Emily Hauser is a writer and Classics scholar at Yale University.
She is also Iris Online's very own blogger, writing a weekly article for 'Missives from Iris'. In this interview, she tells us all about her upcoming novel, For The Most Beautiful.
For The Most Beautiful has a gripping cast of characters, including the epic heroines Briseis and Chryseis and immortals Hera and Zeus. Which ones were particularly interesting to portray?
I think it’d have to be Briseis and Chryseis themselves, the main characters of my book. When I discovered their stories by digging a little bit deeper into the Iliad and the myth of the Trojan War, I realised that it was a tale just waiting to be told! Both women are incredibly beautiful and, because of their beauty, they get caught up in the events of the Trojan War in ways we can’t even imagine – yet both of them choose to react very differently to the events around them. I loved being able to tell the events of the Iliad through a woman’s eyes, and thinking about what the Greek war on Troy would have looked like to a prisoner of war, rather than a hero like Achilles. How would passionate Briseis and naïve Chryseis have felt when their homes and their people were attacked, and they were forced into the lives of some of the greatest and most powerful heroes of the ancient world?
And, speaking of heroes – I also loved the challenge of representing the character of Achilles. He’s so often simplified into a raging hero who always needs to be the best; but, even in the Iliad, he’s so much more complicated than that. And I loved getting under the skin of the gods: the trickster Hermes, the playboy Apollo, stuck-up Athena and all-knowing Zeus who’s still somehow a little bit hen-pecked by his wife, Hera. It was great fun to imagine their different personalities and how they might have interacted.
(You can find out more about the characters of For The Most Beautiful and their stories on my website, www.emilyhauser.com.)
Regarding characterisation, was it a daunting prospect to reinvent these Homeric figures?
I’m not sure I’d really call it ‘reinventing’. Homeric poetry was told orally, passed down from generation to generation of bards. Each bard would perform their own version of the tale every time they told it, adding events, embellishments and different stories to suit their theme. I think that’s what makes the Iliad and the Odyssey so peculiarly suitable to reinterpretation: they’re meant to be retold. For The Most Beautiful is yet another participant in that tradition, part of the myth-making process that is Homeric poetry. And I think it’s vital, especially in today’s world, that these fantastic ancient stories should be told from the woman’s point of view. It gives us a fresh look at the people of the past, and a different perspective onto well-known events that makes us to re-think our opinions – sometimes in really compelling ways. So it was a challenge I was excited to take on!
What prompted you to delve further into Iliadic events?
I’ve always been passionate about history told from a woman’s point of view – Philippa Gregory’s novels and Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia are personal favourites. When I was researching for my undergraduate dissertation on choice and fate in the Iliad, I became particularly intrigued by the women of the Iliad, and their secret other-world hidden behind the walls of Troy. Then I read Margaret Atwood’s fabulous Penelopiad, and I thought, why has no-one done this for the women of the Iliad? I had always been struck by how important Briseis and Chryseis are to the plot of the Iliad, so I decided to delve a bit more into their stories. And the rest is history!
What aspect of writing the book did you enjoy most?
That’s a tough one – I enjoyed almost all of it! But I think it’d have to be in the evenings, when I’d read aloud the pages I’d written that day to my husband. It was so much fun to discuss it together, to think about the characters and their motivations; then to rewrite it and see how much it had changed. It was a process of working on it together, so it really became something we shared – and it was such a fun evening ritual!
Who do you imagine it will most appeal to?
I think the book has something for everyone, but it’s aimed primarily at young adults. The main characters, Briseis and Chryseis, are twenty and fifteen years old respectively during the time of the book, and the events of the story explore some of the key questions that everyone faces as they grow up. But the themes are timeless – falling in love, the relationship of mortals to the divine, coping with death and loss, the tragedy of war and the joy of friendship – so hopefully everyone will be able to relate to them!
How has your career in Classics progressed?
I started learning Latin and Greek at the age of eleven. I had an absolutely inspirational teacher who had a gift for making the subject fun, and I was pretty much sold from there! I did my undergraduate degree in Classics at Cambridge, and am currently in the third year of my PhD at Yale University, studying why Classics still matters in the modern world – that is, classical reception. But I’ve also had other great experiences in the subject: I took part in an archaeological dig in Pompeii for a summer, worked as an intern in the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., and spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at Harvard studying everything from creative writing to code-breaking ancient languages.
You now live in the US – how would you describe that experience?
It’s been absolutely fantastic! I’ve been here for nearly three years now and it just keeps getting better. Harvard and Yale are incredible universities and I’ve benefited so much from all they have to offer – from the library resources that I use to research my novels, to the great class offerings and outstanding faculty. Even better, I met my husband in the US, and we’ve both had the chance to explore the country together – it’s a truly enriching experience to live on a different continent, and I feel that it’s such a gift to us both to be able to experience everything the US has to offer.
What are your hopes for the near future? Do you think you might write another novel?
I’d certainly love to keep writing – in fact, the second novel is already on its way! It’s set in the world of For The Most Beautiful, but this time the story is told from the point of view of another young heroine who joins Jason and the Argonauts for a dangerous and epic voyage to the end of the world!
As for the near future, I’m passionate about reaching out to people and inspiring them to delve into the ancient world. I really believe that we need to understand more about the past in order to understand ourselves today, and I’d like to continue more of this work through my teaching and writing. For The Most Beautiful is the beginning of what I hope will be a lifelong journey. I hope you enjoy reading it!