Last year I read Amalia Carosella’s “Helen of Sparta” (review here) and last week I posted a review of the second in the series called “By Helen’s Hand” (review here). This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Amalia and speak to her about her writing, mythology, her books, and more. If you like Greek mythology, check this interview out!
Hi Amalia, and thanks for dropping by Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m happy to have you by today to talk about your newest novel release, By Helen’s Hand, the second in your Helen of Sparta series. Come in and have a seat in my comfy home library chairs and I’ll put on tea (or coffee) for us. What is your choice and how do you take it?
Amalia: Hi Erin! Thanks so much for having me! If you have any Lemon Zinger, with a little bit of honey, that would be perfection.
Erin: Great, I’ll pour then. I usually make baked goods but it’s been hot so I think I’ll just set out a tray of things we can munch on…grapes, cheese, olives, crackers…and we can lounge like the gods. On second thought, we should have had wine!
Amalia: Haha! Some champagne to toast with, maybe. And I can’t say no to grapes – perfect for a hot day! You’re so thoughtful, just a guest gift away from proper Bronze Age Hospitality!
Erin: We’ll finish our tea and I’ll break out the champagne in celebration. See that gorgeous piece of pottery over there, that’s your gift. You might not drink from it but it will look nice on your shelf!
Now that we are settled, let’s talk about your book. Last year I read Helen of Sparta and loved it. I was excited to read your second book, which was even better. I love how you portrayed her, as an independent woman of strength, which is a bit different that we get from Homer and some history books. What did you discover that led you to write about her this way? How did you formulate your interpretation of Helen and shape her?
Amalia: It seems to me that Helen is one of those characters who gets criticized both ways – either she’s disliked for being too passive, or, if she makes her own choice and runs off with Paris of her own volition, she’s hated for being too selfish, and no matter what she did or didn’t do, the blame for the Trojan War seems to fall disproportionately on her shoulders – when, as Paris himself points out to Helen in Ovid’s Heroides, any number of women had run off or been stolen throughout history and myth without sparking a war. And while being best known today for running off with a lover and abandoning her husband, her city, and her daughter, among the Ancient Greeks, she was venerated as a hero and perhaps even as a goddess. To me, that suggests that there is more to Helen’s story. More to Helen herself than what has filtered down to us through a multitude of richly patriarchal traditions both in history itself and what has been until more recently our understanding of the historical narrative.
Ultimately though, Helen had tremendous power and I just wanted to give her the CHANCE to use it to become her own person.I wanted to imagine a way in which she might have taken control of her own life. An opportunity to use the power she was given – or at least explore what it was.
Erin: Your book and series so far is about events in Helen’s life leading up to the Trojan War, why did you choose their story specifically and in the certain way you decided to re-tell the legend?
Amalia: The short version is that National Novel Writing Month was looming, and I wanted an idea I wouldn’t have to do a lot of prep work to tackle. Since my degree was in Classical Studies, and Classical Mythology was something I felt really comfortable with, Helen seemed like a perfect choice. The Long Version involves my Fate of the Gods trilogy – that very first, very rough, very early version of the manuscript that later became Helen of Sparta and By Helen’s Hand was initially meant to be a spin-off of that series.
Three EXTENSIVE revisions later, it became wholly its own book, set in its own world, but some of the framing of how I wanted to retell Helen’s story stayed the same – and I knew from the very beginning I didn’t want to write a book about the Trojan War itself. That was the story everyone already knew! I wanted to write about the things that had been overlooked, and from where I was sitting at the time, Helen’s abduction by Theseus and Paris’s earlier relationship with Oenone seemed to be the most often disregarded elements, so I knew I absolutely wanted to cover both of those pieces. And I knew that I wanted to give Paris the courage of his convictions. Winning a name for bravery – that’s a big deal, and it’s so often hand-waved away, either by erasing his boyhood as a shepherd or just making Alexandros his birth name, vs his adopted name. As for Theseus – let’s just say that I had initially thought I could tell the story of Helen’s life all in one book. ThenTheseus came onto the page and the whole focus of that manuscript shifted hard. That’s part of the fun of writing, for me!
Erin: Even though we can’t prove that these beings or people from the mythological legends truly existed, what is your take on it? Did you find anything during research? Why do they stand the test of time in interest?
Amalia: I absolutely believe Helen and Theseus and the other heroes of myth, like Heracles and Odysseus lived. Maybe not as larger than life figures with divine powers, and maybe they didn’t accomplish all the things Homer and other later authors attribute to them, maybe their stories might have been warped by propaganda or use to serve timely metaphors, but I have no trouble believing that once, long ago, in the relatively right geographic region, there was a King named Theseus, and that there was a beautiful woman named Helen. There is no evidence proving otherwise. We cannot claim definitively that they did NOT live. The more reading and research I’ve done both by writing my Helen of Sparta series, and before that, my Fate of the Gods trilogy as Amalia Dillin, the more firmly I believe that all mythologies are equally true, and we cannot (or should not, imho) discount the gods and mythologies of any people.
Why do they stand the test of time, though? I think humanity needs heroes. I think we need to believe we have greatness inside of us. That we have that potential. And I think, too, that we don’t want to believe that our gods aren’t completely inhuman and unreachable. We want to think we can understand their motivations and appease their wrath and change or control our own fortunes at least to some degree. But also the Trojan War cycle, the myths that deal with that entire tragedy – well, the world has not been completely at peace in any time since, I don’t think. Of course an epic about a war, about the grief of so much loss and death and pain over something that at the surface (and maybe beneath the surface, too) is so frivolous, would continue to resonate. We still go to war. We still fight stupid wars for stupid reasons. We still lose our friends, our families, our lovers, our lives in the same cycles.
Erin: I love this line from “Helen of Sparta,” your first book, that Theseus states: “Only a fool seeks to hold a daughter of Zeus against her will.” What did he mean by this and how does this play out even more in your second book By Helen’s Hand?
Amalia: Theseus is really a strangely enlightened hero. Even in his myths. And definitely in Helen of Sparta, because of the experience of his marriage to Antiope (who was a queen of the Amazons). I think for him, this is an acknowledgment of Helen’s power, of her strength. He doesn’t discount her just because she’s a woman rather than a man – and Theseus claims not one, but two sons of Zeus as friends and allies, Pirithous AND Heracles, so if anyone knows what a child of Zeus is capable of, it’s definitely him. In Helen of Sparta, Helen herself isn’t ready to take control of that power, I think – she knows it’s there, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to wield it without doing more harm than good. In By Helen’s Hand, I think we see her grow into it and take the reins.
Erin: I’m sure you get asked this a lot but I really am interested. Who was your favorite character to write about beside Helen?
Amalia: in Helen of Sparta, Theseus for sure, though Pirithous is my runner-up and is getting his own book in the fall. In By Helen’s Hand, Polypoetes was definitely one of my favorites, but Odysseus and Heracles were close seconds!
Erin: Why did you decide to shine the story of Paris for readers in a very different light than his cowardly portrayal in the classics? Did you completely imagine it all or did you have research that led you to believe otherwise?
Amalia: Ha! Sorry. I kind of anticipated this one, with my earlier babbling. Once you get me started it’s hard for me to stop – particularly on this topic. Poor Paris. He is so abused. No, I definitely didn’t make up his courage. In addition to what I was saying earlier about how he won the name Alexandros for his bravery as a youth, in Ovid’s Heroides, there’s a letter from Paris to Helen, and that Paris is so phenomenally self-possessed, so charming and persuasive and just smart, that I kind of couldn’t help but admire him. But more than that, for all the grief Paris gets for his cowardice during that mano a mano against Menelaus, let’s not forget that it is Aphrodite who spirits him away and saves his life – at the expense of his honor, to be sure, but it’s nothing like the movie Troy, where Paris is running away weeping in terror at the realization of his looming death. In fact, Dr. Caroline Alexander posits in her book, The War That Killed Achilles, that Menelaus was maybe not the strongest fighter among the Achaeans, and there may not have been a lot of faith in his ability to win. If that was the case – I can’t help but wonder if maybe Aphrodite was saving more than just Paris’s life that day, wittingly or otherwise.
Erin: What’s more fun for you….the research and imagining the hypotheticals…or the writing itself? And why?
Amalia: The Writing. I mean, I love reading myths and finding those little gems of references to things that haven’t been as well explored, for sure, but the writing is where those hypotheticals, those small moments come alive again. And for me, always, writing just makes me feel GOOD. I am a happier person when I’m writing, even when the writing is giving me a hard time!
Erin: You’re forging original ground with your works and focusing in on some of the lesser known parts of myths. How does that feel offer this to the next generations of historical fiction readers? Is that important to you or just a part of the process?
Amalia: Yowza. When you put it like that it feels a little overwhelming. I’m kind of glad I hadn’t considered it that way. I guess I’m excited to share these parts of history and myth that I love – I hope it inspires love for this period and these myths in my readers. That’s my ultimate hope, the true mark of success, I think – when someone reads my book and is inspired to follow-up by reading the source material and learn more on their own. Mythology is SO valuable. I’m just happy to be part of the grand tradition of Homeric fanfic, I guess!
Erin: I see that you once were a biology major before taking Latin and falling in love with the “old legends and heroes.” As well, I thought I’d be a marine biology major until I took up Journalism and History and very much enjoyed my Latin courses. What is it about switching science to writing and history….same curiosity bug?! My son is just completing his own first year of Latin as well with great love for it. Do you feel it’s important to still teach Latin in the schools? Why or why not? What does Latin teach us beyond ancient language?
Amalia: YES. Latin is a PHENOMENAL foundation for learning ALL languages, in my most humble opinion and experience. I didn’t have the opportunity to take it until college, and I wish desperately I’d been able to take it sooner and learn more, but it helped me to better understand English language and grammar, Spanish, and even Icelandic (though my attempts to teach myself more than a handful of phrases have been dismal failures – I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did without Latin!) Latin also gives us a foundation from which to better understand Rome. And the Roman Empire – good gravy. If there is anything in the ancient world that is more relevant to our modern western world today than the history of the Roman Empire, I honestly don’t know what it is – someone reading this will probably make a convincing argument for Athens and Greece and Democracy and I won’t fight you but… still. Latin and by extension, classical and Roman history, are definitely in my opinion critical and fundamental to a well rounded education and a full understanding of the world we live in, today.
Erin: Since you like mythology, who is one evil villain you’d most like to write about for a new book?
Amalia: Are there a lot of truly evil villains in mythology? Maybe Surt in Norse Myth, who literally wants the world to burn. I’m not sure I’d want to write any nearer to him than I have already, though. (I’m a little more superstitious about my Norse Myths.) Hm. It might be interesting to explore how someone decides to spend their days tearing people apart by tying them to bent trees and tearing them apart, like Sinis (who Theseus defeats during his labors). Or maybe someone like Midas who might have seemed like a villain to the people around him because of the gift he was given, even if he wasn’t necessarily evil?
Erin: If you could take five people from mythology on an excursion, who would go…how…and to where?
Amalia: Theseus for SURE, Thor, Athena, Helen, annnnd… Brynhild, maybe? How? Um. Well. If I’m picking 5 people from mythology for an excursion I’m guessing that I must have some kind of magical power to collect them so let’s say finger-snap, or else maybe Thor gets to pick us all up via Goat Chariot. And where to… I’m torn on this one, because I’d love to bring Theseus and Helen and Brynhild into the modern world, to the Met or the British Museum maybe, and look at the artifacts of their times and listen to their stories – and Thor and Athena, I’m sure, would have plenty to contribute there, too. I kind of assume they’d know EVERYTHING about history. So yeah you know what, I’m not torn anymore. We’re definitely doing a tour de museums of antiquity and the Viking age (or maybe tours of relevant ancient sites? Take Helen to where we think Troy was and ask her if it’s the right place?) and just ask them ALL the things. I want to hear their stories from their own lips, from their own perspectives. I want to know what they think of OUR world and these pieces of history under glass. And I want to hear about the whole of history from the perspective of the gods, too. It would be marvelous. I mean honestly, I would be happy to just take them to a really long dinner, I guess, even. I just want to talk.
Erin: Besides who’ve you written on, who is a woman that you’d most like to focus a book on? Any time period is fine.
Amalia: So, okay, I’ve already written a little bit about her in the Helen of Sparta books, but I’d REALLY love to write a book about Theseus’s mother, Aethra. Focused on HER life instead of her life as a sidebar to Theseus and Helen. I’d love to dig into her relationship with Poseidon and explore how that influenced her life, her choices. Outside of the Bronze Age… maybe Charlemagne’s first wife, a woman he married kind of under common law in a marriage he later dissolved in order to make a more politically advantageous marriage. But. I could definitely write Greek Bronze Age books for a loooong time. If people want to keep reading them, anyway!
Erin: I know you write under your real name too, and have quite the catalog, and plans for upcoming books. Would you like to tell us what’s upcoming for this series and then talk about your other books as well?
Amalia: By Helen’s Hand completes my version of Helen’s story, but my next Amalia Carosella book will have some familiar faces – TAMER OF HORSES which releases this fall takes place 25-30 years (plus or minus) before Helen of Sparta, and tell the story of Pirithous’s marriage to Hippodamia and the war with the centaurs. Naturally Theseus is involved, too, but they’re both much younger kings. I absolutely LOVED writing Hippodamia and Pirithous, so I’m really excited to share TAMER with the world. I also have a non-Greek-Bronze-Age book under the Amalia Carosella name coming in 2017, and I’ll be sharing the title to that one in my newsletter this month!
As Amalia Dillin, I’ve written the Fate of the Gods trilogy, which mixes ALL the myths and retells history from creation into the future as if all the gods are real and active participants in the world, but focuses primarily on Adam, Eve, and Thor. My more recent trilogy, still in progress, is called The Orc Saga, and that’s straight fantasy, about a human princess and an orc chieftain who are fighting to protect both their peoples from slavery and destruction – and along the way, they kind of fall in love. It’s kind of Tolkien meets Beauty and the Beast meets Warcraft. I’m tackling book three now!
Erin: I’m sure you write, research, and edit a majority of your time. I know how that is. What are some snacks and drinks you survive on for those long work days or nights?
Amalia: Super boring, but I *mostly* just drink water. Sometimes I’ll treat myself to hard cider or mead, if I’ve had a rough day/week, but water is my go-to. As far as food goes, I’m also pretty boring. During my last book I went through a phase that was literally just potato bread and butter as my any-hour snack of choice. Then cornbread muffins. Before those, I think I might have been on a pickled beet kick. I do keep a store of chocolate of some kind or another when I’m editing or drafting on deadline – Trader Joe’s has these awesome dark chocolate peanut butter cups that I love, and for a while I was eating exclusively only Lindt orange chocolate truffles. To be completely honest, when I’m in the middle of drafting, I’m more likely to forget to eat altogether than to snack. El Husband has to jog my elbow more than I should probably admit.
Erin: Have you traveled anywhere for any of your books or been to any fabulous places? What is one place on your bucket list?
Amalia: I’ve gone to the Met and the Smithsonian museums, but so far I haven’t managed to travel abroad, unfortunately. I would LOVE to go to Mycenae though, and Pylos, and Athens. I’d kill to visit Ostia and Rome and Herculaneum and Pompeii. But the trip I’m looking forward to more than ANYTHING else is the one I’ll be taking to Iceland with El Husband! It’s a little while out yet but we’re both REALLY excited. Iceland is so breathtaking in pictures, I can only imagine how much more glorious it will be in person. I only wish I could have managed to make it happen a little sooner – but it will definitely be part research trip!
Erin: Thank you so much Amalia for stopping by to see us here. It’s a delight and I hope you stop by again! Best of luck with your wonderful series and all you’re writing.
Amalia: Thank you so much again for having me! I’m sorry if I got a little long-winded – I can’t help myself sometimes! I’m so glad you enjoyed my Helen of Sparta books and so grateful for the opportunity discuss them. All the best to you and yours, as well!
By Helen’s Hand (Helen of Sparta #2) by Amalia Carosella
Publication Date: May 10, 2016
Lake Union Publishing
eBook & Paperback;
Genre: Historical Fiction
With divine beauty comes dangerous power.
Helen believed she could escape her destiny and save her people from utter destruction. After defying her family and betraying her intended husband, she found peace with her beloved Theseus, the king of Athens and son of Poseidon.
But peace did not last long. Cruelly separated from Theseus by the gods, and uncertain whether he will live or die, Helen is forced to return to Sparta. In order to avoid marriage to Menelaus, a powerful prince unhinged by desire, Helen assembles an array of suitors to compete for her hand. As the men circle like vultures, Helen dreams again of war—and of a strange prince, meant to steal her away. Every step she takes to protect herself and her people seems to bring destruction nearer. Without Theseus’s strength to support her, can Helen thwart the gods and stop her nightmare from coming to pass?
Amalia Carosella, Biography
Amalia Carosella graduated from the University of North Dakota with a bachelors degree in Classical Studies and English. An avid reader and former bookseller, she writes about old heroes and older gods. She lives with her husband in upstate New York and dreams of the day she will own goats (and maybe even a horse, too). For more information, visit her blog at www.amaliacarosella.com. She also writes fantasy and paranormal romance as Amalia Dillin.
Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @AmaliaCarosella