I've got a real treat for everyone this week.
Over the years, I've read a lot of historical fiction/fantasy novels set in the ancient world. I've enjoyed most of them, but there is one series of books that makes me say 'Yes! That's how it's done!'
I first picked up King of Ithaca while roaming my public library's stacks looking for some new fiction. I thought the take on Odysseus' well-known story sounded intriguing, so I took it home and gave it a try.
I'm so glad I did! It's one of the best historical fantasy novels I have EVER read (and I don't say that lightly). The male and female characters were so real, the world of Mycenaean Greece so vivid, that I was just drawn into the tale. From there, I went on to devour the other books.
And now, there is a new book in the series entitled, The Oracles of Troy.
Today I'm very happy to have author Glyn Iliffe on Writing the Past to talk about history, writing, and the fantastic world of The Adventures of Odysseus.
WP: What got you interested in historical fiction in the first place? Was it a particular book?
GI: Writing historical fiction is just a marriage of two of my favourite things: writing and history. I’ve wanted to be an author since primary school. Nothing else appealed then or has since. The love of history comes from my dad. He was in the army before I was born, but he had shelves full of books about military history. I read these enthusiastically and it’s probably still my preferred branch of history to this day, even ahead of ancient Greece. In my younger days I was more a fantasy fiction fan (Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs were top of my list), but I still remember the first histfic novel I read was The Happy Return by C S Forester. As far as characters go, Hornblower is a masterpiece.
WP: You really bring a place to life in your writing. Have you travelled to all the places you have written about, and how important do you think travelling is for writing historical fiction/fantasy?
GI: I’ve travelled to most of them - Ithaca, the Peloponnese, Mycenae, Delphi and so on - and I found it a real help to get an understanding of the lay of the land. But it still needs a lot of imagination to describe these places as they might have appeared in the Bronze Age. One difficulty is that the Trojan War occurred a very long time ago and the geography, flora, fauna and weather have changed somewhat in the three thousand or so years since then. The great bay in front of Troy silted up hundreds of years ago, for example. Another issue is that I’m trying to recreate the mythological/historical world described by Homer. If you read his descriptions of Troy you get the impression of a vast city housing many thousands of people. He fills you with a sense of awe. The actual site of Troy, though, is quite small and doesn’t lend much to the imagination. So I tend to exaggerate all the towns and cities I describe to give them the glory and majesty they would have been viewed with at the time. If I didn’t most modern readers would be a little underwhelmed.
WP: There are so many larger-than-life characters in the Iliad and Odyssey. What made you pick Odysseus from among the rest?
GI: Several reasons, all of them good. The original plan was to tell the story of the Trojan War in its entirety, from cause to conclusion. It wasn’t intended to be a series about one character, I just wanted to help people form a wider and deeper understanding of the whole tapestry of myths rather than the best known elements such as Helen of Troy, Achilles and the Trojan Horse. As with most series, though, I needed a character to tell the story through. Odysseus was the best choice for this. He was there when Helen was married, he was one of the key players throughout the ten years of the war and - very importantly - Homer gives him an epic poem all to himself for his journey home. No other character is present for the whole thirty-year span of the Trojan myth cycle. Besides that, he’s more complex than the likes of Agamemnon, Ajax or Achilles: a lowly king who has to work hard to earn his place at the top table; a thinker, schemer, orator and a warrior with more depth than some of his glory-seeking peers; a family man driven reluctantly from his home into a war he doesn’t want to fight; a character of dubious morality and yet somehow more humane than his contemporaries. All in all, with his strengths and weaknesses he is much more “modern” than the other Homeric characters, and that is key to engaging the reader.
WP: Academia often frowns on the popularization of history through movies, books and other media. How do you reconcile your academic background with your writing?
GI: Greek mythology carries a lot of baggage. On the one hand there’s a good deal of snobbery about it. I’ve had feedback from people on Amazon who are disappointed that I don’t take a high-brow approach to these stories. That doesn’t bother me, as I want my books to be accessible to anyone, not just those people who love ancient Greece. The most important thing is the story itself, and that’s where academic criticism falls down. Like all mythology, the original tales were designed to convey essential messages about the real world in a format that was engaging and entertaining. If I aimed my books at the academic level I think I’d be missing the true essence of what these myths are about.
On the other hand, I think Hollywood approaches Greek mythology at an angle that is far too low-brow. Clash of the Titans and the recent film about Hercules, for example, just want to project muscles, explosions and over-the-top monsters on to the screen. The sad thing is their multi-million dollar CG extravaganzas completely overlook the intelligence, emotion and basic humanity of these fantastic tales.
WP: What is your favourite historical fiction/fantasy novel (and why)?
GI: You said favourite, so I’m going to be honest. It has to be The Lord of the Rings. A boring answer, I know, especially for anyone looking for a new book to read. But it’s true. I re-read it every two or three years and I’m just drawn into a complete fantasy world that never disappoints (except for the fact they’re too short - after the Grey Havens I just want to keep reading).
WP: Do you envision yourself writing in Bronze Age Greece only, or are there other periods you would like to explore? Is there a historic person in particular whose story you would like to tell?
GI: I’m tempted by Heracles, but maybe not for a while. The historical period I’d most like to write about at the moment is the Great War. For much too long I’ve turned aside from studying this vital period in history because of the common perception that all the death and suffering was for nothing. There isn’t the same sense of futility with the Second World War. But a couple of years ago I started to explore the Great War a little more and now I’ve become hooked on it. Almost all the stereotypes I knew have been exploded and to be honest I feel I’ve been cheated for too long by modern interpretations. Worse still, I think the men who fought that war have been cheated. What I’d like to do is write a series of novels that attempts to honour the memory of those men and the reasons for their sacrifice. So instead of portraying a single historical person, I’d like to do justice to the soldiers who fought on the Western Front and perhaps dispel some of the purely negative mythology attached to them. The problem is that the market will be saturated with Great War novels for some time, so it might be difficult to find a gap.
WP: Many authors struggle for years to break out or get noticed, and from what you say on your website, you had just such an experience. In hindsight, is there anything you would do differently? Do you have any advice for new historical fiction/fantasy authors?
GI: Yes it took a while. I started writing King of Ithaca in 1999 and it was rejected 38 times before I was offered a contract in 2006. It hasn’t been much easier since, either. If I could go back to 1999 (or earlier) and give myself some advice, I would say “have more faith”. Writers need to believe in themselves to succeed. When sending a synopsis and sample chapters to a publisher or agent, they’re much more likely to pay attention if the writer sounds upbeat about the book and their own talents.
The first bit of advice I would give any historical writer is to remember that plot should be secondary to character. An exciting storyline can only go so far in engaging readers; it’s more important they care about the people you’ve created if they’re to continue to the last page. When a reader invests emotionally in your characters then, as an author, you’ve succeeded.
Another thing is that research is vital and takes time, but don’t feel the need to include everything you’ve learned in your story. You should do enough to feel comfortable with the place and era you’re describing, which will then come through in what you write. But don’t be tempted to bog the reader down with historical facts - leave that to the textbooks. Little details here and there should be enough to draw the reader in without hindering the flow of your story.
WP: Do you ever see your work being made into a movie? Who would play Odysseus and Eperitus?
GI: See my earlier comment about Hollywood. Obviously I’d be mad to turn down a movie offer, but judging by what has been done so far with Greek mythology I dread to think what Hollywood would do to my characters and storyline. I would love the books to be made into a US TV series, though. You just have to look at the quality of The Wire, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead to realize the storytelling power of this medium. As for actors, that’s a tough one. I can’t think of anyone who just fits either role. Damian Lewis is a good actor and a natural redhead so might be an interesting choice for Odysseus. And maybe Norman Reedus (Daryl in The Walking Dead) would be a good Eperitus - quiet, thoughtful and mean.
WP: Do you have any writing rituals that you would like to share? What is a typical ‘writing day’ like for you?
GI: Over the years I’ve learned I have a writing ‘sweet spot’ that occurs in the middle of the afternoon. I average around 2,500 words a day, most of which get written between 2pm and 6pm. Knowing that, I usually start my writing day (which is Friday - I have another job the other four days of the week) with a cooked breakfast at a café in town. It’s a very old fashioned place with high ceilings, sash windows and listed wallpaper from the 1920s, but it’s got a great atmosphere and serves wonderful food. I usually sit there until 11am drinking tea with a couple of friends, then head home to start the day’s writing. It still takes me a while to get settled and one pitfall I have to avoid is the temptation to look at e-mails, the internet or play games. It’s always best to jump straight in - the sooner I force my brain into writing mode the better. My worst writing days are when I haven’t had enough sleep. My best are when I have a clear outline of what I’m going to write, so I can just slip straight into it and let the pistons of my imagination get pumping.
WP: What is your next project?
I'd like to thank Glyn for taking the time to answer all my questions and give us some insight into his love of history and his writing life.
I highly recommend The Adventures of Odysseus! The series will inspire you, make you rage, make you cry, and make you want to get stuck in there with sword, and shield, and spear alongside all the heroes that have haunted story and myth since that long-ago war beneath the walls of Troy.
Be sure to check out Glyn's website to find out more about the series. You can also connect with him on Twitter.
His books are available on both Amazon and Kobo.
As ever, thank you for reading.