Paula Priamos was just a little girl when she decided she wanted to be a writer. Growing up with a Greek defense lawyer-father and a non-Greek mother (much to her very traditional yiayia’s dismay) made for quite an interesting story; interesting enough for her to have written personal essays in prominent media publications and publish her first book, “The Shyster’s Daughter: A Memoir.”
The Greek-American author was born and raised in California. Her paternal grandparents, who descend from Nafplio, were born in Los Angeles and had a marriage arranged through relatives in Greece. They fell in love, married, had children, and settled in the West Coast, where Priamos’ father and mother decided to start their family as well. When she was 16, her parents separated and her mother moved almost two-thousand miles away with her older sister and younger brother to a much larger home in Tennessee. Priamos maintained a life in California, studying English at California State University where she earned her Bachelor’s degree, and continued her education with the institution, receiving her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
Her first novel, “The Shyster’s Daughter,” is a memoir based on actual events that occurred over the course of her Greek upbringing, with only a few names and characteristics changed “to preserve the anonymity of others,” she says. Priamos spoke with Greek Reporter about her new book – a very personal story about her childhood – and the fact of being exposed to criminals at a young age, the criminals that her father defended.
Before your first book, ‘The Shyster’s Daughter: A Memoir’ was published, your personal essays have been in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. What made you decide to start writing about your personal experiences for public reading?
Writing about personal experiences has more of an immediacy to it than say a short story where things are made up. Some of the personal subjects I’ve covered in my essays like a woman marrying a man similar to her father or encountering racial tension while out running errands are situations in which many people may relate. I chose to submit my writing to major outlets because I wanted to reach a broader audience.
You incorporate a lot of your Greek upbringing into the book, even throwing in a few Greek expletives that most people – even non-Greeks – are familiar with. How important was it to you to include your heritage into the story?
My father was a real character, fearless and funny, the stereotype of the big mad Greek. So it was crucial that I include my Greek heritage in ‘The Shyster’s Daughter.’ Whether he was angry, joking or frustrated, a new Greek curse word always seemed to fly out of his mouth. Because of him, my Greek vocabulary is quite colorful. But I was also baptized Greek Orthodox. My parents were married at Saint Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles. At Christmas time my yiayia taught me how to delicately layer up baklava. We oftentimes Greek danced at parties. Greek culture is very much a part of who I am.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something that was encouraged in your family?
I was in the second grade when I decided to become a writer. My teacher assigned us to keep a journal about day-to-day events and I asked permission to instead write a story about an orphaned girl who inherited and ran her own 7-UP factory. She manufactured all kinds of flavored 7-UP, including Shirley Temples which at the time was my favorite drink when I went out to fancy restaurants with my family. She had many adventures in her factory. She fought off thieves trying to steal her secret formulas. By the end of the school year, my teacher ran off copies of my story and gave them to the rest of the students to read over summer vacation. Both of my parents encouraged me to be a writer. I was lucky that way, although my father was slightly disappointed that I didn’t follow in his footsteps and become a criminal defense attorney. Arguing with me, purposely taking the opposing view from my own was the way he and I got along. He loved to verbally challenge me, and I always took the bait. For us, it was far more interesting than small talk about our respective day.
Without giving too much of the book away, what was it like growing up with a Greek father who was a defense attorney, and being exposed to courtrooms and criminality?
One of my earliest memories is being carted around, piggyback, through a ritzy restaurant, hanging on to the shoulders of its charismatic owner. He was a wealthy client of my father’s. In the kitchen, out of sight of my father, the man snorted cocaine while he gave me my very first sip of wine. It was his strange way of acting paternal towards me. Months later that man wound up rolling his Jeep in a ditch out in the desert, killing himself. Murderers would call our house collect from jail. My bedroom window was once vandalized by a former client. I learned criminals come from all economic and social backgrounds. I also learned how to read people, especially the bad ones, and it’s rare when a person is able to deceive me.
How did the idea to write ‘The Shyster’s Daughter’ come about, and how difficult was it to share such a deep story with readers?
I’ve been haunted for years about the mysterious way my father died, and the phone call he made to me the night before. Writing about that call was not an easy thing to do. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share it with the rest of the world. Writing the memoir was my way of making sense out of what happened yet it also became an investigation into his entire career as a criminal defense attorney.
After your father passed away, you were skeptical of the way in which it happened, and your search ultimately ended up in writing the book. When reliving it, did you discover any new details that you hadn’t seen before?
I discovered a lot, not just about my father but other people in his life as well. Without giving too much away, there were personal threats made, some cover-ups, stolen money, a suicide, sexual abuse and more. It was all more than I was prepared to find.
What do you hope people will take away from reading ‘The Shyster’s Daughter’?
Most importantly, I hope readers are entertained by ‘The Shyster’s Daughter.’ I hope they are able to participate in my story, figuring things out along with me. I hope readers get a better understanding of what it’s like being raised by a Greek criminal defense attorney. A man like my father is complicated. He may have distorted the truth for a living, but he also had a moral side when it came to looking out for his daughter.
What are your plans/goals for the future?
I would love to see ‘The Shyster’s Daughter’ be adapted for film or television. I don’t think there are enough father/daughter stories out there, especially with a Greek backdrop. So much of what we watch from Hollywood is ethnically homogenized. I’m [also] currently at work on a literary thriller about crimes of passion. It’s a dark love story with a lot of twists and turns and yes, the female protagonist is Greek.
Paula Priamos currently resides in Lake Arrowhead, California, and has three stepsons with her husband, writer James Brown. For more information, visit her website: www.paulapriamos.com