An Interview with Karen Dudley
By Derek Newman-Stille
I want to thank Karen Dudley for taking the time to do this interview. As someone with a background in Classical Studies, it is always exciting to hear about an author’s insights about the ancient Greek world. Karen Dudley is the Author of Food For The Gods by RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press). I will let her introduce herself.
Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to start this interview?
Karen Dudley: Of course! My website says I’m a writer of fine novels, preparer of fine foods and all ‘round good egg, but apart from all that I’ve got a degree in Archaeology and Classical Studies, I’ve worked in field biology and advertising, and I’ve been reading ever since my Dad punished me by making me sit in the living room all afternoon with only a copy of Mary Poppins for company. I make great food in my kitchen and scented soap in my basement, I love a good laugh, adore the research end of writing, and I’ve been a sci-fi/fantasy/folklore/mythology buff forever. My vices are books and chocolate with almonds. I listen to opera in the concert hall and sing it in the shower. I drink tea instead of coffee, and more often than not, I am covered in cat hairs of various colours.
Spec Can: What got you interested in writing about the ancient Greek world?
Karen Dudley: It wasn’t so much a ‘what’ as a ‘who’. When I was in university. I had the most amazing Greek history professor, Dr. R.J. Buck, who really brought the Classical period to life for me. The man was the master of understatement. Whenever he talked about the reasons behind a war, he always started off by saying something like, “Well, when someone steals your women and cattle, you’re liable to get a little cross about the whole thing.” He wouldn’t just give us dates and places for these armed conflicts, he’d act them out, marching up and down the classroom like a hoplite, talking the whole time about how ‘cross’ they all were with each other. He did tell us who won the Battle of Salamis and why, but he also told us about things like Alcibiades and the incident of the Theban dancing girls. He made it real. I was hooked from then on.
Spec Can: What can the past tell us about the present?
Karen Dudley: A very great deal! There’s a marvellous quote by Carl Sagan which I’ve got hanging in my den. He says, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.”
Books really do break the shackles of time. At first glance, the past seems so distant, so far removed from our own reality, and yet when you read an old book—a book from the past—not only can you hear the author’s voice, but there is an immediate recognition of shared experiences, a realization that in many ways, the author is really not that different from yourself. It can close the distance of history, forge a connection with this ancient soul, and allow us to more deeply explore the human experience in our world.
I had a rather interesting moment with this when I was researching Food for the Gods. I had been reading a book called Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, which is basically all about the debaucheries of ancient Athens (clearly, a must-have reference book when one is working on a project of FFTG’s nature). Anyhow, I came across an account of a dinner party that had been held in Athens around 500 BC. Dinner parties—or symposions—were supposed to be dignified affairs where men would get together, eat food, discuss philosophy, and drink well-watered wine. But at this particular party, the wine had obviously not been watered quite enough and the participants were most decidedly three sheets to the wind.
They somehow got the notion that they were on a trireme (a Greek warship) and that there was a storm so they needed to eject the ballast. They started throwing all the furniture out onto the street to lighten the load—tables, couches, cushions, dishes, the lot. All the neighbours came to gawk, the officials came to see what was going on, and it was the talk of Athens for some days afterward. And from then on, that house was known as The Trireme.
Well, I read that and, remembering my own somewhat ill-spent youth, my first thought was, ‘Huh, I think I was at that party’. But more importantly, I felt an immediate connection with those ancient Greeks. It wasn’t just the wild party, it was the fact that the house was known as The Trireme afterward. It just seemed so funny, so understandable, so modern. And I realized then that people really haven’t changed much in 2500 years.
Spec Can: What is the role of mythology in the modern world?
Karen Dudley: I think it plays a very important role in the modern world. Joseph Campbell once said that myths were “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life”. They explore how we live and die, how we are in the world. The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.
Spec Can: What is the role of humour in literature? What can humour do to change the perspective of a reader?
Karen Dudley: As I said before, I’ve always loved a good laugh mostly because I connect with humorous words and situations at a gut level. I think it’s that ability to forge connections which makes humour so important in literature. Humour is quite distinctive from culture to culture and yet, even if we’re not from that culture, we can generally recognize and appreciate its jokes. Because of this, humour gives us insights into other people’s world experience and we can relate to them because of it. I love that. I used a lot of anachronistic humour in Food for the Gods not only because it’s fun, but because it also lends a sense of immediacy to the story and therefore better connects the reader with the characters and setting—despite the historical distance. After all, the ancient Greeks did not think of themselves as ‘ancient’.
Spec Can: What is your favorite ancient Greek author/ poet/ playwright?
Karen Dudley: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a lot of fun. In the play, Lysistrata is a woman who persuades the other women of Greece to withhold sexual favours from their menfolk unless the men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. It’s bawdy and witty (the men walk around bent over as if in a wind storm), and a lot of fun. But I think my favourite poet would have to be Homer. When I was a kid, I saw a television production of The Odyssey. It was from Italy and, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the greatest adaptation, but I was completely, utterly entranced by it. My love of Greek mythology was born then and there, and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for The Odyssey ever since.
Spec Can: How much does your Canadian identity influence your work?
Karen Dudley: This probably hearkens back to the question about humour, but I do believe that Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian. I’m not sure an American, for example, could have written a book like Food for the Gods. Canadians also have a reputation for being nice. I’m not sure if I’m nice or not (I like to think I am!), but as a Canadian, I can’t relate to the more extreme or paranoid political cultures. This can’t help but inform my work, and my characters tend to display a certain tolerance and trust in their world which matches my own.
Spec Can: In what ways can mythology speak to the modern Canadian reader?
Karen Dudley: Apart from the same way it speaks to any modern reader, I think here in Canada, we have a unique perspective on mythologies simply because so many of us come from different cultures and traditions. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of different perspectives on how we live our lives. With such an incredibly rich diversity, these myths have something to say to just about anybody regardless of which cultural tradition they come from.
Spec Can: What role does research play in your writing?
Karen Dudley: Oh, it’s huge! I’m a bit of a research buff; I really enjoy that aspect of writing. And I’m probably a bit anal-retentive, so I need to get my facts straight. But I’ve also found that research will often lead me to interesting and unexpected story lines, plots, or even characters. For example, I’d never heard of the dinner party-gone-bad that I mentioned earlier until I was doing research for Food for the Gods, so naturally, I had to open the book with that particular symposion (although I did throw a couple of gods into it for good measure). It worked out wonderfully! In fact, there is an author’s note at the back of Food for the Gods which talks a bit about my research process as well as which events and people in the book were real.
Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian mythic fiction is going from here?
Karen Dudley: I’m not sure if I can predict where it’s going; I know where I’d like it to go! I’d like to see more humour (too much mythic fiction takes itself far too seriously!), and more stories from traditions other than the Greco-Roman one that I was raised on. Obviously I love the stuff, but I think it would be really interesting to delve into some mythic fiction from a tradition that is totally foreign to me. I’ve always been intrigued by The Mahabharata…
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that realist fiction can’t?
Karen Dudley: It can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!
At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.
Spec Can: When writing your novel Food For the Godswhat were the biggest challenges as a modern reader getting into an ancient Greek mindset?
Cover Photo from Food For The Gods Courtesy of Karen Dudley
Karen Dudley: In some ways, the ancient Greeks were a lot like us, but in other ways their culture and society seem quite foreign. I think the biggest challenge was how to explain differences in social mores and beliefs without slowing down the narrative (I am, after all, first and foremost, telling a story). I chose to do this in a humorous fashion with a series of interstitial chapters—everything from advertisements that look like they come from ancient Greek tabloids to excerpts from self-help scrolls. They’re goofy and funny, but they also impart some fairly crucial information for understanding the Athenian society of the Classical period.
Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add for our readers or anything I haven’t covered yet?
Karen Dudley: I guess the only other thing I’d like to add is to let everyone know that I do have a website, which I don’t update nearly often enough (though I’m trying to be better at this!): http://www.karendudley.com I’m also on Facebook, which I use for professional purposes (i.e. go ahead and ‘friend’ me [https://www.facebook.com/karen.dudley.37604]!). And finally, I’d like to thank you, Derek, for ‘having me on the show’ as it were. Cheers!
I want to thank Karen Dudley for this fantastic interview and the chance to talk to another fan of the ancient Greek World and to get some of her exciting insights about the interrelationship between her sense of humour, her love of research, and her authorship. To find out more about Karen Dudley’s current projects, check out her website at http://www.karendudley.com . You can read my review of Food For the Gods posted on October 12, 2012.