Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Interview with Tracy Barrett

Tracy Barrett is the author of a number of books for young adult readers including Anna of Byzantium and The Sherlock Files mysteries. She talked with me about her two most recent novels, Dark of the Moon and King of Ithaka.  

MDC: Current literary trend seems to be to take the gods and monsters of myth and put them in the modern world. Your approach is different …

TB: Yes, I enjoy reading those books but I prefer trying to re-create the ancient world!

 … and in a way, your stories have a kind of “modern” feel. Can you explain?

I don’t think it’s true that people are people; that we’re all the same no matter where or when we live. If that were the case, there would be no such science as anthropology or sociology! But I do believe there are some constants. At the beginning of King of Ithaka, for example, Penelope has to find Telemachos’s shoes for him. Ask any mother of a teenager, and she’ll tell you that boys have shoe-blindness. I bet that was true in the Iron Age as well! I also think that teenagers have always and will always flirt, feel caught between childhood and adulthood, be easily embarrassed, simultaneously crave and fear adventure. I really enjoy exploring these familiar emotions in an unfamiliar setting.

The spelling of some words may be different than the reader is used to (for example: Aegyptian, qat, kyklops). Why?

The spellings usually used in English are latinized versions of Greek names/words. For example, Greek didn’t have the letter “c” and Latin didn’t have “k,” so the Greek “Kyklops” became “Cyclops” in Latin. Many masculine nouns in Greek end in “-os” but in “-us” in Latin. English adopted the Latin spelling, but Latin wasn’t a major language for quite a while after the time when my story takes place, so I used something closer to the original Greek—I didn’t see why I should use Latin spelling just because the Romans didn’t feel like using “k” or “-os”!

I wasn’t 100% consistent, though. In some cases I kept a more familiar spelling so that my reader would know what I was talking about. I didn’t think they would recognize the Sirens if I called them Seirenes, the more accurate rendering of the Greek word!

“Aegyptian” and “qat” are a bit different. I used an antiquated spelling of “Egypt” and a spelling of the word that “cat” might possibly derive from. Both Egypt and cats are very familiar to my readers—I hoped that by using an unfamiliar spelling I would show how exotic they were to Telemachos.

Telemachos is afraid of the sea, not adept at lighting fires – he’s a bit unexpected for the son of Odysseus. What were your thoughts about his childhood?

I think that both Telemachos and Penelopeia have a lot of fears that govern large parts of their lives. Telemachos knows that his father sailed away and never returned; therefore, the sea naturally holds a lot of terror for him. He also doesn’t have any kind of role model; his grandfather is old and befuddled, and most of his neighbors are greedy and lazy. Somewhere inside of him he knows that he really needs to man up, but he’s so afraid of growing up (and also, he has a pretty cushy life) that he closes his eyes to the abuses going on in his home.

Penelopeia also doesn’t want him to grow up. It’s easier to spoil him, not make him work, and indulge him, than to allow him to face the suitors and perhaps lose his life by challenging them.

From what I remember of Homer, Odysseus is manly and gentle when not battling. Your Odysseus is quite different. Tell me more about him.

One of the main points I’m trying to make in King of Ithaka is that poets/novelists/singers/painters/journalists have a huge role in how we think of people and events. Homeros has to flatter his patron and praise all the major players on the Greek side in the Trojan War. Of course he would show Odysseus in a positive light—he’d lose his job as court poet if he didn’t.

But Homer is a very subtle poet. If you read the Odyssey with an open mind, trying to forget the movies and other places you’ve seen him, Odysseus starts looking like a jerk. Dante had it right—Odysseus lies and lies. Sometimes he lies to save his skin, but sometimes it looks like it’s just for the heck of it. Plus, he had a lot of opportunities to go home that he didn’t take advantage of. If he was so eager to return to Ithaca and his family, why did he hang out with Calypso for seven years without making any attempt to escape? Why did he stay with Circe for a whole year, instead of sailing off immediately after he made her turn his sailors from pigs back into men?

The conclusion of the story is fascinating – unexpected and yet, inevitable. Did any of it come from Homer, or did you follow your imagination?

 I was really stuck about that for a long time. I fully intended to end King of Ithaka with the slaughter of suitors, as Homer told it. But when I got there, I knew that the Telemachos that I had written just could not participate in such a thing. So I changed it in a way that I hope is true to my character and to my story.

And as for what happened to Odysseus, there are actually three different versions of his life post-return to Ithaca (Homer wasn’t the only one who told his story—I’m just the most recent in a long line of re-tellers):
  • Odysseus ruled in Ithaca until the end of his days
  • being sick of the sea, he walked inland until someone didn’t recognize the oar over his shoulder and asked, “What are you doing with that winnowing-fan?”
  • he sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and never returned
The last version is the one adopted by Dante, who shows Odysseus in the Circle of Liars in Hell, in his Divine Comedy. Speaking from inside the flame that burns him for eternity, Odysseus tells Dante and Virgil that he convinced his sailors to sail with him through the Straits of Gibraltar in search of adventure (the ancients thought that the Pillars of Hercules were a signpost that you shouldn’t go any further west than Spain). Odysseus uses every rhetorical trick in the book to convince his sailors to do this forbidden thing—his speech is a masterpiece of how to use words to manipulate people to do wrong. I paraphrased that speech in King of Ithaka!

In Dark of the Moon, the first person narration alternates between Ariadne and Theseus. Why did you choose to write Ariadne’s narration in the past tense and Theseus in the present?

First, I needed to differentiate their voices. I wanted a reader to be able to open the book at random and know which one was speaking. (Change of tense was only one way I did this—look at their sections and see which one is confused and asks a lot of internal questions and which one never does—not even once!) Second, Ariadne is rooted in the past. Her religion and her tradition have not changed in millennia. It’s logical that she would think in the past. Theseus is a man of the now. He doesn’t have much of a past—never even knew who his father was until shortly before the main action of the book—and he doesn’t think he has a future. The present tense was natural for him.

The mercy killing of Asterion calls to mind that decisive scene in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Had you planned it early on, or did it unfold as the story ran its course?

I knew that Theseus had to kill Asterion, but I also knew from the beginning that I wanted the motivation for the killing to change from mere survival, as in the myth. I wasn’t sure if the it was going to be self-defense or a mercy killing, so I had to wait until I got into the book and knew the characters better before I decided. The mercy killing seemed more natural.

The presence of the gods in your stories is very subtle, unlike the interfering sort we are used to. Tell me why.

Most ancient Greeks believed that although the gods could and did interfere in human endeavors, they weren’t interested enough in people to do so very often (they’re often portrayed as essentially lazy and self-absorbed). They participated in wars and great political events, that kind of thing—and if a particularly attractive human being caught their eye, they might make a play for them! But they weren’t terribly concerned with our day-to-day activities. The gods in my books are the same way.

In King of Ithaka, I also made sure that it was never crystal-clear that it was actually a god that Telemachos was talking to. It could have been an over-active imagination, a dream, wishful thinking.

I did make centaurs, satyrs, etc. a part of everyday life, however. This is because when I decided that Telemachos needed a best friend, he kept popping into my mind as a centaur. I told myself, “No! You’re not writing fantasy!” and turned him back into a boy, and he kept turning back into a centaur. So I finally said, “Fine, he’s a centaur.”

Why should students study the classics?

The most important reason is that the classics are wonderful stories. They wouldn’t have come down to us if they weren’t. For any ancient tale to have survived is miraculous—someone had to love it enough to write it down (both the Iliad and the Odyssey were originally told orally), and then it had to be copied over and over again in order to survive thousands of years. Paper and parchment were expensive, so they were reused and repurposed if what was written on them wasn’t considered important enough to save (some important ancient writings were reused as mummy wrappings in Egypt!). If a book wasn’t loved and taken care of, it would rot or fall apart or be eaten by bugs. So lots of people had to have loved these stories in order for them to make it to the twenty-first century. They can’t all be mistaken.

Also, we get a window into our own history. We often think of people of the past as being monolithic. We say “the ancient Greeks believed X” or “in the Middle Ages, everyone thought Y” as though they all had one mind, one set of beliefs. It’s wonderful to see how refreshingly individual they are, to see the humor, the drama, the love stories that are as real to us today, despite differences in culture, as they were to the people who wrote them.

There’s an educational reason too, although I hesitate to bring it up, because that makes the classics sound like medicine—something that’s unpleasant but that you should put up with, because it’s good for you. But there are so many references to the Greeks, the Romans, people from medieval history, the Renaissance in movies, books, comic books, paintings, that you get a whole new layers in them if you recognize the references. Read the Iliad and then watch Star Wars—you’ll be amazed at how much similarity you’ll see and how much the story is enriched for you.

Do you think there is any danger of mythology causing confusion for children brought up in a particular religious faith?

If a child is brought up in such a bubble that he or she is unaware that not everybody has the same beliefs as his or her family, that child is headed for a lot more confusion than my book could ever provide! Parents should have enough confidence in the way they raise their children that they shouldn’t be afraid that all those years of careful nurturing and education will be overturned by a book—or by ten books. Books are powerful, of course, but a parent’s loving teaching is much more powerful.

Do you have a favorite myth?

Just one??? I don’t think I can narrow it down that far! The one that’s most on my mind these days is the story of the Minotaur, since I recently wrote Dark of the Moon, which is a retelling of that story. 

I am always curious about how people write. Do you begin at the beginning and go from there? Do you first know where you want to end up and then figure out how to get there? Is your writing process different when retelling a familiar story?

I start from the beginning and work my way through. I always have at least a vague idea of how it will end, but lots of things change as I go.

I often go back as I write, and change events or strengthen or weaken a character’s personality once I know her or him better. For example, in my current work in progress, I started off thinking that my narrator, who has lost everyone dear to her, is motivated by wanting to be loved. I’m realizing now that it’s just as important for her to have someone to whom she can give love, and I’m finding places earlier in the manuscript to make that clear.

I also sometimes write an episode or scene as it occurs to me, and save it in an “idea file.” I don’t always use those ideas, but I often do.

Are you writing anything now?

I’m always writing something! Right now I’m in the middle of the first draft of a novel about an Etruscan slave girl who is brought to the city of Pompeii just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I also have another myth re-telling in mind but I’m forcing myself not to start it or even think about it too much until I finish the Pompeii story.

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