This week, Doubleday publishes the really rather gorgeous debut novel by Emily Hauser, For the Most Beautiful – a memorable account of the Trojan War, written from the point of view of not only some of the leading women caught in the conflict but also of the gods themselves. You can read my review here. I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour to celebrate the publication, which gave me the perfect excuse to put some questions to Emily. Here Emily talks about her inspiration for the novel, her different take on the Trojan War, the role of the gods in this human story, the challenges of writing historical fiction and the writers that have influenced her. Thanks so much to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions.
Congratulations on For the Most Beautiful, I read it in a single day – a captivating read! What inspired you to write about the legend of Troy and, out of all the characters available, why did you choose to focus on the two women, Krisayis and Briseis?
Thank you so much! The inspiration for For the Most Beautiful came during a class at Yale, when we were asked to read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, and I thought, “Why has nobody done this for the Iliad?” I was instantly drawn to re-telling the story of Troy from the female perspective because it’s a story we so often associate with men – Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, and all the other heroes of Homer’s Iliad – and I wanted to change that, to bring the women to the fore. Few people actually realise that there are in fact two women who are absolutely crucial to the action: Briseis, princess of Pedasus, and Krisayis (spelled Chryseis in the Iliad), daughter of the High Priest of Troy. Their capture, and the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon that erupts over their return, sets off the entire chain of events that becomes the Iliad of Homer. I wanted to show that there is more to this legendary war than just the battle exploits of the male heroes – that, in fact, these two women were at the very heart of the action, and that it was their choices and their intrigues and relationships that really brought about the siege and fall of Troy.
The fall of Troy is a well-known story. How did you make your version of it feel fresh and different?
I think the fact that so few people are aware of the stories of Briseis and Krisayis meant that I could bring a very new perspective to the age-old story of Troy. I really focused in my retelling on exploring the inner lives of my characters – I have endless character sheets, sketches and maps of their story arcs – so that, hopefully, the two women really leap off the page, and readers can really identify with them and their stories. I wanted to bring them alive, to show that people in Bronze Age Troy really weren’t as different from us as we think they were. I believe that there are traits we share, as human beings, across time – love, passion, violence, the search for meaning – and it is these timeless themes that I tried to bring to life through my characters as I wrote.
The novel contains an intriguing mix of ancient history and fantasy. How difficult was it to make this world feel real while still keeping its almost magical air of mystery and myth?
Interestingly, it was only at the moments of intersection and cross-over between the mortal and immortal worlds that this became a challenge. Originally I intended the gods and the humans to stay quite separate, so that the realm of the gods on Mount Olympus, with its fantastical cloud-palaces and ambrosia-eating divinities, could exist quite happily apart from the real, bloody, war-torn humans of the Trojan plain. But as the novel progressed I could see the mortals and the gods coming closer and closer together, and I knew that eventually they would have to meet. The challenge was simultaneously to bring alive for the reader that ancient unquestioning belief in the gods that the Trojans would have felt, as almost a permanent, geological part of the landscape, at the same time as conveying the sense of shock and disjunction which the characters must have naturally felt when those two worlds collide. For me, it was the small markers of human physicality which were useful for making this separation: on Olympus, for example – as in Homer – the gods cannot eat human food. Back on the mortal plane, I tried to give as much detailing of physical objects as I could – clay pots, lamps, bronze cauldrons, woollen skirts – to create a sharp and tangible contrast with the sheer, cloud-like immateriality of the Olympian realm.
The novel doesn’t just focus on mortals, but also on the gods. Why did you choose to include the gods as characters?
You know, the gods weren’t originally a part of the book, but after writing a few chapters I realised that they had to be there. The first reason is a very simple one – that they’re a major part of Homer’s epic, and, more importantly, of his world. Although many modern authors who have reworked the Iliad have chosen to omit the gods – Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy is a notable exception – I felt that the gods were so central to Homer, as well as to the Greeks and Trojans and their view of their world, that to omit them would be to miss half of what the legend of the Trojan War is about.
Then, of course, there are the reasons which critics and scholars often cite with reference to the Iliad: first, the contrast between the mortal and immortal planes; and, second, the necessary relief which the scenes on Olympus provide. In a story filled with war, death and loss, in which my protagonists suffered terrible traumas from witnessing their husbands killed before their eyes to being faced with near-rape, I found that the gods provided an important break in the relentless narrative march towards the inevitable sack of Troy. Moreover, the contrast between their frivolous immortal existence on Olympus and the deep emotions and attachments forged by their human counterparts serves – at least I hope it does – to throw the fears and losses endured by mortals into a sharper and more poignant relief. The immortals play their trivial games with human fate, but they never quite understand the importance of mortality and a sense of urgency of being alive – all these things that lead us to have passions, emotions, love – that make life worth living.
Considering how the gods misused humans, could Paris have made any other choice?
That’s a really interesting and important question. It is, in fact, something which lies at the heart of my second book, For the Winner, so I won’t say too much – except that I think that it depends on if you think the gods are able to understand human desires…
Would you like to write more novels set in ancient Greek legend and/or history?
Yes, absolutely! For the Most Beautiful is the first in a series called the Golden Apple trilogy, all centred around retelling the legends of the mythical golden apples. The second book, For the Winner, is set around twenty years before the time of the Trojan War and retells the legendary myth of Atalanta – a young woman and a warrior, who set out along with Jason and the Argonauts on the legendary voyage to capture the Golden Fleece.
Is there another historical period that appeals to you?
I love ancient Rome (if it’s not cheating too much to choose another period within classical antiquity!). There’s something about the urbanity of imperial Rome, its sex, its vices, its intrigues, that is wonderfully compelling. I was fortunate enough to participate in an archaeological dig a few years ago in Pompeii and I adored wandering through the ruins of the ancient city in the morning before the tourists arrived, imagining the early morning salutatio, the clients outside the doors, the slaves running to and fro from the public fountains… But who knows, maybe I’ll come across a fascinating story from another time period just waiting to be told!
Which authors have inspired you to write?
Robert Graves was probably my first inspiration. I was given I, Claudius when I was about ten and read and re-read it incessantly – it was from around then that I think I decided that I wanted to write something like it, something that could bring the classical past alive. Philippa Gregory was also a very formative influence for me, with her ability to retell history from a female perspective: reading her books, particularly The Constant Princess, I began to see that there was a different history, a different story just waiting to be told.
What’s your favourite novel of 2015?
Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling. I found Kelsea Glynn, the protagonist, to be refreshingly spunky and down-to-earth, and I enjoyed following her progression through the novel from insecure girl to fully-fledged queen.
Thanks so much to Emily! For further stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below, a thing of beauty in itself.