Friday, 16 April 2010

Mythic Interview Friday: Number 3 - Amanda Craig

When I first started to think about these Mythic Interview Fridays, I decided I wanted to get as diverse a group of people from the book world involved (and talking about the importance of myths) as I possibly could.  Hence, I am delighted to welcome Amanda Craig--one of the UK's foremost children's book critics--to Scribble City Central. Amanda has long been familiar to me as a journalist and as children's book reviewer for the Times--indeed she's been kind enough to review my own books there on several occasions--but the other hat she wears, that of a writer, was less familiar to me until earlier this year.  I've just finished her novel, 'Hearts and Minds', which is currently long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2010.  The shortlist is announced next Tuesday 20th April, and if Amanda is not on it I shall wonder if the judges were temporarily bereft of their senses, because it is a wonderful and moving book.  Reading it, for me, was like having a curtain drawn back—seeing the life and movement inside a stranger’s room all the more clearly for having been in the darkness on the London street outside. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Anyway, now it's Amanda's turn to sit in the Mythic Interview Chair and answer my searching questions on matters mythic!

1. Do you think that the retelling of Greek and other myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some "dry old stories" which come from ancient cultures they might never even have heard of?
I think it’s hugely important, yes. Myths, especially Greek ones, are not only the best stories we have apart from fairy-tales, but form the basis of European culture. You can’t begin to understand great literature, art, music, architecture and philosophy without knowing them. However, they need to be re-told for each generation.

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know them. My mother gave me an ancient book she’d had, which I re-read so many times it fell to bits. It had illustrations in which everyone looked as if they were made of marble! My favourite in that book was the myth of Orpheus, probably because of the dramatic picture of his losing Eurydice. Soon after, I got Roger Lancelyn Green’s marvelous Tales of the Greek Heroes, which my own children loved. My favourites there were the Labours of Hercules. I very much responded to his choice of paths – the pleasant, easy path of ordinary life, and the hard, arduous one of the hero. I was thrilled by his strangling the snakes in his cradle! Also, cleaning the Augean Stables in such an ingenious way. It’s all very well to be super-strong, but that was housework hero-style. I’m never as impressed by feats of strength as by intelligence.  I liked the Norse myths too but they were too full of evil and darkness. Both ended with a climactic vision of the end of days, but the Greeks had heroes helping the gods, and winning against the Titans. Greek myth has individual tragedy but is on the side of life. It’s also on the side of intelligence, mercy and justice, albeit of a gruesome kind.

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Right now, my favourite myth is Demeter and Persephone, perhaps because my own mother is ill, and I feel that fierce mother-love in both directions. But I also adore the story of Perseus, partly because he uses his wits, and is the only hero who ends happily. He saves not only the princess but his own mother.

4. Who is your most hated and also your most loved mythical hero or heroine, and what made you feel that way about them?
Most hated, I suppose Loki. I’m always interested in trickster figures, and write about them, but Loki moves from mischief to pure evil. He’s like Iago, destructive for the sake of it. I also loathe Paris. If he’d chosen Wisdom instead of Love he’d probably have had both, because women always love a wise young man.

Most loved, Odysseus. He is both a hero and a family man. His long battle to get home to his wife, protect his son and survive is one that speaks to all of us. I also love Penelope for being so clever despite the passivity forced on her. She would have understood about the nymphs on the way.

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
Pegasus is definitely one! A winged horse is part of every writer’s dream of freedom. And Cerberus. I love dogs, and always feel so sorry for him, chained up in the Underworld; though feeding three heads doesn’t bear thinking about.

6. Have myths had any influence on what and how you write, your reading choices, or in any other areas of your cultural life? 
Yes, loads! I’m always interested in archetypes, which derive largely from myth – at present I’m writing about an unhappily married couple, somewhat in the mould of Zeus and Hera.

7. If you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?
I’d choose Athene, both wise and a warrior. She’s the original feminist – and the protector of Odysseus. I can think of quite a few uses for her shield with the Head of Medusa….

More about Amanda:
Amanda Craig was born in South Africa in 1959, and brought up in Italy and Britain. After reading English at Clare College Cambridge, she became an award-winning young journalist in the 1980s. She is the author of six novels, Foreign Bodies (1990), A Private Place (1991) A Vicious Circle (1996), In a Dark Wood (2000) and Love In Idleness (2003). Her novels and short stories carry characters on from one book to the next, and her new novel, Hearts and Minds (2009), which has been long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2010, is a sequel to both A Vicious Circle and Love in Idleness. She lives in London, is a reviewer and broadcaster, and is also the children's book critic for the Times.
Amanda's website and blog are HERE and her @AmandaPCraig Twitter Page is HERE


Katherine Langrish said...

I'd never felt sorry for Cerberus before, but now I do! A rescue mission, please!

Lucy Coats said...

I'm writing a rescue mission story even now, Kath!

Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

Yes, I concur with Kath and Amanda. Poor boy. Who's a sweet little doggie ...Ow!Not nice to get triple bite in one go.

Stroppy Author said...

Great interview, Amanda/Lucy - thank you!

Amanda - last time I saw you we were drinking too much gin in Adrian Poole's office....:-)

Lucy Coats said...

Coming from a cat-aficionado that is a great accolade, Mary.

Now play nice, Stroppy! I'm sure Amanda needed that gin--there are times when one does, you know!

Stroppy Author said...

Lucy, anyone who was sitting in Adrian Poole's office for any amount of time needed gin!

Jo Treggiari said...

Great interview Amanda/Lucy. Dragged me out of my self-imposed internet exile.
Odysseus was always my favorite too especially since he used his wits, genuinely loved his wife and family and out of all the heroes was reluctant to go to war (feigning madness to avoid it).
Love native canadian/american myth. The trickster god is more playful and mischievous than Loki is, but it seems to me that the tales of norse myth are so much about dying gloriously in battle that there is not much room for fun and games (and levity).

Lucy Coats said...

I shall bow to your superior knowledge then, Anne!

Jo--thanks for making the trek out of internet exile to come over the Atlantic, much appreciated, and we are missing your presence on Twitter. I agree about the US/Can trickster god being more fun than Loki. I always thought he was on the sour 'take it too far' side of a joke. And now he'll probably visit some horrid misfortune on me for saying that.... Odysseus will always have a place in my heart--many men wouldn't even have tried to come home with all those nymphy temptations on offer. He needn't have, really, but he did. I like a man with a bit of perseverance about him!

Joanna Troughton said...

Yes! The knowledge of myths from all over the world is so important for children of all ages, (I am an author/illustrator of picture books.) Eight years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of Books For Keeps on this very subject: (if you are interested.) My favourite myths are the Trickster ones by the way. Looking forward to future interviews.

Lucy Coats said...

Jo--it's an excellent letter. Thank you for drawing it to my attention. Your point about preparing those much younger children for the mythic references in fantasy books like those by Rowling, Pullman (and many others, including my own 'Hootcat Hill') is well made and is something we, as authors and illustrators should indeed be thinking about addressing. However, publishing is, as always, market-led. If publishers (both home and foreign) say there is no demand for such books, then they simply will not get published for economic reasons.

Debating the importance of myth--the wonder of these amazing stories (from all cultures, not just Greece) is why I started this series of interviews. I want to get people talking, enthusing--and above all getting the myths out there where it really matters--to children.

Joanna Troughton said...

You are right, Lucy, there are so few publishers now prepared to produce traditional stories in the picture book format, but it won't stop me trying and hoping that market conditions will eventually change.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lovely interview, Lucy, and great answers, Amanda!

Blog Design by Imagination Designs all images from the Before the First Snow kit by Lorie Davison