On Fantasy, Greek Mythology & Writing: An Author Interview with Jordanna Max Brodsky
Fantasy is a genre which has tremendous potential for world-building, where, from start to finish, the story takes place in a world outside of reality (such as Lord of the Rings). Another subgenre would be when there is another world inside of a realistic realm; an example of this is Harry Potter where the wizarding world operates in secret. One of my favorite ones is when a protagonist starts off in a realistic world and then, as the story progresses, discovers a secret world; Fablehaven is a series in which this is exemplified.
As a librarian, I keep my eyes out for emerging authors and new titles. During late Autumn of 2015, I received a few advance reader copies, or ARCs of some fantasy novels to review. One of these books was Jordanna Max Brodsky’s The Immortals. I regret to admit I left it on the shelf in my office for a few months before I picked it up. However, for the next few days, I could not put it down! The book made its round with a few other librarians that I shared it with. It was my staff pick for two months after it was released to the public!
67th Street Library was lucky enough to have the author visit for a book talk for the release of her second book, Winter of the Gods. Having been bitten by the Greek god mythology bug since she was a child, Jordanna was excited to discuss her ideas and expectations for her series with an engaging group of library patrons who asked plenty of interesting questions which sparked discussions both amusing and intriguing.
I wanted to capture the energy in that room and provide it to the people who could not attend. A few days after the author visit, I reached out to Jordanna and asked if she would be interested in an interview. Well, she accepted the invitation of course otherwise I would not be typing this! We settled on interviewing over lunch in a Greek restaurant—very fitting for the interview topic!
What brought about the idea for The Immortals and why did you want to write it?
“I don’t remember the exactly how old I was when my parents gave me D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. …I just [recently] found my copy that my parents had given me, and to my surprise, it turns out it was inscribed to my brother and not to me--which was shocking since he never read it, and it became the inspiration for my life.
"The last page says something along the lines of, “All things must come to an end, and so do the Greek Gods. All that remains of their stories are the tales written in the constellations and broken columns and temples.” As a kid, I wanted to make my own version where they’d never gone away. They seemed so alive in those stories; they seemed so present and so much more human than the Judeo-Christian god I grew up with—in some ways they seemed more real to me—and so it seemed unfair that they had left the world so easily."
Why write it now after all these years?
"This comes to a question a lot of people ask: how does one get to be a writer and how does one start? I always loved to write and always loved to read but never thought it could be an actual career. I grew up in a practical family. Even though they encouraged my pursuits, it was always very clear I needed a day job. Couldn’t be a starving artist. Novels felt like a pipe dream. Only once I realized my life wasn’t fulfilled without a creative outlet did I finally find the courage to write a first book."
Other than D’aulaires, is there another author that inspired you?
"Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest. It’s fantasy but reads like historical fiction. Based on the fairy tale of the seven swans and set in medieval Ireland. A girl has seven brothers, and an evil witch turns them into swans. [The] girl must weave them shirts of thorns to turn them back into men. It takes her years and she couldn’t talk the whole time. It’s totally engrossing. [I thought] ‘if I could create stories like this, that just absolutely capture people, I want to do it.”
For writing the book, what is the best money you spent?
"A course at The New School--basically a writing workshop. I shared my work for the first time. The structure of a class and the positive feedback helped push me to continue writing."
In the Olympus Bound series, why did you choose Artemis as the protagonist?
"She was my favorite since I was a kid. She has a bow and is kickass and makes action scenes more fun. Rather than Demeter, goddess of the harvest, where the action scene is ‘I watch the grain grow.’ As a feminist, there was something appealing about this idea of a woman who completely defies the patriarchy of ancient Greece and says I want nothing to do with men—I’m going to live my own completely independent life. I’m not going to be a mom; I’m not going to be a wife."
Could you explain the dichotomy between Artemis' independence and her developing relationship with Theo?
"I like to think the answer lies in Theo himself. Usually she interacts with men only to punish them. But Theo breaks through her hard exterior. You don’t need to be a totally celibate woman in today’s world. We actually struggle with that all the time. How do we define relationships and partnerships and still maintain independence? I wanted her to have to face [this] as well. It’s an interesting conflict, and it doesn’t come easy to her. Could she get past this older version of herself and learn to be an actualized, independent woman—and still have love? I wanted that to be a major part of the book."
If you could have a dream book niche, what would it look like?
"It would NOT be in my tiny apartment in Manhattan. In the summers, I usually go up to Maine, so ideally it would be overlooking the ocean and mountains."
What would be your mascot/spirit animal?
"Purely hypothetical: I like to think of it as a hound—out chasing my dreams. But I’d more likely be chasing my own tail."
Did you base any of your characters on real people?
"Only a little bit. Dialogue; the way they speak. "
What do you do before writing, research-wise?
"I do a lot of research….and I spend a lot of time in libraries. For The Immortals I actually spent a lot of time down at the main branch on 42nd street in the main reading room, getting out old reports and typewritten pamphlets about woman cops in the 1920s.
"Obviously the internet is amazing. There is a website called Perseus from Tufts University for classicists. It has a massive trove of all of the public domain Greek and Latin classic works in English and in the original Greek and Latin. They’re linked to dictionaries so you can translate as you read.
"I also travel. Actually seeing the real places is incredibly helpful in writing the book. I grew up in a family of people who loved historical reenactments and historic homes. So when I was little we were always going to Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village. I got used to the idea that if you wanted to understand history, you had to actually be in the place—there’s something special about the location. Now, when I write, I really want to have been to that island in Greece or that mountaintop or that city in Turkey or the Colosseum or the Pantheon or wherever I’m setting the scene.
"But as much as I research before I start, I also feel you have to just start writing."
**To see some of the locations from her books, check out the locations section of her website.
We notice many epithets for Artemis! How many have you compiled for these books?
"In one of the myths about Artemis, she asks Zeus to grant her as many epithets as her brother Apollo. I have a constant list going as I write, taken from Homeric hymns, the odes of Callimachus, and other sources. Each chapter title in my book is an epithet: Now that I’ve written three books, and each one has about forty chapters, I’m finally scraping the bottom of the epithet barrel."
Do you think the epithets have a role in the character development?
"Artemis is a contradictory and complicated character. Her epithets reveal many different personalities: 'punisher' but also the 'good maiden.' It reminds me of us as human beings. We don’t think of ourselves as having epithets—but we do. We have the names other people call us—that they put on us—as well as the ones we’ve chosen ourselves. I like that Artemis, as well, has all these names that were thrust upon her by others. How does she conform her personality to those epithets? Which ones does she accept and which does she reject?"
What was the hardest thing you have to write?
"Pretty much every beginning and every ending. They’re always a disaster. I write them over and over again."
Do you have a dog now or have you had one in the past?
"I don’t have one now, but I grew up with golden retrievers and I love dogs. In many ways, they’re the easiest characters to write because I have such a clear vision of their body language. They can’t speak, so we’re aware of what the dog’s ears or tail or eyebrows or tongue are doing at all times.”
SPOILER ALERT QUESTIONS: (you have been warned)
In book two, chapter two, Artemis highly detests hot chocolate. Do you not like hot chocolate?
"I love hot chocolate. I think that the idea in that scene isn’t necessarily that she despises hot chocolate as much as she despises Christmas. So the idea that everyone in winter is drinking hot cocoa and talking about Christmastime drives her nuts. She basically gets to the apartment, smells hot cocoa, and imagines seeing another big Christmas tree. It’s going to be let’s-all-wear-sweaters-and-hug-each-other, and she just can’t stand it."
At the end of the second book, Artemis wants to let Theo go with Ruth. Will Theo be around in book three?
"Theo is in book three! And so is Selene!"
You mentioned Christianity. In chapter 41, Persuader of Animals, “If you trap your god on earth, all that immensity becomes just one single man, shivering in the cold and wondering where his next sandwich comes from.” Did you think about this idea beforehand? Or did you think about it while doing research?
"I am basically a Jewish humanist atheist. I’ve been thinking about the nature of God and spirituality for a long time. There’s a great book called Zealot that is specifically about the evolution of Jesus from prophet to god, and how people’s perceptions of him have changed over time. I think that concept of a Judeo-Christian god—totally incorporeal, totally above everything—that is how I grew up. There’s something very powerful about that idea; if God isn’t something that you can see and touch, then God is nothing like human beings, and you can imbue God with anything you want. With the Greeks, that isn’t at all true; the gods do come down and interact with human beings. That makes them less powerful but more relatable.
In my series, I imagine that before the gods’ Diaspora—when they leave Mount Olympus and come to earth—they did sometimes visit with humans in their corporeal form, but they also existed on some other plane that we can’t quite comprehend, where they’re far more omniscient and omnipotent. Now, in their modern-day incarnations, they’re deeply flawed and extremely human; Theo certainly knows that because he’s met them. As much as he might like them—and even love them—they aren’t entities you want to worship because they’re really just like people.
I think as someone who grew up Jewish, Jesus is also this interesting mix—he was here on earth but was supposed to be infallible at the same time. The more I read about it, the more I find it fascinating; Jesus was all human and all divine at the same time. There are contradictions in every theology."
When does Artemis come to terms that Man created her?
"I think she knows soon after the Diaspora. When the Diaspora happens, it becomes incredibly clear to the gods that their existence is predicated on the worship of human beings. If human beings can make them die, then they must be the ones who created them in the first place. All the gods probably figure this out around then, but it’s something that they willfully forget and then are constantly reminded of. The gods think of time in a circular way (the gods created man who created the gods who created man…), but when Artemis is walking in the planetarium, she’s forced to view time in a linear way. That’s the moment that her dependence on humanity really hits her."
In the first book, how much fun did you have writing the myth of Persephone?
" I liked looking at it from Artemis’s perspective. As much as Artemis is upset about what Hades has done, she also despises Persephone because she embodies everything she doesn’t like about girls: she’s a victim; she’s weak; she just likes to pick flowers. She isn’t an active goddess; she just lets herself be taken. That’s pretty much the end of Persephone’s story on some level, so I love that Artemis has a little disdain for the whole situation."
Will we see more Titans in book three?
"Saturn/Kronos is coming back in book three. There’ll be more Titans, but definitely more Olympians as well. The entire pantheon expands."