it’s just hard to even say thank you and it’s hard to say thank you enough, and it really is amazing. I wonder… I don’t think I’ll ever be, I’ll stop being grateful and actually stop being surprised.

EC: Well you should, because it’s a really, really special book and I loved reading it so much, and I can’t, like, I think I read it just a little bit before it was officially released, and I was reading it like oh my god, I need to be able to recommend this to people. Like it’s one of those books that you can’t wait to get out and start, like, shoving it into people’s hands and telling them to go get it from the library or buy it or whatever, it’s really wonderful.

AP: Oh thank you, thank you.

EC: Thank you so much for making the time to talk to me today, I really enjoyed our conversation. And also just loved this book, so thank you so much Andrew.

AP: Oh, wonderful. Thanks, and look—thank you for supporting debut authors in this wild and crazy year. It’s, it means a lot and and the books that you’ve recommended this year have just been, all been great books. So I’m really glad to be included.

EC: It’s been an honour to have all those books, and yours too. (Laughs)

AC: That was the November First Book Club edition of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. Thanks to everyone who joined us for the First Book Club this year. We’ll be back with more great debut titles in 2021. If you’re in a position to, please consider supporting KYD by becoming a member. If you subscribe before Christmas day, you’ll automatically be entered into a draw to win one of five $100 gift vouchers for some of our favourite independent bookshops.

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