Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who wrote her first novel at 14 years old. She also writes under the name Kate Griffin. North's earlier novels include The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; Touch; and The Pursuit of William Abbey. She lives in London. On September 6, 2022, Redhook will publish North's novel Ithaca, which fills in the long expanse between the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey, while Odysseus is away and his queen, Penelope, is in charge.
How do you reimagine something so familiar?
It depends what you mean by reimagining--because Penelope's story is not really told. In The Odyssey, there's a lot of weeping and being sent to her room, and that's kind of it. I've gone out of my way to stay not very close to the mainline Homeric narrative. I'm cherry-picking a world. In that sense it's just like historical fiction: you cherry-pick a time and a place, and then you have a whale of a time with it. That's my ambition, to have picked a "historical" bit that I find geopolitically fascinating, and to tell the story in that context, rather than to attempt to retell Homer.
Beyond The Iliad and The Odyssey, what kind of research did this project involve? Did you find other retellings helpful?
I read The Oresteia as well, because Orestes features a lot. I have not deliberately sought out other retellings. I think that potentially risks disrespect to your fellow writers, which sounds weird, but I think it's quite easy to feed on other writers, whether [one means to] or not. When you enjoy something, it's going to influence you. It is respectful to know what your fellow writers are doing, and make sure you're not shitting on that thing, but at the same time your job is to tell something that is original and true to you.
I did read The Penelopiad, years and years ago, because... Margaret Atwood. And since writing the trilogy I have read Elektra by Jennifer Saint, which I quite enjoyed. I was relieved, though, to find out that we're doing very different things. I was like, oh thank goodness. We're all different.
What inspired Hera's voice?
When I pitched this idea to my editor, I was like, I want to write a geopolitical drama, and she was like, are you aware this is a fantasy imprint? Bringing in the goddesses as narrators was a conscious attempt to engage with the mythology instead of just politics.
Throughout human history, in almost every culture, there will be a worshipped woman image, a mother earth, a fertility goddess, etc. And there is some evidence that Mycenean Greece did still worship the concept of this powerful woman. There's an argument that the Homeric epics and that era of storytelling sees a shift in our narratives from powerful women to powerful men. After Homer, The Oresteia, you don't really think of Greek myths, legends and indeed stories as being about women. You have your three archetypal females: Helen, the whore; Penelope, the chaste one who stayed behind; and Clytemnestra, the murderess. Those are the three female archetypes you're left with. We stop telling stories about Ariadne and Medea; we shift power from the women to the men. I found that very interesting, the idea of taking away women's power through storytelling. Hera was the right voice to narrate this story from that point of view. Someone you can imagine tens of thousands of years ago as this embodied figure of powerful womanhood, of motherhood, of earth, fertility, being twisted and turned over centuries of storytelling into a vindictive wife who's just locked up at home.
You call yourself a fantasy writer.
Obviously I think genre is a lie. It's a very useful lie, a useful algorithm which allows you to walk into a bookshop and I say, I enjoyed this so I might enjoy that. But on the other hand, if it allows you to say Margaret Atwood or David Mitchell or Mary Shelley doesn't write science fiction, then I've got news for you. I've seen Douglas Adams shelved as literature! Guys! This is a lie! It's a lie that is fueled to a certain extent by the language of academic criticism and of what genre is. That is finally starting to change, but it's a long, slow road. So the reason I call myself a fantasy writer and a sci-fi writer is, there is pride to be had in that genre. It would be easy for me to say I write literature, but if you've written words in a book, then it's literature. Challenging the exclusivity of that is important. I think we should celebrate all books as much as possible, and part of the way I feel I can contribute to that is by very proudly standing up and saying, hey, genre. It rocks.
How was Ithaca different?
Ithaca is my 23rd novel. This is going to sound dreadful, but I feel pretty confident in what I'm doing at this point (touch wood, spin five times). But also, I don't want to just be repeating the same thing each time. I like being challenged and learning something new. I'm not a classicist. I have massive imposter syndrome. I reread The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Oresteia, and that's kind of it. There's this huge world of classical scholarship that I deliberately avoided. I'm speaking to a story about womanhood and power and politics for a modern audience in a modern way. But I am mortally terrified of having got it wrong and having offended the many excellent people who have dedicated their lives to the scholarship. Wading into something that has been so studied and so beloved by so many people for millennia, you don't want to screw it up; but also you don't want to be bound by the idea of something sacred. The sacred should always be questioned and challenged, because we're an evolving culture and we have a job to look at how and why we keep telling these stories and what they reinforce.
Another challenge was integrating the geopolitical and the mythological. We have a queen who can't say yes and she can't say no to any marriage proposal. This is a familiar geopolitical situation for queens. But to weave in mythology, you have to ask the question: How do I ground this quite solid political story... and also there's a minotaur? --Julia Kastner