Sometimes I’m so tired that I feel like I’m going to collapse,” Christy Lefteri says over Zoom from the bedroom of her North London home. She recently split from the father of her 20-month-old daughter, Evie, and is raising the girl on her own. The bedside table is piled high with children’s books, the default reading material of the new mom, who has been introducing Evie to the magic of stories while trying to write fiction of her own. “It’s been extra hard being alone a lot of the time, but I absolutely love being a mom—and a writer. I become emotional and sort of obsessed with what I’m working on. If I don’t feel that, I can’t really write.”
The daughter of Cypriot refugees, Lefteri writes intimate novels about global issues—war, migration, the refugee crisis—that explore the plight of humanity. Her three previous books (including The Beekeeper of Aleppo, winner of the 2020 Aspen Word Literary Prize, about a family of refugees during the Syrian Civil War, and Songbirds, about migrant domestic workers in Cyprus) have sold more than two million copies worldwide and have been translated into 35 languages, according to the Marianne Gunn O’Connor Literary, Film & TV Agency, which represents the author.
Lefteri’s new novel, The Book of Fire, due out in January from Ballantine, addresses climate change as it follows a contemporary Greek family—music teacher Irini; her painter husband, Tasso; and their daughter, Chara—who live in a village in an ancient forest and whose lives are upended when a fire erupts, decimating both forest and village. The villagers blame a developer who started the fire while clearing land to build a hotel, but he isn’t the sole culprit, as prolonged high temperatures created dry conditions that turned the forest into a tinderbox.
“How do we deal with situations where there’s someone to blame, but there’s also something bigger happening?” Lefteri says. “And how do we deal with that during times of trauma?”
The first time Lefteri saw an out-of-control forest fire in Greece was in 2017, when she was working as a volunteer at an Athens refugee center for women and children who’d been displaced during the Syrian Civil War. “I woke up one morning and the sky was filled with smoke,” she recalls. “There was a fire in a nearby town. It haunted me.”
Lefteri decided to write The Book of Fire in 2021, after another, bigger fire on the Greek island of Evia destroyed an ancient forest, killed more than 100 people, and left others homeless and physically scarred. She went to Greece for six weeks, while three months pregnant, to do research for the novel.
This included visiting the town of Mati, the site of yet another fatal fire, in 2018, and talking with still-traumatized locals, many of whom rejected the idea that climate change was responsible.
“Being there was overwhelming,” Lefteri says. “I wanted to leave, which I felt horrible about. Every time I write a book I feel guilt, about being able to go home, a home that hasn’t been destroyed, that isn’t a camp. There’s this thing that happens to me where I become frightened about life. I can be quite robust, but when I’m alone I feel the fragility of life. It gets to me. I find it hard to regain my grounding, but then I remember what other people are dealing with.”
Lefteri is disarmingly open about her personal life and displays a genuine interest in others, which makes her effective as a field researcher who’s willing to be the sympathetic ear. “Christy is one of the most caring and compassionate people I’ve ever met,” says Lefteri’s agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor. “She has a beautiful personality and a sweet nature. She worries about the world and writes with her heart.”
Born in 1980 in London, Lefteri was a sensitive child who enjoyed oil painting and stories. Her father, who’d been an officer in the war in Cyprus in 1974, came to the U.K. with Lefteri’s mother. Lefteri remembers her childhood home as a warm place, but her father, who she says had undiagnosed PTSD, was prone to outbursts. “That was the impact of someone not speaking about their trauma,” Lefteri explains. “I remember thinking as a child, what am I doing wrong? I still carry that. I’m constantly thinking I’m doing something wrong. That’s how unspoken trauma gets passed from one generation to the next.”
As she grew older, Lefteri became interested in writing as a way to express trauma. She worked for a time as a psychoanalyst, and in 2010 she earned her PhD in creative writing from Brunel University and wrote her first novel, A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible, about the war in Cyprus, as part of her thesis project.
“Writing really gets to my heart,” says Lefteri, whose characters often use art to cope with their troubles. “I think sometimes we have to go into our pain to overcome it.”
Anne Speyer, Lefteri’s editor, appreciates the author’s ability to make big topics feel accessible. “Christy is wonderful at taking things that you read about in the news and making them personal,” she says. “She also makes you feel deeply about her characters. That’s the key to a great story, and she’s done it with every book.”
Lefteri’s next novel will be about European women’s football and will be set during World War I and in the present as it explores women’s lives across generations. “The book is linked to what I experienced with my daughter’s dad after she was born,” Lefteri says. “I left like I had lost my independence, that everything was put on me. This book will be about women’s dreams, about how far we’ve come, and if we’ve come as far as we think.”
As evening sets in, Lefteri hears a voice downstairs and checks the clock. The nanny is about to leave and it’s time to get her daughter. The pair may go for a walk with their dog, Alfie. (An emphatic animal lover, Lefteri is “completely obsessed” with him.)
She hopes The Book of Fire will inspire people to pay attention to how humanity treats the planet and every living thing on it. “There’s a grief we feel at the loss of our environment, and we don’t often realize that it causes such sadness,” she says. “If we lose our world, we’re nothing. Perhaps this book can make people pause and feel. When we really feel, it can impact a decision.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.