A Month with Starfish: Volunteering with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos

At York Festival of Writing last year, I was fortunate enough to meet inspiring writers from all over the world and one of them, Bev Jackson also lives in Amsterdam! We stayed in touch and I’m delighted to share the news that she has recently published her non-fiction book, A Month with Starfish. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for my blog:


Bev, welcome to my blog! You too are a writer abroad. Why and when did you decide to leave the UK and settle in the Netherlands?
Thank you! I left the UK when I was 19. I had never felt entirely at home in the UK, and when I discovered how open people were here in Amsterdam, I decided to stay.

You’re a translator, aren’t you? Did moving abroad influence your career choice?I’ve always loved languages. I taught English for a while, but translation was easier to combine with raising my children.

We met at the York Festival of Writing in 2015 and this year you published your book. Did attending the festival inspire you? If so, how?
I loved meeting other authors, with whom I have kept in contact.

Your new non-fiction book, ‘A Month with Starfish’ is based on your experiences working as a volunteer with refugees on Lesbos. Why did you go to Greece and what made you decide to write about your experiences?
Greece is my “third country” in a way. I speak Greek and love the country. I am disgusted by the EU’s treatment of Greece. Greece was encouraged to join the EU for geopolitical reasons, to serve as a buffer zone. Its messed-up finances were well known but studiously ignored. After the financial crisis, the EU finance ministers suddenly “discovered” that Greece’s finances urgently needed reform. I was furious at the hypocrisy. And then, when refugees started arriving on the Greek islands, European ministers blamed Greece for allowing people in, even though 90% are refugees from war zones. I am outraged at the callousness and racism around Europe. It was this anger that made me decide to go and help. I felt I had to do something. I knew it was an important moment in time, and that I needed to bear witness.

It sounds like it might be a very sad and distressing book to read and to write, was it?
Not at all. I had a wonderful time, and the book is quite light-hearted, funny in places. The other volunteers were inspiring, and the experience made me realise how materialistic my life had become. It was refreshing to get away from that. And my encounters with the refugees also gave me hope for the future: their warmth and gratitude. When our eyes met, it was a meeting of worlds. Still, I was very lucky that I did not see any people drown. If I had held a dead child in my arms, as some volunteers have sadly experienced, I don’t know if I could have written the book.

How did you decide on things such as; the length of chapters, sequence of events, who/what to include, the structure of the book as a whole?
I kept a blog. But a blog-based book can easily seem episodic. So I structured each chapter around a specific theme. I removed dates to “unbloggify” it, and added context and reflections. I mailed every passage mentioning someone to the person concerned to get their consent for publication. That was a lot of work!

Tell us about your writing routine.
Preferably I write in the morning. Then I take the dogs out, and after that I do my translation work.

How did you come up with the cover for your book? It’s wonderful by the way.
My daughter Tessa Rose Jackson (TRJ Illustration) designed it. The luminous life jacket represents a refugee as well as a volunteer, the little Corinthian curls in the waves evoke Greece, and the outline of the waves vaguely evokes the Lesbos coastline. Amazing!


You chose the self-publishing route. Was it difficult? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers wanting to be published?
I self-published because the issue is so urgent; it’s quicker. Also, I wanted to learn how to do it. The paperback edition was easier to format. I was incredibly lucky in my team: my daughter as designer, a wonderful editor (essential, even though I’m an editor myself), three critical beta readers, and a neighbour who did the HTML for the e-book. Normally the designer and editor would be paid, but because this is a book for charity, none of us is getting paid. All that help was vital. I’d advise anyone who wants to publish an e-book to either use zero formatting or to convert the entire text into HTML. And to read David Gaughran’s book, Let’s Get Digital! My neighbour kindly converted the text to HTML.

Most writers don’t enjoy the self-promotion aspect of their job. How about you?
In this case, the book is serving a more important cause. Promoting my memoir or a novel would feel more uncomfortable.

All the profits of your book go to Starfish, the voluntary organisation you worked for. Where can we download/buy the book?
It is on sale from Amazon, and on Saturday 19 March at 4pm I will be giving a presentation about my book at ABC Treehouse, 11 Voetboogstraat in Amsterdam. Copies will be on sale and I would love to see you there! More information about the venue here.

What is your next project?
There are several! First I will probably return to the memoir I haven’t published yet (one publisher told me I had to get more narrative drive into it) and try to … get more narrative drive into it!

If you could invite any famous people to a dinner party, who would you invite?
I would invite the Greek ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the American writer Joyce Carol Oates, the Indian writer Neel Mukherjee, and the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta.

Find out more about the voluntary organisation and how you can help by clicking on this link Starfish



About susancarey

Angela writes using pseudonym, Susan Carey. She has dual nationality, GB/NL and lives in Nijmegen. Susan has had short fiction published on multiple platforms and was a runner-up in the 2018 and 2017 Casket of Fictional Delights Flash Competitions. Her writing has also been published and performed by amongst others: Mslexia, Liars’ League, Reflex Fiction, the Casket and of course the wonderful Writers Abroad. In 2020 she published her short story collection, Healer. Tweets at @su_carey
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