Anyone whose debut short-story collection was hailed by Annie Proulx as "the literary find of the year" might feel tempted to swank. But it would be hard to imagine Panos Karnezis swanking even slightly. Indeed, Karnezis seems faintly surprised that he's a writer at all. Having spent eight years studying mechanical engineering, he only thought about writing fiction when he was 30 - and then never imagined that his first book would have such a high power-to-weight ratio.
Little Infamies, which appeared in 2002, delighted its publisher by selling around 8,000 copies - impressive for a debut in literary fiction, even more so for short stories. It also delighted readers with its atmospheric quirkiness. These loosely related stories are set in a generic Greece where centaurs and television sets co- exist. There's a parrot who appreciates the dactylic hexameter, feral children chained like dogs in their father's basement, and a Greek chorus of villagers - priest, landowner, doctor, bartender - with their enmities and secrets.
Indifferent rather than cruel, they are themselves subject to the vagaries of nature, the authorities, the weather. The first story begins with an earthquake; the last finishes with the deluge from a dam. It's tragic realism on the Aegean.
Karnezis arrived in England 10 years ago. Greece seems a universe away from the north London flat he moved into last month, just as his first novel, The Maze (Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99) was published. It does still have a Spartan look. Books are stacked against the wall; a computer takes pride of place. Karnezis believes he would not have become a writer at all had he stayed at home.
"I really thought I knew what I wanted to do," Karnezis explains. "I thought science was my thing." Although he read popular fiction from the age of 16 to improve his English, he decided to study engineering at university. But, after working in industry for some years, Karnezis felt unsatisfied. "I wasn't getting great pleasure out of it - not just in terms of the technical part but the business part and the meetings. It wasn't interesting."
Loneliness and boredom prompted him to start writing. Karnezis was living in Sheffield. One Christmas, he thought: "I have to do something with my spare time." Karnezis saw an advert in the newspaper for a correspondence course, "and that's how it started."
The course tackled the mechanics of writing. Set exercises - composing a poem, or writing 300 words about your mother - were sent to tutors for a critique. "Maybe because I'm an engineer I follow this kind of approach, of cause and effect. I'm used to writing scientific papers and I try to make my writing rigorous. I thought I had to learn how to do description and it appealed to me." He muses that, "people say it doesn't work, but it worked for me".
Having managed to save enough money to do a second course, Karnezis gave up his day job. He applied to the creative writing course at UEA, where the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was teaching.
Motion regards him as "one of the most interesting young writers around". At the time he was struck by Karnezis' short stories. "They were highly original, while obviously absorbing influences from South America as well as Europe; ingenious, scrupulous and resonant. Several of them linger in my head to this day. And the work he's done since then has been even more impressive."
It took Karnezis about 18 months to write Little Infamies: "My imagination feels like it has been boiling for a long time." Ideas came from an article read in the newspaper, stories his parents had told him, even classic Greek comic films of the 1950s and 1960s: "I'm a sort of rag-and-bone man when it comes to writing."
What's particularly impressive is that Karnezis - like Joseph Conrad before him - writes in English rather than his native tongue. "I left Greece and never wrote anything in Greek, so my literary language is not Greek. …