The Bookseller – Author Interviews – Natalie Haynes

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“I love taking a story that you sort of know and telling you that it wasn’t always like you know it,” says Natalie Haynes, a self-proclaimed “classics nerd” who made her career reinventing Greek myths. for a modern readership. As befits an old stand-up comic, she’s sharp as a point and very funny when we meet in a central London hotel bar on a sunny afternoon.

Her previous novel, A thousand shipsan account of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women involved, has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. Her latest approaches the story of Medusa through a feminist lens and is, she says, “an attempt to tell the story of a woman who was violently abused and assaulted and to see her neither as a monster nor as a victim but as a person.

Medusa had its own chapter in Haynes’ non-fiction title Pandora’s Jar: Women in Greek Myths but the author knew there was more to say: “I was still so mad at her at the end. Usually writing what is effectively a 10,000 word essay would kick it out of my system, but I was really upset. So Haynes decided that Medusa deserved her own novel: “If I feel this much for you after giving your story back, I probably have unfinished business with you!”

You can’t get around for an account of the Trojan War in Latin or Greek, but with the story of Medusa there was a lot more space for me to fill in the gaps

The result is her gripping fourth novel, stone store, which takes the story we all think we know – of the fearsome snake-haired Gorgon beheaded by the hero Perseus – and rips it to shreds. We meet baby Medusa, left on the Libyan shore outside the cave where her sisters live, by her father Phorcys, an ancient god who lives in the depths of the ocean. Her Gorgon sisters Sthenno and Euryale are immortal, but Medusa is not, so she is the only mortal to grow up in a family of gods.

Young woman, Medusa is followed in the sacred temple of Athena by Poseidon, god of the sea, who commits a terrible act. Athena, enraged at the sacrilege, avenges herself not on her uncle Poseidon but on the innocent Medusa, by turning her human hair into snakes and cursing her with terrible power; a gaze that will turn any living creature to stone. Appalled, Medusa retreats to her cave, unable to look at the sisters she loves and who love her. Meanwhile, in the distance, Polydectes, king of Seriphos, sends Perseus on a quest to bring back the head of a Gorgon…

frantic pace

stone blind unfolds at a breakneck pace with short chapters from multiple character perspectives breathing new life into this nearly 3,000 year old tale. I wonder if the energy of his storytelling is a perk of having done stand-up for over a decade; She knows how to hold the reader’s attention. “I think it’s an unusual combination of knowing Aristotle’s Poetics that tells me how to structure the drama in order to maintain the tension, and also knowing exactly how patient the late-night audience is at the Comedy Store. Which is not very patient.

Haynes’ figures, both mortal and god, are fully rounded. These gods are capricious, vexatious, spoiled and demanding and, in the case of Athena, oddly biting. The scenes where Athena and Hermes try to help Perseus – who is not so much a brave hero as an unfortunate incompetent, wildly unsuited to the task – are terrible. The other characters are wonderful too, the bad-tempered Graiai, three sisters who share one eye and one tooth between them; the vain Cassiope, Queen of Ethiopia whose daughter Andromeda will pay the price for her mother’s belief that she (Cassiope) is as beautiful as a goddess; and the Nereids, 50 sea nymphs “with a changing temperament”.

With female characters… you’ll only get this very brief account of what we would consider an earth-shattering event

There are surprisingly few written sources on Medusa, Haynes tells me. She started learning Latin at the age of 11 at Birmingham School and Ancient Greek at 14 before reading the classics at Cambridge and therefore always returns to the original texts. “You can’t get around for a Latin or Greek account of the Trojan War, but with the story of Medusa there was a lot more space for me to fill in the gaps.” Medusa is briefly mentioned in Hesiod’s “Theogony”, the epic poem describing the origins of the Greek gods, composed around 700-730 BC. of Ovid Metamorphosis, written in 8AD, has more detail, although the whole story is from Perseus’ point of view. “Especially with female characters…you’re only going to get a very brief account of what we would consider an upsetting event,” Haynes observes. “So in a way, it’s joyful, because what you have is this skeletal frame and all these people in the shadows that you have to fill in and move on.”

stone blind is her first novel since A thousand ships, who was nominated for the Women’s Award. “My mom said, when it took me so long to start this one, ‘I’m afraid there’s no more pressure on you because of the woman’s price screening,’ but at the At the time, the pressure was ‘Will someone publish my book?’ It’s so much worse than ‘will people expect my book to be good?’ I come from stand-up; if people expect you to be funny, they think you’re funny. If people expect your book to be good, they’ll probably like it better than a they may not even take. I’ll deal with this pressure, it’s ok, thank you!

A thousand ships had done well in the UK but failed to sell anywhere else, most painfully in America. “Everyone in New York refused Shipsrecalls Haynes. “For a while my agent and I joked that if you wanted a job in publishing [in the US]you would be asked if you would post Ships and you would have to say no and then they would give you the job. Pre-selection changed all that, and Pandora’s Jarwhich had previously been rejected by American publishers, was also snapped up and ended up on the New York Times bestseller lists.

feminist point of view

“I was asked when Ships came out, in a radio interview, if it was a bit anachronistic to center the story around women. I said, I hear what you’re saying, but of the eight tragedies that Euripides wrote about the Trojan War that survive us today, seven of them have female characters. So if it’s anachronistic, he didn’t get the memo. Indeed, a feminist perspective is long overdue according to Haynes: “They had a few centuries of unfettered patriarchal interpretation, it’s time they made some space.”

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