Sunday, September 2nd, 2012
As I prepare to head off on book tour tomorrow, I can’t help but remember where I was a year ago at this time. My book—the one I had spent a third of my life working on—was a week from coming out. I was a worried, hand-wringing mess. Would anyone read it? Would bookstores carry it? Would I be able to resist thanking each person who bought it as if she had given me her kidney?
The answer to the first two turned out, thankfully, to be yes. The third remains a struggle.
I was also more than a little nervous about the book tour itself. I had read a lot of author horror stories about missed flights, impossible-to-find venues, non-existent or hostile audiences. I worried that I would fight my way through the Atlanta airport, only to arrive at an event so rattled I would be incoherent. But I was fortunate that accompanying me was my valiant fiance: map-reader extraordinaire, finder of late night snacks, checker of teeth for spinach, spirit lifter. So when those inevitable moments of travel panic arose (thanks again for canceling that critical flight, Delta!), they were much less horrible because I wasn’t facing them alone. If I have one piece of advice to new writers about book tour, it’s this: bring Nathaniel.
Like many writers, I have a streak of perfectionism that extends far beyond the page, and I spent the weeks before the tour trying to figure out the “right” way to do everything. Looming largest was my fear that I didn’t know the correct way to sign books. I obsessed over possibilities: should I use the inside board? The title page? Should I write the date or just a note? A friend commented, “I think you can just do it however you want.” But that, of course, wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted the official memo from the Writer’s Association of the Universe on the correct procedure, so that there would be no chance of me messing it up. I was hurled into a panic at a terrific Jim Shepard reading when he wrote a charming note on the title page, then CROSSED OUT his printed name, and signed beneath it. Was that what real writers did? Would I be unmasked as an imposter if I didn’t do it? Nat reminded me that Ann Patchett hadn’t crossed out her name. My friend repeated herself: “I really think it’s up to the writer.” Which I suppose was the root of the problem. I’d written my book, but still didn’t feel like a writer.
Insecurities and airplanes aside, once I was on the road, I discovered that I really enjoyed book touring. I was getting to visit some of the best bookstores in the world, talk about stories I loved and meet fellow book-lovers–and I do mean lovers. After the first two events, I began carrying a notebook with me at all times to jot down all the passionate recommendations I was receiving. I was anxious before each event, but my years of teaching turned out to be terrific preparation. Once I began talking about the myths, I forgot my nerves and just enjoyed myself. And, as it had been in the classroom, the best part was always the audience’s questions. One of my favorite tour moments was an orthopedic surgeon who wondered if the Achilles’ heel legend had come from the fact that foot wounds are quite dangerous, because they are particularly susceptible to infection and gangrene. Who knew?
Inevitably, there were a few disasters. I remember a particular bookstore where I was booked only for a signing, not a reading. They led me to a table by the entrance where they had a beautiful display of my book all set up. My job, they said, was to convince everyone who came into the door to buy my book. “One author sold almost three hundred!” the bookseller added cheerily. The next hour was one of the worst in recent memory. I hate bothering people generally–bothering them to buy my book was actually a living nightmare. Worst of all was seeing the suspicion on people’s faces when I tried to say hello: she just wants something from us! Three hundred? Who was this god-like author? Lesson learned: don’t ever take a job as a newsie. The silver lining was a memorable a book-spree in that otherwise terrific store.
Which brings me to a word about brick-and-mortar bookstores. I have always been a lover of them, but this tour made me a fanatical convert. I have never seen such passion for books, such enthusiasm to connect readers and authors, and such thoughtfulness. One of these days I plan to write an essay singing the praises of all the best stores I have visited, from the incredible Main Street Trading Company in the Scottish Borders, to the fabulous Porter Square Books in my own backyard.
Overwhelmingly, my experience of book tour was one of gratitude–for the readers who came to my events, for the bookstores that promoted them, for the publisher that sent me on the road. Every time I stood in front of an audience, I was intensely aware of what a privilege it was to be there. All of which is to say: thank you. I am very much looking forward to the upcoming events!
Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
I’m thrilled to announce that the US paperback of The Song of Achilles comes out TODAY! Not only does it have an eye-popping cover, but it’s also chock full of new material, including two essays on Troy and Homer, illustrations of the main characters, discussion questions, and a Q and A between me and the terrific Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked).
How to get a copy? If you want to try your hand against the fates, Ecco is sponsoring a Goodreads Giveaway. Or, for the sure thing, just head down to your local bookstore and pick one up!
I also want to take a moment to thank all the teachers who have gotten in touch to let me know that they will be teaching The Song of Achilles in their classrooms—I am so honored! Coming soon, as promised: The Song of Achilles, the teacher’s guide.
Likewise, I want to thank the book clubs who have chosen my book as one of their selections. I’ve been very much enjoying speaking with some of you over Skype, and look forward to meeting more of you in the days ahead.
Last but not least, I’ve updated my event schedule for the next several months, which includes stops in New York City, London, Boston, Oklahoma, and Indiana. Lots more to come soon!
Monday, January 30th, 2012
My students often tease me that every mythological character is “one of my favorites.” But, really, this week’s character is: Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons.
The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women who lived somewhere in the region of the Black Sea (sources differ as to exactly where). There were a number of popular stories about them—that they were daughters of Ares, that no men were allowed in their camp. But the most famous of all is the one about their chest: that, in order to be able to wield a bow better, they would cut off one of one of their breasts. The story gained traction from some ancient etymologists, who claimed that the word Amazon derived from “a” (without) and “mazon” (breast, the same root as the “maste” in mastectomy).
As I child, I remember goggling at the breast story with horrified admiration. Those Amazons sure were committed to their archery! Now, of course, it seems absurd. As Olympic-level female archers the world over can testify, breasts do not interfere with shooting a bow. Surely the Greeks would have known that? But perhaps not—perhaps there simply weren’t enough female archers in the ancient world to disprove it. And part of me can’t help but wonder if the story wasn’t on some level meant to discourage women from taking it up—sorry, you’ll have to cut off your breast first.
The Amazons had a number of famous Queens, but Penthesilea is perhaps the most storied. She was a daughter of the war-god Ares, and Pliny credits her with the invention of the battle-ax. She was also sister to Hippolyta, who married the hero Theseus, after being defeated by him in battle. Penthesilea ruled the Amazons during the years of the Trojan war—and for most of that time stayed away from the conflict. However, after Achilles killed Hector, Penthesilea decided it was time for her Amazons to intervene, and the group rode to the rescue of the Trojans—who were, after all, fellow Anatolians. Fearless, she blazed through the Greek ranks, laying waste to their soldiers. I love Vergil’s glorious description of her in battle:
“The ferocious Penthesilea, gold belt fastened beneath her exposed breast, leads her battle-lines of Amazons with their crescent light-shields…a warrioress, a maiden who dares to fight with men.”
(By the way, the word that Vergil uses for warrioress is bellatrix, the inspiration for Bellatrix Lestrange’s name in Harry Potter.)
I can still remember the moment in my high school Latin class when I first translated those lines. I had heard of Penthesilea and the Amazons before, but this was the first time I really understand just how impressive and unusual it was in the ancient world to be a woman who “fights with men.” The heroines of Greek mythology tend towards thoughtfulness, fidelity and modesty (Andromache, Penelope), while the daring and headstrong personalities generally go to the antagonists–Medea, Clytemnestra, Hera. But Penthesilea is something else entirely: a woman who meets men on her own terms, as their equal. Perhaps in honor of this, Vergil doesn’t give her the standard heroine epithet of “beautiful.” For him, it is her majesty and obvious power that make her notable, not her looks.
Sadly, Penthesilea’s story ends in tragedy, at the hands of none other than Achilles himself. The most popular version of it is quite strange–that Achilles falls in love with her as he stabs her, catching her tenderly, even as she collapses to the ground. I have never been sure how to take this–is it a compliment to her spirit? Or is it an indignity–Achilles turning the warrior back into a woman? It all depends upon the telling, of course. But I like to think that maybe Achilles sees in her a sort of kindred spirit–another fierce and flashing youth, proud and driven towards honor. But he is so absorbed in his own drama that he realizes it, alas, a moment too late.
Contrary to popular belief, Penthesilea’s story isn’t actually told in the Iliad (which ends with Hector’s funeral, before the Amazons arrive), but in a lost ancient epic called Aethiopis. This poem continued the story of Achilles’ great deeds, which included the killing of several famous warriors—Memnon, King of Aethiopia, and Penthesilea most prominent among them.
It is unsurprising that such a vivid character had a long legacy in art and literature–first and foremost as the inspiration for Vergil’s great female warrior, Camilla, in the Aeneid. Penthesilea’s name became synonymous with female strength; when Eleanor of Aquitaine accompanied her husband on the second crusade, she is rumored to have attired herself as the famous Amazon. As far as I can find, there aren’t any novels focused on Penthesilea’s story, but she does appear in several poems (including one by Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius and Hercules My Shipmate). If any one knows a story centered on her, drop me a line!
A final story about Amazons. When I was in college, I volunteered to teach mythology to fifth graders. One day, I told the students a number of myths, the Amazons included, and then had them pick one story and draw a picture of it. Going around the room, I saw lots of Pegasuses, Heracleses, and Minotaurs. So I was excited when I noticed that one boy had drawn a very buff looking Amazon, wielding a bow. At her feet was a round object.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s the breast she just cut off,” he answered.
“Oh!” I think I said. “Very vivid!”
On that note, have a wonderful, and mythological, week!
While I was at the Open Book Cape Town Literary Festival, I was interviewed by the wonderful Clive Chandler, a Classics Professor at Cape Town University. He asked if the character of Chiron in The Song of Achilles had been in any way inspired by my own teaching.
Chiron is a master teacher, so this was a lovely question to be asked. But the truth is, Chiron came much more out of my experiences as a student. I am fortunate to have had some truly terrific teachers in my life, who were instrumental in nurturing my enthusiasm for literature, Classics, and learning in general. Chiron isn’t based on any of them (he’s very much his own person, er, horse-person), but he does share with them some of the qualities of excellent teaching: a passion for communicating knowledge, an emphasis on the individual student, and a deep-seated curiosity about the world. And, like them, he believes in seizing the moment—in allowing student interest, or current events, to draw the class outside the lines of the lesson.
One of my favorite memories of this kind of teaching is from my high school Latin class. We were translating the Aeneid, the section where Aeneas’ fleet reaches the Libyan shore. Vergil takes his time describing the scene—the natural harbor, the overhanging cliffs, the dark groves. It was beautiful writing, but dense, and the class was finding it dry.
“I don’t get it,” a student complained. “He’s describing all this stuff, but I have no idea where it all goes.”
“Let’s draw it,” my teacher said. “Volunteers?” He opened a brand-new box of colored chalk, and offered it to us. A few students bounded to the board and started sketching excitedly. The rest of us scoured the text, offering suggestions (“The forests should be on top of the cliff!”), intent on making the image perfectly match Vergil’s words. The ringing bell came as a shock. Hadn’t we just started?
It was such a simple thing for my teacher to do, but utterly transformative. He completely changed the energy of the class, and brought us back to the material with new, enthusiastic eyes. That kind of flexibility is something I have striven to emulate in my own classroom. Yes, it can lead to some unproductive digressions (“Who was that guy who got pantsed by Apollo?“) but those are more than made up for by the many times that it invigorates the class, and sparks new discussion.
Three cheers for Chiron and master teachers everywhere!
In honor of all the students going back to school, I wanted to share one of my favorite Patroclus-related teaching stories.
In my middle-school Latin class, we were discussing which gods had taken which sides in the Trojan War. I asked who was on the Greek side, and the students called out answers:
“Athena!” “Hera!” “Apollo!”
“No!” another student shouted. “Apollo wasn’t on the Greek side. Remember? He pantsed that guy.”
The class paused. In US slang, ‘pantsing’ refers to yanking someone’s trousers down as a prank, preferably in front of an audience.
“He did what?” I asked.
“Pantsed that guy. On the walls, or something? You told us he did!”
I ran back over every Trojan War myth, trying to find an incident that could possibly be interpreted as ‘pantsing.’ At last, light dawned. The week before I had told them about Apollo knocking off Patroclus’ helmet and armor, to reveal that he wasn’t really Achilles.
“Do you mean Patroclus?”
I explained that pantsing wasn’t really a good term for it, since they didn’t wear pants in Homeric Greece. The student listened to my explanation with polite tolerance. Then turned to his neighbor, “See! I told you he pantsed him.”
I can just imagine the student one day saying to his college professor: “Sure I know who Apollo is! My teacher told us how he pantsed this guy…”
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto