What do you do after you win a beauty contest, your face launches a thousand ships, everyone goes to war to get you back, and a bunch of Greeks hide themselves inside a big wooden horse outside the gates of Troy? Debut author Sherry Antonetti has tapped her passion for ancient mythology and delivers a compelling tale about a glamorous icon who was smarter than most people thought.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Let’s start with what ignited your passion to become a published author.
A: I’ve always loved reading beautiful stories. My parents kept placing books in front of me like chocolate truffles. I’d gobble them up and feel full, happy and satisfied and still want more. By the time I got to college, I became an English major, I wanted to know them all.
However the writing part of my life didn’t really take flight until 2005 when I was asked to submit a speech I’d made to the local paper. They published it. That beginner’s luck success led me to keep writing. I realized I wanted to create a beautiful story, like a truffle that would leave the reader full, happy, satisfied and hopeful to be invited back for more soon.
Q: A lot of aspiring writers tell me, “I don’t have time to write.” As the parent of 10 children, you obviously orchestrated this dilemma successfully. Any been there/done that tips you’d like to share?
A: I’m still working on the time management of writing. All I know is to write every day, and remember that all of life is a balancing act. Some days, I do better than others. As for tips to aspiring writers, all of us have the same 24 hours. What we do with those precious seconds every day reveals who we are, what we value, and how the rest of the world will know us.
Q: Tell us what The Book of Helen is all about.
A: Newly widowed at 65, Helen of Troy finds herself in the odd position of starting over in life with no husband, no family and facing exile on the island of Rhodes. She hopes to establish a legacy including the stories and memories of her life beyond the events both known and embellished, that made her the most famous beautiful woman in the world.
Writing this book, I sought to answer three basic questions that go unanswered in the original texts and many of the subsequent reversions of the Helen/Paris/Menelaus Trojan War story.
1) What made Helen leave Sparta? (She’s queen, she’s in charge; she’s the actual power of that world). Most of the versions give her motive short shrift. I wanted her to have a thinking/feeling real reason for her actions and not be a mere pawn of the gods in the machine or carried away purely on emotional adrenaline.
2) What made the Trojans keep her? Yes she brought Spartan gold but eventually, that would have been an insufficient cause. They could have ended the siege by sending her out or killing her. Her beauty would have been sufficient perhaps for Paris, but what made all of Troy decide to stick it out? Helen had to be more than a pretty face to warrant a 10 year war that ended a civilization and somehow survive.
3) What made Menelaus take her back after all of that? She’s the most famous adulterer of the Greek world. She’s shamed him. She’s forced Greece to empty its city states of grown men on her behalf to bring her back. She’s caused the deaths of countless people and suffering to those left behind. The line in the Aeneid, “She bared her breasts, he dropped his sword.” is all the explanation of their reconciliation we get. Yet in The Odyssey, it is clear that the two of them have a happy marriage later in life. So how do we get from running away and a 10 year bloody war to apparent tranquil domestic hearts in accord with one another?
Q: Is this your first novel?
A: Yes. However, I’m working on my second, “The Book of Penelope,” then hopefully, I’ll craft “The Book of Pythia.”
Q: What inspired you to make Helen the cornerstone of your story?
A: I was reading Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey. The line about Helen slipping a drug (opium) into the wine to allow the men to think about the Trojan War without getting upset jumped out at me.
Immediately I wrote a Helen story with the tag, “It started with an apple.” The original idea had been to do a series of tales (sort of an Arabian Nights) based on the various trinkets and treasures Helen deemed sentimental. It turned into something more. I envisioned her as a CEO in a predatory world. Helen became a composite of multiple strong women I’ve known in my life plus a goodly dose of the mythic woman from all the literature.
Q: Who do you think this book will most strongly appeal to (and why)?
A: Women of all ages I think will find a lot to enjoy in Helen. The book sports three very strong different women as the main characters, all of whom have flaws and gifts. While a male friend who read an early preview of it, described it as Greek Chick Lit meets Game of Thrones.
As to why, Helen touches on something primal. Every one of us wants to leave behind something more than our names, something with an epic scope. I think readers will be rooting for Helen to somehow triumph and win everyone’s heart. We all want the happy ending, even for the fallen and the selfish, the vain and the indulgent, because we all want that level of mercy for ourselves.
Q: What do you believe is its strongest takeaway value?
A: Beauty, truth and memory matter. They are the salt, light and music that make life something other than a grind of suffering. When we opt to deny beauty, deny truth, or ignore memory, we lose something invaluable, part of our history and our humanity.
Q: As you began to research all of the myths about Helen, what was your most surprising discovery about her and how did you apply that to developing her character and motivations?
A: I discovered Helen to be the original Fan Fiction character. There is only one Odysseus, one Hector, one Achilles and one Penelope, but Helen has been reinvented in almost every age of Western civilization. She’s the archetype of beauty, a succubus of pure sexuality for Faust, consigned to Level 2 of Dante’s inferno for adultery and lust, the victim of the gods, abducted against her will and in one version, she never was unfaithful at all. There are massive intertwined and contradictory myths about Helen spanning the ages. Unraveling them to discern Helen herself, was great fun.
Q: Did you do all of the research before you started writing or did you look things up as you went along?
A: Research went on constantly. Over the years I read two versions of The Odyssey, tried Greek cooking, watched Troy, I Claudius (yes I know it’s Rome but it helped anyway) and 300, and visited museums and jewelry stores to find “what Helen would wear.” I now own a compendium of Greek myth, three different translations of the Iliad, Homer’s odes, several plays by Euripides, stacks of books on Sparta, and my favorite, Bettany Hughes’ Helen of Troy. Even now, I still see books and art and stories and hear the echoes of Helen’s influence.
Q: Does a person have to have a working knowledge of Greek myths, The Odyssey and The Illiad to understand this book?
A: No. I tried to treat Helen’s story as real, as opposed to mythic, to ground this historical mythic fictional woman in a historical world so the reader could meet her without any back story.
Q: What do you believe your book says about relationships between women and how they treat one another?
A: I would say women sometimes confuse the sharing of stories with intimacy and it can lead to very hurt feelings. Friendship is something developed over time, through gradual increased illustrations of trust, of service, and shared gifts of the self. It cannot be imposed through generosity or forced proximity. As a young mom, I often mistook experiences in common, (I’m a mom, you’re a mom) for deeper things, out of my own need for a connection. I wouldn’t say that’s a female trait, I’d say it is a human natural response to loneliness. Such relationships are not always what we imagine or hope. Even if we know they aren’t the healthiest, sometimes, we will cling anyway, because the idea of being alone seems far more unbearable.
Q: You’ve indicated that the book took six years to complete. If you could go back and talk to your younger self – the 40 year old with only 8 kids at the time – what advice would you give?
A: For the writer me: Read the myths. The story is there waiting for you to uncover. Outline. It won’t kill the inspiration or the story.
For the parent me: Enjoy this time. You have time for all of this, for all of them. I promise. It’s awesome being their mom.
Q: Tell us about the process you went through to find the right publisher.
A: At the 2012 Catholic Writer’s Conference Online in 2012, they hosted a pitch session with Joan Edwards. At that same conference, there were several opportunities to make a pitch. After reading the profiles of the various publishing companies, and running their names through Preditors and Editors and Writer’s Beware, I took a deep breath and submitted my name for a live chat interview. In retrospect, doesn’t it seem obvious Helen should belong to a company called Muse It Up? (Museituppublishing.com)
Q: What do you know about the publishing world now that you didn’t know when you started out?
A: Read writers’ and agents’ blogs about promotions, marketing and launching. You can’t be ignorant about social media. The landscape of promoting a book is very different from the process of writing and editing a book, and navigating it well requires a level of expertise that can only be crafted over time.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Learning that lesson I just gave to my six year younger self and doing the research and writing of the Book of Penelope. I have to ban Helen from my head so I can start fresh.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: Writing a book is rather like having ten children. You don’t start out with ten. You start out with that first moment when you know you are expecting your first. You don’t start out with the whole book, you start with an idea that tickles you and you know it could be something more. It takes a long time to grow that whole idea into something as civilized as a book. It takes the whole of a life to raise a human being. Every book and every human has the potential to be magnificent. We just need to give them the time, craft, care and love they require.
Q: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
A: I have a blog, sherryantonettiwrites.blogspot.com which is more personal in nature and a Facebook page for The Book of Helen. If you leave a comment at either, I’m sure to respond as I update both regularly.