Friday, 11 June 2010

Mythic Friday Interview: Number 11 - Fiona Dunbar

Making up a good name for a character is an art.  I'm a sucker for a good name, and so when I opened the first volume of Fiona Dunbar's Lulu Baker Trilogy, The Truth Cookie, I was immediately entranced with the idea of Varaminta Le Bone, the woman who has entangled Lulu's poor hapless father.  It is, quite simply, a gem of a name on so many levels--right up there with Cruella De Vil, in my opinion. It's a fantastic achievement for any author to have her books made into a series by the BBC, and Fiona has done just that--Lulu Baker has recently been on British TV screens, starring in the children's series Jinx which is based on the trilogy. It's very funny indeed--I loved watching it. I also found it fascinating to spot the myth references in the books--and I'd never heard of the Sumerian Dumuzi (you'll find out about him below).  What I love about all these mythic interviews is that I'm learning so much stuff.  Having thought I knew a lot, I now realise that there's a whole new world of mythic possibilities out there for me to discover.  Thanks so much for visiting Scribble City Central, Fi--I just wish I could bake some Truth Cookies for our politicians, so they'd tell us just how much of a mess we are really in!

1. Do you think that the retelling of myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient or forgotten cultures they might never even have heard of?
Gosh, yes, all those dull, dry old stories of magical transformations, gods behaving badly, mortals doing battle with beasts…yawn! Seriously, though; to render these tales at all ‘dry’, you’d have to be the Biggest Dullard in all Drearydom, don’t you think? But of course it’s not just about adventure and excitement; it’s the emotional truth behind the narrative that makes the reader/listener really care. All those fragile mortals making tragically bad decisions…how many times did I pray Orpheus would not turn round this time. And poor old Icarus! That one really resonated for me, for some reason. You can’t fail to care.

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 wanted to give the impression I was dead clever, and say I knew them all, ooh…since I was about six. In fact, I’ve just dug out my Scholastic Book Club edition of The Greek Gods by Evslin, Evslin & Hoopes; this clearly dates from when I was twelve. I don’t think I read any before then – or knew them from any other source. Astonishing, really. I was deprived! I was blown away by them, and re-read that slim volume over and over again.

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Well, I’ve already mentioned Icarus and Orpheus…Pandora’s another one. I seem to like these stories involving irresistible temptations, so this probably indicates I have no willpower whatsoever. But I have to come back to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, I think, for the tale that probably has it all for me. Orpheus himself is irresistible, and anything involving the underworld holds a particular fascination; so much more interesting than Olympus! I love everything about it; Cerberus the three-headed dog guarding the entrance, the ferryman Charon, the stories of penitents like Sisyphus and Tantalus and their eternal tasks. I love the story of Demeter and Persephone too, the six seeds of the pomegranate, how it relates to the seasons…but no, I can only have one, so I’ll stick with Orpheus and Eurydice.

4. Who is the mythical hero or heroine you most dislike, and what made you feel that way about them?
That’s a really tough one! Easy to think of ones I like; Odysseus is probably my favourite, for his wit and imagination. I have to stick with Greek here because it’s what I know best, and I’m a bit stuck on who would be defined as a ‘heroine’; presumably the likes of Artemis and Athene don’t count as they’re goddesses…? Don’t like Medea for obvious reasons, but I doubt she’s classified as a heroine. OK, so brief recap on the Trojan War makes me think Ajax is probably my least favourite hero; all brawn and no brain.

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
The Minotaur. I feel sorry for him! Very potent imagery there, too.

6. How have myths had an influence on your writing life, if at all?
Both my trilogies have taken a lot from mythology. In my Lulu Baker trilogy, a very unusual recipe book comes into Lulu’s possession – but she hasn’t heard of any of the ingredients. The more I delved into this subject, the more fun I had inventing rare and wonderful ingredients that come from plants with mythical origins. One favourite is the Idzumo Tree (whose fruit Lulu uses); this is a talking tree. It takes its name from Japanese myth of the Central Land of the Reed Plains, where all the plants used to talk. Another is the Dum’zani plant, that Lulu has to fertilise using her own tears. It is named after Dumuzi, the ancient Sumerian god of fertility and vegetation who was a precursor of Persephone; he descends to the underworld in the height of summer, when all is scorched, and retrieved each autumn by his wife Inanna. Lulu’s recipe book takes its title from the Apples of the Hesperides.
Without sounding poncey (oh, all right, with sounding poncey) you could trace the themes in my Silk Sisters trilogy back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Er, via Marvel Comics. Following an accident involving a bolt of lightning and a pet chameleon, Rorie Silk becomes a ‘human chameleon’: when she puts on someone else’s clothes, she becomes like them in appearance, and takes on their skills as well. I’m fascinated by transformation, and Rorie’s changes, apart from giving me an excuse to cram in loads of fun and adventure, are a metaphor for the changes experienced in adolescence.

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?
Clearly with Rorie Silk I was playing out my own fantasy, because I’d be the female offspring of Zeus – able, like him, to transform myself in any way I please. This would have many advantages – not just that of seduction! Though frankly, who can resist that also?

More about Fiona:
Fiona Dunbar is the author of the Lulu Baker trilogy, recently adapted for TV as the popular children’s series Jinx – and the Silk Sisters books, a futuristic adventure trilogy. She has also written a one-off children’s novel, Toonhead. A long time ago, in another lifetime, she was also an illustrator; she illustrated stories for the likes of Francesca Simon and Catherine Storr, as well as three picture books of her own.
Fiona lives in London with her Greek-American husband and two half-Greek teenage children. So far, none of them have exhibited any Percy Jackson-like attributes – although her husband’s tendency to commandeer the TV remote at all times suggests a barely suppressed Zeus complex.
Fiona's website is at and you can also follow her on Twitter.


kathryn evans said...

Oh this made me smile - and resonated so...wanting to look clever, feeling sorry for the Minataur and having to weep tears to fertilise plants ( ok well may not the last one...although farming is pretty tough these days).

Fab interview.

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Another wonderful interview! Thanks to you both!
And Varaminta Le Bone - utterly inspired! Love it!

Lucy Coats said...

Kathryn--not sure I'd like salty and tear-bedewed strawberries anyway! More a cream and sugar girl....

Susie Day said...

This interview series is so much fun: myths get into everything! (Even if it is via Marvel :D)

Fab stuff, cheers to both.

Candy Gourlay said...

via marvel is the best way to discover mythology! great interview ... and i love the pink chameleon story too!

Jo Treggiari said...

Perhaps the funniest interview you've done so far, Lucy!
I am now a big fan and am picking up all of Fiona's books immediately.
Varaminta Le Bone is a wonderful name!

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks, Susie, Candy and Jo. Yes Marvel is marvellous--I have a friend who collects them and others, and I've handled some real treasures like Spiderman 1 (with gloves on, of course). Something about the immediacy of them which I love.

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