Big Questions in YA Fiction: Genesis, Plato and more . . .

I do enjoy a smart, creepy work of science fiction, and Genesis, by NZ author Bernard Beckett, is one such novel. Set in a futuristic Aotearoa New Zealand that has cut itself off from a (possibly) plague-ridden world and made some dramatic changes to its society, it’s an examination of what it means to be human–told from a (possibly) post-human perspective, but drawing on all sorts of human philosophy to do so.

The heroine, Anaximander, is a student eager to pass examination for entrance into an elite Academy. To do so, she has to take a test on her special subject–the life of Adam Forde, a rebel from the era of rebuilding. Adam is the ultimate exemplar of humanity writ large, and in her presentation of his life, Anaximander finds herself debating his actions, his words, and her own interpretation of them.

The whole of Genesis is presented through Anaximander’s examination, and as a series of dialogues. Those of us interested in classical reception note that Anax is named for the philosopher Anaximander of Miletus, the writer of an exploration into the origins of life. (As Babette Pütz notes, Anax’s examination of Adam forms her own exploration into her own, and her society’s origins.)* Other figures in the book have names such as Plato, Socrates, Pericles, and Aristotle . . . and of course its title makes one think of an entirely different tradition of thought and belief . . . (Click on the links here to read Our Mythical Survey entries on Genesis and its companion books August and Lullaby)

If you want to find out what happens, and what conclusions Anax reaches, read the book. Its emphasis on dialogue and debate make it an unusually direct exploration philosophy, framed in a compelling science fiction format.

Much of the appeal of works like Genesis comes from the question–what does it mean to be human? It’s a question that comes up often in young adult fiction, as part of the coming-of-age plot. Figuring out who one is, where one comes from, finding out how to fit in, and what to fit in to–all of these are important issues for characters (and readers) growing up and working out their place in the world.

Beckett’s novels and plays confront this head on: he’s a scientist interested in philosophy, and many of his books plunge readers into an intellectual work-out that they may not expect. But that’s its appeal for me–I liked the almost clinical format of the novel, which seldom leaves the examination room (though Anax’s presentation tells us much about the world she inhabits).

I was curious about what drew Beckett to writing this novel, and so I asked him a few questions. Here are his answers.

–Elizabeth Hale

Interview with Bernard Beckett

What drew you to using classical material in your works for young readers?

There are a couple of things that drew me to classical references in Genesis in particular and, to a lesser extent, August. The first is simply the school teacher’s instinct to share with others the knowledge that most delights us, and when I was writing Genesis a lot of these things were fresh in my mind. While writing the novel I was on a fellowship at a research centre, finding out a lot of new things for me, both about molecular evolution, and also philosophy, and you can’t really have any sort of sensible interest in philosophy without going back to classical references. I forget who it was who described all Western philosophy as ‘footnotes to Plato’ and there’s  some significant truth in that.
The second reason relates to the themematic structure of Genesis, where it is an examination of the stories of the past which make sense of the story in the present, and so there is a particularly appealling symmetry in referencing my own cultural foundations (to have Western heritage is, I think, to owe an awful lot to the thinkers of classical Greece in particular. There are very few ideas that fascinate me now that I can’t find serious consideration of in those times.

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

The resonance is I think essentially the wave of the Renaissance, slow breaking over centuries. As was the case then, so now it is tremendously exciting somehow, and humbling too, to discover that sophistication didn’t begin in 1984, that we have at our disposal this vast treasure trove of wisdom and experience. there is something tremendously comforting in that thought too, a sort of camaraderie that stretches over millenia, to know that our troubles have been met before, and battled with too, vanquished too in some cases. There is also the appeal of somehow joining a secret society, bound by knowledge, its password a set of magical names from the past.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?, or did you come to classical myth/history through some other means?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect? 

I have no background in this stuff, formally speaking, but I have read as widely as I can on the philosophers of ancient times and continue to do so. So whether it’s Bertrand Russell’s partisan History of Western Philosophy, Karl Popper’s dismissive rendering of Plato, or Massimo Piggliuici’s affectionate take on the stoics, I’ve entered the world mostly via the more populist works of professional philosophers, and then made use of things like Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia or my own copy of the Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. But any source will do, so long as one is prepared to read critically, and test what is written against the utterances of others.

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

In my books I was more referencing obliquely and hoping for some eager minds that would be enough to send them searching for more. Mostly the ideas themselves have already translated into the fictional expression, as these are novels. The thing I am confident of is that the same ideas, the same obsessions, will continue to entice and fascinate. When that is no longer true, we have surely lost our humanity.

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?  

I think the more an idea settles in you, the more it becomes native to your every expression. So in one form or another that fascination will always resurface, f not explicitly (although as soon as you ask that question, an idea forms…)

Anything else you think we should know?

The last thing I would like to say is that the biggest mistake to avoid in the modern world is to think nobody has ever grappled with our ideas before. the number of ideas I hear an idea presented in education as if it has only just been discovered, and all of humanity will now change on the back of this insight (pedagogy for the 21st century anyone – how these phrases make me ill) and every time I hear it I ask myself, is there anything in this that Socrates would have been surprised by? Recently I was giving a presentation on wellbeing in an educational setting, and so, of course, my first point of call in doing my preparation was Aristotle. Where else would a discussion of wellbeing begin? And by the time I got my head about even the most cursory consideration of his work, I was ready. Great thought lasts for a reason. It’s exactly why Shakespeare is still performed, and Mozart too. Not that we can never do better, but rather that beauty accretes and it is every generations good fortune to be able to look backward as well as forward.

Thank you!

*Babette Pütz, ‘Classical Influences in Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, August and Lullaby’ in Antipodean Antiquities: Classical Reception Down Under, ed. Johnson. Bloomsbury: 2019

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Our Mythical Week in Wellington

In mid-July, Liz Hale and I travelled to New Zealand, to attend and present at the biannual ACLAR (Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research) conference at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).  With Babette Puetz (Classics, VUW), we talked about classical reception in children’s literature. I spoke about Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s American Goddess Girl series; Babette spoke about Zeustian Logic, by New Zealand author Sabrina Malcolm; and Liz gave the ACLAR delegates a tour of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  The theme of the conference was ‘Houses of Learning,’ a topic that brought to light many rich texts and approaches.

We also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days researching in the Dorothy Neal White Collection of Children’s Literature at Te Puna, the National Library, of New Zealand, where we examined an array of children’s texts that engage with the classical world.

It was especially exciting to view texts by local New Zealand writers, including Ken Catran, author of the historical novels The Golden Prince (1999), Voyage with Jason (2000), and Odysseus (2005).  It was also fascinating to see how some of the Greek myths had been rendered as readers for New Zealand school children, another area of reception that is often under-represented.  Downstairs from the reading room, we joined a group making Maori masks, based on Cliff Whiting’s creation myth mural, ‘Te wehenga o Rangi rāua ko Papa.’

Classics and Kiwi Culture–Intersections and Invasions

My involvement in the Our Mythical Childhood project has heightened my awareness of the ways in which ancient myth invades our contemporary world, and on this trip I was particularly curious to see ways that classical and Kiwi culture intersect. One of the most explicit examples of their convergence is in the work of the lithographer Marian Maguire, who juxtaposes the iconography of Ancient Greek vase paintings with New Zealand’s colonial past, and with indigenous mythology. In one piece, Ajax and Achilles play dice at Milford Sound; in another, Captain Cook arrives on his boat bearing an ancient Greek vase. And in another still, Odysseus clings to the remnants of his raft, about to be blasted by the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa.

I was fortunate to have the chance to see the collection of Maguire’s works displayed at the Classics Department at VUW and was struck by their clarity and precision. I was also struck by the remarkable way her work explores the resonance of the stories and artistic traditions of ancient Greece within another culture on the opposite side of the world. Although her work isn’t intended for children, it has important implications for the research questions at the heart of the OMC project, and I’m eager to read Maguire’s chapter in the recently published collection Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017), edited by Diana Burton, Jeff Tatum and Simon Perris of VUW’s Classics Department.

One lunchtime I visited Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where I encountered Age of Fishes (1980), by Auckland artist Richard Killeen. It’s an arrangement of large silhouetted shapes hung on a white wall, in shades of blue, yellow, brown and black. While some of the cut-outs are recognisable as marine creatures, others are more abstract, and to my mind, some of them resemble the silhouettes of archaic pottery vessels.

Another of Killeen’s works, Welcome to the South Pacific (1979) happened to be on display in the VUW Council Chamber, where the ACLAR conference was held, and I enjoyed the interplay of the different elements, while also reflecting on the notion that I was beginning to recognise classical motifs even in the most abstract of shapes.

Frequency Illusion, Classics Style

Perhaps it was a simply a case of frequency illusion, a form of cognitive bias in which we register a concept and immediately begin to observe it everywhere. (Colloquially, the phenomenon is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the West German militant group). On one city street, Pandora’s jewellery shop was located next to an interior design firm called Attica. And I noticed winged figures everywhere, not only at the library in Gerald McDermott’s retelling of the Icarus myth, Sun Flight (1980), but also on Te Papa’s colourful windows, and even on the hoodie of the man who made our morning coffee.

Back at home in Australia, I am still reflecting on how to make sense of these encounters, profound and frivolous.  The classical past is a rich depository of images, narratives, and motifs that the modern world continues to draw upon. My week in Wellington revealed that it is not merely within the pages of texts that ancient stories endure, but everywhere I look. I feel very fortunate to be taking part in the Our Mythical Childhood project, as it seeks to understand the myriad, diverse, and often surprising ways that the classical past infiltrates contemporary children’s culture.

–Miriam Riverlea, PhD Monash, is collaborating with Liz Hale on Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature: An Alphabetical Odyssey.  It will be a guide to the field, taking into account issues of reception, children’s culture, and more.  Miriam’s PhD, My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children, can be read here.

 

Writing Classical Fantasy: Phillip Simpson

In which Phillip Simpson (author of Minotaur, Argos, Titan).talks about the process of writing classical fantasy.

Phillip Simpson is a New Zealand fantasy novelist who is taking on the classical myths to interesting effect (Minotaur, Argos, Titan).  I read and enjoyed Argos, the story of Odysseus’s faithful hound, and I asked Phillip if he’d be willing to be interviewed about the process of writing Classical fantasy.  He was, and the discussion covered a wide range, from the changing nature of monsters, to the use of evidence in retelling classical stories.  Read on! 

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 grew up reading myth and legend, particularly classical. In fact I was obsessed with these stories. As an adult and a novelist, I came to the conclusion that all myth and legends are asking for a retelling. Why? Because no-one was around to verify the ‘so called facts’. Even Homer writing about the Trojan war in the Iliad wasn’t there. The Trojan war was around 1300 BCE (before Christian Era – essentially the same as B.C) and Homer was probably writing around 850 BCE. We are talking at least four hundred years difference here.

Stories from two years ago get diluted, exaggerated and wilfully changed. Heck, stories from two days ago get the same treatment. Do you expect any less from stories that are thousands of years old! So what is a myth and how is it different than fiction? Myths are verbal traditions. Why? Because most of the ancients were illiterate. The ancient Greeks certainly were (prior to and during the Trojan war). Seems odd to say it because the Iliad and the Odyssey are two of the more famous works of literature. Most of the ancient Greeks were duller than mud (in the literate sense). Sounds harsh but there you are. Not much smarter than your average preschooler. I wouldn’t say that to their face obviously because I’d be in a bit of trouble (if the events in the Iliad are anything to go by).

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Argos, the story of Odysseus’s wonderful dog

A myth is handed down generation from generation, story teller to story teller. They are part cautionary tale, part entertainment. They usually have a lesson to impart or a warning – essentially that if you mess with the Gods, you’re going to get it. If you are guilty of hubris (pride), then you’ll get it even harder. And don’t annoy Zeus.

Myths and fiction are old friends. You could say that myths were the first forms of fiction. The first best sellers, the first blockbusters. I’d imagine that great storytellers would’ve been regarded as rock stars with legions of adoring fans. That’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to the subject matter – the other is that I could take creative license. I take myths and fictionalise them. This fictionalisation was easily done due to a lack of eye witness accounts, scanty evidence and a tale that’s been twisted to promote the interests of whoever was the most powerful city state at the time (usually Athens). In other words, creative license. The two words an author loves the most!

In terms of challenges, my agent often chastised me for following the story arc too closely. I have too much respect for the myths to change them completely (or their structure) but she often had to remind me that I was writing fiction.

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

Mostly because they have heroes and monsters. And they will never go out of fashion. Humans have always been obsessed with stories containing these two and the monsters are always the draw card. Monsters have been around since the dawn of time, maybe in the very real sense but always haunting the darkest recesses of our overactive imaginations. The monsters were waiting for us as we swung down from the trees and started walking upright. They were there when we discovered fire and the use of tools and primitive weapons. Hey, they were probably the reason we discovered fire and invented weapons in the first place. As Shepard writes:

Our fear of monsters in the night probably has its origins far back in the evolution of our primate ancestors, whose tribes were pruned by horrors whose shadows continue to elicit our monkey screams in dark theaters (1996, p. 29).

Like many young people, I’ve always been fascinated by monsters, an interest and love nurtured by countless books on myth and legend. Many mythical monsters were based on eye-witness accounts. Early explorers came back from their adventures with tales of strange creatures. With no-one to argue against them, many were taken at face value. The unicorn myth, for example, was started by a traveler returning with stories of the rhinoceros. Some were based on fossil evidence. Ancient miners discovered dinosaur bones, lending credence to the dragon myth.

Mythical creatures were almost always made up of two or more separate animals. If they weren’t, chances are they would be half animal, half man. This is because scholars at the time used the world around them to describe and invent the more fantastical elements. For example, the chimera was part lion, part goat and part snake. The Minotaur was half man, half bull while the centaur was half horse, half man.

Almost all mythical creatures were based on an animal or animals that exist today. Writers used none of this creative business of making up a completely different and foreign (well, to us) creature that bore no similarity whatsoever to anything else.

But, as the centuries marched on, so too did its monsters, transforming with the times. Monsters emerged with more human characteristics—both physically and mentally. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the creation of Victor Frankenstein has both human appearance (although hideous) and easily recognizable human emotions, seen in his desire for acceptance, companionship and love. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was also recognizably human, albeit with supernaturally creepy abilities. Such as drinking blood for instance. Not that that’s an ability—more like a trait—but you get the idea.

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 do. My undergrad degree was in Classics and Archaeology. I studied predominantly Greek and Roman history (with some Near Eastern through in for good measure). Inspired, I then went on to do a Masters (Hons) in Archaeology and whilst I have a decent amount of experience in archaeological digs and a true interest in Maori pre-history, I always wanted to be involved in Classical archaeology. I went on to do a post-grad diploma in Museum studies and then moved to London.

Minotaur (which Phillip dedicated to his classics teachers)

I even dedicated one of my novels (Minotaur) to my classics Professor, my archaeology Professor, and my classics and history high school teacher.

In terms of sources, when I was studying twenty years ago, the research process was very different. Everything I learned was from books—either my own or from the University library. These days, I do most of my research on-line. I am also guilty of what is referred to in teaching circles as ‘last minute learning.’ In other words, if I’m trying to find out what types of fruit they would have sold in a Greek market place in Athens two thousand years ago, I can just look it up. I can find what I need in a matter of minutes as opposed to spending hours poring through books. Research is a lot easier than it used to be. That said, I’m a big fan of Homer and Thucydides.

How do you think working from New Zealand and the Pacific affects your approach to classical material? Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers, esp. in New Zealand?

I don’t think my geographic location affected my approach at all. These are classic stories after all and the themes and popularity are universal. I did consider writing a novel based on Maori myth (and still am) which would obviously be more New Zealand specific and many New Zealanders would be able to relate (or be familiar with the source material). To be honest, I didn’t even think that classical antiquity would be a problem to young readers in New Zealand. That said, I have had some feedback regarding some of my books that they are harder for young people to relate to because they are set in the ancient past. The Percy Jackson series, for example, have modernised the myths and set them in present times. This has made them more relatable, something my agent often reminds me of.

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?)

I definitely put a fictional spin on my retellings. In all fairness, however, the original stories were also a work of fiction (in all likeliness – you never know). I took what I knew, held it up to the light, turned it this way and that. Scratched some parts, polished others.

I always look at the archaeological evidence (old habits die hard). It helped that I was once an archaeologist. I pored over maps, especially ancient ones, read up on flora and fauna and worked out geographic routes. In other words, if I had to get from this point to this point and I was on foot, what would it look like? How long would it take? What would I eat? Etc. etc.

In terms of these myths, we know what ‘really happened’ but when all is said and done, to really know what happened is an impossibility. Writing didn’t exist then. It was a story based on an oral tradition. Nothing was written down. There are no photos. In other words, the only evidence exists from the story telling – the story has been told and retold over countless generations. Essentially, I have created my own ‘truths’ in my books.

When I’m reading about ancient history or myths or even about latest archaeological finds, I’m always thinking: ‘would that make a good story? Could I put a spin on that? Is that what really happened?’ It’s the last bit that particularly intrigues me. There is always an element of guesswork in archaeology. We can make informed guesses based on evidence but there will always be some doubt. Why? Because we weren’t there and what evidence we have is thousands of years old. In mythology, there is often not even that which gives you a great deal of room to reinterpret.

So, I’ll find a mythological or ancient historical figure whose story interests me. I’ll dig a bit deeper and see what other fascinating tidbits I can unearth. Then, the real work begins. I’ll use what is ‘commonly accepted’ as the truth (based on evidence or oral history) as a guideline. I usually try to stick to the original story but fill in all the gaps and speculation using creative license. At the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about how this story could’ve been diluted and modified over time. Is there another interpretation? Were the supposed ‘eye witnesses’ reliable? If not, why? What was their motivation?

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?​ 

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Phillip’s latest foray into classical fantasy: Titan

I am. I have. My latest book, Titan, is out now and it’s a retelling of Zeus’ childhood and how he came to be King of the gods. Here’s the blurb:

Zeus, Father of Gods and men, god of sky and thunder, the Cloud-gatherer, wielder of the mighty thunderbolt.

But once, long ago, Zeus was none of those things. He was a young man, blissfully ignorant of his destiny, content to walk the shores of Crete by day and sleep in a cave at night, watched over by his foster mother, the nymph, Almathea.

Aided by his cousins, the Titan Prometheus and beautiful Metis, Zeus learns that he is a wanted man and that his brothers and sisters are held captive. His father, the dread Titan King Cronus, wants him dead. Zeus has no choice but to end his isolation and embark on a quest to free his family before Cronus finds him.

Their journey will take them to the starlit heavens, the crushing depths of the oceans and to the darkest, bleakest pit of Tartarus itself.

There, Zeus will seek to fulfil a prophecy and commit an act condemned by both gods and men for all eternity:

To destroy his own father.

–Phillip Simpson, in conversation with Elizabeth Hale