A while ago we published a lovely short piece of fiction (or poetry, as we listed it in LCRW 19!) by Katharine Beutner. Earlier this year we noticed that her debut novel, Alcestis, was about to be published by the good folk at Soho Press. All excited, we quickly dashed off some questions for Katharine and in the middle of her debut book launch and doing readings and so on she sent back her answers.
Then we brought punnet after punnet of pomegranates and honeycrisp apples into the office and everyone tried to decide which side they were on. To choruses of “Apples!” “Pomegranates!” (and the occasional “Beer!)” we decided that, yes, we like fruit, but if we were more specific than that it seemed we might be tempting the gods and, really, how foolish could we be? (Moving quickly on.)
SBP: First, what attracted you to the story, or: Why a historical novel? Why Ancient Greece? Why a dead girl?
I remember reading a prose translation of the Odyssey when I was maybe ten or eleven, and reading Sophocles and Aeschylus in high school. I majored in classical studies in college (at Smith, yay Northampton!). I’ve always been more attracted to Greek mythology than to any other kind.
As for “why historical fiction,” I like the way that historical fiction foregrounds the process of approximation that all fiction engages in. I have a favorite bit by Samuel Johnson that I sometimes drag out to explain this, from the Preface to Shakespeare, the same essay in which Johnson says that Shakespeare “holds up … a mirror” to nature:
“Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.”
He’s talking about the fantastical elements of Shakespeare’s work, but I love historical fiction for the same reasons. All historical novels are fantasy, in a way. We can’t ever truly understand the past, but we can create art about the past that allows us to tell ourselves truths, even if we can’t reconstruct the truths of other time periods as citizens of the past would have done.
Regarding Alcestis’s story in particular, my question was actually “Why didn’t she *stay* a dead girl?” Sacrificing your life for someone else is a grand gesture, and I was frustrated that the traditional version of the myth reversed it and brought her back to life. So I set out to write a version of her story in which her time in the underworld would still have profound meaning for her, no matter what Heracles did.
Are pomegranates really your favorite fruit?
I like them, but I think apples are my favorite now, which is odd because I used to despise them for textural reasons. Then I discovered Honeycrisps a few years ago and became a convert. Still Greek myth-appropriate, though I always thought Paris should’ve given the apple to Athena.
Did you go to Greece for research?
I wish. I looked at lots of lucky tourists’ photos of Bronze Age ruins online, though! The Mycenaean period is still pretty mysterious, but I read some archaeological studies of particular sites and researched lots of other little pieces of information — what asphodel looks like in its various life stages, homeopathic treatments for asthma, what sorts of snakes are native to central Greece, that kind of thing.
Did you go to the underworld for research? If so, what brought you back?
The gender relations in the novel are not exactly equal. How did you get your head around them?
I was reading a lot of eighteenth-century fiction and Victorian fiction while I worked on Alcestis — my dissertation focuses on eighteenth-century women writers. There’s nothing like reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa to give you an immersive sense of how alien men and women can appear to one another when they exist within a culture of restrictive gender relations. (Or for a far more light-hearted version of this divide, see Fanny Burney’s Evelina, which was one of Jane Austen’s favorite books and has a monkey melee scene at the end. I like to think that Jane Austen loved it even more because of that.)
Is this your first novel, or your first published novel?
First published novel. My actual first novel was fairly traditional second world fantasy, written in slapdash fashion my first year after college. I might overhaul it some day — I still think the central relationship in the book is interesting — but for now it’s trunked.
Did you find being in a writing program helped?
It helped a great deal, even though writing program workshops are designed for short fiction, not for novels. (I fantasize about teaching a novel-workshopping class someday.) But I had great friends in the program and an excellent thesis adviser who helped guide me through my first revision of the novel. And I had two years to write, which is the best part of any writing program, I think.
What has the publishing experience been like for you? Did you find it hard to find an agent and publisher?
I was lucky — a number of my friends have become writers or agents, including Diana Fox, who represents me. She’d liked my first novel, unbelievably enough, and was encouraging about Alcestis from the beginning. Over about a year and a half, we collected a reasonable number of rejections from publishers, some just polite, some complimentary but unsure how to sell the book. Then Soho made an offer, which Diana called to tell me about twenty minutes after I’d finished defending my dissertation prospectus. (It was an exciting day.) So far, the experience has been great. Soho has been just wonderful, especially my editor Katie Herman and Justin Hargett, the director of publicity. I love getting to hear what people think about the book. And I’m usually busy with grad school work, which keeps me from obsessing too much about the many elements of publishing I can’t control.
Are you working on something else/taking a break/moving to LA with a screenplay in your pocket/disappearing never to be heard from again?
I’m currently being squashed under the weight of my dissertation, like Atlas. After I finish it, I’ll begin writing the novel I’ve been researching, which is about the disappearance of a Mt. Holyoke College student in 1897. I doubt I’ll ever move to LA, but the slightly too-long Hollywood elevator pitch for that novel is “Alias Grace meets The Prestige meets Fingersmith meets The Secret History” — it’ll be New England gothic, weird and twisty.