Monday, March 12, 2012

Interview with Author Victoria Grossack

Authors Victoria Grossack & Alice Underwood

1. Who or what inspired you to become an author and to write about Greek Mythology?
When I was fourteen – a very long time ago – we read Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex, in my high school English class. I was fascinated by the story but I felt that it was being told wrong. (Such heresy, criticizing Sophocles!) Sophocles’ play gives the point of view of Oedipus, but I thought that Jocasta’s perspective was far more interesting. She gave birth to a son who was taken from her; she lost her first husband, King Laius; after the death of Laius she was challenged by the Sphinx. Her life was rich with drama. Moreover, she had more clues than anyone, and so I was fascinated by the question: did she ever realize that Oedipus was her son, and if so, what did she do about it? I thought Jocasta’s story would make an incredible novel, covering about forty years of her life – as opposed to Sophocles’ play, where everything happens in one day.
I longed to write this novel, but I realized that I could not write well enough to do justice to it. I also knew I knew nothing about ancient Greece. This was before the internet, when research had to be done in libraries, and when I was too young to travel to Europe and explore archaeological ruins. But the story stayed with me. I remember crossing my fingers throughout the years and hoping that no one else would attempt it, because I always felt that it was my story.
Fast forward several decades. By the time I met Alice Underwood in Switzerland I had several writing projects under my belt – some terrible unpublished novels, and a few successful short stories and articles. I can’t say that I was a good writer when we met, but I had improved significantly since my time as a freshman in high school.
Anyway, Alice and I were working for different divisions of the same company and collaborated on a work-related project. We found we made a very good team and wrote several non-fiction articles together. We were also both interested in ancient Greece, and fortunately, Alice had minored in classics, which meant that she already knew a lot of details about Bronze Age Greece. And so we decided we to write Jocasta together.
Writing fiction with another person is very different from writing non-fiction articles, and our first pass was abysmal. It took us a while to work out a rhythm, based on our own strengths and weaknesses. Amazingly, our strengths and weaknesses are mostly complementary.
While writing Jocasta we became intrigued by Niobe, who was queen in Thebes just before Jocasta. Her story is absolutely fascinating – she’s the daughter of King Tantalus – and so we tackled that next. The project was rich and complicated and so needed a trilogy to do it justice.

2. What is your favorite book you have written and why?
What a question! If you have several children, aren’t you supposed to love them equally? Anyway, Alice Underwood and I have written four books together: Jocasta: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and the Niobe trilogy, which consists of Children of Tantalus, The Road to Thebes, and Arrows of Artemis. I’m truly happy with how they all turned out. Children of Tantalus is a great adventure as well as a coming-of-age story, and Arrows of Artemis offers a solution to a mass murder that has gone unnoticed for more than three millennia.
But favorites? It’s a toss-up between Jocasta and The Road to Thebes. Jocasta has a pure intensity that keeps building until the truth explodes. The Road to Thebes has great characters – a cowherd turned musician, a villainess plotting a coup, and a wisecracking ghost. They both have romantic elements, too – which for me is usually a turn-off, but works in these books because the characters are so appealing.

3. What is your next book project?
Alice and I are working on Guardians of Thebes, a sequel to Jocasta. It covers the showdown between Jocasta’s brother, Creon, and Jocasta’s daughter, Antigone, as well as the time from the end of Jocasta to the war between Argos and Thebes.
Each book has presented unique writing and storytelling challenges, and currently Guardians, although it has some great scenes, is driving us crazy. We’re not sure if it will ever reach the point where we can publish it. However, we encountered monsters in each of our other projects, and somehow slew them, so we hope to get through this one too.

4. What is your favorite quote?
When in grade school, I was forced to memorize Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, and lines come back to me when I need them. Here are my favorites:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Life has given me successes and failures and I have learned that often neither is fully merited. Other lines, when I consider political discourse these days, strike me as especially apt:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
By the way, your questions make me realize what an impact education has on our lives! How different mine would have been if I had not read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Kipling’s If!

5. What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
First, start with small projects. For example, if you wanted to run a marathon, you would focus first on jogging around the block instead of going out to run 26 miles. The same is true for writing. Work on a short story, or write up a comic or dramatic episode from your life. Blog. Get used to producing clean sentences and good paragraphs. You need training for writing just as you need training for anything else.
Second, study so that you actually know what you’re doing. Good writing has many aspects to it. There’s plot, and character development, and dialogue, and themes, and conflict, and tension, and even deciding which spelling rules to use – to name a few. You could try to learn how to do this all on your own, or you could get help. There are books on writing. There are writing courses. There are writing groups in which the members critique each other’s writing. I belonged to a group for years, and I actually learned tons from critiquing others’ writing. As I went through scenes written by others I discovered what worked, what didn’t and why or why not, probably with more objectivity than if I were reviewing my own words.
Finally, write because you love it, and not because you want to make money. Money and fame may come – but they probably won’t. Nevertheless, if you have a story that you are burning to tell, telling it will enrich your life.

Victoria Grossack's Bio:
Dartmouth graduate Victoria Grossack leads an international life, with homes in Switzerland and Arizona and a professional career in the financial industry that has spanned the Atlantic. She is fluent in German and French (and English of course) and has an MBA. Her last full-time position was as a Senior Vice President in New York City for a reinsurance company, but she is currently writing full-time and living with her husband who is a professor at the University of Arizona. Her writing has been published in Contingencies, Woman’s World, I Love Cats, and The Journal of Actuarial Practice. She was a regular columnist for Fiction Fix, writing monthly articles that have been used in several writing classes. She teaches writing courses at on historical fiction, creating characters, and the levels of structure in fiction. She also tutors mathematics, as solving problems in algebra and geometry make a nice break from creative writing.

Alice Underwood Bio:
Alice Underwood studied classics at The University of Texas and Princeton University while earning her degrees in mathematics. Her passion for antiquity has taken her from the shadowed catacombs of Princeton’s libraries to the ruins of Pompeii and the sunny shores of Crete and Santorini. Her work has been published in Consortium, Networks, and The Journal of Actuarial Practice. Currently an Executive Vice President at one of the world’s top insurance brokerage firms, Alice lives and works in New York City.

Thank you for giving me the pleasure of this wonderful interview!


1 comment:

  1. Just want to include a link to my website in case anyone wants to read further: