Author, Screenwriter, and U-M Alum Christopher Cosmos' Debut Novel Covers Characters Caught Up in Greece’s WWII Fight
Author and U-M alum Christopher Cosmos brings alive the historical and personal drama of the Greek resistance during World War II in his new novel, Once We Were Here. When Greece refuses to surrender to Mussolini’s demand for occupation in 1940, the decision sets off a series of events that irrevocably alter the characters’ lives.
The narrative starts in 2014 in Michigan and is told by a grandfather to his grandson. By looking back in time and telling the story, Papou reveals the family’s resilience, romances, losses, and triumphs during the war. The novel is bookended by scenes at this later date. The grandfather starts the tale with a view of what life is like in Agria, Greece on the Aegean Sea before the war. Two friends Alexandros—Alexei —and Constantinos—Costa—have just turned 18, both born on the same night. Alexei is a fisherman and reflects on how a day on his boat feels:
It felt like youth to him, and like freedom. He was an adventurer alone on the open sea, the hero of his own story, the same as all the other heroes he’d grown up with. Achilles, Odysseus, Alexander… the men he thought about when he lay in his bed at night. The great men whose stories they still told. These moments alone with himself and his dreams were innocence before Alexei ever really knew what innocence was, and certainly long before he knew how easily it could be taken.
Soon Alexei, Costa, and their loved ones will be deprived of this innocence and all they hold dear.
When Greece goes to war, the two friends learn to be soldiers, and they have to rely on their strength. Amidst the challenges, Alexei, the more serious of the two, makes a joke to their fellow soldier, Koukidis, who is surprised to hear humor from a usually more serious Alexei. “What happened?” asks Koukidis. Alexei considers his question:
Being the son of a fisherman was a lifetime ago.
“The world changes us, Koukidis,” Alexei said.
He kept polishing his rifle—
“One day at a time… the world changes us.”
The characters do what they must to survive. They realize that there are many of these in life: “Moments when what they did mattered, because it changed everything else, for one way or the other. And that’s what our lives are built on, these choices, and these moments. English doesn’t have a word for it, but the Greeks have a word for everything. Kairos.” The characters make the most of these moments.
Cosmos is also a screenwriter and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I interviewed him about how he wrote his novel.
Q: You’re from the Midwest and are a University of Michigan alum. What did you study at U-M, and what did you do after you were graduated?
A: I’m a very proud Midwesterner, and grew up in Lowell, which is on the west side of the state and just outside of Grand Rapids! While I was at U-M I studied both English Literature and Film (with a sub-concentration in screenwriting), and then after graduation, I packed my car and moved across the country to work in the entertainment business in Los Angeles. I knew precisely zero people in the entertainment business before I left and had exactly one meeting, which was set up for me by U-M screenwriting program director, Jim Burnstein. The meeting led to an internship at a production company with a first-look deal at New Line Cinema, which in turn led to a promotion at that production company to being an assistant, then Creative Executive, then Director of Development. During that time and while working as a production executive, I wrote and sold my first screenplay, and that’s how my journey as a professional writer began.
I was also during that time working on the manuscript that eventually became Once We Were Here, and was even working on it as far back as my time in Ann Arbor and at the University of Michigan, which were of course also some of the most important and formative years of my life, both personally and creatively, and I’m very glad to be back and living in Michigan once again.
Q: Tell us about writing screenplays, and how was your novel different from writing screenplays?
A: For one thing, screenplays don’t take as long to write as a novel, which is one of the major differences! The other is that screenplays don’t always get made. In fact, they rarely do. One of the amazing things about books is that if you’re fortunate enough to be able to sell a novel, it gets published and comes out unless something really crazy and unforeseen happens. For movies, the opposite is usually the rule, and when something you’ve sold or been hired to write actually gets made and released, it’s the most fortunate exception.
On a more craft-specific level, screenplays are, of course, written to be filmed and not necessarily to be read by the public, and so it’s a little bit of a different language in that sense, in regard to what the end-goal is, but I actually think the larger and more overarching fundamentals of storytelling are fairly similar and universal across both mediums. I was fortunate enough to be able to pay the bills by doing screenwriting work as I was working on Once We Were Here, and hopefully at some point here soon, I might be able to flip that back around again and use what I’ve learned as a screenwriter to be able to adapt this novel and story to that medium as well.
Q: In your “Author’s Note,” you mention growing up as a Greek-American and hearing stories. How did you decide to write a novel on the Greek participation in World War II?
A: I first heard the stories about Greece’s participation in WWII when I was very young and going to the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church here in Grand Rapids. I’m someone who read a lot of history as a kid, and nothing I read made mention of these stories or this contribution—which is an imperative one and directly led to the Allies winning the war. We even have a holiday in Greece called Oxi Day that celebrates the Greek participation in WWII and rejection of the Italian ultimatum of either occupation or war, which is celebrated on October 28 every year. As I got older, I kept thinking I was going to find something that talked about these things, and these events, and these people who fought and sacrificed and the importance of what they did and gave and who they were, but I never came across anything, in all my reading, and so, at a certain point, I figured, why not me?
Q: The novel proceeds chronologically from the start of the war for Greece to the country’s surrender to Axis occupation, with the exception of the first and last chapters set far in the future in 2014. How did you go about reconstructing historical events while telling the stories of your characters?
A: Growing up as a Greek-American, I was fortunate enough to hear first-hand accounts of a lot of these events for as long and far back as I can remember, and so I very much hope that I both got them right, based on what I’ve heard and discovered myself, or at least as “right” as possible, in terms of what it was actually like and what the Greeks of 1940 and 1941 and beyond actually went through, and gave, and sacrificed. And also that the first-hand accounts and cultural connection have hopefully led to a very specific and unique type of passion and authenticity reflected in the pages.
Q: The characters really stood out to me as memorable and resilient. Alexei and Philia’s love story is especially poignant and captivating. What inspired these characters?
A: The most honest way of answering this question is probably the least helpful, because I believe as a writer the stories we choose to tell and characters we write about so often come from somewhere else, and not from us, and that we’re just chroniclers who put pen to paper for those stories to be written, and read, and shared. That’s of course the more vague and esoteric answer, but also perhaps the more honest one. The less vague and also less honest answer is similar to the one above in that I’ve spent most of my life hearing stories about these events, and the people who lived through them, and what they did, and endured, and who they were, and so the characters I’ve written about in Once We Were Here are an amalgamation of all those real people and stories put together and rolled into one in an effort to try to honestly and correctly represent as much of this time, and these people, and what they did, and sacrificed, and gave, as I possibly could represent in one story.
Alexei and Philia have a love story that I consider to be something that’s particularly and perhaps especially pure, and then the world and war comes and interrupts that purity and innocence, which is, of course, a much-too-familiar story, not just in Greece and during this time, but across the span of history and human existence. And so while I wrote something fairly specific, in one sense, I also hope, in another, that it’s something that could perhaps be universal and timeless, too. I think one of the great powers of stories is to be able to bring us all closer together, and I hope that the story of Alexei, Philia, and these times, and these events, as well as the other characters in Once We Were Here might be able to, in some small way, do exactly that and bring us all just a little bit closer.
Q: Did you have to do research for the novel? Did you travel to any of the places?
A: I’m someone that, for the most part, tells stories that in so many ways I feel like I’ve been researching for my entire life, for one reason or another, and are intrinsically a part of me, both culturally and emotionally, and I have been to all the places in the novel, with one exception. The trips when I visited these places weren’t as part of a designated “research trip,” though, but rather as the result of several trips I’d made to Greece over the course of the years of my life. I actually made a promise to myself that when it was published I would book a one-way flight and retrace the exact journey and steps of Alexei, Philia, and Costa, all in one go, and though that trip was of course interrupted last fall by Covid, I’m still very much looking forward to making it as a pilgrimage of sorts in the very near future.
Q: As a new novelist, did you read anything that inspired you? What’s on your stack to read?
A: I absolutely read as much as I possibly can, as that’s where so much inspiration and learning and goodness comes from for me. I just finished Amoralman by the brilliant Derek DelGaudio, and up next I have Cloud Cuckoo Land by the also brilliant Anthony Doerr. I also would like to give a special shout-out to four authors in particular, if I may. One of the most terrifying parts of being a novelist is when you’re turned loose and told to ask other writers for endorsement quotes and blurbs, and oftentimes it’s having to reach out to complete strangers and ask them to read your work. When it came time for me to do this, I made a list of four writers who were some of the biggest direct influences and inspirations on my own writing: Steven Pressfield, Paula McLain, Victoria Aveyard, and Caitlin Horrocks. They were all kind enough to read Once We Were Here and endorse it, and they each also have new works of their own out this year that I’d encourage everyone to check out! They’re some of the most amazing people and talented storytellers on the planet, and I’m so very grateful to them for their time and their kindness.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Releasing a novel in the middle of a pandemic has led to its own sort of unique challenges, especially for a debut author, and so I’m still very much trying to spread the word about Once We Were Here as far and wide as possible! My other goal is to try to sell the rights to turn Once We Were Here into a big, epic, and beautiful mini-series of love, history, family, and Oxi, to hopefully take advantage of the amazing tax incentives to film in Greece and on the banks of the wine-dark Aegean. My fingers are crossed, and we’ll see! I regularly post book and writing updates on Twitter @XristosCosmos and Instagram @christophercosmos and so please follow along and hopefully there’ll be more news shared there soon!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.