Saturday, April 1, 2017

THE NYMPH: The Original Lost Girl

 Nymphs have undergone quite a few metamorphoses. Female elements of nature, spirits of water, air, and woods, they frolicked with satyrs and the gentler fauns. In Greece and Rome, nymphs were treated as potentially dangerous. 'to be among the nymphs' was a double-edged sword--a paradise (Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, for instance) but one was trapped there forever, like an insect in amber. It meant death. Nymphs were not the cute girls portrayed in books and Disney cartoons; they were in the category of vampiric fauni ficarii, phantoms and faeries that haunted the wild places. As with mermaids and the Russian Rusalka, (the water spirits of drowned young women,) the nymph's playful beauty concealed a sinister core. Being elemental and connected to nature, they were neither good nor evil, but in between. If not exactly femme fatales, they were nature mimicking human form; the invisible world, motives unknown, as a sentient being. A folklorist visiting Greece in the early 1900s wrote: "The Nereids are conceived as women half divine yet not immortal, always young, always beautiful, capricious at best, and at their worst, cruel. Their presence is suspected everywhere. I myself had a Nereid pointed out to me by my guide, and there certainly was the semblance of a female figure draped in white, and tall beyond human stature, flirting in the dusk between the gnarled and twisted boles of an old olive-yard. What the apparition was, I had no leisure to investigate; for my guide with many signs of the cross and muttered invocations of the Virgin urged my mule to perilous haste along the rough mountain path.' (J.C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore)
 Yet the Greeks call nymphs 'the kind-hearted ones,' 'the ladies,' 'our maidens,' 'our good queens,' and leave them milk and honey and ask for their blessings when children are born. They are faery godmothers and protectors of children. They grant men oracular powers.
   'Nymph' in Greek is synonymous with the stage between the larva and the adult insect, and bees, butterflies, and dragonflies are significant symbols representing the mysterious, diaphanous, and alien world of nature. Nymphs are girls on the verge of womanhood, forever stuck in that phase of their lives, without their own stories or the epics that drove Greek heroes. Forever barefoot to represent their connection to earth, free of any care because they are semi-divine, they are innocent, and only predatory when confronted by male power, whether that power stems from beauty or strength. As Diane Purkiss writes, "Like illuminations, nymphs brighten the edges of stories without reaching the middle. Why this terrible blankness? Because nymphs are young girls to whom nothing has happened yet, nothing that needs to be told." (At the Bottom of the Garden)

 In mythology, nymphs have names with meanings such as Brightness, Scarlet, Sunset Glow, perfect for fairy tales or suitable for exotic YA heroines (Calypso, Pomona, Syrinx.) They are long-lived but not immortal, capable of love forever.
   When Daphne runs from the gorgeous Apollo, preferring to transform into a tree rather than belong to him, it is because she doesn't want to change, to grow up, to give birth to a hero's story, never having had one of her own. And that is what nymphs will always be, beautiful insects trapped in amber, the Lost Girls.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Guest Interview: Jordanna Max Brodsky

Welcome Jordanna Max Brodsky, author of the fantasy novel The Immortals (available now from Orbit Books) and the upcoming Winter of the Gods (February 14, 2017) to It's All About Story. You can find Jordanna on Twitter @JordannaBrodsky

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1) Describe The Immortals in one paragraph.

The Immortals follows Selene DiSilva, a private investigator in modern Manhattan who specializes in punishing men who abuse women, and who just happens to have lived the first two thousand years of her life as the ancient Greek Goddess Artemis. After so long without worship, her powers have faded. She lives a near-mortal life now, estranged from her Olympian family, and avoiding mortal entanglements. But when she finds the body of a young woman washed ashore on the banks of the Hudson, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel, her ancient rage returns. Selene starts regaining her powers, but at the price of the deaths of the very women she's sworn to protect. To hunt down the killers, she'll have to team up with a brilliant and charming male classics professor--quite a challenge for the perennially chaste goddess. And she'll have to seek help from her other least favorite source as well: the city's other Immortals.

2) What inspired The Immortals?

I've been a fan of Greek mythology since childhood, when my parents handed me D'Aulaires book of Greek Myths. I devoured each story, reveling in the adventure, romance, and epic battles. Then I got to the last page: "Everything must come to an end, and so did the rule of Zeus and the other Olympian gods. All that is left of their glory on earth are broken temples and noble statues." That always seemed both anti-climactic and terribly sad. I much preferred a world in which the gods still walked among us. So I created one of my own.

3) Was The Immortals your first work of fiction?

Nope. But it is the first one I published! The publication road was quite long and hard, and there were several times when I felt I should just throw up my hands and abandon my dreams of a creative vocation. So for all those aspiring novelists out there, don't give up! (See my answer to question 12 for more on this.)

4) What song or music piece would you put on a soundtrack for The Immortals?

Anything by Ani DiFranco. She's my favorite folk singer-songwriter, and I spent most of my young adulthood listening to her lambast the patriarchy. She also lived in New York City for a while in her youth, and her songs perfectly capture the uniquely grimy beauty of the city that both Selene and I call home.

5) Which character in The Immortals was easy to write? Which was the most difficult?

Theo Schultz, the Columbia classics professor who becomes Selene's partner in crime-solving, was both the easiest and hardest character to write. Easy because he is the most like me--talkative, curious, and not particularly physically adept. Hardest because the Theo who seems to flow most easily from my pen is a little too much like me. In first drafts, he tends to emerge as a nerdy weakling--not unlike myself. I'm constantly working to make sure he is a strong enough partner for Selene. He can never compete with her in the kickass department, but I've made sure he's always brave, smart, and funny nonetheless. At the same time, I've resisted making him too stereotypically "manly." He is, at heart, an intellectual. He fights his battles with cunning and wit, not brawn. I leave most of the kicking and punching to Selene.

6) What is your writing space like? Or can you write anywhere?

I definitely have ridiculously specific writing-space needs. Ever since writing an over-long thesis in college, I've suffered from tendonitis in my wrists and hands, so if I don't have an ergonomic space, I wind up in a lot of pain. Often, I won't be able to type at all for days afterward, so I try to be very careful. I'm quite short and have small hands, and it seems normal desks and tables were made for giant men, so I've had to improvise. I've got two different desks in my apartment, one sitting and one standing, and I mix it up by also using a board on my lap while sitting on the couch or in the library. Sometimes I work standing at the kitchen counter as well. My only non-ergonomic concession is writing on the train or subway during my commute. Since the trip's never more than forty-five minutes, I can usually get away with it. And since there's no Internet available, the trip is often my most productive, distraction-free writing time. Otherwise, I use a vertical mouse, an external keyboard, and try to have my monitor at eyelevel.

7) Any odd writing habits? Rituals?

Like many writers, I like to listen to music when possible while composing or editing. I can't deal with lyrics--unless they're in a foreign language--and I've found recently that I work best when it's just the same song over and over. It almost creates a trance state in which I can completely disappear into the story; I'm never distracted by thinking about the new song that just popped up.

8) George R. R. Martin describes 2 kinds of outliners, the Gardener (let it grow) or the Architect (plan it). Which are you?

Depends on the book. In The Immortals, I started with the plan for a building, then diverted enormously along the way, wound up tearing everything down and turning it into a weed pile, then finally trimmed it back into a garden. My next book, Winter of the Gods, proceeded more smoothly from plan to finished product. I actually think the better metaphor for my process is a Sculptor. I build a basic armature in the correct shape, then I throw a huge, ugly mound of clay on top of it, creating something so malformed and hideous that it never deserves to be seen. That's the first draft. Bit by bit, I shave, mold, and shape the clay into something that actually resembles art. While I'm at it, I can bend the armature, too. It takes countless drafts and rewrites, but eventually I wind up with a finished sculpture.

9) What are some of your favorite world myths or fairy/folk tales? Why?

Obviously, I'm a fan of the Greeks! Artemis, of course, is my favorite goddess, and my favorite myth about her goes like this: She's just finished hunting for the day, and she's bathing in a waterfall. Through the trees, she sees a young man watching her--the hunter Acteon, renowned for having the best pack of hounds in all of Boetia. But because it's forbidden for a mortal man to look upon the virgin goddess naked, Artemis metamorphoses him into a stag. His famous pack of hounds catches the scent and tears their own master apart. That's the sort of justice that Artemis believes in--the sort of justice my heroine, Selene, still wishes she could mete out. The story appeals to me because too often in world history, women have suffered the abuses and disdain of men without fighting back. As cruel as Artemis can be, she's defending her exclusive right to her own body. I think that's something all of us can sympathize with these days.

10) What is your favorite fictional world, one you'd want to visit?

I've been an enormous George R.R. Martin fan since long before the television show, but I have absolutely no desire to visit Westeros unless I have Brienne there to defend me. Otherwise, I grew up on Tamora Pierce (who taught me girls could be warriors), Mercedes Lackey (who taught me to respect gay love before it was cool), and Juliet Marillier (who taught me that a great romance can bring you back to a book over and over) But let's be honest, I'd probably just pick the Star Wars universe, some time in the yet-to-be discovered future when the Jedi are back and peace rules the galaxy.

11) Who is your favorite fictional character?

Well, if we're not considering the Greek gods as fictional, then I'd have to say Princess Leia. I was her twice for Halloween as a child. I still have the costumes.

12) What is the best writing advice you've ever received?

An old friend of mine who happens to be a best-selling novelist once told me, "Everyone's writing a novel, but almost no one has written one." He always reminded me that there are plenty of people out there who write gorgeous prose or have phenomenal ideas, but very few who can actually sit down and finish the darn book. In other words, don't worry if you aren't a genius and every sentence isn't perfect. Just keep at it. Writing a novel isn't magic--it just looks that way from the outside. It's hard work. That may sound daunting to some, but I found it incredibly encouraging. If you persevere, you can do it!

13) In The Immortals, are there any hidden acknowledgments to friends, places you've lived, favorite writers, etc;

For sure. The entire book takes place on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which is where I live. The same is true of the sequel, Winter of the Gods. The Natural History Museum, Central and Riverside Parks, and even the bookstore and Chinese restaurant are all places I frequent. The book is also full of names I blatantly stole from friends, which has occasionally gotten me into trouble. No one wants to be portrayed as a murder victim! I've learned my lesson. In the next book, I stuck to imagined names!

14) Can you tell us anything else about your writing experiences?

You always hear the advice, "Write what you know." And in terms of my setting, I've done that. However, I also think it's perhaps more important to write what you WANT to know about, even if you don't already. I had a background in Greek myth, but not a comprehensive one. And I certainly knew nothing about specific Greek mystery cults or Ancient Greek language before I started working on The Immortals. Now, more than ever, we're lucky enough to have the world's libraries at our fingertips. If you're patient, don't mind research, and are willing to ask experts for help, I really feel you can write about anything you're passionate about. so don't be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone!

15) What do we have to look forward to after The Immortals?

Book Two of the Olympus Bound series, Winter of the Gods, is out in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook (read by me!) on February 14th. I'm already in edits on the third and (probably) final book, which will likely come out early next year. After that . . . we'll see!

Thank you, Jordanna!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

20 Questions to ask your Main Characters

Dreaming up characters...

I've read ways to make your characters more unique, but I thought I'd share this list of what I ask as I'm creating their profiles. I don't even use most of it in the actual books, but it helps to make the characters more vivid to me. Some are ordinary questions, some are odd, and some seem to be about the end of the world...

1) What childhood toy do you remember the most?

2) What is your spirituality?

3) What physical activity do you enjoy the most?

4) What animal species would you save at the end of the world?

5) What childhood book made an impression on you?

6) How are you feeling at this point?

7) What is your perfect day or evening?

8) What do you like to do when you're idle?

9) What would your last meal be?

10) What's your favorite movie?

11) Science or the supernatural?

12) Who's your favorite relative?

13) What country would you most like to visit?

14) Would you rather be a king/queen, general, ambassador, or revolutionary?

15) What is your favorite sound?

16) If you could make up a holiday, what would it be?

17) Which famous deceased person would you most like to meet?

18) Which 3 possessions would you grab if you had to leave in a hurry?

19) What's your current grievance?

20) Why should anyone be interested in/follow you as a main character?