5 Questions | Natalie Haynes

1 May 2020

This month’s online book club event features writer, broadcaster and WBF regular Natalie Haynes talking about her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel A Thousand Ships. We asked her five questions.

Book Club: Natalie Haynes ~ A Thousand Ships
27 May, 6.30pm

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1. There have been a number of books in recent years telling classical stories from women's viewpoints such as Pat Barker's and Madeleine Miller's. Why is this happening now?

Yes, me too, I guess, with Children of Jocasta back in 2017 (and Amber Fury - although that's a modern retelling - in 2014). I think that publishing has just shifted a bit to realise that a) people are interested in classics in spite (or maybe because) of limited access to classics in schools and b) people have realised that women aren’t the supporting cast in a story. The fact that women’s narratives have been historically overlooked is a tremendous result if, like me, you love these myths and have been immersed in them since childhood, and also want to write your own versions of them. But of course masses of women have written their versions of Greek Myth before  (Mary Renault, Margaret Atwood, Christa Wolf, Ludmila Ulitskaya…) plus lots of poets have taken it on (H.D., Carol Ann Duffy, Eavon Boland…). I think women have always been interested in telling these stories but maybe it wasn’t so easy to find readers before. I’m delighted it's changed.

2.  Are you trying to subvert the classics or illuminate them?

I think classics are subversive! I’m just trying to show people that they are much more complex and interesting, filled with many more characters (women, obviously, for a start) and characters with many more stories attached to their names than we might know. Theseus is best-known for escaping the labyrinth and killing the minotaur, but he is also a serial killer of women (according to Plutarch, and other ancient sources) as well as a child abductor, and sometimes rapist.

I guess it is illuminating - at least, I hope so - to share some of these lesser-known stories. I’ve been doing it in my fiction for a while now, particularly in A Thousand Ships. I’ve also written a lot about some of these more obscure myths in my next non-fiction book, Pandora’s Jar - about women in Greek Myth, and how their stories change and are distorted through time and culture.

3. Who is your favourite female character in classical literature?

My favourite female character in classical literature? Euripides' Medea. Don’t write in - I don’t have kids...

4. You've been posting online using the phrase “Ovid Not Covid” during the crisis. What's that about?

Ovid not Covid was a hashtag dreamed up by my friend Matilda. She’s been wanting me to do some videos for social media for a while, and I have been too busy touring and writing Pandora. Once I finally had some time at home without a crippling deadline (I wrote the last 55000 words of Pandora in ten weeks around Christmas: let’s never do that again), it seemed the perfect time to do the videos she had been asking for, and also to look at a set of poems I love, which aren’t very well known.

Once she had the hashtag, the choice of poems was easy. Ovid’s Heroides is an incredible set of poems written from the perspectives of the abandoned women of Greek myth: letters addressed to their absent menfolk. So the first is Penelope to Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus), for example. I translate the poem and then record a short film where I tell you the story and talk you through some of its best bits. It’s been really good fun for me (translating is generally what I do when I am stressed - so the perfect lockdown project). The fact that they have received thousands of views was really unexpected. But wonderful!

5. How have you been spending you time during lockdown?

So, I edited Pandora as we were heading into lockdown, which was really hard. I was very anxious and it’s not an ideal way to concentrate. But otherwise I have been making the Ovid films each week, and making the new series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics for BBC Radio 4. We have retitled this, series six, as Natalie Haynes Sits Down for the Classics, because it has been recorded without an audience (obviously) and from a studio I have built in my laundry cupboard. I really missed the audience, but I hope the finished shows are worth it: it has a very different feel, but one which seems appropriate for now, I think.

We’ve changed the focus from historical figures of the ancient world to mythical ones for this series too, so you still get some great stories, I hope. The series airs from 17 May at 4.30 pm on BBC Radio 4. Each episode is repeated the following Saturday night. Then these episodes should join the others on BBC Sounds, so please feel free to download them. Otherwise, I’ve been writing pitches for the next book(s), and kickboxing a lot (via Zoom). And making a bunch of cakes and eating them.

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