Monday, May 12, 2014

The wanderings of Alexi

Last October, I mentioned the problem I was having: a big hole in the third book. The original Odyssey, after all, is about this guy named Odysseus, who wanders the seas for ten years, trying to get home. Of those ten years, he spends seven on the island of Calypso the nymph. And therein lay my problem. And as I mentioned in that post, although my purpose was to re-tell the Odyssey, I knew Alexi couldn't spend seven years on the same island with only Odysseus and Calypso. Now that would be boring!

What to do? Separate him from Odysseus, obviously, and give him some other adventures, until the time comes for him to arrive back on Odysseus's home island of Ithaca just in time to see Odysseus arrive, and all the events that come from that. But that's awkward too. I'm trying to re-tell the Odyssey, and jamming in other, unrelated stories might feel contrived. After discussing it with my sister (Laurel Bowman, professor of classics at the University of Victoria and my personal story consultant), I settled on making him encounter some of the other famous characters from the Trojan war and share in their adventures. These adventures are described in the Nostoi, a long-lost collection of stories about the other Greek heroes of the Trojan war and what happened to them when they went home. Eventually, Alexi encounters Odysseus's son Telemachus and hitches a ride with him to Ithaca, not knowing that all hell is about to break lose as Odysseus himself gets home.

Many reviewers and teachers - these books have turned out to be quite popular in classrooms, a mixed compliment if I ever saw one - will know some of these stories, but others won't. So I've decided to draw back the curtain a bit here and talk about some of Alexi's adventures in the third book, and how they tie in with the Greek legends that triggered the war. This post will be a multi-parter. Tonight I'll talk about the adventure on the island of Helios, the sun god.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read Arrow through the Axes yet, what I'm about to write will give away some of the plot. It's fine by me if you want to keep reading, and in fact it will help you appreciate some of the subtleties when you do read it; just don't be surprised later when you're, er, not surprised.

Okay, for those of you still with me, on we go. After the shipwreck, Alexi finds himself back on the island of Helios. The Greeks aren't there any more, thanks to that same shipwreck, so it's just him and his rescuer, Phaethusia (which conveniently shrinks to "Phaith"). In the original, she and her sister Lampethie (which I wrote as Lampethia) live on the island looking after the cattle of their father Helios, the sun god. Why does a sun god need cattle? Beats me. Even today, in primitive societies a man is known by the cattle he keeps, and bronze age Greeks were pretty primitive. Anyhow, cows.

Alexi is kept as a semi-prisoner by Phaethusia, who is hoping he will come around and see the benefits of staying with her. After all, she's trapped on the island herself by her father, with nothing but cattle and her sister for company. A cute boy of about her age? Woo-hoo!

Eventually, her sister shows up and helps Alexi escape. He catches a ride with another Greek ship that has landed on the island, strenuously persuading them not to kill any of the cattle, and gets transported to the centre of bronze age culture, Mycenae.

The big point here is that this chapter closely parallels what is happening to Odysseus at just the same time. After the shipwreck, Odysseus is washed up on an island and rescued by Calypso the nymph, also a powerful sorceress, who is going stir-crazy for lack of company, especially male company. She keeps him a prisoner on the island for seven years. Eventually, Athena leans on Zeus to force Calypso to set him free. He builds a raft and escapes.

In both cases, the hero is washed up on or rescued back to an island by a lonely young woman with powerful magic, who exerts her influence to keep him there for her benefit. (In the Odyssey, not surprisingly, things get a lot hotter and heavier between the two. But I'm writing YA fiction, which means that bloodshed is fine, but sex is right out. Go figure.) Eventually, another member of the extended family shows up and helps the hero escape by sea. I could have made the parallels a lot tighter - having Alexi build a raft to escape, for instance - but I thought the desperation of  persuading the Greek sailors to leave before sunup, when Helios will spot them there, was a lot more compelling. So we have, in that chapter, a little recreation of almost exactly what is happening in the Odyssey at the very same time. I'm kind of proud of that.

Next installment: the encounter with Orestes, son of the dreaded king Agamemnon who started the war.

Friday, April 4, 2014

How dare you!

Most of the comments I get are from people who have enjoyed the series and are pleased to see it re-interpreted for a new generation. Occasionally, though, I'll get a blast from someone who feels that changing the Odyssey is as blasphemous as changing the bible. (Never mind that there are at least fifty English language versions of the bible out there.) Consider this comment:
"How dare you? I bought your book for my son. I was going to introduce him to Greek mythology, but you broke it. I don't remember half that stuff in the Odyssey. Just glad I didn't buy the other two books."
 I could be jumping to conclusions, but I don't think he (or she) liked it very much. Actually, I'm glad to have gotten this email, because it gives me a chance to make a point: I haven't changed the Odyssey. Or at least, very little. Truth is, I've taken great pains not to change the stuff that's already there. And believe me, it wasn't easy! What I have done, cheerfully and without apology, is add new stuff woven around the original. Eurylochus, for example, who we know as Ury, is there in the original, but he's a drab sort of fellow, not at all the brute that he comes across as in OOAS (that's Odyssey of a Slave, but acronyms look way cooler). For that matter, in the original, Odysseus doesn't have a nickname. But then, the original is told by Odysseus, and he wouldn't use a nickname to talk about himself. (Only "The Donald" can do that.)
There are other, bigger differences, but if you think about them, they're not. For example, something bad happens to Elpenor in the second book. I won't say what, in case you haven't read that far. Well, something bad happens to him in the Odyssey, too, but it's slightly different. Isn't that a contradiction? Not really. The original story is told directly by Odysseus as he understands it to be. But what commander in history has ever known everything that's going on with his troops? So when Odysseus says, as he tells the story later, that "X happened to Elpenor, the youngest of our company," he's describing the story as he it has come to him. Alexi knows the truth, but has invented a different version to spare Elpenor's reputation.
Okay, so maybe there are a few bits that directly contradict the Odyssey. (Minor spoiler alert.) For example, when they encounter Scylla in the original, each of her six heads snatches up a sailor from the deck. In Cursed by the Sea God, she nabs five and is going for Odysseus, but Alexi jams an oar down her sixth throat. Similarly, when Odysseus finally makes it home to Ithaca, Athena disguises him as an old man so he can get into his castle as a beggar without alarming the horde of men who are hanging around hoping to marry his wife Penelope. That felt pretty lame, so I made him disguise himself with a beggar's cloak and hood, a long beard, and a pronounced old man's stoop, no gods need apply.
And, okay, there are bits where I take the crumbs that Homer has tossed us and try to bake a whole pie from them. For example, on the island of Helios, after they slaughter the cattle, Homer mentions the flesh "crawling on the spits". For whatever reason, this is enough to freak the Greeks out. I would've just figured it needed more time on the barbeque. Anyway, their reaction seemed a bit over the top for the stimulus, so I juiced the action up quite a bit. The flesh still crawls on the spits, but there's some other action too. Not contradicting the Odyssey, you understand ... just extending it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Arrow is through the Axes

Phew! I've just finished reviewing the ARC ("Advance Reading Copy", the tiny print run that a publisher does just to make sure the book is okay before releasing it for real) of my third book, Arrow Through the Axes, concluding the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy. You know what? I'm pretty pleased with it!

There were the usual last-minute tussles with my publisher about phrasing, in which I found him to be ludicrously literal and he found me to be fatuously figurative (and perhaps awkwardly alliterative), but that's all sorted out now. The book is being printed and will be in stores in a few weeks. This time I tried using text-to-speech software to read the text of the Word document to me as I followed along in the book, and it's surprising how many missing, doubled, or misplaced words pop up, even after I and my publisher had been through it carefully.

I'm pleased to say that the Resource Links in Canada and VOYA in the US, two influential YA journals, have both endorsed the second book in the trilogy, Cursed by the Sea God. Resource Links has placed it on its Best Books for 2013 list for the Grade 7-12 fiction category, and VOYA magazine has selected it for its Top Shelf for Middle School Readers list.

If you're at all familiar with Homer's Odyssey, of which the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy is a modern re-telling, you'll recognize where the title comes from. If you're not, it refers to the contest that Penelope, Odysseus's wife, organizes. After some twenty years, she has finally concluded that her husband is dead, and is besieged by suitors trying to persuade her to remarry. (Apparently, despite the passage of twenty years and one son, she remains quite the hottie, and then there's all that land and the palace).

Our hero Alexi, meanwhile, has been searching mainland Greece for his sister, and arrives on Ithaca just in time to witness the arrival of a mysterious beggar. Soon afterwards, the lid comes off.

What happens? Well, there's one way to find out.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Crunch time

I knew it would happen. I knew it from the moment I started. Odyssey of a Slave is a trilogy that re-tells the story of Homer's epic, The Odyssey. Problem: Officially, it spans ten years, seven of which are spent on the island of Calypso the nymph, during which nothing happens. Or rather, during which he spends his days pining for his wife Penelope back on Ithaca, and his nights doing his best to forget her with the help of Calypso. (The nymph, not the music. Presumably.)

My story, though, is about Alexi, Odysseus's slave. I'm pretty sure Homer would have mentioned if there had been a slave hanging around on Calypso's island. Besides, it'd be boring. And three's a crowd anyway. So Alexi has to spend some time doing something else. What else? Well, he's felt guilty about his sister, who saved him from the Greeks, ever since she was captured in Troy, and although he's discovered a few things about her (no, I won't say what, in case you haven't read the second book yet), so in the third book, he will spend a lot of his time looking for her, and having some pretty amazing adventures as he does so.

What sort of adventures? Well, I'll say only that he encounters some of the other characters from the Trojan war, or their sons, and has some really butt-kicking adventures. In the process, he learns an important truth about the Trojan War (or the Greek War, as the Trojans called it) that we would be smart to understand today.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Where do you get those names from?

I visit a lot of schools in Southern Ontario to talk about my books, being an author, etc. It's great fun, and I get a chance to get a lot of feedback from kids about my book and ideas for the next one. The girl named Ameera, for example, who appears in the first chapter of Cursed by the Sea God, takes her name from a girl in a school in Brampton that I visited a year ago. Someone asked where I get the names in my books, and I told them, truthfully, that quite a few are from astronomy - the Trojan points of Jupiter. (More on that in a moment.) At this point, another girl put up her hand and shyly suggested that if I needed a name, I could use her own name, Ameera. It happens that at that point I did need a name for the girl in the first chapter, and Ameera, while not identifiably Greek, was a very pretty and feminine name, so I went with it. I hope she's pleased with the result.

Ameera is the exception. Most of my character names are minor characters from the Iliad, Odyssey, or other stories surrounding the Trojan war. I try to avoid using major characters, because it's a bit confusing if someone else named, say, Achilles or Helen shows up. But there are plenty of minor characters, and it turns out astronomers have done a great job of collecting their names from mythology over the years.

Why astronomers? Sit down, my child, and I'll tell you. There's an amazing thing that happens with planets in orbit. They have these gravitational backwaters, or eddies, where orbiting junk collects and gets swept along with them. They're known as Lagrangian Points. It's a bit like the spot just behind giant trucks on the highway, where if you're small enough and light enough, you can be sucked along behind the truck without using any gas yourself. Except that with Lagrangian points it's a gravity thing.

Jupiter has two big Lagrangian points, at sixty degrees ahead of its orbit and sixty degrees behind. Over the last few billion years, these points have swept up a bunch of asteroids, which hang around in these spots in a perfectly stable orbit. Sixty degrees ahead of Jupiter (that is, about two years ahead in its orbit) lie a bunch of asteroids known as the Greek Camp. Sixty degrees behind (where Jupiter was about two years earlier) are a bunch of asteroids known as the Trojan Camp. Astronomers being what they are, they've named many of them. The ones in the Greek camp are named after characters from the Greek side of the Trojan war; those in the Trojan camp, after characters from the Trojan side. Actually there are a couple of turncoats - Hector, a Trojan, is actually an asteroid in the Greek camp, while Patroclus, a Greek, is in with the Trojans. Anyway, since someone has gone to all the effort of collecting Greek and Trojan names, this is where I harvest a lot of character names from. Now you know.

On that topic, I made a mistake calling Alexi's sister Melantha. Melantho, with an O, is one of Odysseus's maids, and a mildly important character in the last few scenes of the Odyssey. I changed it to Melantha for Alexi's sister, because -o names always sound masculine to western ears, and -a names feminine. Unfortunately it's still too similar to Melantho, so I can't call the maid by that name in the final scenes, which I will be writing in the next few weeks. Bummer! But it's not hard to solve. There's no reason Alexi would know the names of the servants, so I'll just write her part in without calling her by name. It's a bit more cumbersome to refer to "the sullen-looking maid" instead of "Melantho" but it'll have to do.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

When your characters surprise you

Of all the cool things about writing, one of the coolest has to be when one of your own characters surprise you. I don't know how many times I've watched Alexi, Kassander or Pharos say or do something I wasn't expecting at all. What's really disturbing is how often what they did was much better than what I'd been planning. Freaky! Not Ury, though. I have to work hard on him. I think of the worst of the bullies I knew in high school and imagine what they'd do.
A Russian author - Dostoyevsky, perhaps? - said "My characters are automatons." Meaning, I suppose, that they did what he said, not that they were emotionless cutouts, although perhaps that's true too. I'm sure there are plenty of authors who would mock an author whose characters got away from him and went off for the occasional night on the town, and perhaps they're right. It's pretty silly to imagine characters having an independent existence from the author who writes them. But that's the way it seems, sometimes.
What's really going on? Either I'm channelling some long-dead author (a good one, let's hope) or these thoughts are bubbling up from my subconscious and escaping out my fingers without, so far as I can tell, checking in with my brain. Meh. I'll take either, as long as it works.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The character of characters

One of the things that separates great authors from mediocre ones is their characters. For a great author, every single person in the book has their own individual character, which the author can paint for us in a line or two of dialogue, or a quick description of the way they dress. Even the man who punches a hole in our hero's train ticket will have his or her own unique personality.

I'm not there yet. But I'm working on it. Especially in a trilogy set in ancient times,  this turns out to be hard, because the things that are automatic clues to character 3000 years ago probably mean nothing to us, and vice versa. Consider:

  • "Hey, man, like, don't oppress me, y'know? Like, just get along, groove with the rhythm of the universe. Come down off that square you're riding, man, like, seriously."
  • (On cell phone in restaurant, loudly): "You're killing me, man. No, you listen. I'm trying to do you a favour and you can't get your *** together. Come up with five big ones by 4pm today. I know a half a dozen guys who'd kill to get in on this IPO. So hit me with the cash or you'll spend your the rest of your pathetic life wishing you had."
These are pretty easy to recognize as a hippy (laid back, non-materialistic, peacenik, share the wealth) and a Wall street financier (pushy, driven, acquisitive, money=status). But what would an equivalent be from the bronze age? For that matter, if I described someone from that era  with bulging arm muscles, calloused hands, an a reddened, sooty face and a leather apron, how many people would recognize that as a blacksmith today, and what personal characteristics might we associate with that profession? Chances are anyone from 1200 BC would pick it up in a second, but it means nothing to us.

So what's an author to do? Fall back on the universal constants whose behaviour is probably the same in any era. The person who leans into your face and shouts is probably always going to be a bully. Or a drill sergeant. The girl who bats her eyelashes at a boy and asks him to help her move something "because he's so big and strong" is probably a flirt in any era. Unfortunately these are also the rankest of stereotypes, and they tell us nothing about the person's social standing or profession, but at least they're a starting point.