Monday, July 18, 2011

An interview with George O'Connor, author of the "Olympians" graphic novel series

What happened when George O'Connor, an author who writes graphic novels retelling Greek myths, was kind enough to sit down with a mythology fan like me? Pure geekery. We are way past "Did you know the Romans called Zeus Jupiter?" Syncretism, hubris, morality, mythology versus religion... oh my! But there's also Batman, Robin, Superman, the X-Men and, well, Team Hades. It's all here, folks.

What else is here? The latest installment in O'Connor's series, Hera: The Goddess And Her Glory. (By "here" I mean it's being released today at a bookstore or website near you, not actually "here" on my blog because... oh, let's just get to the interview.)

How old were you when you started reading the Greek myths, and what drew you to it?

I was in the fourth grade when my class did an extended unit studying the Greek gods, culminating in an oral report while dressed as your favorite god (I was Hermes). Prior to this pivotal event of my childhood, I had always been the kid who got in trouble for drawing musclemen fighting giant monsters instead of whatever we were supposed to be learning in class. Suddenly, for one glorious half-year, we actually were supposed to be drawing musclemen fighting giant monsters. It was a real game-changer for me.

Obviously, The Muses were speaking to you from an early age, you just didn't understand what they were saying before that.

I understood what they were saying in that I knew that monsters were cool. Learning about mythology really helped to give me a focus, and helped to fuel my love of story. I suppose the Muses could take the blame for that, all right.

What is it about the Greek myths that have kept you interested as an adult?

My love of comics grew out of my love for myths, so that helped me to carry that love into adulthood. As I got older, and kept revisiting theses stories, I found more and more that I didn’t understand when I first heard of them as a child. My adult self is kind of obsessed with reading the original stories, from sources written by ancient Greeks and Romans who actually believed these stories, and trying to figure out what they meant, what they tried to explain, and marveling at how… modern they seem. These stories really are the backbone of western literature, and it’s incredible to see how fully formed things were right out the gate, so to speak. Something like The Odyssey is a remarkably nuanced and sophisticated piece of storytelling, and some of the mental pictures it paints are incredible.

You’re not the first person to write a graphic novel with themes from mythology. What makes your work different?

Ooh, a chance to show off my hubris! There have been innumerable comics dealing with mythology (I might argue, for instance, that virtually all superhero comics are direct descendants of the myths) but I like to think mine are among a select group that treats the gods, heroes and monsters in a manner that is very true to the way that they might have been perceived in their heyday. Since I hearken back to the original sources as much as I do, I like to think that my versions of the gods are less… caricaturized than they might have been in other depictions. Not that anyone else’s version is less valid, mind you; this is just what I tried to bring to the table in my retellings. Hopefully I succeeded, and hopefully people like it.

Well, I'm not much of a comics buff (Archie doesn't have a lot of street cred, does he?), but I do know that Superman was based on a myth from the Torah or Bible, although I think it might be what we would now call "fan fiction" more than a re-telling.

It’s funny that you mentioned Archie, as I based the visual dynamic of Metis and Hera in Zeus: King of the Gods off of Betty and Veronica. Archie has more street cred than you might suppose—those comics were a big influence on one of my favorite artists, Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame. I read quite a bit of Archie comics too, though I kind of hated Archie himself. I was a Reggie fan.

The way I’ve heard the Superman story was that he as a deliberate combination of Samson and Heracles. Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, they had obvious Greek mythology connections. One of my favorite characters is Namor the Sub-Mariner— the story about him was his creator, Bill Everett had been charged to create a new superhero. While he was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he saw a Roman statue of Mercury. With his winged ankles, Namor pretty much is Mercury. His name is just ‘Roman’ spelled backwards.

Hmm, I’ll assume by ‘good’, you might mean which Olympian I would most likely have an encounter with, and survive without being turned into a newt for some unintentional display of hubris (my word of the day, apparently). The ancient Greeks viewed him as the most kindly, so I would go with Hermes. Among the Olympians, he probably had the most day-to-day dealings with humanity, so my version of him has the most down-to-earth way of speaking, which drives my editor nuts. I like to think of Hermes as a bemused big brother to mortals. He’s maybe not intensely emotionally invested in us, but he at least seems to get a kick out of our shenanigans.

Funny you should say Hermes. When I was younger, I was fascinated with the dramatic or tragic deities such as Poseidon or Hephaestus, but as an adult, when you think about each god's sphere of influence, Hermes is the one that seems to be the most relevant to every day life. Games, arguing, writing, mischief, negotiation... conversation itself- it's all Hermes. I mean, how many of us are blacksmiths or sailors these days, you know?

Oh, man, Hermes totally won. If the Greek pantheon were still the principal religion today, Hermes would definitely be the top god. He’s all about travel and communication and writing and commerce. It’s interesting: when the Romans moved into other parts of Europe, who had their own gods, through the process known as syncretism, the Romans would assume that these new gods were the same gods they knew, just operating under different names. So in what would one day be Germany, reports came back that Mercury was the top god there, as Hermes was syncretized with the top god Odin. Zeus with his lightning bolts was syncretized with Thor instead. This happened all over Britain and Gaul as well. It might just be a coincidence, that he kept getting syncretized with other pantheon’s top gods, but a trickster like Hermes wouldn’t want it any other way, I’m sure.

There’s a debate going on now about whether Young Adult and even Middle Grade books are too “dark” or mature. It was kicked up last month by the Wall Street Journal, but it’s not a new conversation. As soon as I started really thinking about, I immediately thought of the morally murky characters that inhabit Olympus, and yet I think most people would consider mythology a great choice for young readers. You clearly see the value in the stories, but what do you think is the advantage for a young reader?

Unlike some other mythologies, there’s very little moralizing in the Greek myths. Murdering people is probably not so good, but after that there’s very little that seems to get the overt nod from on high as ‘bad’. That being said, I think that somehow frees up the characters to behave in a way that places them above morality. Some terrible things can happen in these stories, but somehow, maybe it’s the unreality of it, or the broadness of themes, I find it hard to feel the sense of outrage over them I might in a story that doesn’t feature Titans and Cyclopes. I think a young reader will see it the same way. They’re free to read the stories and be like “wow, that guy was a jerk just then” and realize that they’re allowed to think he was a jerk. It’s a self-applied morality, I suppose.

Is there room for moralizing when the gods act with- or on- mortals? Or what about a story that's mostly about mortals? I'm thinking to some extent about the gods finding consorts- Zeus and Europa or more to the point Semele, as well as Eos and Tithonus and Selene and Endymion- but also about the myths of Procne and Philomena, Tantalos and Pelops and, well, the entire House of Atreus.

I actually do tell the story of Tantalos and Pelops in Hades: Lord of the Dead, and well, yeah, I guess there is some moralizing there, as Zeus blows up Tantalos real good for what he did. A lot of the more human heavy stories I’ll be dodging in Olympians, as they just fall too far afield of the god-centric mandate of the series. Semele will get her story in Dionysos’s book, and some of the later members of the Atreides will be at least getting a mention in Ares. If plans hold, we’ll be seeing Selene and Endymion at some point, too. It’s tricky— the best bet when dealing with the gods is to not be noticed, I suppose. These stories seldom end happily for the mortals.

Along those lines, it’s a bit of a chestnut that our protagonists have to be sympathetic but imperfect with, well, human motivations and reactions. I think the Olympian gods and the Greek heroes supply one but not necessarily the other. Zeus is really difficult to sympathize with after a certain point in his story. How hard was it to write to that?

Wow, good question. While I was writing the first book in Olympians, Zeus: King of the Gods, I was almost simultaneously writing the second volume Athena: Grey Eyed Goddess. Now, in the first book, Zeus is definitely our hero— it’s our intro to this world, which is really Zeus’s world, and the whole story is structured as his hero’s journey. I tried, and I think I succeeded, in making Zeus a very likeable protagonist for his own story, but I was very cognizant of the fact that as soon as his book ended, he was going to take one heck of a heel turn— he swallows Athena’s mother, Metis, alive. Personally, it wasn’t that hard for me to write— I take the tack that Zeus, and the gods in general, are so beyond us in so many ways that morality doesn’t apply, and a careful reading of Zeus will show a lot of hints as to his faults so it shouldn’t come out of left field. I also use the technique of showing the goofy side of Zeus, even while he’s engaging in adultery on a cosmic scale. My retelling of the story Io from the soon-to-be-released Hera: The Goddess and her Glory is, in my opinion, one of the funniest things I’ve ever written. Ultimately, Zeus is Zeus is Zeus. He’s probably a lot more like what most of us would be given supreme power than we would like to admit.

Okay... so let's say the gods are the original superheroes. I think everyone who reads them likes to imagine themselves with infinite power. (I certainly did.) I'm thinking now about some of the early successful comic book heroes, like Batman and Superman. Popular with adults, but also very popular with kids, and they really wanted to see themselves in those stories. That's part of why we have Robin, but that's also why we have the X-Men and Spider Man. Do you think that desire for young readers to see themselves in the stories is why Greek myth fan fiction like Percy Jackson has become so popular?

I do… now. Seriously, that was kind of my whole idea behind the ‘young Zeus’ of Zeus: King of the Gods. Robin, and the other teen sidekicks, like Bucky or Speedy or Kid Flash or whoever, they were definitely placed in those stories to give kids someone to identify with. But I tell you, every Halloween, I see a lot more Batmen than Robins, you know? Later characters, like Spider-Man and X-Men got it better, where the teen characters weren’t the sidekicks to the more experienced hero, they were the heroes themselves. Rick Riordan had a great idea with his new generation of demi-gods. Kids reading could hope, could pretend that maybe one of their parents was an Olympian and imparted some awesome powers to them as well. The Muses were definitely talking to him.

Athena, in contrast to Zeus, is much more sympathetic and even heroic at times- except when she’s not, particularly with Medusa and Arachne. Was she easier to write for because of that?

It is funny, because in your question, you even pointed out instances where she herself was less-than-nice, but somehow we don’t really hold it against Athena. Maybe because she doesn’t share her father’s adulterous attitudes, it helps to keep her more of a good guy? Honestly, Athena was actually a little trickier to write than Zeus because there is that feeling that you have to keep her ‘good’, even in a book where at least half the stories have her acting out in a ‘bad’ way. Zeus is huge in so many ways, all charisma and bravado and flash, which allow him to slip into the role of clown far easier than Athena, who is very reserved, except when she’s in battle. And it’s easier to forgive a clown, I think. With Athena, I had to get you on her side with her tragic childhood stories and keep you there, even when she’s punishing some hapless mortal. Zeus, well, he’s flexible enough to bounce back and forth.

I enjoyed your treatment of Athena. She's the "smart one" of the Pantheon, but she- like most of them- always came off cold. In your version she's kicking ass and taking names... if you're lucky.

I’m glad to hear you say that. I tried my best to round out her character, but I read a couple of reviews that complained that she was still a little distant. I think that’s just in her nature.

Your next release is about Hera. She’s the goddess of marriage, but her own may be the prototypical marriage from Hell (or Hades). Like Zeus, she also doesn’t age well, so to speak- she’s definitely known more for the pain she causes than what good she does. How are you able to tell the story of a character like that?

Poor Hera, she gets such a bad rep. I ought to mention that, while Hermes is my favorite god, Hera is my favorite goddess. Part of that is I love a good underdog, and like I mentioned, she gets a bad rep. The other part is, while I was researching this series, I travelled all over Europe, wherever there was a good collection of art, or an old temple, I tried to go there. Something I noticed after a while, if you were in an old town, the oldest temple would often have been built to Hera. A lot of times, in the same town, the second oldest temple would also have been built to Hera. She was this amazingly beloved and important goddess to the ancients, who, through the process of caricaturization I mentioned earlier, has come to be known to us now as this witchy shrew.

With Zeus as her foil, I think it was relatively easy to get readers on Hera’s side. She’s married to the most famous philanderer in mythology; I think she’s entitled to act out now and then. More over, reading the old sources revealed some threads of a more subtle and nuanced relationship to Heracles than most retellings commit to. I don’t want to give away too much of Hera, but I will say this—the name Heracles translates as “The Glory of Hera”. There’s a lot more to their relationship than just outright antagonism.

I did know that his name meant "Glory of Hera", but it never made sense in any of the stories I've ever read. And if she isn't a shrew, sign me up!

She’s definitely no shrew, but I certainly wouldn’t mess with her.

I love that you are coming out with a book about Hades next year. However, his biggest claim to fame is the Persephone myth. Without giving anything away, what more is there to say about him?

Well, truth to tell, I do spend the bulk of Hades: Lord of the Dead on the myth of the Abduction of Persephone. But on that framework of the story I do manage to hang a few bits about what it might be like to be the god of the Underworld. Just like Hera, Hades gets a bad rep, much of it through being conflated with the Christian devil. He’s not really all that bad a guy, once you get past the whole kidnapping of Persephone thing. He’s maybe just a little emo. And he certainly has his charm.

Hades the Emo! George, if I see young women walking around next year in T-shirts that read "Team Hades", we're going to have to have a talk.

Several female cartoonists who I know have told me that they think my Hades is hot. But Hades could totally whup Edward. Not even a contest.

What’s after the Hades book in this series? Are you planning on doing a book for each Olympian? Do you have any plans to write for any of the heroes?

I’m working on Poseidon right now, with Aphrodite being the next scheduled volume after that. Sales willing, Olympians will run for 12 volumes, one for each of the Olympians. I cheat a little, with Hades taking the slot of Demeter, and Dionysos taking the place of Hestia, though.

Hmm... Hades and Demeter I can see, but Hestia and Dionysos?

It’s kind of an Alpha/Omega thing— she’s the first Olympian, he’s the last. Also, there’s that one story, of his ascension to Olympus, and how Hestia gives him her throne, because she’d rather be tending her hearth anyway. I wish I could do a whole book just for Hestia but there’s really just not enough mythic material for her. She has, like, two stories. She was such an amazingly important figure, religion-wise, but mythologically speaking, she’s hardly there.

I think you’ll see when Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory comes out that the 12 Labors of Heracles are pretty well-covered in that book—the plan is to tell the biggest stories of the heroes in the book of the god that most represents them, like the way Perseus was told in Athena. That being said, I do have a proposal at my publisher for an Olympians spin-off called Heroes and Monsters, should the main series sell well-enough. If you’d like to see that, everyone should barrage my publisher with letters asking for it, and, of course, buy many, many copies of Olympians ;-)

Well, obviously, we're going to the barrage the publishers! How else are we going to get the full treatment of The Trojan War and The Odyssey?

Well, you’ll be getting some Odyssey in Poseidon, but please barrage away! And tell them I sent you!

Thanks to George for a fun interview, and thanks to all of you for reading. For more on the Olympians series, check out Olympians and the Olympians Blog.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An interview with Joyce Raskin, author of "My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar"

My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar sounds like it’s right out of a Disney Channel movie- but it’s not. Yes, the main character Alex does find a bit of fame as a musician, but it’s not the teenage version of the rags to riches fantasy. I was excited to “meet” a young girl who not only knew how to rock but also learned how to be herself, no matter what she pursued. Dare I say this book also has a strong feminist message? It does!

Joyce Raskin, singer and bassist with the band Scarce and author of My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar, was kind enough to chat with me about music, being straight edge, navigating the online world, growing up and following your passion til it hurts.

Joyce Raskin
Describe your story.

Alex is a younger 14 year old girl who is completely self conscious, abysmally awful at making friends, and feels like she is kind of useless in this world. One day, her life completely changes when her brother decides to teach her how to play bass because his friend Tod the Mod needs a bass player. Alex is totally in love with Tod the Mod and this is how she starts her voyage into rock and roll. Once she starts playing in bands she is thrown into a very mature world of sex and drugs. I wanted to contrast her being a younger girl for her age with the older mature things that are being thrown at her. I also wanted this book to be about a real girl, who doesn't just magically go off and have a Cinderella story of perfect success and becomes a rock star. Life doesn't work that way. I wanted Alex to fail and make mistakes and be a normal girl. Sometimes amazing things come out of mistakes and accidents.

Who is it written for?

I wrote it for girls and women of any age who ever doubted themselves or felt uncomfortable in their own skin. I started writing it first as a comic book about all the funny things that happen being in a rock band and being a girl. But then it took on another form and I started thinking about my own two girls, who are 6 and 8 years old, and how I hope they will be as teenage girls. I want them to be happy from the inside out, not the other way around. I know it's going to be hard so I wanted to write something that would help them through it. To be a positive voice along the way. To make them laugh at themselves and be able to pick themselves back up when they have fallen down. It's a brave new world with the internet; a place full of images and information displaying to teenagers how to look good on the outside, but very few role models and voices showing them how to feel good about themselves on the inside. I often think, “If I were a teenager growing up now where I would get my inner compass from?” Music really helped me through my teenage years, and I guess the message in my book I hope to get across is to find that inner compass for yourself, be it music, skateboarding, surfing, drawing, or whatever it is that makes you feel good from the inside.

How much of Alex is Joyce?

The very beginning is definitely me, perhaps a bit exaggerrated, but definitely how I saw myself as a teenage girl. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. But Alex is much braver than I was at her age. She is much better at skateboarding too. She also has some amazing friends that she makes in the book that I didn't have until I was an adult. But I put them in there for girls to realize they are out there, these amazing women, they are all around, but you have to search them out. Or perhaps they will inspire some of the readers to be those women as they grow up.

I think it’s fair to say that even now rock and roll is marketed more by and for men, and that was certainly the case in the late eighties and early nineties. What spoke to you in rock and roll in spite of that?

I was lucky I had an older brother who was cool and he encouraged me. But I would say that the local DC punk scene really inspired me, especially Ian Mackaye and Fugazi. I remember how excited I got watching them play, going totally crazy and sweating and rocking so hard and intense, and I thought I WANT to do that. I never felt like I couldn't just because I was a girl. One of my proudest shows with Scarce we opened up for Fugazi, and I borrowed Joe Lally's bass and my finger bled all over the strings. After the show all the guys in Fugazi were taking pictures of me and in awe of me and what I had done to Joe's bass. It was pretty cool.

This is a great book overall, but you had me at “straight edge”. Why did you make that such a big part of your story?

Music ironically kept me out of drinking and doing drugs at a young age, even though I was surrounded by it. Playing music is so fulfilling that I didn't feel the need to get carried away in all the things teenagers normally do. I think I wanted Alex to be a role model, kind of an alternative to getting messed up on drinking and drugs. I wanted to show her strength. She might not stay straight edge forever, perhaps this is a stage for her like the hair dye, and music choices she is making. I wanted to show that some people do choose to not give into the peer pressure, or maybe they choose to wait until they are ready.

And why do drugs when you can bleed all over Joe Lally's guitar?


I don't know what that scene is like now, but you captured what I remembered: the kids who "indulged" could definitely be more pleasant to hang out with while those who didn't and put that on as part of their identity could be more militant, or at least strident. It can turn into a peer pressure of its own, in a way.

Anything can turn into peer pressure even the straight edge scene of course. I say everything in moderation, but when you are a teenager it's hard to find that middle ground. Sometimes you have to go to the edges to find that middle. I think that takes a long time. Alex is grasping at finding her identity and trying different ones on, and I think this is just one of her stages, her "straight edge" stage. I was hoping people would find it funny how she owns it and makes it like she can kick ass or something because she's straight edge. I also wanted to show how positive mental thinking can change a lot about what happens around you. But it's good to grow and change and try new things and to always challenge yourself as a person. And if straight edge gives you strength for a time against maybe doing something you’re not sure about at that moment, then use it. But change is always good, what might work for you at one age, might not at another age. It might be something else.

I’ve always thought the bass guitarists were the coolest members of the band. Why did you choose that instrument, other than that you’re cool?

I didn't choose the bass funny enough in the beginning, that part of the story is true. My brother's friends' band needed a bass player and I had a huge crush on the lead singer and hence I started playing bass. But I went on to learn guitar and drums. I fell in love with playing bass when I started playing with my band Scarce. Playing music sometimes isn't just about the music itself, but the chemistry between people. Scarce has that chemistry. When I play live I get totally lost in the moment, and it is such an amazing feeling. I think the bass in essence is a sexy instrument and it's tough, so I suppose I like the sense of strength I get from playing such a tough instrument. And women have hips so they feel sensuality and rhythm very naturally, and the bass is all about rhythm.

I love that Alex is a confident, independent young woman, but I also loved that she had a community of strong older women around her. How, when you’re young, do you find that community? And how do you build that when you’re older?

To be honest I didn't have that female community around me when I started playing. I just had a few rock star women like Joan Jett, Exene Cervenka, Debbie Harry, and the Go-Gos, who inspired me. However I did have an amazing mom who was strong and confident and always would say things to me about believing in myself. That can really make a difference in a young girl’s life. I didn't realize it back then, but as a mom I really do now. Recently I have been involved in the Girls Rock Alliance working at the girls rock camps in Boston and Rhode Island and what the camps are doing is what I always wanted as a female musician growing up. But I am a part of that community as an adult, and it feels amazing even as an adult. It feels like a revolution. I can't wait to hear what music and bands evolve out of these growing communities.

Fast forward to the present, and you’re a musician in a successful band. How did you get where you are today?

It's funny how you determine success. It's tough to be a musician, a writer, or an artist. You are constantly struggling but that is what makes good art, music, or writing. You don't do it for the success, you do it because you have to. You do it because it is who you are. When Scarce was touring and got signed to A&M records it was exciting and amazing to be young and be in a rock band. But it came to an end, and I had to deal with the fall out which was really hard and horrible, and I had to start over again. That perhaps is what inspired the title "Misadventures" as well, because sometimes the biggest falls and mistakes and "failures" you have in your life, is when you grow the most as a person. Playing music as an adult I think I enjoy it even more. I look forward to that feeling of being one with the moment. Those moments in life with kids and responsibilities are harder to come by so they are more precious.

What was your most valuable failure?

My most valuable failure compelled me to write my first book Aching To Be. I was a successful musician starting at 21 years old (right out of school) travelling the world signed to a major label record company, being a rock star on the way up; and then one day my best friend and lead singer of Scarce Chick has a brain hemorrhage and nothing is ever the same. Everything fell apart after that including me. It was so much that I had to write it down just to get through it. It was my therapy. I felt like a complete failure. I had start over again, with no manager, no record company, no band, no skills, and I felt so alone. It was really hard. I had a major meltdown. But then I started over again, and worked my way through it ever so slowly, and began to see what I could learn from my "failure". It took a long time. Whenever I am struggling I always ask myself "well, is it as bad as the time Chick had a brain hemorrhage?" Your failures and mistakes can help you measure how far you've grown.

What's your advice to make sure the misadventures- or the mistakes- are learning experiences and not irrevocable tragedies?

I think about this a lot, especially in relation to my two daughters. It's a brave new world with the internet. I think my best advice (I would tell my own girls) is to make sure you do things in real time, don't take risks on the computer. Go out and do things in the real world, and keep some privacy about yourself when you are online and texting. Respect your body. Don't EVER post suggestive pictures of you on the internet, or write something about something personal on the internet or on the phone. Keep those private moments private, or in person between you and the person it pertains to. Love yourself first. Take it slow and don't feel like you have to grow up so fast, go by your own clock not others. Enjoy being goofy and try to do things that help you discover who you are. Find something where you can let yourself take risks like a sport, skateboarding, or start a journal. And if you are really in trouble find someone you can trust to talk to. Don't try and deal with it alone. There are plenty of free clinics where there are amazing people to talk to if you are in trouble. And this is a hard one, never compare yourself to others. Only compare yourself to where you have been and you will learn from your mistakes and you will grow.

My daughters are older than yours, but I'm still dismayed when I see the female artists they listen to and that are getting the most play. Lady Gaga is essentially Madonna 3.0. I loved a lot of what Madonna did and I think I got the joke, but she did it in a very sexualized way. Two and a half decades later: enough already! What's out there now that's putting out a different look and a different message that you'd recommend to young listeners?

The best music is hard to find I think. It's never what's popular. You have to search it out. You have to ask friends what they are listening to. I have always been a fan of supporting local music where you are. Growing up in DC I went to shows all the time and saw a million amazing local bands. Best thing to do is to go out and see shows and take a chance on something you have never heard. Recently someone turned me on to Annie Clark of St.Vincent, she's amazing. And I love my friend Mary Timony's new band WIld Flag, and we just played a show with these two girls who sing like the Carter Family called Tig and Bean. You got to look out for it.

Who are you musical influences?

Exene Cervenka, Mary Timony, Joan Jett, Chryssie Hynde, Joan Wasser, Feist, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, The Clash, Fugazi, The Bevis Frond, to name a few, there a lot. All the volunteers and girls I've seen at the Girls Rock Camps, they are the the true new punk rockers.

What’s more difficult to create: music or stories?

I would say stories for me, even though I have been writing longer than I have been playing music. I have kept a diary since I was eight. But writing is a solitary thing. Music you get help from your bandmates. It can evolve a bit more naturally and organically. But I am just starting to my voyage into writing so perhaps that will change over time. I enjoy them both as something I can get completely lost in. Something that can frustrate me intensely at times. Something that can be a struggle. But in the end all the experiences remind me of being in the world around me and feeling alive.

I checked out your band page and I see that you’ve written more than one book. Can you talk a little about the other books?

Aching to Be: A Girl's True Rock and Roll Story, is my memoir about being in Scarce. So if you want to see the difference between me and Alex you can read that book. The book is about everything that happened to me in that band which was a lot in a short amount of time. What it's like being signed to a major label record company, making videos, going on tour, playing with big rock stars, and meeting rock stars.

The Fall and Rise of Circus Boy Blue, is a graphic novel woven around the lyrics to a new group of songs Scarce recorded that can be downloaded for free [follow this link for the download]. The songs are the soundtrack to the book. The book is the visual and words to the songs.

Do you have any plans to write anything else?

I am writing the sequel to this book right now. The book will follow Alex's 15th year. I would like to follow Alex up until she is an adult, a series of misadventures, maybe one for every year until she is 18. And there's a lot to write about. Being in a band a lot of crazy, stupid, funny, sad, and amazing things happen along the way. Being a girl a lot of things happen too. Combine them together and you've got quite a lot of adventures and misadventures.

Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I look forward to reading- and listening- to the rest of what you come out with.

Thanks Deb. It was a pleasure. Thanks for your support.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

An interview with Mary Osborne, author of "Nonna's Book of Mysteries"

Mary Osborne

Mary Osborne's Nonna's Book of Mysteries is, like so many other good books, hard to pin into one genre. At it's heart, it's historical fiction for young adults. Though mysticism plays an important role in the book, this is strictly realistic fiction; despite the theme of alchemy, there are no wizards. But there is romance, art, intrigue and a compelling discussion of alchemy, philosophy and religion, all of which works perfectly within a story of a young Renaissance girl working with and against her society to pursue her dream.

Osborne was gracious enough to answer my questions about alchemy, art and the Renaissance. If you're looking for a summer read, add this to your list- no matter your age.

What made you realize you were a writer?

For a long time, I thought that getting published would make me a bona fide writer. The first time I saw my books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, it really was a gratifying moment. However, I think I began calling myself a writer when I started staying up late night after night to work on the Alchemy Series. A passion for the craft is what really makes you a writer.

When did you decide to write?

At Knox College I majored in chemistry and thought about a career in medicine, but then I fell in love with the creative writing program. My first short stories were awful, but my professor encouraged me to keep at it. When I told my mother I’d discovered my calling, she said, “That’s nice, but how are you going to support yourself?” I decided that I could be a nurse and still have time to write on the side. That’s exactly what I did.

Why did you write Nonna's Book of Mysteries?

I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. While working on a contemporary novel, I started reading Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy. I was fascinated by the symbolism and philosophy of the medieval science. Allusions to alchemy started showing up in my writing. An astute mentor, novelist Emily Hanlon, suggested that the bits about alchemy might be a good fit for a historical novel. I doubted my ability to write this genre, but a trip to Italy brought all the pieces of the story together.

Did you go to Italy just to research your book?

The trip to Italy was a vacation, though I selected Florence because I felt that being there would contribute to my writing process. I discovered the sense of place and time for the book just by walking the cobbled streets and sitting in the churches. Visiting the home of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Medieval author of The Decameron, in the nearby, walled city of Certaldo was especially meaningful to me. I felt as though I’d met my muse when I sat in the room where Boccaccio once wrote.

Describe your story.

Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is the tale of a young woman who dreams of becoming a painter in Renaissance Florence. Her quest is guided by her grandmother’s alchemical manual, which has been passed from mother to daughter through the centuries. Essentially, the novel is about connecting to the thing you were born to do and going for your wildest dream.

I've always been fascinated by the Renaissance and the explosion of creativity that followed as people from different cultures came together. What attracted you to this period, and how easy was it to create a story for it?

As a college student I took a wonderful class in Renaissance Art history. A number of years later, when I visited Florence and took in the magnificent works of art left behind by the masters, the Renaissance came alive for me. Much of the city remains unchanged after five hundred years, so it was easy to envision life at that time. Even so, I spent an enormous amount of time researching the period. I never parted with the enormous art history book used back in my college class and often referred to it as I wrote the book.

I think I've read enough stories about writers to last me a while, but I love reading stories about any other kind of artist. What made you decide to make Emilia a painter?

My mother was a very talented painter. In grade school, I’d come home for lunch and often find mom at work at her easel in the kitchen. Like Emilia, she struggled to define herself as an artist, and it was always a challenge to find ways to exhibit and sell her work. The life of the struggling artist is definitely a theme that’s familiar to me. When I discovered that women were not granted painters’ apprenticeships in Renaissance Italy, I began to imagine how a willful young woman might find her way around this obstacle.

So your mother knew a little something about an artist needing to support herself.

Though my mother was highly creative, she was also a very practical person. When her marriage to my father began to falter, she trained to become an interior designer. She wanted to acquire a means of supporting herself as well as to continue painting after her divorce. By example, she taught me how to live a creative life, to pursue your chosen craft over your lifetime.

There's a lot going on in your book. First, alchemy. How would you describe it?

Alchemy is the ancient science of turning lead into gold. It was a common pursuit in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; practitioners were early chemists, mixing chemicals and potions in secret laboratories. Though many alchemists were intent on the simple goal of getting rich, true alchemists saw the work as a spiritual process. They believed that the physical work was actually a metaphor for inner transformation. As the metal in the cauldron was purified, so was the practitioner’s soul. Carl Jung saw alchemy as a psychological process of finding wholeness as an individual.

I'm not a religious person- at all- but I've always loved Greek and Egyptian mythology, and ancient Greek philosophy fascinates me. I steeled myself when the conversation veered toward religion, but I ended up intrigued. You made those complicated topics accessible, I think, especially for a young audience. What else could young readers pick up if they wanted to find out more?

It’s funny you say that, because I was hoping not to alienate readers when I approached religious content in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. However Emilia’s Catholicism is true to her time; life was often interpreted in terms of church and faith in the 15th century. Renaissance minds were also fascinated with the ancient world, and manuscripts from the far away past were being sought and translated. Primary sources, like Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, are not light reading, but younger readers might be interested in reading the Greek and Egyptian myths. I still love the beautifully illustrated D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.

D'Aulaire's Greek Myths! Are you saying that because I've already mentioned it about five times on my blog? I agree- it's beautiful and informative. I started reading it when I was ten. How old were you when you picked it up?

So we have this in common! My mother gave me D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths when I was about ten years old also. I read and reread the stories, and I loved looking at the illustrations. The myths speak to the unconscious mind and provide clues to the dilemmas we all face in life. It’s a great read for any age.

When I read Nonna's Book of Mysteries, I wasn't expecting as much romance as I ended up reading. It was a pleasant surprise- I thought the romance was well done and balanced modern expectations with historical realities. I've noticed that a lot of books with strong romantic elements aren't being marketed that way. Was that a conscious decision of yours?

Now that you mention it, perhaps this aspect of the book might have been marketed. I guess we were thinking that romance was not the focus of the book or the most unique aspect of the book. Hopefully the story sends the message that while romantic relationships add great meaning to women’s lives, they do not necessarily define our lives. Young women can identify with Emilia because she does fall in love, but she still has life goals and a strong sense of self.

You wrote in a "very special guest star" into your story, Cosimo de' Medici. Were you nervous about incorporating a character who's been so well-documented?

I actually had a lot of fun writing the scene with Cosimo de’ Medici. Having already read about his life and seen him depicted in film, I had a sense of how I would portray him. The book was already underway when I stumbled upon the fact that Cosimo had commanded his scholar, Marsilio Ficino, to translate a newly discovered text written by Hermes Trisgmegistus, whose texts were very popular with Renaissance alchemists. It was a wonderful synchronicity which occurred while I was writing the book.

I love those moments of synchronicity- it almost makes you feel like you were meant to write your story.

Yes, I think moments of synchronicity are clues that we are on the correct path. They are small affirmations that suggest circumstances are lining up in a fortuitous way so that our work might be completed. I have long felt that writing the Alchemy Series is something I was meant to do. It’s a mission I’m compelled to complete.

Finally, the technical aspect: I knew Renaissance painters couldn't simply go out and buy a tube of paint from an art supply store, but I was fascinated by the process they undertook to make the different colors and what they had to do to prepare their canvasses. Did you try any of that yourself?

While I haven’t tried preparing pigments myself, I have a good friend— Joseph Malham— who is an iconographer and paints in the traditional Byzantine style. I watched him at work and observed how a panel is prepared. I also referred heavily to Linette Martin’s wonderful book, Sacred Doorways. She did a wonderful job explaining in great detail how pigments were prepared and panels were created at that time.

Why did you decide on a prequel for your next book and not a sequel?

In truth, I started writing the “prequel” before I wrote Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. While Alchemy’s Daughter –the prequel— was sitting with my literary agent, I went on to write Nonna’s. As it turned out, this was a stronger novel because I’d become a better writer by this time. So Nonna’s Book of Mysteries went out first, and Alchemy’s Daughter came back to me for revision. I’m still not quite done with the rewrite—I have a hard time letting go of manuscripts and declaring them finished!

What can you tell us about it?

Alchemy’s Daughter is the tale of Emilia’s great-great-great grandmother— Santina Pietra, who lived during the time of the great plague of 1348. She was a midwife and the original owner of the alchemical manual— or the book of mysteries.

Do you have a release date yet for Alchemy's Daughter?

The date is currently planned for June 2012. That’s if everything goes according to plan! I will be writing furiously through the autumn.

What are you working on next?

I’m sketching out the third book in the series— The Last of the Magicians. There will be a special celebrity guest star in this novel as well. In this book, the alchemical manual will travel from Italy to England. And there will also be a touch of romance!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I'm looking forward to reading your other books.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you.

Click here to purchase Nonna's Book of Mysteries. Enjoy!