In the past, we’ve had our fair share of interviews with many talented authors sitting down with us to talk about their passion for literature, getting into what they think is the secret to writing a great novel. This time, we are going to try something a little different, because today, Robin Hood meets Odysseus. We welcome Steven A. McKay and Glyn Iliffe, two of Edinburgh Book Review’s favourite regulars, as they meet up to discuss the challenges they tackle in writing new historical fiction centred on familiar lead characters.
In their own way, both writers have successfully dealt with the challenges in translating an age-old and well-known tale to the modern era, whether it be Steven’s brutally brilliant retelling of the legend of Robin Hood in the series The Forest Lord – now leading up to its fourth and perhaps final entry – or Glyn’s startlingly realistic transformation of Homeric mythology in The Adventures of Odysseus – which is likewise approaching its conclusion in the series upcoming final. What have they both discovered along the way about the stories and characters they love so much, and what has pushed them to drawing them into the 21st century? Take it away, gentlemen.
Steven A. McKay: “You must have done a lot of research when you originally decided to write books about the Greek myths, right? I had to buy a lot of books and visit many websites when I first began to plan my own medieval novels, since a strong historical foundation is crucial for setting the scene your characters will act upon.
Do you still research your period, though? Or do you feel you have it all inside your head now and can draw on it at will, without the need to go back to the textbooks?”
Glyn Iliffe: “When I started planning the series a few years ago I’d just finished a degree in Classical Studies, so had three years of lectures on Homer, mythology, the Greek dramatists etc. behind me. That gave me a core of knowledge about the era, which I’ve always been able to call upon. It was also one of the reasons I chose to write a series of books about the Trojan War (write what you know, as the old adage goes).
I still had to do a lot of research about the history of the Bronze Age, though. You don’t get this from reading the myths, which were written hundreds of years later and so can’t be relied upon. One thing I’m really glad I did when I started my research all those years ago was to create fact sheets. These covered subjects like political systems, agriculture, religion, warfare, sailing etc., recording key details and interesting trivia that I could use for the books. It saved me having to repeat a lot of research later on, though I still have to look up a few things I didn’t note at the time or didn’t expect to need later.”
Well, what about adding your own personality to these tales? How much lenience do you give yourself in creating something new, or conversely, how close do you want to stay to the cherished source material? What are both your thoughts?
Steven A. McKay: “My own new book will be about the end of Robin Hood and we all know how that turned out, but I still felt I had to go back over the original ballads again to see how I can make the story my own while remaining faithful to the legend. I expect it must be very similar for you, especially now, as your series reaches its famous conclusion?”
Glyn Iliffe: “I spent a fair bit of time rooting out as many myths as I could about the Trojan War and then piecing them together into a single narrative. Like yourself, I wanted to be true to the original saga, but I was also looking for space in which to build my own storyline. As part of the process I made extensive notes, which I’ve continued to draw on as I work through the series. I still return to the key sources before I embark on a new book, though. I re-read the Odyssey before writing The Voyage of Odysseus, and read it again before starting on the concluding book in the series, which I’m working on now. Partly this was to refresh my notes from several years ago, but more importantly to get myself in the right frame of mind. There’s nothing like reading the source material to rekindle your passion for the subject.”
Then again, as much as you might personally enjoy revisiting these treasured works of world literature, some people might have instant reservations about picking up a title about that they have so many preconceived notions, making them hesitant to invest themselves in a story they think they’ve seen so many times before.
Steven A. McKay: “On the marketing side, do you generally make a big deal of the fact your books are about Odysseus? I sometimes get reviews about my Forest Lord novels that say, “I didn’t know this was a Robin Hood book when I bought it or I wouldn’t have bothered, but I’m glad I did, it was great,” or whatever. Clearly there’s a market out there that aren’t really interested in Robin Hood, and presumably, Odysseus, but if you can draw them in somehow they will enjoy the books, despite themselves! So do you ever try and market your writing and consciously hide, or at least not mention, who the star is?”
Glyn Iliffe: “Where possible I try to emphasize that my novels are about Odysseus. He has an immediate association with Greek mythology, which is an automatic pull for many potential readers; but even among the greats of Greek mythology, Odysseus’s name stands out in a way that others don’t. Take Great Ajax, who as a warrior was ranked second only to Achilles in the Greek army. He was a figure revered in the Classical period and for many centuries afterwards (he even has a Dutch football team named after him), but today very few have heard of him or know his story. Odysseus, on the other hand, is a name familiar to everyone and about whom most people know something. That’s probably due to his principal role in the Odyssey, but also because he is a complex, intriguing and very modern character – a man of intelligence and cunning, a wanderer cursed by the gods, a gifted orator and a great warrior in his own right. There’s something for everyone in Odysseus. Therefore I think he is a positive selling point, rather than a negative one. My publishers, Pan Macmillan, must have thought so too, as they were the ones who decided to call the series The Adventures of Odysseus. There will always be people who have no interest in Odysseus or Greek mythology, and it’s a shame if the name of Odysseus would put them off, but I don’t let myself worry about that.”
Luckily, for all that is so familiar about both Robin Hood and his men or the heroes of the Iliad, there are surprisingly many things that have yet to be either touched upon, or fully explored. That leaves exciting new ways to make these stories come to life for the 21st century. Better yet, some of the best questions have no fixed answer, and so the eternal question of how real these stories actually are can lead to new, enticing answers time and again. That’s what makes them worth retelling, and why they keep telling us so much, not only about times past, but about ourselves as well.
Steven A. McKay: “Getting back to the Greek myths, do you think there’s much truth to any of them? Was there really a historical Odysseus? Or Hercules? Did the Trojan War really start over a woman and last for years? What about hidden meanings? Are they allegorical? Were there deep, esoteric truths hidden in them that we’ve forgotten over the millennia since they were first created, or are they just great stories?”
Glyn Iliffe: “In my opinion, all the myths that happened before the Trojan War can be regarded as fictional. They’re like fairy tales for grown-ups, filled with messages – or warnings – about life. Perhaps a better analogy would be to the world of Marvel. Heracles, for example, is a bit like Superman – the supreme human, totally unstoppable – but with dark flaws that also make him a lot like Batman. In fact, most mythology focuses on the darker aspects of life. Take the story of the Minotaur. King Minos of Crete was given a white bull by Poseidon, which he was supposed to sacrifice. He liked it so much that he decided to keep it. Angry at the snub, Poseidon made Minos’s wife fall in love with the bull. She had sex with the beast and a while later out pops the Minotaur. In ancient Athenian, male-dominated society, the importance of a male heir was vital, so the story of the Minotaur can be read as a warning about the dangers of illegitimate sons. Another example is the Amazonians, which many people think of as real. In fact they were a caution to men about what happens when women take power!
Things change a little when it comes to the Trojan War. I’m inclined to think these myths are echoes of an actual event involving real people. Many of the stories can be dismissed out of hand, and all of them are embellished to some extent or another. For example, the siege of Troy would not have lasted for ten years, because no king would leave their homeland ungoverned or unprotected for so long – though there might have been a series of annual raids that lasted ten years. But when I read Homer I see the imprint of something historic. Despite the supernatural elements (gods, monsters, etc.) that were added for moral or just decorative reasons, the poems read more like novels than fairy tales. The first thing that springs to my mind is the famous Catalogue of Ships in Book 2 of the Iliad. Here we see the list of leaders in the Greek army, which is too detailed to be a work of pure imagination. To me, it feels more like the genealogies you find in the Bible – lists of names orally preserved from generation to generation before they were written down. When I read the Catalogue of Ships, it makes me want to believe there really was an Odysseus, an Achilles, an Agamemnon, a Hector, a Menelaus and a Great Ajax. But whether the real men who bore those names were anything like the heroes we know and love today is another question.”
Another difficulty posed by trying to follow in the footsteps of the likes of the Homeric bards or their medieval counterparts is their specific worldview. We look at the world quite differently, and the leaps of logic or faith a modern reader is willing to take have drastically changed as well. How do you tackle this question believability and reality, while staying true to the feel and internal logic of legends and myths?
Steven A. McKay: “Your novels straddle that line between historical fiction and fantasy and, to my mind, are all the better for it. But do you ever wish you’d concentrated more on the fantasy elements? The chance to worry less about historical accuracy and just go crazy with plot ideas must be tempting to any writer! It’s certainly crossed my mind, although I’ve resisted the temptation so far…”
Glyn Iliffe: “My goal with these novels was to put the Trojan War myths into a format that could be enjoyed by a modern audience, while remaining faithful to the feel of the originals. To me that means including both historical and fantastical elements, but with the emphasis firmly on the historical.
Although the earlier stories from Greek mythology are very other-worldly – full of gods and giants and supernatural beasts – the Trojan War myths are like a stepping stone into something closer to history. You can believe that the war actually took place and the people in it really existed. The gods still feature strongly in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but they are more like meddling observers than principal characters. Instead, the main focus is the world of men. Even in the Odyssey, Odysseus’s fantastical encounters with the Cyclops, Circe and the Sirens form a story within a story. Because Odysseus is recounting his adventures to King Alcinous, there’s a sense he could be making the whole thing up! I’ve gone a bit further than that in my novels by portraying his adventures as real, and by including a smattering of gods across the books, but I didn’t want the fantasy to take over.”
But still, it must be quite a liberating thought to dispense with the confines set by the authors of yore, and create your own world from scratch. Might that be the next big step? If George R.R. Martin can hit gold, then why shouldn’t you?
Steven A. McKay: “Maybe you’d think about writing pure fantasy, along the lines of Game of Thrones or the Shannara series, once your Adventures of Odysseus books are all finished? Both of those have been turned into really enjoyable TV productions recently and, as a writer, that kind of thing would be really fantastic if it happened to your books, wouldn’t it?”
Glyn Iliffe: “At the moment my ideas for future books are all based in this world – geographically speaking. If the right inspiration came along for a fantasy novel I might go for it, but only if the idea was a compelling one. As I see it, fantasy writing is difficult to get right. To find success in the genre the writer has to create a new world (or universe!) that is convincing and comprehensive – and that requires a lot of skill and commitment.
As for a TV production of my Odysseus books, when I think about the quality of modern TV series I drool at the prospect. US-produced shows, in particular, are excellent at developing character, so I’d love to see what people like those at HBO or Fox would do with Odysseus, Eperitus and Helen. I’d also be intrigued by how they would recreate the world of the books, from its ancient cities and sweeping landscapes, to the fleets of warships and large battle scenes. Thinking of your earlier question, it would be interesting to see what they would do with the fantasy elements, too.”
Many thanks to Steven A. McKay and Glyn Iliffe for taking the time to share their thoughts and experiences about their craft. We should do this again sometime. We at Edinburgh Book Review wish both authors an exciting and fruitful time as they finish their fantastic series. Be sure to stay tuned for any news about their latest novels as they come, as you will find it here.