Who knows what stories will stand the test of time? Many books are forgotten, yet there are a few works of literature that endure the march of the ages and keep fascinating new audiences while the world around them has forever changed. Who doesn’t love a classic?
In this revered league, there has to be one writer on whose shoulders all others stand. The epics of Homer, perhaps the father of western literature, have come down to us from time immemorial to inspire writers here and now to follow in his footsteps. Glyn Iliffe, author of the beloved series The Adventures of Odysseus, steps up to accept the ancient challenge. Last year, he completed the long-awaited fourth part in the series, The Oracles of Troy. Edinburgh Book Review’s editor Wander Gubler and reviewer Simon Jenson now stand at his side, and join the intrepid writer as he circumnavigates the troubled tides of the publishing world and unravels mythical plots in search for eternal fame and fortune.
After a lifetime of dreaming about becoming a writer, in 1999, Iliffe finally decided to turn his fantasies of Greek myth into something solid, and started working on the stories that would become The Adventures Of Odysseus. When was the first time he came into contact with the world of the Iliad, and what made him decide that this was a story he needed to tell in his own words?
Glyn Iliffe: I first read The Iliad and The Odyssey when I was around 20. I enjoyed them immensely, but struggled with understanding the poems culturally. I had difficulty in understanding some of the motives of the main characters. Why was Achilles so touchy? Why all that exaggerated grief for Patroclus? Why are the gods so childish? Why can’t Odysseus just tell people who he is instead of assuming different identities? Why is everyone so emotional?
I suppose I came away from the poems more intrigued than perplexed. A couple of years later, while reading Classics and English at university, I signed up for modules in The Ancient Epic and Greek Mythology, both of which took a good hard look at Homer. This was when my cultural understanding started to grow and I began to appreciate the greatness of Homer’s work. I’d compare the difference to reading the Bible because you’re aware it’s a foundation stone of Western culture as opposed to reading it as a believer – you get so much more out of it when you understand why it was written.
Yet to write within such a story of almost ‘biblical’ proportions and live up to a similarly grand heritage comes the complex and daunting task of finding a space for oneself to add to it. We asked Iliffe if he ever feels restricted by the boundaries imposed by such an epic work of literature?
Glyn Iliffe: One of my main goals with this series is to create a single narrative for the story of the Trojan War, from the seeds that were sown at the marriage of Helen to Odysseus’s triumphant and bloody return to Ithaca – something which has never been done before. To do that I’ve had to stand back and look at the snapshots that have been left behind by the ancient poets, playwrights and historians. There are plenty of sources for the myths, many of which are fragmentary or only half remembered from ancient commentaries on original works that are now lost. What this leaves you with is a jumble of pieces, all forming part of the same overall picture but with very few of them fitting neatly together. My job was to bring these disparate bits and bobs into one narrative that told the whole tale from beginning to end. In most cases I’m like a child in a sweet shop!
From the start, I was trying to recast the story in a way that would appeal to a modern readership, without sacrificing the meaning of the original myths – intending the books to be accessible to people who had little or no appreciation of Greek mythology, as well as appeal to those who have a passion for the subject. It has been great fun trying to achieve this and I hope I’ve been successful.
Judging by the success the series has garnered thus far, one can conclude that Iliffe has achieved that particular objective. But what motivated him to write from the perspective of Odysseus? Why him in particular?
Glyn Iliffe: Taken from the viewpoint that I wanted to tell the whole thirty-year story of the Trojan War, I needed a vehicle that would take me from start to finish. Odysseus was an easy choice, really. He was one of the suitors of Helen, so was there when it all began. He is instrumental in the gathering of the fleet and in the ten-year siege that follows. Not only does he pop up in interesting ways throughout, it’s his idea of the Trojan horse that finally brings the war to an end. Then, to top it all, he spends ten years on the most fantastical return journey in the history of literature, encountering a host of gods and monsters as he battles to make it back to Ithaca. And all for the sake of being reunited with his family.
While Odysseus might be a fascinating protagonist for such a drawn-out story, Iliffe concedes that actually fleshing out the hero can pose quite a challenge:
Glyn Iliffe: Odysseus was the hardest character to portray. Partly it’s because he is so well-loved and you realise that, whatever you do, you’re never really going to do it right for those that like him best. He’s also a complex character because of the contradictions in his motives and personality. These differences have been aggravated by the love-hate relationship different ancient writers have had with him over the years. Dealing with this required trying to discern what his main motivation was. In the end I decided that what drives him most is the desire to be back at home with his family, rather than fighting another man’s war that seems to have no end. In order to achieve his purpose, he’ll be as brave, intelligent or treacherous as he needs to be.
Yet, while all these qualities make for a very engaging main character, the fact that Odysseus fate is fixed to begin with poses a serious problem for a writer. How did Iliffe get around this kind of literary restriction, and find a way to free himself of Homer’s legacy?
Glyn Iliffe: Something that gave me room for manoeuvre was the introduction of a central character, Eperitus, who doesn’t appear in any of the original myths. He’s my baby, so to speak, because I created him and his fate remains entirely in my hands. Though I’ve tried to be inventive and original with Odysseus, naturally there are constraints on what you can and can’t do with such a popular and well-known figure. Eperitus, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity: a character that readers can invest in and care about, but without ever being sure what’s going to happen to him. I’m glad to say that from the comments I’ve received most readers have taken him to heart and have a genuine interest in where his story is going. Writers can’t ask for much more than that.
I’m also quite fond of Helen. Most men have a soft spot for beautiful women, of course, but she also has my sympathy. At heart, she’s just a girl who hates being the pawn of powerful men. She wants the freedom of true love, but when it finally comes it brings more trouble than she could ever have imagined. And there’s nothing she can do to put things right again.
While The Adventures of Odysseus have proven to be very popular, attracting a growing number of devoted fans, Iliffe has had some difficulty in getting his latest books printed and published. In the second part of this interview, Iliffe talks about being published versus self-publishing, using social media to talk to his readership and his future as an author.
Join us next week for part 2 of this interview.