Funny Bones–Geoffrey McSkimming’s Archaeological Adventures

Geoffrey McSkimming’s the author of the dashing Cairo Jim series, which I’ll be talking about on Saturday at the Our Mythical History conference in Warsaw this week.  In fact, the conference has begun, but while my colleagues are considering how children’s literature engages with the history of classical antiquity, I’m stuck in my hotel room nursing a lovely cold, and hacking cough.  I sound a bit like Cairo Jim’s learned friend, Brenda the Wonder-Camel, who intones quaooo whenever she has a deep thought. 

Anyway, as part of my preparation for this conference, I was recently delighted to interview Geoffrey, whose books are really entertaining and funny, and show how fun and scholarship can coexist in interesting stories for children of all ages.  And I’m looking forward to sharing his work with the Warsaw audience.  Geoffrey’s work can be found at geoffreymcskimming.com, cairojim.com, and 9diamondspress.com.  And the good news is that a new Cairo Jim novel is due out soon…

Here’s what we talked about. 

What drew you to writing archaeological adventure stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity?

I’ve always loved history and story, especially the classic myths. I was bitten by the Egyptology bug when I was a child and years later I took my first overseas trip, venturing to Africa and finishing up in Egypt. Here I was overwhelmed by the history and the mystery of this country and, after getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings, I came up with the world of Cairo Jim and his friends and adventures.

The Cairo Jim chronicles proved to be an excellent avenue for me to explore many of the classical myths, and also those pockets of history where things have become forgotten. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to put my own interpretations on what might have happened in the past, when we are now unsure of the actual events.

When I wrote the Cairo Jim stories I visited many of the locations and ancient sites featured in the chronicles. I spent countless hours in archaeological museums and wandering around crumbling ruins; visiting remote jungle areas and isolated Greek islands; climbing pyramids in Mexico and scaling the insides of them in Egypt. I lived and breathed the air breathed by the characters in my stories and I immersed myself in the ancient tales and myths that took place at these places. In these ways I suppose my literary style and idiom developed, with a healthy dose of outrageous humour and relentless irreverence which have defined much of my life.

GMSK Author pic Final © 9 diamonds press
Geoffrey McSkimming

 

The Cairo Jim books — 19 in all — were written and published over a period of nearly twenty years, and during that time I was able to explore many concepts to do with history and legend. Classical antiquity fuelled much of the world of Cairo Jim; it’s a world to which he’s passionately devoted. I think the series found its legs with the fourth story, Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods, which explores the concept of the disposability of big concepts, in this case being an entire belief system. What happened to cause the people of the time to abandon the Titan gods and take up the Olympians? It’s a mystery that Cairo Jim stumbles upon and one that he must solve before the world as we know it comes crashing down …

Where does the inspiration for Brenda the Wonder Camel come from?  (She is my favourite character—I aspire to be as good a scholar as she).

Brenda developed firstly as a plot device: she was an excellent way to inject information into the narrative (a Wonder Camel who, as a young calf, accidentally consumed all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and then retained every bit of knowledge from those tomes is worth her weight in gold!). But it was when I visited a school, shortly after Cairo Jim in Search of Martenarten was published, that I realised how valuable a character – indeed, how valuable all characters in a story – could be. A girl at this school, a student in Year Five, said to me that she really enjoyed the story, but there was one bit she didn’t like. It was the bit when Jim and Doris the macaw went down underground to enter the tomb of the pharaoh Martenarten, leaving Brenda behind, up on the ground. This young girl said to me (and the words changed the course of the chronicles): ‘In my experience, it’s always the quiet ones who get left out.’ Her words struck at my very soul, and I realised for the first time how important characters are to readers. Because of that girl, Brenda the Wonder Camel developed through the years with a wisdom and a quiet, strong presence she may not otherwise have had.

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

Because, with classical / ancient myths, the stories are rich and powerful and they’re filled with great characters. And they’re not afraid to push boundaries and show scallywags behaving naughtily. I also love sharing other stories and other writers with younger readers; hence Doris the macaw is frequently quoting from Shakespeare (and Mr. Shakespeare even appears in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And Phyllis Wong encounters Mary Shelley and the whole world of the creation of Frankenstein in Phyllis Wong and the Girl who Danced with Lightning. I love literary resonance, and sharing these things – I find that exciting. Stories can build on stories, and if that happens respectfully, the foundations of storytelling can only become stronger.

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?

When I started writing the chronicles, the internet wasn’t around, so my research was undertaken in libraries and museums and through as much travel as I could afford. I read many old volumes of classical myth and legend, which I still have in my collection. Also on my reading lists were books by explorers like Richard Halleburton, F W Schnitger, Percy Fawcett and others. And Evelyn Waugh’s travel books were a source of inspiration, especially for the times during which he made his trips.

Did you think about how aspects Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

Not greatly. I suppose the fact that so many of the stories from Classical Antiquity are such strong and entertaining stories, and that they still hold the attention after so many centuries, means that the stories continue to have real currency, and are ripe to be interpreted in stories such as mine.

One thing I try to share with young readers is my experiences of being in the places where the ancient stories played out: describing, for example, the smells of an ancient place and the appearance of the crumbling ruins as evocatively as I can, so that the readers can get a vivid sense of the setting and thus place themselves in the story, ancient or modern. In Cairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheus I recreated the House of the Perfumer at Pompeii after spending a lot of quiet time visitng the site, and I tried to evoke the ancient and the modern mystery of that place through the descriptions.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

The series I’m writing at present, the Phyllis Wong Mysteries, do use classical material in some of the stories. In Phyllis Wong and the Waking of the Wizard, the legends of Myrddin (Merlin) come to life when a sinister figure from the past tries to lure the great wizard into the present to bring down civilisation as we know it …

Anything else you think we should know?

Two things: 1. A brand new Cairo Jim story is coming soon, and 2. licorice and Gruyère cheese don’t go well together.

Noted!  Thanks very much, Geoffrey—we look forward to the new CJ novel.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

 

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Thinking about Nature with Donna Jo Napoli’s Fish Girl…

Like so many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nature lately–I’m sure don’t need to tell you why.  As part of the Our Mythical Childhood project, I’m thinking about how children’s writers and illustrators use myth to make sense of the natural world: what it is, how it works, how we live in it–how we should take care of it–what happens when we don’t.  Children are natural beings, and yet as adults, we’re aware that the human race has not done well by nature–seeing it as something to be plundered and exploited, rather than cherished and nurtured.  How we talk about it in their books has implications, and ramifications.  (It’s great to see children’s illustrators joining together to support children in their concerns about the environment.)

One set of myths that highlight our relation to nature centre on the figure of the mermaid–half woman, half fish–caught between worlds.  Stories like Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, TV series like H2O: Just Add Wateror films like Miyazaki’s Ponyo highlight human exploitation of the seas–through fishing, through pollution–and encourage a more respectful relation between both. Meanwhile Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid, as I’ve discussed, explores diversity and respect for difference.

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Fish Girl, a lovely graphic novel by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner, explores these ideas, and more, in a story about isolation, exploitation, and eventual escape and survival.  Fish Girl is the story of a mermaid who was kidnapped as a baby by a fisherman who found her in his catch. Seeing financial opportunity, he set up a seaside attraction in an old house, calling it ‘Ocean Wonders,’ posing as Neptune, the ‘god of seas and storms,’ and charging visitors $2 to ‘see the mysterious fish girl.’ The mermaid is captive in a large tank, which she shares with fish and an octopus, and which is decorated like a girl’s bedroom. The mermaid’s job is to play hide-and-seek with visitors, who try to see her in her tank, and to collect the pennies they have thrown into the tank. She has reached adolescence, and her best friend is a red octopus.

Eventually, the mermaid meets a human girl, and they become friends.  The tank suddenly seems more confining and lonely, and the mermaid finds a way to leave it, to join the outside world. It’s a lovely, but melancholy book, highlighting the melancholy at the heart of mermaid myths, such as the Little Mermaid, and reminiscent in places of novels of kidnapping and isolation, such as Room.  The melancholy story is supported by David Wiesner’s delicate illustrations–the colour palette, of blues and greens and corals, entirely appropriate, but also making glancing allusions to Disney’s Little Mermaid, or Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo.

Children’s books don’t have to be direct to make serious points–and Fish Girl invites us to think about the natural world–its power, and its fragility–our place in it, and our responsibility for it.

I took my enjoyment of this lovely book as an excuse to write to Donna Jo Napoli, to interview her for the Our Mythical Childhood survey.  Donna Jo is a widely published author and academic.  She’s a linguist and a teacher, has a degree in Mathematics, and on top of all that, has a voluminous output of retellings and adaptations of myths, fairytales, and folklore, as well as stories about nature and inspirational people.  It was a delight to interview her.

 

Interview with Donna Jo Napoli

donnajo2017

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

I think it started with my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Reynolds. She brought the old tales to life — all their passion and intrigue and misery. I got involved in the Latin club, and then in the Latin Forum of the State of Florida. I even ran a state forum one year. When I went to college, I didn’t follow up on Latin. But in graduate school, I had to pass a test in reading Latin. I decided not to prepare for it, but just go in and see what happened. I passed — after four years away from Latin. And that’s because Mrs. Reynolds was so terrific. The experience reminded me of how much I loved those stories. After that I went for years not doing anything with Latin. But in Spring 2013, a classics professor at Swarthmore, Rosaria Munson, and I co-taught a course on The Hero’s Journey. We looked at Virgil’s Aeneid, then Dante’s Divina Commedia, then Eugenio Montale’s poetry — all in the original Latin, then Old Italian, then modern Italian — talking about historical change in language as well as variations on the themes in the different works. It was thrilling reading the Aeneid again. And it was thrilling seeing the relevance of the old works to modern life.

In FISH GIRL I didn’t think of any particular myth. Rather, I tried to use the ancient feeling that the seas are full of potential. Mysterious creatures live and rule there. Ordinary understandings of how life works don’t necessarily hold. Though David and I didn’t put in any snakes growing out of heads or talking animals, we allowed the octopus to grow to enormous size and then shrink again, where emotions were the key to the size changes. And we allowed the fish in Fish Girl’s tank to recognize that she was somehow changing and to respond accordingly.

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

We know a great deal of facts about the world now, many more than the ancients did. But we still lack understanding of many things. For example, we don’t even really know how it is that trees manage to pump water up from the ground to their crowns. We’ve rejected osmosis as the answer — but there is no presently agreed upon answer. And that is a rather mundane thing — something happening around us all the time, but we haven’t a clue about what’s going on. We are much more in the dark about the arcane things. And the more we learn about both life on earth and space way out there, the more we recognize how little we truly understand.

The ancients tried to give reasons for everything… for earthquakes and tsunamis and lightning. They sought to see a comprehensive picture. And within that picture, they tried to adjust to the vagaries of human behavior. I think young people today would like a comprehensive picture within which they could make some kind of sense of the natural world and human behavior within it. It is comforting to see characters in the ancient tales struggle with the same human foibles we struggle with. And it is comforting to see that they too were stupified by natural events around them… different natural events from the ones that stupify us today, perhaps… but no less enigmatic.

3. 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?  

Ah, I answered some of that in question 1. For most fiction work I do that is placed in classical times, I use translations into English of Homer, Hesiod, and Apollodorus. I stay away from Wikipedia on this — although I love Wikipedia for many other things (it is a great source of information about languages and linguistics, for example, because the Linguistic Society of America urges its members to add information to Wikipedia and correct anything that’s dubious).

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers? Absolutely. I did a book for National Geographic called Treasury of Greek Mythology. In there I chose to present the stories that I most love. They were written in Greek, of course, and I don’t read Greek, so I had to look at translations. An interesting thing about translations is that the same story is quite differently translated by scholars in different points of history…. or that’s what I concluded from my very small and limited study. Looking at translations from the 1700s through today, I found myself making choices based on my own sensibilities — which is what I’m sure those translators did. I also read many of the stories in Latin — in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I suspect that Ovid influenced me most. Certainly with respect to the creation tale. Ovid’s words swirl and transform themselves, wonderfully evocative and still illusive. I aimed for that sense in my rendering of the creation tale.

4. 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?) 

Yes, this is a major concern I had, more so in Treasury than in Fish Girl, since Fish Girl was a character that David and I created in a more-nearly modern world. For Treasury I always used the details that were in the originals — I never changed them. But I added a modern psychology, which was a personal choice, but I expect that choice was unavoidable. That is, I cannot help but see the behaviors of characters as reflecting the way I, as a person of today, understand human behavior.

5. Are you planning any further forays into classical material? 

I don’t plan far ahead. Whatever I’m working on at the moment is my world. Presently, I’m deep into the world of the Ancient Hebrews. But I’m nearly finished with this project. Where I will go next is unclear to me. I have a story in my head set in India in the late 1800s, and I’d like to work on that. But interruptions happen — and I am always open to happy serendipities. Will I ever return to the classical world of Greece? I can’t know that — but the stories are eternal fonts of wisdom and pain — so I hope I do.

6. Anything else you think we should know? 

Ha! what a funny question. But I will answer it. People often assume that I know more than I know. It’s as though working with the classics gives you an aura of respectability and of nearly encyclopedic knowledge. The truth is, I bumble through things. I’m not afraid to deal with what I don’t understand, because I understand so little that if I let that fear stop me, I wouldn’t write anything. And, you know, if I fully understood things, I would have no motivation to write. For me, writing is a way of tackling problems, a way of trying to get a sense a peace. But rarely do I ever feel I “know” something or truly “understand” it.

 

Thank you!

—Elizabeth Hale

Hopeless Heroes–interview with Stella Tarakson

Last week I had the pleasure to meet Stella Tarakson, the author of the delightful Hopeless Heroes series.  They’re chapter books for primary school kids, and feature the adventures of a boy called Tim, who accidentally invokes the hero Heracles, when he breaks his mother’s favourite vase.  Mayhem and mischief ensue–Heracles is strong but needs direction, and Hera and Hermes are continually meddling.  (The first few books are written up in the Our Mythical Childhood survey …) 

Tarakson is from Sydney, Australia.  Her parents emigrated from Greece, and she talked with me about how the Greek myths resonated for her as a child, and now as a storyteller.  It was fascinating to hear her thoughts, and to think about the different ways that Greek myth travels around the world–to the Southern Hemisphere and back again.  Tarakson’s books are published by a British publisher, though I like to think a bit of Aussie quirk has made its way into them through her gently irreverent take on the heroic legends.

Hopeless Heroes, by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Nick Roberts
Hopeless Heroes, by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Nick Roberts

What drew you to writing the Hopeless Heroes stories?  How did you develop your particular literary style/idiom/aesthetic for your works inspired by Classical Antiquity? 

Being the daughter of Greek migrants, I’ve grown up on a steady diet of Greek mythology. When I was very young, my father used to tell me many of the tales – I suppose he was continuing the great oral tradition of our ancestors! Books came next, and I’m lucky to still have most of them. My parents were very keen to pass their culture and identity on to their children, especially in a new country far from home. Now that my own children are growing, I also feel the need to ‘pass it on’, keeping the link alive for future generations. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to share these stories with a wider audience, and it’s wonderful to have readers from all around the world enjoying my books!  My literary style is not traditional, though. I’ve also grown up with a love of British comedy, which comes out quite strongly in the Hopeless Heroes series.

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

The myths continue to resonate with young audiences because we’ve never lost our fascination with monsters and heroes. Greek mythology is filled with passion and excitement, the characters are larger than life, and there are continuing parallels with our lives today. The human condition hasn’t changed in thousands of years and I don’t think it ever will.

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 don’t have a classical education – I have degrees in Economics and Law from the University of Sydney – but I’ve always been interested in the classics. Once I started writing Hopeless Heroes, I decided I wanted to learn more. I’ve re-enrolled at USyd part-time and I’ve been studying ancient history and classical archaeology. It’s wonderful to be able to study something purely out of interest! My main source is Barry Powell’s Classical Myth published by Pearson. I also like the website www.theoi.com. And before I go on, I’ve got to say how thrilled I am to be invited to be part of your Mythical Childhood study. It’s an honour.

Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers? 

As you know, many Greek myths are rather Adult Only. I had to think very carefully about how to be age-appropriate, while staying as true to the myths as possible. I avoided the bloodier tales, and edged carefully around sexual issues. For instance, Hera hates Hercules (yes, I had to use the more familiar Roman name) because she’s jealous of his beautiful mother. Which is true. However, I didn’t come right out and say why! Even so, children learn a lot about Greek history and mythology from the books. Many teachers in the UK have been reading them to their classes as part of the class studies. I’m actually teaching by stealth!

How do you go about working with the comic/comedic aspects of classical antiquity?

I’ve incorporated comedy by accentuating the flaws of the Greek heroes and by placing them in unexpected situations. For example, Hercules is super-strong but not exactly super-smart. In book 1, which is set in the modern day, he insists on using skills he developed while performing the Twelve Labours. Sadly they don’t work so well when it comes to tackling housework and school bullies.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?

Yes, I’m definitely planning further forays! I’ve already had a few plays published in the Australian Readers Theatre, (Blake Education), that combine the classics with Australian history. I’ve written The Flying Finish, where Pegasus and Bellerophon enter the Melbourne Cup; The Gold Rush Touch, where a goldfields prospector succumbs to the Midas Touch; and Pandora’s Ballot Box, where a young girl encounters the suffragette movement. They bring the classics to life in a new way, and show that they are still very relevant and relatable today!

Anything else you think we should know?

The Hopeless Heroes books aren’t just retelling of the myths – that’s been done many times before. The stories begin when 10-year-old Tim Baker accidentally breaks an ancient amphora, and discovers that Hercules had been trapped inside it for thousands of years. Once repaired, the vase allows Tim to travel back to Ancient Greece. He befriends Hercules’ daughter Zoe (an addition to the traditional myths), and together they encounter famous heroes, escape bizarre monsters, solve baffling puzzles, and even defy the gods themselves. I only hope they don’t hold grudges …

Elizabeth Hale

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

 

 

 

 

 

Adventuring with Aeneas: Julian Barr and The Way Home

In which Queensland novelist and historian Julian Barr discusses his take on the Aeneid in his young adult novel, The Way Home, which explores ideas of exile and homelessness through the eyes of a young Aeneas.  I asked Julian about process, adaptation, reception and how the Aeneid plays out in a Young Adult context.  

The Way Home was published this year by Odyssey Books.  What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?

Virgil’s writing resonated with me in my late teens and I felt an urge to engage with the Aeneid creatively. I adored the sense of adventure. It was a classic quest with monsters, gods and epic battles. More than that, I loved the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. After a failed attempt to translate the story from Latin into prose similar to an historical thriller, I thought this was the end of the idea. Silly me! In 2013 I attended the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading and saw many panels on classical reception in YA literature. Yet the key moment came on my way home. At Heathrow I met with a lady from Bosnia. Listening to her harrowing story of tragedy and exile, everything came together: the Aeneid is a refugee’s story from a world of gods and magic. It’s about people who yearn for a place to belong. Even now this theme is all too relevant. This idea connected with the YA panels and The Way Home was born.

There are many challenges in adapting Virgil’s writing for YA readers, not least of which is crossing genres. For example, the poem’s lengthy exposition-filled prologue lacks the immediacy and pace you need for YA. It’s better to convey such information organically. Show, don’t tell!

Making Aeneas relatable for YA readers presented a further challenge. He is a husband and a father, not a modern teenager. I dealt with it by making Aeneas as young as possible—nineteen. In his bronze-age society it was normal to be married by the mid-teens, so it made sense for Kreusa and Aeneas to have a child of three or four. I also drew on personal experiences as a young dad. Some readers raise their eyebrows at the hero as a teenage parent, but most are happy to accept it as historically authentic.

How to deal with marginalisation of women in myth? Aside from Aeneas all my viewpoint characters are female. You’ll find goddesses, queens, Amazons, healers and fisherwomen in the story. As a social historian, I’m interested in how women can exert power in a patriarchal society. It felt right to explore this in the novel. Foregrounding female viewpoints necessitates looking beyond a military context to define heroism. Rape and violence against women are also prevalent in classical myth. Glossing over confronting subjects insults young readers, who can process such things when handled sensitively. That said, you won’t find rape scenes or graphic violence in The Way Home. Instead I focus on psychological repercussions of violence, dealing with horrible things in an emotionally authentic way.

The Way Home, cover image

 

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

For YA readers, the cultural value of classical antiquity matters less than the visceral thrill of journeying with heroes and villains and monsters. They want to go on an adventure in a strange world with amazing characters.

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

I have a PhD in Classics from the University of Queensland, where I taught ancient history and languages. As an education officer at the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, I helped design the education program.

Though Virgil is my major primary source, you’ll also find elements of Homer, Herodotus, Ovid, tragedies, and even medieval romances. I drew upon too many secondary sources to name and consulted numerous translations and commentaries. I owe a debt to Michael Paschalis for his 1997 commentary considering the etymology of proper names in Virgil. If there was a quick detail or name I needed to check, I did consult Wikipedia. Guilty!

How do you think working with the Aeneid affected/affects your storytelling?

Reading the Aeneid aloud in Latin taught me that the weight of a syllable can affect readers on a subconscious level. The steady rhythm of dactylic hexameter gives the story an almost military clip. The Aeneid belongs to a society where war equals honour and glory. The metre informs my thinking about pace, keeping the story marching forward.

Aeneas and Anchises, illustrated by Matt Wolf for The Way Home
Aeneas and Anchises, illustrated by Matt Wolf for The Way Home (copyright Matt Wolf).

Aeneas is an intriguing hero, not cunning like Odysseus or invincible like Achilles. His strength is endurance. For a displaced people, that is everything. He is also unusual among epic heroes because Virgil seldom calls him a king, reflecting Roman skittishness about monarchy. Yet Virgil’s literary patron was the first emperor of Rome. The tension between abhorrence of kingship and adherence to authoritarianism colours my portrayal of Aeneas’s leadership style. My Aeneas is not a king, but a prince—one step removed from princeps.

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers?

While many YA readers love mythology, the writing must be vivid from page one. Nothing bores young readers more than a dry, dusty retelling which is more monument than story. Characters should live and breathe in a way that marble statues can’t. Being emotionally authentic means digging deep into my own experience—scary, but worth it!

Since visual literacy is vital in the age of the graphic novel, I invited illustrator Matt Wolf to enrich the story with nine comic book style illustrations. Maps are another fantasy staple. Linc Morse exquisitely charted Aeneas’s travels. Readers get a thrill connecting modern and ancient place names. The map also serves as a story-telling device to draw readers into the world of the Middle Sea, so it is rendered in an antiquarian style complete with sea monsters.

Because YA readers tend to be interested in self-discovery, I didn’t lay out Aeneas’s heritage at the outset. He is on a journey toward adulthood. This distinguishes my Aeneas from Virgil’s. The Aeneas of the epic is fully formed from line one. He knows himself and his purpose, while my Aeneas must figure it out.

Many YA readers are passionate about racial diversity and don’t want another story about a white male conquering his enemies. That story has been told a bazillion times. Diversity is a challenge when working with a text whose opening line is: ‘I sing of arms and a great man.’ Hate groups sometimes co-opt antiquity to justify prejudice and bigotry. The last thing I want is for my book to celebrate unexamined privilege, but also don’t want representation to feel tokenistic. Digging a little deeper into primary sources, there is ample room to represent racial diversity. It’s not tokenism so much as realism. The heroes come from Western Asia, finding their way to North Africa via the Greek Islands. It isn’t difficult to make the diversity of the Mediterranean feel authentic, because it is.

Queer representation is more complex. How to include queer perspectives when the concept of sexual identity didn’t exist in antiquity? Nor did the concept of romantic love, even between men and women. If it did, it ideally developed during marriage. Infatuation was often viewed as a contagion. This is particularly difficult, as young readers are so invested in forming relationships. Though same-sex attraction was never an issue for ancient Greeks, I don’t envisage Greco-Roman antiquity as a utopia which celebrated all forms of love. It had its own restrictions and social norms. Speaking broadly, sexuality was conceptualised in terms of power dynamics—the idea being that partners had complementary but unequal roles. It’s complicated. I’m uncomfortable depicting relationships in terms of unequal distribution of power in a YA novel. Nobody wants to portray abusive relationships as normal. So I compromised. My characters form romantic relationships with people their own age much like today. Some are attracted to their own sex. It’s just part of who they are and nobody bats an eyelid.

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?)

As the project evolved from translation to adaptation, I had to tell the story in my own voice. It’s an original work which captures what makes the story significant to me. My goal is to entertain rather than educate. Every generation has reinterpreted the Aeneid. Therefore I had no qualms about changing certain details, so long as the world-building was consistent. However, I do ensure the story remains recognisable, so I avoid inventing things for its own sake. The changes I make are hopefully sympathetic to the poem, if not a carbon copy. Sometimes I’m not bucking against the poem but traditional adaptations of myth. For example, Zeus is more antagonistic than you might expect. In many adaptations Zeus becomes a whimsical benefactor, but my version of Zeus is as deceitful, violent, and manipulative as he is in many myths.

The secondary characters of The Way Home are also more fleshed out. Trojans fill the Aeneid, but they are little more than names pushed into the background to make the great man appear greater. I wanted to show Aeneas isn’t the only one contributing to the Trojans’ survival. For this I drew upon Book 5 of the Aeneid. In the funeral games and descent within the Trojan ranks, Virgil allows his secondary characters a rare moment to shine. I extrapolated their personalities and relationships from their behaviour. Sometimes I had little choice but to change the characters’ names or combine them. Fans of the Aeneid may find Akhates noticeable by his absence—readers kept getting him confused with Ankhises! So he became Mnestheos.

Readers may also notice structural differences between the Aeneid and The Way Home. The story progresses in linear order as it is easier to follow. I also write in third person throughout, avoiding Virgil’s technique of having Aeneas narrate portions of the story. This allows me to alternate between Aeneas’s viewpoint and those of the gods. Shifting viewpoints increases tension and widens the scope of the narrative.

I expanded the role of Pyrrhos, making him a main antagonist. In the Aeneid Pyrrhos shows up, murders the royal family, then departs. Ancient readers would know that Pyrrhos gets his comeuppance off stage. Yet this doesn’t feel right for the novel because I can’t count on the reader’s prior knowledge of Greek myth. Introducing a villain and leaving him unvanquished would break a promise to the reader. Given that most of the antagonists are immortal, it feels dramatically satisfying for Aeneas to have an adversary he can overcome. Also, it would have been a little dull to follow the Trojans wandering aimlessly from island to island, so having a Greek warlord pursuing them escalates the tension nicely.

There are other, pretty big changes… But I won’t spoil those!

Julian Barr
Julian Barr

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?​

The sequel, The Ivory Gate, will be released in 2019. I’m also querying agents with another classically inspired fantasy set in a world like Roman Britain, only with talking animals and giant automatons. Plus I’m translating Byzantine sources on St Nicholas with Dr Amelia Brown. The project is due for completion next year. Most of my stories deal with classical material, but not all. The world is full of amazing stories that want to be told. I’ll never find time for them all, but I’ll take my best crack at it!

–Julian Barr, in conversation with Elizabeth Hale.  Julian has a lively blog, which you can read here.