Courage, Odysseus: an Interview with Margot McGovern

Miriam Riverlea interviews Margot McGovern, an Adelaide-based writer and academic, about Neverland, her compelling debut novel, which draws on Homer’s Odyssey and other classic texts.

Late last year I read Margot McGovern’s debut Neverland (2018), a young adult novel with a compelling main character, an evocative setting, and an intricate web of intertextual references to both classical and classic texts.  It tells the story of seventeen year-old Kit Learmonth, a damaged young woman with a love of Homer and a compulsion to self-harm.  After a failed suicide attempt, Kit returns to her childhood home, a private island that has belonged to her wealthy family for generations.  Its official title is Learmonth Island, but everyone refers to it by Kit’s childhood name, Neverland.  When Kit was young she imagined the island being inhabited by pirates and mermaids, which her father wrote about in his bestselling book.  But since Kit’s parents perished in a storm at sea when she was twelve, Neverland has become a facility for damaged teenagers, run by Kit’s psychiatrist uncle. 

Initially, Kit resists treatment, preferring to party with her friends and return to her childhood world of myth and fantasy.  But as repressed memories of her childhood continue to haunt her, she comes to realise that she must do what Peter Pan never did –  grow up.  Instead, she models herself on the figure of Odysseus – a persevering, battle-scarred sailor, who returns home to find that his island kingdom is not the place he remembers.

I’ve written more about the classical allusions in Neverland in the OMC survey, and contacted Margot McGovern to ask her about the significance of Odysseus in Neverland, as well as other aspects of the novel.  I hope you find her responses as interesting as I did. 

1. Together with Peter Pan and The Great Gatsby, Homer’s Odyssey figures as an important intertext in Neverland.  How do you see Odysseus’ character, and his protracted journey home, informing Kit’s personality and psychology? 

Their connection is rooted in the Odyssey’s theme of homecoming. At the start of their stories, both Kit and Odysseus have survived a traumatic ordeal and are struggling to find a way back from that experience. While Odysseus’ journey is physical and Kit’s psychological, the questions they face are the same: How do I get home? And is home still the place I remember?

Kit also feels that, like Odysseus, she’s lived much of her life as a minor player in another hero’s epic (in her case, the hero being her father), and now finds herself at the start of a new story. Her story. She’s not convinced she fits the ‘hero’ role, so I gave her some of Odysseus’ cunning and strong-headedness, and a little outside guidance from her psychiatrist Dr Ward, to help her on her way. 

2. I’ve read that you were surprised when you reread Peter Pan as an adult you were shocked by how dark it is, and how different from your childhood memories of it.  Nostalgia, and its power to distort memory, figures prominently within Neverland.  Are we all at risk of misremembering our childhoods and the books we read when young?

I don’t know that we’re at risk of misremembering the books we love as children so much as we’re capable of returning to those stories with greater experience and perspective. In Kit’s case, she’s supressed memories of a trauma and uses the stories she loved as a child to create an alternate, fantastical history for herself in order to cope. One of her main challenges is to go back and distinguish between story and memory. But, more generally, I think revisiting the books we love uncritically as children is an opportunity to develop a deeper, more complex relationship with those texts. And the same can be said for the past.

Neverland, by Margot McGovern

3. Neverland appears to have an Australian setting, but it seems only subtly conveyed (via passing references to surfing and the minor soapie star Ethan Hale, straight out of Home and Away!).  Was the decision to limit cultural context a deliberate one?

Yes. The book is set on (the fictional) Learmonth Island, which is owned by Kit’s family, but Kit almost always refers to it as Neverland, and insists that everyone else does too. She’s determined to see it as an enchanted, storybook place, and wants the reader to view it that way too. So she very deliberately describes it in romanticised, non-geographically descript terms.

However, when I was growing up my family had a shack in Coobowie, a small fishing town on the heel of the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. Much of the coastline down there is rocky and windswept with a history of shipwrecks—as kids we were convinced the bay was a secret pirate hideout—and on a clear day, with binoculars, Troubridge Island and its lighthouse were just visible on the horizon. Our dinghy couldn’t make it that far, so the island became a mysterious, magical place forever beyond reach, and Learmonth Island is informed by those memories too.

4. Kit is well versed in Ancient Greek literature and language.  Was this aspect of her character integral from the beginning, or did her passion for the Classics emerge during the course of writing the novel?  And what is your own connection to the classical world?

A seventeen-year-old girl in crisis and Homer might not seem like the most obvious pairing, and I didn’t set out to specifically write a story that incorporates the Classics, but it’s something that became integral early on. Much of the narrative centres on Kit’s attempts to recover a lost world and her relationship with the Classics became a way to reflect and strengthen that.

For my part, I’m more admirer than scholar. I’m particularly drawn to the idea that Ancient Greek heroes aren’t necessarily ‘good’. They accomplish great things despite being as flawed and human as the rest of us. It makes their stories relatable in a way that transcends time and distance.

5. Kit makes her own translations of ancient texts, but her readings aren’t always correct, as in the way she misinterprets the allegory of Plato’s Cave.  Do you think we are in danger of misunderstanding the Classics as we adapt them?

In the instance of Plato’s Cave, Kit is being deliberately obtuse, but it’s fair to say that she appropriates the texts to suit her circumstances. And as a writer, it was really fun (and quite freeing), to give those texts to a teen character and see what she made of them. More broadly, I think the way we engage with the Classics necessarily changes over time and while it’s essential that we’re able to view them in context, it’s equally important to consider them with modern eyes and approach them with new questions. I’m excited by many recent translations and adaptations of Homer, and am a particular fan of Madeline Miller’s work. In The Song of Achilles and Circe she conveys a deep understanding and love of Homer, while also offering a modern critique and fresh perspective, and that friction between respect and critique in those books feels vital.

Margot McGovern

6. The novel’s depiction of self-harm is very confronting.  How did you navigate the challenges of representing this and other conditions like anorexia accurately, while avoiding glamourising such illnesses?

Because Kit is reluctant to see herself and her friends as unwell and she isn’t always a reliable narrator, it felt necessary to be quite direct in showing her self-harm and the way her illness and her friends illnesses affect their lives and wellbeing, as well as their relationships with family and friends. But I was also aware of the potential danger of taking things too far in the other direction and reducing the characters to their illnesses. It was tricky to balance! I tried to keep the characters always at the fore and to focus on telling Kit’s story, with her illness as part of that narrative.

7. Kit’s perspective dominates the narrative to the point that some of the other characters remain somewhat inscrutable.  I’d like to know a bit more about the figure of Dr Hannah Ward. 

Hannah is one of two psychiatrists on the island. There are hints that she, like Kit, self-harmed when she was younger, but she’s also the one character who resists being drawn into Kit’s world. So she’s a voice of reason—Pallas Athene to Kit’s Odysseus—but also someone with first-hand experience of what Kit and her friends are going through and proof that there’s hope for them, even if they don’t yet see it.

8. What are you working on now, and do you have plans to draw upon classical material in future projects?  

I’m currently working on a stand-alone YA fantasy. It doesn’t engage the Classics in a direct way, as Neverland does, but draws on several fairy tales and Greek myths about the afterlife. I suspect my work will always be influenced by those early stories that shaped me as a reader!

Thank you!

Miriam Riverlea

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