Glyn Iliffe talks with Steven McKay about The Oracles of Troy, book four in his best-selling Adventures of Odysseus series
Steven A. McKay
SM: Hi Glyn, thank you for talking to me today – as you know I’m a big fan of your books. Tell us about your new one, The Oracles of Troy (released 25th October 2013). It takes up where The Armour of Achilles left off, is that right?
GI: In fact, it starts the day after The Armour of Achilles ends. An oracle declares the war can’t be won without the famed bow of Heracles, which is in the possession of Philoctetes. Unfortunately, the Greeks marooned him on the island of Lemnos at the start of the war, where he has been nursing his hatred for them ever since. Odysseus is given the difficult job of persuading him to rejoin the army, and being Odysseus he’s not above using a bit of trickery to do this!
SM: Why did you choose to write about Odysseus and the Trojan War? Were you a fan of Greek mythology as a child?
GI: The idea came to me after I left university. I’d been studying the classics for three years, so it was natural to write about something I knew. The reason I studied for a classics degree in the first place, however, does relate to my childhood. I wasn’t reading The Iliad and The Odyssey as a kid (though my girls are now), but I loved watching films about Greece and Rome: Spartacus, Ben Hur, Jason and the Argonauts and so on. In fact, my latest book includes a small homage to Jason and the Argonauts, though I’ll leave it to readers to spot that for themselves. Another big influence was my toys. I had lots of Airfix Romans and Ancient Britons, as well as a Roman Fort; I also had some Greeks and Trojans – and a Trojan Horse – made by an Italian company called Atlantic. These were the things that fired my imagination and ultimately led me to study the classics.
At university there was a heavy emphasis on Homer’s epics and the Trojan War, so I chose this as the main subject of my books. Once I’d decided on telling the myths from the roots of the war to the return of the last warrior, I had no option but to pick Odysseus as the main character. Firstly, he was one of Helen’s suitors ten years before the war began, when the seeds of the conflict were sown. He was also a major participant in the war and, through his intelligence, proved himself more vital to its outcome than the likes of Achilles and Ajax. Finally, he was the last man to come home, as told in The Odyssey. Nor would I have wanted to choose anyone else because Odysseus is a fascinating character in his own right. He is cunning and deceitful – when necessary – in a world that worshipped honour and excellence, and yet his motivating desire to return home to his family suggests much more humanity than his glory-seeking peers. I like his complexity.
SM: Where did the character Eperitus come from? Your own invention, or was he actually in the old myths?
GI: From Book 24 of The Odyssey (E V Rieu’s translation): “I come from Alybas. My home is the palace there, for my father is King Apheidas, Polypemon’s son. My own name is Eperitus…” However, this isn’t Eperitus speaking. It’s Odysseus assuming a false identity to test his father, whom he has met for the first time in twenty years. Beyond this brief mention, Eperitus doesn’t exist in any of the Greek myths. I created him for two specific purposes: to provide an element of the unknown and to counterbalance the character of Odysseus. In a retelling of the life and adventures of one of literature’s most well-known figures, I felt the stories needed another principal character that readers could engage with and care about, but whose fate they could never be certain of. And though he is Odysseus’s best friend and the captain of his royal guard, Eperitus is very different – even opposed – to his king in many respects. Where Odysseus is intelligent, cunning and a family man, Eperitus follows his heart before his mind can interfere, has a strong sense of honour and has sworn to kill the one remaining member of his own family. Sometimes these polar differences come between the two men, making their relationship an interesting one, but on the whole they’re fiercely loyal to one another.
GI: The cover was designed by Justine Elliott (www.booklayoutguru.com), a cover artist from New Zealand. I didn’t want to cramp her style, so sent her copies of the previous three covers, told her what the book was about and left the rest to her. After less than two weeks she came up with the design that’s on the book now. I fell in love with it immediately. Whereas The Gates of Troy and The Armour of Achilles are quite dark and moody, Justine’s cover for Oracles is bright with a bold central image that leaves you in no doubt what the book is about. I also like the two-tone effect with the blue sky and the ochre dust cloud around the horse’s legs. It looks like a detail from a classical painting.
Doubtless a few people will realise the horse is the one from the 2004 film, Troy. Justine wasn’t aware of this when she chose the graphic, but I recognised it at once. This gave me a moment of doubt because I didn’t want people connecting my book with the film. But it’s a great interpretation of what the Trojan Horse might have looked like – as if it has been built from bits of a ship – and I didn’t want to ruin a great cover by asking for a different image. So I went with my gut instinct and stuck with Justine’s first design. I think it really catches the eye.
For my experiences of the cover designing process for King of Ithaca, look at my website.
SM: Throughout the series you have scenes where the mortals interact with the gods and goddesses. Did you ever question the inclusion of those fantasy/mystical elements, in favour of making things more “realistic”? I must admit, the idea of a story about Odysseus without magic and monsters would be quite boring, so I think you made the right decision!
GI: Greek mythology is all about the supernatural. Gods and monsters abound, so to remove them from my retelling never crossed my mind. My editor once suggested I should consider doing away with the gods and concentrate on the human element, but like you I thought this would rob the stories of everything that makes them great. After all, Homer’s works are given greater depth by contrasting the mortality of men with the immortality of the gods. There are two other problems with taking this approach. First, so many of the readers who would be drawn to this series will be fans of Greek mythology and are going to expect the supernatural. Second, in the fifth book I intend to retell the story of Odysseus’s return journey. Can you imagine trying to explain away the Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Hades and all those other bizarre encounters as purely natural encounters?
SM: Have you enjoyed any of the movies or TV shows about Greek mythology? I really wanted to enjoy Troy but I thought it was awful. It would be nice to see your books turned into a film – any chance of that happening do you think?
GI: I’ve already mentioned my early love of swords-and-sandals films, but most of those were from the fifties and sixties when they knew the true meaning of “epic”. More recent attempts have promised much and delivered little, in my opinion. Taking Troy, the film was visually impressive and had style, but failed to engage with the fundamentals of what makes the original story great. For one thing, it felt like the war took place over a bank holiday weekend rather than ten gruelling years. For another, it paid no respect to the order and feel of the original story – I say that as someone who is prepared to tinker with the myths, but tries to be faithful in the main. Perhaps worst of all though – and this relates back to your earlier question – the filmmakers decided to remove the supernatural elements. This ripped an important dimension out of the story and left it rudderless.
I don’t even want to mention the recent Titans films (sorry, just did) and looking at the trailers for the upcoming BBC series Atlantis, I’m seriously worried about the confusion that might happen there (Jason vs the Minotaur, if the trailer is anything to go by). It frustrates me that film producers feel the need to change such good stories so drastically.
As for my books, Historical Novels Review said King of Ithaca was “a great novel and would be an even better film”. Disney also expressed an interest in it back in 2008, which came to nothing in the end, though as a fan of many Disney films old and new I think it might have been a good thing. If I had a choice, though, I’d rather see the books turned into a US TV series. Look at what HBO did with Game of Thrones. I’d love that for my series and I’m always open to offers!
SM: I’ve noticed that quite a lot of historical writers like to collect weapons and armour from the period they write about, or are members of re-enactment groups. Do you do anything like that?
GI: A full set of Greek armour would be great, though I’m probably not fit enough to do much in it! The only thing I own is a Bronze Age arrowhead from Greece, c.1200BC – more or less the period of the Trojan War. It’s nice to hold it between my fingertips and reflect on the fact it was made and used by men over three thousand years ago. But it’s unlikely I’ll ever own anything more substantial than that.
I do have a strong interest in military history, though, and usually attend the annual English Heritage Festival of History, which takes place at Kelmarsh Hall a few miles from where I live. For someone interested in the past it’s a gold mine. The re-enactors are very knowledgeable and usually willing to let you handle the arms and armour, giving you a fascinating glimpse of what it was like to be a fighting man at different points in history.
SM: The Oracles of Troy is the fourth in the series – how many more do you plan to write? Any plans to try your hand at writing something different at some point?
GI: I’ve already let on there’ll be a fifth, which I intend to call The Voyage of Odysseus. This will be followed by a sixth and final instalment dealing with Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. I’d always planned on six books and the plots have been in existence since my research for King of Ithaca in 1999. They’ve changed a little because of developments in the storylines for the first four books (you’re an author, Steven, so you know that books are organic things), but aren’t very different to my original vision. All the supernatural fun will happen in book five, of course, and though Odysseus’s adventures with the Lotus Eaters, Aeolus, Scylla and Charybdis et al are the most remembered elements of The Odyssey, it’s worth pointing out that these only take up 4 of its 24 Books. The rest of the story concentrates on Odysseus’s eventual return to Ithaca and how he deals with the men who are trying to usurp his throne (and steal his wife). It’s one of the most exciting tales in Western literature and well worth a book of its own!
After that? I’m full of ideas for other books and have already completed two Young Adult novels that I’d like to find an outlet for one day. The first is about a girl being hunted by Satanists who finds unexpected help in the form of her guardian angel. In the second a boy goes on a quest to save powerful ancient artefacts from the hands of an evil sect bent on world domination. Returning to a classical theme, Heracles looms large in the collective imagination but is poorly served by literature, so I’ve long thought about a couple of books on his famous labours. There are other ideas milling about, too, but the next couple of years will be spent shepherding Odysseus back home through Hell and high water – literally.
SM: Thank you, Glyn, for your time. I wish you every success with The Oracles of Troy! Having read an advance copy of it myself, I can assure readers they will love it just as much as they did the rest of the series.