Championing Odysseus, part two: an interview with David Hair

The second of a pair of in-depth interviews with Cath Mayo and David Hair, the New Zealand authors who have teamed up to write a trilogy about the lead up to the Trojan War.  It is called the Olympus Trilogy and published by Canelo Press.  Their first volume, Athena’s Champion, has recently been released, and so I have interviewed them about their process and decisions when writing fantasy literature that draws on classical mythology.  

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 interviewed Cath last time; now we bring you my interview with David.  

David Hair is a New Zealand novelist, known for writing fantasy set in interesting places.  His first trilogy, the Aotearoa series for young adults, draws on Maori mythology; the Return of Ravana quartet, also for young adults, is set in India, and features Indian mythology.  He likes to ground his work in mythology and history, to unusual effect.  Athena’s Champion is his first collaborative work, with Cath Mayo, who has also written young adult mythological fantasy.  I sent the authors a number of questions, and they divided them between them.  The answers from both are thoughtful and in-depth, and offer great insights into how writers think about myth.  Enjoy!  

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

I met Cath Mayo when we were both presenting at a Storylines event. She’d already written two YA books about a young Odysseus – which struck me as a great concept: Odysseus arrives in the Iliad as a fully formed hero, craftiest of the Greek leaders – I felt there had to be a cool backstory to be told, and Greek mythology was something I’d grown up with – in fact, mythology has informed pretty much everything I’ve written.

To expand on that: I’ve had eleven YA novels published, of which ten deal directly with mythology. Six of those are the Aotearoa series which draws heavily on the mythology, history and culture of New Zealand in an urban fantasy context. The other four are the Return of Ravana series, which I wrote while living in India, and re-tells the India epic, the Ramayana, also as an urban fantasy, using past lives to revisit incidents from Indian history.

Screenshot 2018-11-27 14.15.11
English: Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-1653. “Sahib Din’s illustration shows in grisly detail a fierce landmark battle. It takes place between Rama’s army of monkeys and the King of Lanka’s army of demons, as Rama (together with the only other human, his brother Lakshmana) fights to free Rama’s kidnapped wife Princess Sita. Following a gruesome series of hand-to-hand combats, the fortitude of Rama’s monkey army wins through. The illustration is not a ‘single frame’, but shows several stages of the battle alongside each other. For example, in this scene of battle between the demons and Rama’s monkey army, the three-headed figure of the demon general Trisiras occurs in several places – perhaps most dramatically at the bottom left, where he is shown beheaded by Hanuman. The ultimately victorious Rama is shown at the top left, splendidly coloured in blue, calmly contemplating the carnage.” PD-1923

My take on “Young Odysseus” would be quite different to Cath’s, though – I’m a fantasy writer, and her Odysseus books are historical fiction. I was also time-poor, having a lot of projects on the go, and didn’t have the time to research the idea thoroughly. It occurred to me that with Cath on the team, I wouldn’t need to, as she’s already a subject expert. I even naively thought that having two heads onboard would halve my workload (nope).

Anyway, I mulled it over for several months – during which time Cath and our respective partners all became good friends – and then approached her to see if she’d like to work together on a “Young Odysseus Fantasy Story”.

But being me – I’m irresistibly drawn to big concepts – I had a larger plan in mind: I saw it not just as one man’s story, but as a prequel to the Trojan War, with a new take on the Greek Gods – what they were, how they interacted with each other and with humanity. I summarised my ideas into a concept document, and sent it to Cath – it was 12 densely-packed pages long… and bit my nails in trepidation.

Thankfully, Cath was excited by the idea – even though my concept was a departure from her own vision – being in essence a fantasy story, not historical fiction. She’d been wanting to continue the adventures of Odysseus, but like me was time-poor. Perhaps she thought that two people meant half the workload…

So we set about planning what was now called Olympus – a process complicated by the fact that my wife Kerry and I moved to live in Bangkok soon after (Kerry was with the NZ government at the time). Cath and I gelled well as a team, despite (or because of) bringing quite different skills and style to the task.

In terms of how we work together, so far our method has been dictated by circumstance, in that Cath runs a business and writes when she can, while I’m a fulltime writer. We compile and agree a chapter plan, then I do the first draft – I write fast, at times shooting off on tangents. Cath then does the second draft, making it more cohesive, restraining my worst impulses and pulling it back to the agreed storyboard! We bat it back and forth a bit, then it goes to beta readers. Once they’ve given feedback, we both edit/revise it at least twice each, before we’re ready to submit it.

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? 

Yes, I have a BA (History and Classical Studies) from Victoria University in Wellington. But my primary source in this project was the “Encyclopedia Cath” – I only had to name-drop some event, person or divinity and she’d be able to tell me all the salient points! She’s very much the research geek of the team, and deeply immersed in that world.

My personal research was of a more cursory, online nature: old-fashioned “surfing the net” following names and events, cataloguing what I found, trying to work out if/how it fitted into our overall tale. Often our more left-field and unorthodox ideas came from that.

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

Some of the earliest books I read as a child were collections of myths retold for children, including Greek myth – the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion, Midas and many others. And my degree included papers on Greek history and one on Greek mythology.

I therefore had a hankering for some time to write in this mythos. The main issue was what topic, and how to fit it into my schedule: I’ve had a pretty full calendar over the past few years, having had 11 YA novels and 6 epic fantasy novels published since 2009.

So meeting Cath and “young Odysseus” resolved the question of “what project?”. Having decided that, the selection of the tales we wanted to work with was determined by how they related to Odysseus, and the origins of the Trojan War. That meant working backwards from the War to events like the Abduction/Elopement of Helen by Paris; The Wedding of Helen to Menelaus, and earlier incidents like the Judgement of Paris. We also delved back into the personal lives of our protagonists – like how Odysseus met Penelope, and gained the bow of Atreus; and other lesser known tales like the first Abduction of Helen when she was still young. All of these needed to be accounted for.

So we set about constructing a timetable of Greek mythology – it was like solving a badly cut and incomplete jigsaw. It was in that process that working with Cath was an especial joy – her knowledge of the mythos is so deep, that I only had to mention a name and she knew their history and place in the mythology. And she’s been to many of the sites that we use in the story, which was invaluable for making the landscape authentic, giving the more fantastical elements a solid grounding in reality.

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

In my degree, one paper was “Uses of Greek Mythology”, which was about mythology itself; what it is, what it’s really trying to impart, etcetera. In summary, it came down to four different things: (1) mythology can be (distorted) oral history; (2) mythology can explain the unknown; (3) mythology can teach through example; and (4) mythology can explore human psychology through symbolism. And sometimes it’s more than one of these things, or even all of them.

For example, Persephone and her abduction by Hades might be a just-so story explaining the seasons; but it can also be read as an exploration of the link between life and death, using divine embodiments of those concepts. Oedipus Rex might be remembered history, but it also might be a morality lesson. You’ve got to look at them from all sides, and make some decisions.

So when the source mythology can be interpreted so many ways – and Greek myth is so colorful, bloodthirsty and morally ambiguous to start with – I think it’s natural that we are constantly drawn back to it. Then you add in all the stuff about “western civilization” having its roots in Ancient and Classical Greek culture, and the continued pervasiveness of aspects of Greek myth in modern culture is thoroughly understandable.

Cover art athenas_champion-amazon
Athena’s Champion

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?)

Our goal for this series was to write a prequel to the Trojan War that’s (1) consistent with the major events of the Iliad and all related mythology in a logical sequential way; (2) consistent with the fragments of known history for the period; (3) consistent with our vision on the nature of the gods and magic.

We’re nothing if not ambitious.

When we sat down to see if that was even possible, the first thing that’s clear is that even canonical stories can have wild variations, and some of them are impossibly contradictory. For example, the tale of Penelope and her suitors (the men wooing her when they think Odysseus is dead) in the Odyssey: the canonical version is that she is strictly faithful to her missing husband – but in some versions she’s seduced by Hermes; or she even sleeps with all of the suitors and gives birth to the god Pan! So we had to make up our own minds from what was on offer. Sometimes that led to some huge leaps of imagination that really propelled our story forward.

So in answer to whether we fudged things, I think I can say that pretty much everything in our story is in the mythology somewhere, even if only implied: though sometimes we’ve gone with a non-canonical variant. For example, in the Iliad, Odysseus is occasionally slandered by being called the “son of Sisyphus”. He denies it, it’s never proven, but what an irresistible plot hook! And Odysseus’s role in the whole thing is enlarged, of course – we’ve thrown him into various tales in which traditionally he plays no part – but he did get that reputation for cunning somehow

All that geeky research work is behind the scenes – the final story that our readers get is a cohesive, internally logical tale, fast-paced and dramatic. What that depth of research and adherence to source does give us – we hope – is a story that will please not just fantasy adventure fans, but students of the mythology and the history.

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?

In the past, I’ve thought of YA as being simpler, pacier and a little less intense. But increasingly, I would say there are less and less differences between YA and adult writing. My own YA books tend to be more complex than is usual in YA stories, and they have plenty of adult readers.

I think the reasons for this blurring of the lines is that attention spans – and windows of opportunity to read – are becoming shorter for most people, so books have to adapt: you can’t get away with so much scene-setting now; readers want (and therefore publishers demand) that books jump straight into the action, with simpler plotlines and linear, fast-moving action – not just in YA but in adult books as well.

It’s a sobering thought that under such criteria, The Lord of The Rings wouldn’t have been published today. After all, its opening chapters deal with a very gentle birthday party in a rustic place where nothing happens, followed by a history lesson from a garrulous wizard. There’s no real drama until about Chapter Five, as I recall.

It’s also notable that in recent years we’ve seen many YA books become hits in the adult market (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight), which suggests that the distinction between the two is becoming very indistinct.

Cath and I did talk about whether we wanted to write the Olympus series as YA or adult; but we settled on adult for two main reasons – (1) we wanted Odysseus to be entering full manhood, and becoming a fully-fledged hero and leader, not still be on a journey into adulthood; and (2) we wanted to let loose the full power and horror of the Greek mythos, which is replete with horrific acts of murder and vengeance, twisted sexual politics and some genuinely scary monsters. We didn’t want to water it down or pull our punches – and we didn’t.

–David Hair, interviewed by Elizabeth Hale

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