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

Advertisements

Illustrating the monomyth–Jerome’s Gift

Trent Denham’s Jerome’s Gift is an award-winning picture book that shows a child overcoming challenges through ingenuity, recycling, and making do.  It takes elements of the hero’s journey as inspiration, and is part of a planned trilogy, incorporating novel, graphic novel, and picture book, that Trent is working on.

I met Trent when he visited Armidale in 2014 as part of the UNE Writers and Illustrators in Residence program I was running with the help of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.  While he was with us, Trent completed some illustrations for the book, and shared his expertise in art, design, and digital elements.   He’s the brains behind the digital reconstruction of the destruction of Pompeii, which I will interview him about on a separate occasion.

For now, though, we’re talking about Jerome’s Gift, the inspiration behind it, and what led a Melbourne illustrator to spend so much time in the Middle Ages.

–Elizabeth Hale

 

JG_Cover_sml_01
Jerome’s Gift, cover copyright Trent Denham

 

What drew you to writing/working with particular myths, and what challenges did you face?

History has always been my strongest interest, even beyond my writing and artistic practice, and though I sway a little more toward the middle ages for my inspiration, I think it is safe to say that the foundations of that period and its culture are most certainly classical. European culture continually looked back to Antiquity as a high point in society,  rather than forward into the future. Looking at medieval works was what drew me deeper into the classics. I would go so far as to say that my thirst for history is what drives me in my art making and storytelling. I remember the moment I picked my first illustrated history book off the shelf in kindergarten and I was immediately enthralled.

As I grew up, I began to study and attempt to reproduce in drawing some of the great artworks of history – all of which depicted ancient myths and legends (though most were made in the high middle ages, renaissance, or neo-classical periods!). My older brother also had a beautifully illustrated kids book of stories about Achilles and Medusa and Odysseus, Cyclops, the Golden Fleece, to Thor and Siegfried. It carried me away (forever I think), to places where those stories were real, and had meaning and purpose for me to decipher. I have never really come back from that place.

I’m not sure if I ever consciously chose to adapt a particular myth with my book. What I ended up with was a variation on the ‘mono-myth’; as Joseph Campbell would put it- the hero’s journey is a universal story or experience across many if not all cultures, and it was natural for my story to develop in that way. I only latterly came to  understand that about half way through the project, as part of my continued studies.

Many of the adaptations per se, or inspirations for my story have come through traditional folk tales, fables, which are a kind of myth themselves in a long tradition of oral storytelling, but also through an allegorical visual medium. Artists like Brueghel, and even more modern fantasy literature and art  (which again draws heavily from mythology) have been a big influence.

 

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

My understanding of myth is that it exists to help us through our own times and experience. It is for that reason that myth is so adaptable, and often at variance with other versions of itself. You can tell any myth from various perspectives in order to describe a particular situation. This is helpful in that it is relatable to the listener – how many ways can a Shakespeare be told and adapted for a contemporary audience for instance? It is endless!

What was truly revelatory for me was the discovery that the artists I always looked up to- the ones depicting scenes from Antiquity and mythology- have adapted those scenes for their own times! In doing this, they can make a deeper commentary on their own historical period! For example, Brueghel’s biblical “massacre of the innocents” is depicted in his own native Flanders. Why? To draw a parallel with the wartime atrocities committed by the Spanish in his own lifetime.  Or his “Fall of Icarus” that features a 16th century galleon and not a Greek ship. The contemporary context places the lesson of the myth for his own audience. In turn, others can then reference Brughel’s work to give it new meaning (but you will have to look close!).

And that is how the tradition of art and storytelling continues- it changes and evolves to keep relevance in our own time. So the artists and authors I look to, in turn looked back on others yet more distant in history, and so on until the depths of time when our primitive ancestors first looked to the stars and told stories to make sense of their world.
These types of story will always be relevant to us because we have carried them with us forever, and we did so because they help us understand ourselves and the world we live in.

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?  

Yes I did study some classics, and a lot of other history both old and new, as part of my Creative Arts degree. But the truth is that I have always undertaken studies on my own, outside of educational institutions, and was always reading stuff at home that would never have been presented to me in schools. My library is full of strange and wonderful things.

Though most of my reading is in more academic texts these days, some of my favourite and most influential books were from when I was a kid.

 


Timeless Myths, by Brenda R Lewis and illustrated by Rob McCaig, Brimax Books, 1980. That was my older brother’s book mentioned earlier (I now have a copy of my own)
And of course…

The Adventures of Asterix and Obelix, by Goscinny and Uderzo, full of fascinating detail and glimpses into history, if a little tongue in cheek =)

Other great and influential artists are John Howe and Alan Lee,  both of whom have illustrated many myths and legends, but are probably better know for their work on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

When you were developing Jerome’s Gift, did you think about how myth and antiquity would translate for young readers, esp. in Australia? 

Yes and no. I understand that regional references and situations are easier for more people to connect with, but I don’t really make stories for ‘everyone’, I make stories for strange young kids like I was, who might pick up an old history book in kindergarten and think “yes, this is for me”

Are you planning any further forays?

Definitely! In fact the history of Jerome’s Gift goes back a few stories, and the further back it goes, the deeper into myth and its own antiquity it gets. For me though, I like to use History and Mythology as a theoretical framework and not the basis of the story itself. For example, for my next book I am using chapter titles that borrow names of the siblings of Titans (like Zelos, which means ‘rivalry’, or Nike which means ‘victory’). In this way I can both reference familiar mythology, and use it as a structure to build my own narrative that relates to an understood theme. It gives me direction and inspiration to create a new world.

–Trent Denham

Stay tuned for an interview with Trent about his work on A Day in Pompeii….

IJB Shout-out

Antipodean Odyssey goes to the International Jugendsbibliotek.

Blutenburg Castle on a rare cloudy day.

Imagine a 13th-century castle stuffed to the brim with children’s books. With a swan named Ludwig guarding the moat outside, and swallows nesting in the entryway.

Imagine spending time in a serenely orderly reading room, surrounded by the best scholarship in children’s literature, and selecting picture books, pop-up books, novels, collections, and more from the hundreds of thousands of texts in the catalogue to the point that you can hardly see over the piles that arrive on your desk.

This was my happy lot in the past two weeks. I pored through the catalogue and, thanks to the help of the wonderful librarians in the lesesaal (reading room), found book after book after book that will play a part in the Our Mythical Survey, and form part of the Guide I’m writing with Miriam Riverlea.

I found myself enchanted and distracted and led in all sorts of directions, from the aesthetic to the narrative. But I held firm, and did my best to gather some exquisite works for inclusion and discussion. Here’s three wow moments from many!

Ariadne’s Goose

 My first wow moment was opening ‘Le Fil D’Ariane,’ by Dominique Feraud, which retells the story of Theseus, the Minotaur, and Ariadne’s Golden Thread. Its subtitle reads: ‘ou jouer le jeu pour vivre le mythe’ (1994). (Ariadne’s Thread: or, play the game to live the myth, but it sounds better in French!)

As you read, or listen, you can play along on a games board that is included with the book: the Game of the Goose (one of Europe’s oldest boardgames, and worthy of much further exploration). The idea of a book that is a game isn’t new, but such a beautiful experience reveals that picture books are an aesthetic experience, and also that reading and play can be intimately intertwined.

Carte in Tavola

My second wow moment was opening two more boxes. These ones contained Ulisses, la Maga Circe e le Sirene by Lucia Scuderi, and Teseo e Arianna by Nicoletta Ceccoli, published by Italian company Fatatrac. These are a series called ‘carte in tavola,’ where the words are on one side of a card, and the picture is on the other side. As you read, you then put the card on the table, picture side up, to build up a snaking rectangle that forms a larger picture. Something about playing with the story as you read it, tell it, or hear it, is quite profound. It reminds me a little of the Japanese Kamishabai approach to storytelling. (I’ll be talking about these lovely works in Warsaw in a couple of weeks.)

Hummers and Stingers

 My third and biggest wow was to find that the excellent staff of the IJB had prepared a superb exhibition on the subject of insects:  Summende Staatenbauer und Pikende Plagegeister: Insekten und Spinnentiere in Kinder- und Jugend Büchern, a title that almost defeated my high school German, but with a little help from the web, basically translates as Buzzing Builders and Piercing Pests: Insects and Spinning animals in Children’s and Young Adults’ Literature.

I was led up the stairs to the exhibition room where I discovered not only that they had illuminated the mythological elements of insect-related storytelling (La Fontaine, Aesop, Toni Morrison), but that they had displayed a whole host of children’s books, from all over the world, devoted to understanding and sharing the lives of insects.

So here’s a shout-out to this wonderful exhibition, and a hearty recommendation for anyone passing through, well, anywhere, to take a detour to Munich and the joys of Schloss Blutenburg and the Internationale Jugendsbibliotek.

— Elizabeth Hale

The Origins of Love . . . Cupid and Psyche in the Young Adult Novels of Jendela Tryst

Who said Saturnalia should stop with the New Year? Not Antipodean Odyssey., certainly. We’ll continue sharing our discoveries across the summer. Here’s Lisa Maurice, who is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at Bar Ilan University. She’s the brains behind The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles (Brill 2016), and as part of the Our Mythical Childhood project is overseeing Our Mythical Education, which will gather classical curriculum and pedagogical material from around the world. The discovery she shares is  The Origins of Love series of teen novels by the American writer Jendela Tryst — Elizabeth Hale

The Origins of Love . . .

I think one of my most interesting finds in the mythological realm is Jendela Tryst’s recent version of Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche, a trilogy of young adult novels entitled The Origins of Love. Great reading for teens who have an interest in mythology, the first volume, Struck: Eros and Psyche – A Myth was published in 2014 and the second, Scorched, in 2015, and the third, Rupture, in January of this year. With each book running to close to 200 pages, this retelling is a thoroughly twenty-first century approach to the story.

Jendela Tryst’s website explains her approach to mythology and her reasons for writing:

Jendela Tryst worries that humanity is in trouble. The world has become too cynical. By marrying ancient traditional tales with modern values, she reminds readers that love is older than ancient scripture, and that true love may even outlast the androids destined to replace us. Within every book, a little bird called Hope sings on.

This combination of myths and contemporary values has led to a refreshing and wholly believable world in which the Greek gods, and the mortals with whom they mix, are fully fleshed characters and wholly believable. The advertising blurb to the first volume of this modern and lovely narration runs:

He thought he knew everything about love, until she made him redefine it.

When Eros, the devil-may-care god of love is pricked by his own arrow, he falls for the most unsuitable of mates, a mortal woman he has been ordered to destroy.

Without knowing Eros’s true identity, spirited, intelligent Psyche shows the god just what it means to be on the receiving end of his arrows, with all its sweet pain and torment, and all its rapture.

The laws forbid their union, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and passion, is determined to see Psyche destroyed. Furthermore, the two must deal with their own doubts about themselves and each other which threaten their fragile relationship. Will Eros and Psyche become the canon of all that love has the potential to be, or will they follow a tragic path, with lessons learned too late to save them?

Meanwhile the back cover, which pre-empts the rest of the trilogy, runs:

While Eros battles rebels against the forces of Olympus, strong-willed Psyche must journey through inferno to prove her worth.  Time is running out for two determined lovers whose growing strength challenges the gods. Eros and Psyche’s inspiring devotion arouses unlikely allies, culminating in an alliance that threatens ancient traditions. Can a seemingly impotent god and a young mortal woman surmount immortal deities or will their love be buried in the destructive rubble of fear and ambition?

It is immediately apparent that this is a very different kind of retelling from most of the adaptations of the tale for young readers. The gods themselves are not only anthropomorphized as one would expect, but fascinatingly three dimensional and, while still retaining their otherworldliness and godliness, they are in many ways, “human”. In fact, as in some other recent cinematic portrayals, their lack of humanity is contrasted negatively with that of mortals.

cupid-1295027_1280
The Enduring story of Cupid and Psyche

This Psyche is also not a princess but a farmer’s daughter. Her beauty is unconventional and the physical descriptions of her that speaks of her skin that is “not quite bronze and not quite gold”, and long hair that is dark brown, with natural red and blond streaks in it, perhaps owe more to Tryst’s Indian heritage than to Hollywood ideals of beauty. Her Psyche is also a thoroughly modern woman, despite living in Bronze Age Greece (the Trojan War is taking place at the time of the events of the story) – she is “strong-willed”, “spirited” and “intelligent”, and this is a match of true love, and of justice and freedom from oppression, as part of a much wider universal story. The book is also far more graphic in its sexuality than most juvenile versions of the story. It is beautifully told, truly a rendering for the twenty-first century, and yet, paradoxically, in some ways it seems very close to the feeling of the original in its sophistication and creation of a fully developed world. — Lisa Maurice

ps, you can find out more about Jendela Tryst and her website at http://www.jendelatryst.com/, and the books are available on Amazon as both print and kindle editions.

Oh those Olympians! George O’Connor’s gorgeous graphic novels….

olympiansfullheadercolorblue (1)
–Sonya Nevin

ps,  Check out Olympians Rule here at their brilliant website.  http://olympiansrule.com/