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Thursday, May 30, 2013

FOOD FOR THE GODS by KAREN DUDLEY - INTERVIEW

I JUST FINISHED READING Karen Dudley's Food for the Gods through Turnstone Press. It's such a fun read that I had to ask her for an interview. Hopefully, you'll find her answers both intriguing and illuminating, particularly if you like mixing light fantasy (comedy) with ancient history and Greek myth:

1). Karen, your book is set in ancient Greece where Dionysus and Hermes, as well as some of the other Greek gods are secondary characters to your protagonist. Why ancient Greece? And why these characters? What drew you to this particular setting?

I’ve loved the Greek myths since I was a kid so when I got to university, one of the first courses I took was Introduction to Greek Mythology. That led to a course in comparative mythology which was taught by the fabulous Dr. R.J. Buck. Dr. Buck was hands-down the best professor—the best teacher—I’ve ever had. And when you experience a truly gifted teacher, you want to take every course they offer, and that’s what happened to me. Dr. Buck taught Greek history, so naturally I took all his Greek history courses and in the process, I fell in love with ancient Greece. Dr. Buck was fond of telling us that there were no new stories under the sun, just different ways of telling old ones. So years later, when I decided I wanted to write an historical fantasy, the setting, the Greek gods, and even some of the plot came quite naturally out of his teachings.

2). The book shows that you’ve done a great deal of research to get the details of everyday life in ancient Greece just right. What were some of your sources? What are some of the things you found most interesting?

I’m one of those nerdy people who kept their university class notes—at least for the classes I loved—so I had those to start with. I did a lot of library research and found some really helpful sources, everything from a book about the debaucheries of Classical Athens (Courtesans and Fishcakes) to Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day (which is pretty much what it sounds like) to Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. I think the most interesting piece of information I found was in a book called Ancient Inventions in which I discovered that the Greeks were the inventors of bread dildos. Yes, that’s right. Bread dildos. I mean, really, how could I resist putting that particular tidbit in my book? I don’t think my writers’ group was ever the same after that submission!

3). Your main character, Pelops, is a celebrity chef. In the first couple of chapters, you reveal his unfortunate past, where, as a youth, his father served him in a stew to the gods at a feast. The gods resurrected him (save for his ivory shoulder) and have been embarrassed about it ever since. Is this part of the story based on an actual Greek myth, as other parts are? And why a chef?

Oh yes, Pelops and his rather unpleasant adolescence come directly from the Greek myth of Tantalus, who was Pelops’ father.  There are several variations of the myth about what Tantalus does. The one I chose to riff on (in which he kills Pelops and serves him to the gods for tea) is one of the more famous versions.

As for the chef bit...well, when I began working on the idea for the book, I thought I might make Pelops a student of Archimedes, the famous Greek engineer and inventor. I’ve always been fascinated by some of the cool inventions of ancient Greece, and I thought if I made Pelops an apprentice of Archimedes, I could write about them. I played around with this a bit, but somehow, it just didn’t feel quite right. And then one day, I was flipping through a book called The Life of Greece, when I came across a passage that said in ancient Athens when people wanted a special dinner, they couldn’t go to a restaurant because they didn’t exist yet, so what they would do was hire the services of a professional cook, who was usually a foreigner. That was my ‘Eureka!’ moment. I was already intrigued by the whole celebrity chef culture, and given what happens to Pelops with the whole getting-chopped-up-and-served-for-tea thing, making him a chef seemed to fit perfectly.

4). Your characters are a lot of fun. When creating the characters of Dionysus, Hermes, and Ares in particular, you make them stand-out, often in hilarious ways. When you build character, what goes through your mind? Do you base your characters on people you know? What were your thoughts in stepping away from the stereotype of what we think of, when we think of a specific Greek god?

With all my characters, I usually start out with someone I know, whether it’s a certain appearance or gesture, a way of walking or talking. But, of course, that’s just the start of it. Most of each character comes from me. Not sure what that says about me, but there you have it! I wanted the gods in my book to be fun. So often, the Greek gods are portrayed in movies as stiff and superior sorts, complete with snooty accents and white draperies and laurel wreaths on their heads. But when you read the myths, the gods were, shall we say, somewhat earthier than that, and that’s how I wanted to portray them. Not only is it more accurate, but it’s a lot more fun.

5). Your dialogue, especially among the lower Greek classes reminds me of working class Brits. A nice example of this is when Pharsalia the bread-wife says, “Now, don’t you worry your sweet self about it, luv. They’ll never hire the stupid sod, again. I should know, I was there, if you please.” I would never have thought of combining that style of speech with the ancient Greeks, but it’s fun and it works. What was your inspiration for the ‘pairing’?

You know, Susan, I honestly couldn’t tell you what my inspiration for that was. The characters just started talking to me in these crazy anachronistic voices and that’s how I wrote them. I do adore the movie A Knight’s Tale, however, so I suspect that the inspiration for it originated with that film.

6). You’ve interspersed the book with advertisements, ‘Sacrificing for Simpletons’ or ‘Dinner Parties for Dummies’ and recipes 'Pelop’s Roast Lamb with Plums', for example. These work quite nicely to foreshadow what’s coming. Some writers might have used these to augment what’s already occurred. What was your inspiration for using these?

Because I’m writing about an historical period that most readers might not be familiar with, I had to figure out a way to get certain information across without slowing down the narrative with the dreaded info dump. Years ago, I read a wonderful kids’ book published by Usborne called The Greek Gazette. Basically it was Greek history written as a tabloid. It was hilarious! I still have a copy of it. And when I started working on Food for the Gods and realized I needed to impart all this information without including it in the narrative, I decided to play with the Gazette idea and include stuff like advertisements and excerpts from self-help scrolls.

7). I love that you don’t hold back with making things miserable for Pelops, your main character. Did you ever have a moment where you wondered, how on earth am I going to get him out of this particular situation?

Oddly enough, I knew almost from the beginning how the book was going to end—I even wrote the last scene before I’d completed the first 70 pages!—so I knew things would come out right for him in the end. Having said that, I did put poor Pelops in some really nasty places. For that I have to thank Sheila Gilbert, an editor at DAW. I heard Sheila speak at KeyCon (Winnipeg’s local con) a few years back and she mentioned that the biggest problem most writers had was in doing—or, really, not doing—terrible things to their protagonists. Writers, she said, got too attached to their main characters and didn’t want anything horrible to happen to them; the result was always a bland, uninteresting book. After hearing this, I promptly went home and did terrible, terrible things to Pelops. I always knew how to get him out though because, let’s face it, I am rather attached to him!

8). You tell the story in First Person. I think it works really well, but why did you choose this particular POV?

My Robyn Devara mysteries are written in first person too, so it’s a POV that comes naturally to me. I did, however, make a conscious decision to use first person in Food for the Gods largely to better connect the readers with a setting which may be unfamiliar to them, but also to have them feel more like they’re part of Pelops’ stranger-in-a-strange-land experience.

9). How long did it take you to write the book, and how many revisions did you go through? Was there anything in the process that you learned about writing, when penning it?

I first got the idea years before I could actually do anything about it. I’d written the first fifty pages, but my publisher wanted another Robyn Devara book, so I had to shelve it. Then, in the middle of the Robyn Devara novel, we got a call from the adoption agency and I suddenly became a mum, so I had to shelve that book too!

I think the most educational thing that happened when I finally got the chance to write Food for the Gods was when I gave the first 100 or so pages to my publisher. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Here’s my new mystery! What do you think?
My publisher (after reading it): I think you’re writing a fantasy.
Me: What!?!

It was funny, but I was completely liberated by that insight! I’d been a bit blocked in terms of the story, but as soon as I knew I was writing a fantasy—as soon as I gave myself permission to write a fantasy—all kinds of interesting things were suddenly able to happen. I learned not to worry too much about categorizing what I’m writing and just to write the damn story. I can worry about what it is later. A valuable lesson!

10). Do you think the book reflects the writer? Do your books reflect you?

Absolutely! On both counts. I can’t tell you how many of my friends and family have told me that reading my stuff is just like hanging out with me. Hmmm...I hope that’s a good thing!

Thanks, Karen. It's a great book, everyone! Give it a read. And vote for it later - it's up for an Aurora!

You can find the link to the trade paperback here: Food for the Gods, by Karen Dudley through Turnstone Press at Amazon.com, or buy the e-book like I did for my Kobo Mini at Kobo: Food for the Gods, which saves paper and is even better!

Next Post: Do I Need a Publicist And If So, What Kind? Guest Post by Rachel Sentes of gal-friday publicity.

Stay tuned!

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