An interview with Cath Mayo

A couple of years ago, at the IBBY Conference in Auckland, I met New Zealand author Cath Mayo, whose novels based on the life of the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus were the basis for her fascinating conference paper exploring the unexpected commonalities between Ancient Greek and Pacific cultures. This month I finally caught up with her for a most interesting interview–enjoy!

You are very inspired by one of the most famous and ancient sagas of Western culture, Homer’s Odyssey, which you first encountered as a young reader in an adapted edition for children. Can you tell us about that, and what effect the story had on you as a child?

When I was a kid, Mum used to read aloud to us a lot, especially during the summer holidays. We’d be on the beach after lunch, itching to go for a swim, and she wanted to keep us out of the water for a while so we wouldn’t get cramp and drown.  So the books had to be pretty exciting, not just for me but for my two older brothers.

So I must have been about seven or eight when I first encountered Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of the Odyssey, with those fabulous illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Munroe. And I was instantly besotted – with Odysseus’s adventures and his resourcefulness and quirky cunning. As a cheeky kid trying to outwit my big brothers, I thought his impersonation of Nobody, when he was trying to escape the Cyclops, was magic.

As kids do, I started re-enacting – and got myself into various bits of bother by locking the rest of the family out of our only bathroom-cum-toilet, because that was where the towels were, and I could turn them into Greek tunics with the help of a couple of safety pins.

At night, after lights out, I started retelling the Odysseus stories to myself, naturally taking the title role. This soon led to various prequels and sequels, and all sorts of extra bits along the way that Homer had undoubtedly forgotten to put in to the official account.

What effect did these early reactions to the Odyssey have on you later, as an adult writer?

I gave up on the bath towels pretty soon, but I kept on with the retelling process. Odysseus was briefly supplanted by Beatle George Harrison, followed by a few other characters, real and invented. But Odysseus is a persevering sort of guy and he always comes back.

This habit of private story-telling – or fantasising if you will – is common with kids, but most people stop it at some point, to get on with the thorny business of adult life. I never did.

It took me a while, though, to realise that writers are not Gods – they live on Planet Earth like the rest of us – and I could dare to become one. So eventually I began to write the stories down.

What I still experience is that feeling of being totally inside the story as I imagine it and tell it. Which is what a good reading experience should give the reader as well.

Why do you think myths and legends and sagas are still important to us today?

They certainly were very powerful for me as a kid.

While I was busy reading and re-reading Picard’s retelling – and anything else remotely about Odysseus or the Troy story that I could lay my hands on – I also became a general Myths-and-Legends junky. The local library held a wonderful series of books put out by Oxford University Press, collections of myths and legends from just about every country you could imagine – India, Scandinavia, Egypt, Korea, Scotland, Africa, Russia, France…

They are amazing, exciting stories that have compelling stories and characters and resolutions, probably because they have developed and survived over long periods of time.

They also reveal the soul of the culture that engenders them, the values and the hopes and the fears and the disappointments and the successes. In troubled times they can be a rallying point of the spirit, a beacon for identity.

For New Zealanders, the myths swirling around Maui are colourful and resoundingly Maori; for Maori, Maui is more than just a fun story – this small, brave, wily underdog of a hero is an essential part of their ancestry and a powerful taonga – a great source of cultural pride.

At the IBBY conference in Auckland, you gave a very interesting paper, based on interviews and encounters with Maori and Samoan people, which drew connections and resonances between the Odyssey and Pacific Island culture. Can you tell readers a bit about that?

Growing up, I never consciously made the connection, even though I love Maori culture and mythology, and I’ve travelled and worked in the Pacific.

But one day, by chance, I met a sixteen year old Samoan student called Matt Nanai. Matt was crazy about sport – he’d just broken his leg playing rugby – and he was the lead singer in a school rock band. But he was holding a book – Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey. It turned out this was the first book he’d ever read cover to cover, and he thought it was choice.

This intrigued me no end. When I talked it through with Matt, we both realised that the world of Homer has far more parallels with traditional Maori and Polynesian culture than it does to my own Pakeha/European New Zealand society.

What are those parallels? Reverence for ancestry; a strong aural tradition; respect and hospitality; fierce family loyalty; speech-making; honour and pride; brave deeds; warrior values; sporting prowess and physical hardiness; the sea, coasts, islands and navigation; and song, music and dance.

Later on, I interviewed Tongan scholar and politician Sitivati Halapua and his daughter, Peau. They added fate, suffering, storytelling, wisdom and cunning, humour, and tapu/sacred things to my list.  I also questioned a Samoan paramount chief, Joe Annandale, and two Maori friends, Dean Martin and Sharon Hansen, and they too came up with insightful answers.

All of these themes can be matched by underlying values in The Odyssey and Iliad, backed by countless quotes from both poems.

I often think Maui and Odysseus are very similar heroic types. They’re not the big muscle-bound guys; instead they have to live on their smarts.

Your books for teenagers, The Bow, and Murder at Mykenai, are set in the Greek Bronze Age, or as it’s sometimes known, the Age of Heroes–the time of Odysseus, in fact, who is the main young character in the books.

I wanted to set these books, not only within the Greek mythological traditions but also in the social and political environment of the Greek Late Bronze Age, which is when the Trojan War is believed to have taken place.

Curiously, this isn’t the same world as the “Age of Heroes”. The latter is the one that Homer describes in his great Trojan War poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it’s the one usually evoked by later retellings and illustrations.

But the “Age of Heroes” is a fantasy world, created through a jigsaw mix of different eras, ranging from around 1400BC right down to around 300BC – over a thousand years of changing customs and clothing, buildings and weapons. In pictures illustrating the “Age of Heroes”, men wear Corinthian-style helmets covering their faces, with narrow slots for their eyes, and women wear long, loose, white tunics.

I decided to return the Odysseus stories to Odysseus’s own time – a Late Bronze Age setting. So – for example – there are no big temples: gods were worshipped in shrines, which were either out in the wilds or inside palaces. Clothing was brightly coloured and often festooned with tassels and fringe, with women clad in fitted bodices and tiered flaring skirts cinched in at the waist with wide belts.

How do you go about researching the background of the stories? And how do you recreate the atmosphere of that time so long ago?

I love research. In fact, my husband had to force me to stop researching and start actually writing these books.

I majored in History at Uni, so I know my way around the local Uni library and the great collection of scholarly journals that gave me the in-depth knowledge I need to totally ground myself in this very different and often alien world. For the Bronze Age is separated from the world of Classical Greece by an abrupt cataclysm that saw the great palaces burnt to the ground, followed by a stretch of centuries known as the Dark Ages.

In the end, the amount of knowledge I have – photocopied articles stored in numerous file boxes and a whole bookcase of books – is far, far more than I would ever need to write my novels. What the reader sees is the tip of an iceberg. But the information iceberg is quick to inform me whenever something unusual crops up.

For example, in The Bow, Odysseus needs to enter a tomb. And I was able to put my hand immediately, not only on descriptions of various kinds of Late Bronze Age tombs but also what sorts of grave goods were deposited and how the bodies were treated – which was important for the plot. It meant that, instead of having to stop writing and spend a few evenings in the Uni library, I could look it up straightaway and get on with the story.

I also know that King Nestor, at Pylos, had a harbour excavated deep into the flat coastal plain near his palace, through which he diverted a river every winter to flush it out. I love this fact but I haven’t yet found a reason to use it!

What about the personality of young Odysseus?

Odysseus shines through so strongly in the Odyssey. Even in the Iliad, where he has more of a cameo role, we can see different sides of his personality.

But to capture the young Odysseus took some imagination. I had to try and wind the personality clock back, so to speak, and imagine him with the character traits we enjoy in the later stories – a quick wit, bravery, cunning, loyalty to family and friends, deviousness and a love of secrecy, strong emotions which he has to control, charm, eloquence, stubbornness, a sharp intelligence, an intolerance of fools, skill in disguise – but I had to imagine how those traits presented themselves before he added experience to the mix.

So he’s still learning, and he makes mistakes – not that he doesn’t later, in Homer’s poems!

You grew up by the sea, ‘mucking about in boats’ as you put it on your website, with your brothers. Did you always want to be a writer or was that something that came later?

I always felt like a storyteller, but it took me a long time to summon the courage to put words on a page. I grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Renault, two monumental historical novelists, and I didn’t want to fall short of their standards. Fear of failing is something everyone has to conquer in order to reach for their dreams; I’m really glad I faced down my demons, and I only wish I had done it earlier.

When I was at school, nobody told us we could be writers. And nobody seemed to believe that NZ writing could be any good. I’m really pleased that’s changed!

What was the path to publication like?

It was hard but there were plenty of highs to balance the lows. I had some fantastic encouragement not long after I started – I won a short story competition and the judge, New Zealand YA and Children’s writer William Taylor, agreed to mentor me through my first book Murder at Mykenai. Bill was brilliant – blunt but also very encouraging. And the NZ Society of Authors awarded me a professional assessment, which also helped. So I was able to start dreaming that someone would get excited about the book enough to take it on.

I had seven rejections before Walker Books signed me up, but these rejections usually came with a page or two of detailed comments, which I could use to improve the book and my writing in general. So “no” isn’t always a bad thing, if you want the book to be as good as possible!

How do you think being a New Zealander influences your writing?

Good question! On the one hand, we can feel a bit inferior because we’re “only” New Zealanders and we live upside down on a small bunch of islands at the bottom of the world.

On the other hand being isolated means we get to “invent the wheel” quite a bit, so we feel confident about being creative and trying our hands at lots of different things. We’re not constantly being told we can’t do things because we’re not experts at it, so we just go ahead and do them!

New Zealanders often tend to be active, outdoorsy people and I’m no exception. I still muck about in boats, and when I was younger I did a lot of tramping, including some pretty adventurous stuff off the beaten track in the Southern Alps. This taught me how to survive in harsh conditions without any technological backup.

In my novel writing, my characters are living in a very low-tech world, and my heroes live physically active lives. So I can sometimes draw on my own experiences and feelings when things get tough for them.

You are also a musician and play in a band which tours the world. Can you tell us more about that?

Make that “played” in a band, past tense – in fact, several bands. I was mostly playing Country music, with bluesy, Bluegrassy, jazzy overtones, and those songs always have a story. I loved being part of a small group working together to take those stories to an audience. Nowadays I still play, but mostly for my own pleasure – my writing has taken over.

I love travelling, and while I enjoy being a tourist, it’s always more fun if I’ve got a purpose – I connect with people in a different way.  Back then, the connecting link was music, and now it’s research for my books. It was brilliant, when I visited Ithaca a few years ago, to talk with people about my books and what I hoped to see and find out about Odysseus’s own island. And when I wrote The Bow, I re-discovered a forgotten cave in Arcadia, and went through it with a bunch of Greek cavers.

Does your music ever inspire your writing and vice versa?

Only in a sideways kind of way.

I always did a lot of improvising as a musician – I hated the idea that I might step forward to take a solo and fake it by “joining the dots” – playing a calculated number of pre-learned patterns in a set order. It was all about listening like crazy and jumping off the cliff.  I never quite knew if my inner, creative ear would manage to hear enough to put up a parachute, so I could sail out over the abyss and land safely at the end. It was a fabulous experience when it did, and at least I didn’t die – except with embarrassment – if it didn’t.

Curiously, this is incredibly like the feeling I get when I’m writing. Somewhere in the non-logical part of my brain, there’s this great big ear that’s listening out for whatever is seething round in my subconscious mind, and these days it sends me stories rather than music.

The Ancient Greek singers must have experienced something very like this. When they sang their long, semi-improvised epics, they called on the Muse, as though it was the Muse singing the song, using the bard only as a mouthpiece.

What are you working on now?

I’m working hard on a co-writing project with David Hair, another Kiwi writer who’s had great success with YA writing and Adult Fantasy.

We’ve teamed up to create an Adult Fantasy series called Olympus. Once again, it’s about Odysseus, this time as a young man in his early twenties, in the years leading up to the Trojan War. The first three books have just been signed up by Canelo, a UK publisher.

The collaborative process with David has been very exciting, challenging and stimulating. We do a lot of brainstorming via Skype (we’re rarely in the same room, or even in the same country) and huge amounts of planning, backwards and forwards. Then David gets the first draft down – he’s very fast – and I do the next, “up” draft, to use Anne Lamott’s terms. After that, we bat it to and fro till I don’t know whose words and ideas are whose.

The first book Athena’s Champion comes out on November 8th – it has a cover to die for! And the second book Oracles War is already with Canelo for editing while we plan out Book Three.

New Zealander Cath Mayo is an award-winning author, writing YA historical novels, children’s plays and adult fiction. Much of her work is set in Ancient Greece, for which she has a life-long passion. After graduating in History, she returned to university to study Homeric Greek. Her YA novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow, star a youthful Odysseus, as does Athena’s Champion, the first book of a new adult fantasy series, Olympus, co-written with David Hair.

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