Championing Odysseus, part one: an interview with Cath Mayo

Cath Mayo and David Hair are New Zealand authors whose fascination with ancient culture led them to a shared goal.  They’ve both written young adult novels with classical twists.  Cath’s Young Adult novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow (written under the name Catherine Mayo) explore the life of a young Odysseus.  The Bow is analysed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey here.   Cath and David have just released their first co-written novelAthena’s ChampionIt’s the first in their ‘Olympus Trilogy,’ and marks a new venture for these two writers.  

Athena’s Champion is not aimed at youth audiences, but will likely cross over, and it seems timely to interview them both about their work bringing classical antiquity to modern youth audiences.  I’m beginning by interviewing Cath, and will post my interview with David in the next couple of weeks.  

Cath is an author, fiddle-player, violin-maker, sailor, mountain-climber, gardener and more (see her bio here on her website), who dreamed as a child of being Odysseus, and as an adult is writing his life from different angles.  Here, I asked her a few questions, about what drew her to working in this field, and where her work is taking her…  

Cath Mayo

 

What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?

My mum read Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey to me when I was only seven or eight years old, and I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Greece ever since – and with the complex character of Odysseus in particular. So choosing to write about a teenage Odysseus in my first two YA novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow, was a no-brainer.

My current collaboration with David Hair has flowed on seamlessly from that – we’re co-writing a series of adult fantasy novels called Olympus, which are also set in Ancient Greece with Odysseus once again as the main character. The first one, Athena’s Champion (Canelo UK), comes out this November.

My YA novels were built up from scraps of myth – the murder of Atreus by his brother, for the first book, and the brief account in the Odyssey about how Odysseus came to own his great bow “when he was still a boy”, for the second.

In our current series, David and I are using some more substantial myths which closely pre-date the Trojan War, to show how Odysseus’s skills develop as he matures into the fully-formed hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some are famous, like the Judgement of Paris, the sack of Thebes by the sons of the Seven, and the marriage of Helen. Others are less well-known – for example, the abduction of Helen by Theseus, the madness of Alcmaeon and the invasion of the Peloponnese by Hyllus, son of Heracles.

In the original tellings of these myths, Odysseus didn’t always play an active part, so the challenge has been to weave him in, so that he’s not just a bit player but takes a substantial role.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with audiences?

They’re wonderful stories, first and foremost, covering the gamut of human experience and emotion, especially for the people who feel the tales are embedded in their ancestry, and in their spiritual legacy. In a recent BBC poll of “The 100 stories that Shaped the World”, Homer’s Odyssey was voted Number One.

In New Zealand, we’re blessed with two main traditions, our European background and our Maori heritage. Through these we can identify strongly with our origins, both here in the Pacific and back in Europe. And now we have a much more mixed society, we are becoming more aware of the internationality of myth.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect? 

I studied Latin for five years at school and – rather to my surprise – used it at University where I majored in History, focusing particularly on early Medieval history, from the late Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity through to the 12th century intellectual renaissance.

Later, I went back to university for three years to learn Ancient Greek, with an emphasis on Homeric Greek, so I could read the epic poems in the original and get a sense of the Greek psyche through their own use of words and ideas. This has turned out to be hugely useful – not only did I gain a very detailed knowledge of the Odyssey, I can go back to the Greek text and look at the original words. There are some great translations around, but each scholar comes to the text with their own interpretations and agenda.

I also immersed myself, for quite a number of years, in studying the archaeological evidence for the Greek and Aegean Late Bronze Age, right through from the various datings of the Trojan War to the analysis of food residues on the insides of temple pots…

This led to several fruitful correspondences with archaeologists, whose patience and generosity never fails to amaze me.

When I can, I like to go back to the original Greek and Latin texts for the mythological content, and I like to use earlier, Greek versions of myths – once you get into the Roman mythographers, from Virgil onwards, there’s usually an anti-Greek political agenda in there somewhere!

Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth is an excellent portal for this – it’s a tough read, but Gantz outlines the evolution of each myth strand chronologically and gives impeccable source references. Robert Graves’s Greek Myths is a bit hit and miss in that regard.

Wikipedia is okay, especially for geographical overviews, but its entries vary hugely in reliability. The online Greek mythology site I really love is www.theoi.com and for the grittier stuff http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ and the online Loeb library https://www.loebclassics.com/

An inspirational text for Catherine: Barbara Leonie Picard's The Odyssey of Homer
An inspirational text for Catherine: Barbara Leonie Picard’s The Odyssey of Homer

How concerned were you with ‘accuracy’ or ‘fidelity’ to the original?  (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more ‘faithful’ to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?)

There are two aspects to this issue – the myths as stories on the one hand, and the social and physical settings of the myths on the other.

In terms of the myths, David and I both begin by working closely with the earlier versions of the stories we’ve chosen, but as we get deeper into the writing process, the finer details tend to get distorted, as we pursue our story and the characters we’re developing.

To start with, I felt bad about doing this, but Prof Anne MacKay at Auckland University reassured me. She explained that myths aren’t static entities – even in the earliest versions there’s quite a bit of variation, and none of it is “right” or “wrong”. Modern story tellers are also part of the myth-making process, so our own interpretations and variations occur within the tradition.

David and I were confronted with a particularly thorny example of myth variation in action when we were planning Oracle’s War, the second book in our Olympus series. The last part of the book deals with the sacking of Thebes by the Epigoni, the sons of the Seven, and it fell to me ( I get all the best jobs!) to work out not only who the Seven and the Epigoni were, but how they were all related. There are any number of lists, and none of them agree – one even includes Eteocles among the Seven, even though he was the enemy king of Thebes at the time!

And the Seven and the Epigoni had the nasty habit of marrying their aunts, which makes familial relations curious, to say the least. It took me a week to create lists that were coherent, and to draw up a useful family tree.

All this, of course, needs to be next-to-invisible in the final narrative, but it has to be done so that at least we, the authors, understand what’s going on…

Both David and I are also very keen on setting the physical aspects of the books in the Late Bronze Age, rather than the “Heroic Age”, an invented fantasy world that evolved, along with the myths, over the centuries.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are early examples of this “Heroic Age” setting. They have their roots in the Bronze Age but over many lifetimes of retelling, the bards of the Homeric tradition introduced elements from their own eras. So the “Heroic Age” is a huge amorphous potpourri of cultural elements spanning between five hundred and a thousand years or so, depending on the myth and who is telling it. Scholars have lots of fun deciding which elements in the Iliad or the Odysseus date from which era – Bronze Age, Dark Age or early Archaic period.

“Historical” accuracy is more difficult to achieve – Greece in the Late Bronze Age is described as “prehistoric”. For most people, this suggests something pretty crude, like “Stone Age” or “Neanderthal”. But LBA Greece was a highly sophisticated society. In fact, “prehistoric” in this context is a technical term, meaning that their society didn’t keep written commentaries on political events.

Although Greece at that time did use writing, what has survived was employed very differently. The Linear B tablets – at least those that survived the great palace conflagrations at the end of the period – record things like food rations for female slaves, or the number of chariot wheels the palace owned, or the amount of perfumed oil a deity would be given.

Fortunately other contemporaneous societies – the Egyptians and the Hittites – did record such things as treaties and diplomatic correspondence. So, through their eyes, we occasionally glimpse the Ahhiyawa or Achaeans – the term used by the Hittites for the Ancient Greeks of the time. This gives us an external historical context, which we can match up with the archaeological findings to some degree.

You have written young adult fiction before this project.  What would you say are the differences or similarities in writing for young adults vs writing for adults?

I find there’s not that much difference – both my YA books and our Olympus series are action adventure stories, so they have the same imperatives. The story needs to keep moving, cliff-hangers keep the reader hooked, the language needs to be vivid and uncluttered, and there’s plenty of contrast between the “talkie” sections and the action scenes.

Because of the older readership age, the Olympus series can deal with more complex ideas. And it can take the depiction of violence and sex up a notch – though both David and I hate being gratuitous. The word count is longer with adult fiction, which gives the story more room to expand, and the characters – especially the bad guys – swear more often and more pungently. I think it’s the swearing that provides the biggest demarcation.

Could you talk a little about your joint project–how it came about, how you work together …?

 

David and I met during a Storylines day a few years ago – we’d been selected as YA authors and took part in the same events. Between times, we chatted a lot about writing and about Ancient Greece, which we both love. That led to shared dinners and a thriving friendship.

Then David sprung the idea of co-writing the Olympus series. I’d played in bands for years, so the idea of improvising with someone else wasn’t new. But I had no idea how that might work with words, rather than music. Scary!

We plan a lot. David was about to head off to Bangkok to live, so after a first, pretty intensive weekend face-to-face, we brainstormed our way through a string of Storyboards on Skype, searching out how the story would feel, the way the gods and magic would work, and the overall shape of each plot. We also set up an Excel timeline spreadsheet, and wrote countless background documents about characters and settings and places.

This sounds a bit nerdy. But all that hard work behind the scenes should be invisible, so readers get a fast-moving adventure story and compelling characters who leap off the page.

I’d read a few collaborative novels before and they mostly have each author writing their own main character, so you get two alternating narrations. But we’ve got one main character and one point of view, so that wasn’t going to work for us.

David is a fulltime writer, while I run a busy violin repair business, so he does the first drafts – he’s brilliant at getting the guts of the story down fast. I love character-building and creating physical settings, and feeling the book growing and filling out under my fingers, so I work on the second draft.

Crucially, we’ve found the same voice. Either of us can chuck out or add in any number of words or ideas – we’re both pretty ruthless like that – but by the end of the process, I often don’t know which words or ideas are David’s and which are mine.

Thank you!

-Cath Mayo in conversation with Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Championing Odysseus, part one: an interview with Cath Mayo

  1. Pingback: Championing Odysseus, part two: an interview with David Hair – Antipodean Odyssey

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