Authors in Quarantine – Liz Westbrook-Trenholm

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

COVID fashion statement: bleachy duds and shaggy hair.

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID outbreak?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: Domesticity way up, writing way down.

I’ve been washing and bleaching everything inside and from outside our home, baking comfort foods, (state of emergency diet now enacted for the month of May) and sewing (searching for the most bearable face mask), all while listening to audiobooks, all cozy and historical mysteries as I seek respite from COVID news.

Routine has become strict and rarely varied. First it’smorning coffee, when we mutually drown in the firehose of social media, followed by a few hours spent on projectsuntil it’s time for an afternoon walk timed to beat the 3-5 pm jogging and biking rush hour on our preferred nature paths. We come back, dry off (we go in all weathers), readand play board games until wine-time, dinner, chat and music. Our day concludes with TV and bed. Rinse and repeat. Every day.

Excitement is laundry day, a video chat with a friend or relative, or Hayden’s weekly trip to the grocery store, me waiting at home for my hunter/gatherer (he has better lifting power than I do and we don’t run a car) to bring our weekly food, which I dunk in bleach mixture, except for eggs. Trust me, eggs in soggy cardboard containers do not go well. 

​The routine is comforting, at first, giving a sense of control to the uncontrollable situation we all find ourselves inhabiting. How can we react to the endless torrent of sorrow, disaster, fear and conflicting advice pouring from our media? Why, bake cinnamon buns, what else?

Aaaand it doesn’t take long for the comfortable routine to become a prison. Hayden starts taking dyspeptic pictures of himself in his bathrobe and turning them into silly gifs. I’m trying one hair style after another. After gentle discussion, we decide we need to schedule in some spontaneity. We write lots of activities on slips of paper which go into a cookie tin. (Hayden rejects ‘give each other haircuts’) We pull one out every couple of days when we get edgy. Sometimes just a game we haven’tplayed forever. Reading to each other, possibly with dramatizations. Looking at photos from years ago. A take-out Mexican food fiesta. Birthday party, with home-made hats (I knew there was a reason I’d kept a shoebox of orphaned earrings and feathers for decades). Other activities that are MYOB, so there. It’s not so much what we do, but that we burst out of the wire cage of routine we’ve built, and change things up a little. It’s surprisingly refreshing. Sex in the afternoon is awesome. Oops. I said I wouldn’t talk about that.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: All of which spills over into how we deal with social distancing. Note the ‘we’. This would not be possible without each other. Always a close couple, a kind of two-person party, we’ve become, if anything, even closer, more careful and tender. Of course, it was disappointing for two inveterate travellers like us to see our plans collapse and our world shrink to only anywhere we can walk to. We can get tetchy, but we cut each other slack when the black dog drops by, or when one or the other wants to be all alone. We don’t take offense. It all makes sense. An old friend once said, “Where is it written you should be happy?” Sometimes it’s necessary to sit under the dark cloud and just breathe until the sun comes out again. It does come out again.

That being said, we work hard at keeping in touch with others via Zoom, Facebook chat, phone, email and text – whatever medium works best for each. We have especially upped our calls with family. I talk often now with my daughter who is distancing alone in London (the UK one). She’s worked out some solutions and has produced some powerful art in her off-work time, but it got pretty dark and desperate before she found her COVID groove.My sister and I vent constantly, bless her for being there.Calling friends and acquaintances and hearing that they’reokay releases swacks of relieved endorphins and hugely shortens the list of people I have to worry about. If they’renot okay, I’m there to hear it out and keep in touch. Sharing their burden paradoxically lessens mine.

​Another side-effect is my tendency to babble uncontrollably at sight of another human. I strike up two-meter distance chit-chat with total strangers or the pharmacy clerk behind her plexi-glass shield. My urge to chat about anything anything at all, at some length, is difficult to contain. I try. Truly I try. Let me tell you ALL about it sometime.

​I’m also thinking about what comes next as treatments and, we hope, vaccines evolve over the coming one or two years. Years. Yeah. As an asthmatic baby boomer smack dab in the middle of one of the at-risk demographics, I’ll need to keep shying away from close contact with anyone who might be a carrier. While we’veall been in it together, it’s been do-able. When I become a minority, it’ll pose new challenges. My friends with disabilities and health issues are nodding their heads with grim grins and saying, ‘Yuh-huh. Tell us about it.” No need. In sharing your stories and concerns, you gave the world a lot of information and demonstrated a lot of coping strategies, long before COVID came along. I expect to be using them shortly! I’ll likely write about it.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: The times have affected my writing in two main ways. One is that I have done much less. My writing often takes me deep into dark corners and edgy issues that can leave me drained. I’ve been a little nervous to approach it.

But now, after a hiatus for bleaching and retreat, I find I’m approaching it with a gentle, cozy style. A young woman, a run-away on her last legs, physically and psychologically, falls into a carefully dug hole in the middle of a forest. She looks up from the pre-dug grave at a man silhouetted against the dawn who says, “That’s mine.” And they go from there, into a gentle interaction of restoration and understanding between generations.

Or the old woman, isolating alone in her apartment, who opens her door to the god of the underworld in the form of a lost toddler in a really odious diaper. She draws him into her home and nurtures him, fearless and practical. What deal will they cut when he reaches his full size? 

End of life is a theme in the back of mind for all of us right now and in both of these stories. It’s a topic that turns up in my fiction regularly, but in these, my emerging ‘COVID’ stories, I find the characters less fierce and more wise and accepting than my frequently angry, feisty dames. 

So. How about that COVID thing, eh? Who among us thought we’d be living through history in the making? How can anything be the same again, any more than it was after the plague years, or the potato famine, or the abolition of slavery in the west, or the world wars? So many scabs have been ripped off our social shortcomings. So much strength and ability has emerged, showing us what we, as a society, could be. What will we do with it? Where will we take this experience, both within ourselves and in the way we interact with each other? Now, there’s a good writing topic for any spec fic writer.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Kate Story

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Kate Story: Freaking out. Cleaning the house. Drowning in certainty that I am not cleaning the house enough. (Somebody said to think of the virus as glitter – and when you go out, you and all the things you bring home are covered in glitter. As anybody who works in theatre knows, GLITTER IS EVERYWHERE AND YOU CAN NEVER GET RID OF IT.) Working on funding applications for future projects that I don’t even know will happen. Discovering what other people see during meetings with me (unspeakably horrid – my god, I need a filter! How to do you activate a Zoom filter, please somebody?? Is there a filter for life? Wait, that’s plastic surgery, scratch that). Laughing a lot. Poking around in the garden. Pissing off the cats by being home too much (yes, it is possible). Cooking. Eating. Drinking bad beer. Going for walks. Finding every corner of this town that looks like an Edward Gorey drawing. Reading from the Tsundoku. (I find I want to read things that really grip me. Not so much into post-apocalyptic fiction. I like to write it, and I used to like to read it, but living in it? not so much) Finally watching Citizen Kane. Rinse and repeat.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Kate Story: Other than cringing every time I hear the term (it has this kind of smug, packaged feeling. And it should be “physical distancing,” no?) it has not affected me as much as some people, I think. I already worked from home, in my split life – the writing and arts administration was almost all from home. It’s the theatre work that is suffering the most. Theatre artists literally can’t practice our art right now. Not only do I miss everyone dreadfully, I miss the work – and fear for the future of live performance. But in terms of my daily work and routine, the main daytime structure hasn’t changed much.

I live with my partner, and a dear friend too, and they are both good company (I won’t speak for myself). We do our best to be careful with each other and give as much space as we can. Most days, it works. I live in a house with a yard, in a smallish town where lots of totally uncrowded walking options are available. My Newfoundland family is pretty much okay thus far, and although I worry, they are fairly safe. I am insanely lucky.

I am now drinking bad beer (see above) and eating meat. That’s the weirdest thing. What the hell is happening to me?

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Kate Story: HAHAHAHAHAHA you have to be joking. It’s a mess. If I had five dollars for every person who has greeted me with a jocular, “Bet you’re getting a lot of writing done, eh?” I’d be a friggen millionaire. I am just as messed up by all this as anyone! I had forcefully carved out time to write before all this – a global lock-down pandemic is not a dream come true for me (or for anyone, I sincerely hope). Also I had a serious blow in terms of my writing career just before all this happened, one that some people will know about and I will say no more here. The world has more than moved on, but many of us affected by it are still reeling from the loss and trying to deal with the aftermath, and my attempts to do so have of course come to a grinding halt. Because Covid 19.

Like many people, I overdid news and social media at first, and have learned that one needs to limit that for mental health reasons. I try to keep up with news once a day or so, mostly through the Guardian, CBC, and Stephen Colbert (yup. Hard to encounter the Orange Caligula unfiltered by humour). I am disturbed by some vicious social media shaming I have seen, although grateful to be able to stay in touch. However, I can only look at so many photos of home-baked bread. And the accompanying apologies for posting said pictures. If I can’t eat your bread, I don’ts wants to sees it.

At the same time I am terribly fortunate. I have 2 books in the pipes. One (a collection of my short fiction) will be postponed. Printers are non-essential, so are shut down, and the publisher is rightly questioning whether it makes sense to release an e-book and then a print book a year or 2 later… plus there will be a cascade of books by heavy hitters coming out once all this lifts! – and books by more obscure writers would get lost in the shuffle. So that is up in the air, for good reasons, although still likely to happen at some point. Another book, a YA fantasy, is slated for 2021. So far the publisher is still keen to do it. And very fortunately, I had ground out a first draft before the pandemic hit us in Ontario. I’m almost certain I’d fail at doing that right now – my brain is mush. So I am working in a desultory fashion at Draft 2, which is due in a little over a month. Pray for me.

I don’t feel like there’s any way for me to have a writerly view of the pandemic while living in the middle of it. Maybe ultimately it will change how and what I write – I am interested to see what occurs in that regard.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

You Are What You Eat

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Slow Cold Chick” in Northern Frights 5 (Mosaic Press, 1999)
By Derek Newman-Stille

We are shaped by what we eat, by what we consume and Nalo Hopkinson’s “Slow Cold Chick” is an examination of the relationship between food, identity, and selfhood. Food is transformative. When Blaise finds rotting eggs and rotting hot sauce in her fridge and throws them out, but rotting is a process of transformation itself and the interaction of rotten egg and hot sauce breathes new life into the rotting fetus. A cockatrice is formed, with blazing eyes and incredible hunger. Like the hot sauce, the cockatrice is all fire – anger, heat and desire.

The cockatrice needs to eat and whenever it consumes something, it takes on the characteristics of its food, altering and changing to incorporate elements of its food into itself. Blaise also discovers that food shapes her neighbours, that the woman next door who reminds her of prehistoric Venus figurines eats flower petals and her stony companion eats raw earth, both of them taking on qualities of their chosen food.

Food can remind us of home and it can connect us to the landscape by providing us with nourishment from the locales where we collect it. Blaise, like her neighbours and the cockatrice that makes its home with her, is shaped by the foods she eats and her connection to the landscape. Eating allows her to connect with that part of herself that she has closed off, that she has alienated herself from, and the act of eating allows her to connect to parts of herself that she has denied: her desires, heat, anger, and passion.

To discover more about Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at nalohopkinson.com

Greek Gossip

A review of Karen Dudley’s Kraken Bake (Ravenstone, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Kraken Bake courtesy of RavenStone books

Cover photo for Kraken Bake courtesy of RavenStone books

Reputation and rumour – they are incredibly interlinked, especially in ancient Athens, and particularly for a celebrity chef whose entire reputation and business depends on being the current talk of the town. Karen Dudley’s Kraken Bake follows Pelops, first introduced as Athens’ newest mythological prince turned celebrity chef in Dudley’s first book, Food for the Gods. Pelops is now even more seasoned and his attitude is perhaps a bit more spicy than it was in the first book.

Kraken Bake explores the notion of gossip, the idea that people are created in the public arena and their identity is partially based on the way they are talked about, particularly when their business life depends on the public’s view. Pelops encounters another figure dependent on celebrity status, but one that is perhaps more attached to the role of the classical world: Perseus, a hero who has just returned from slaying the Kraken. Perseus entered the Athenian Agora (marketplace) long before he arrived in the form of rumours, tales of his exploits, and the arena of public opinion. When he arrives atop Pegasus, a winged horse, public opinion is confirmed: this is what Athens has been looking for, a genuine hero who they can wine and dine and gain status by showing connections to.

But this hero and Pelops have something in common: a connection to the god Zeus (Perseus is his son and Pelops his grandson), and both have a mixed relationship with the Kraken: Perseus’ slaying of the Kraken may not have happened quite as society has imagined… and Pelops has discovered that although he can cook anything else into a delectable treat tasty enough to make the gods weep, he can’t cook Kraken. Perseus’ conquest of the Kraken has already passed, but Pelops heroic quest has just begun, particularly when he discovers that the Athenians want to have a very public cook off, the Bronze Chef competition, and he is fairly certain that the secret ingredient will be Kraken meat.

Karen Dudley playfully blends Greek history and Greek myth together, not particularly concerned with veracity or timelines, and this adds to the sense of whimsy of her work, but also serves to undercut the notion that history itself is a story, a tale made up of rumour, myth, legend, and assumptions. Anyone who has read their Herodotus (the father of history) should know this from the gossipy and creative way he discusses Greek lives. But there is a magic in telling tales, whether they are mythic tales or general discussions of public figures and Dudley reminds us that we are all myths and legends being constantly formed through public discussions: gossip, rumour, debate, and reputation.

To find out more about Karen Dudley, visit her website at http://www.karendudley.com/ .

To find out more about Kraken Bake and other great Ravenstone books, visit their website at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/authors/Karen-Dudley.html

Post-Apocalyptic Green

A review of Alyxandra Harvey’s “Green Jack” in Urban Green Man (Edge, 2013)

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

By Derek Newman-Stille

Alyxandra Harvey reveals our uncertainty about the future of vegetation and food in her post-apocalyptic story “Green Jack”. After crops begin to fail on a regular basis and the weather becomes unstable, a city tries to survive by perpetuating the same behaviours that endangered its vegetative life in the first place. Government and industrial regulations control the vegetative world, constraining and controlling plant life to human will, harnessing it exclusively for human purposes.

Instead of allowing biodiversity to flourish, the city begins to kidnap Green Jacks, figures who are linked to the vegetative health of the world and who bring growth and fertility in their wake. Instead of allowing for the freedom of plant growth, these Green Jacks are abducted by the city, controlled and regulated, their power drained to fuel an industrial complex focused on human interests. Walls are erected around the city to tightly control the population and provide the image of security while all securities and choices are removed from the populace.

Harvey explores the atrocities that can be committed on a population’s behalf when they are starving and examines the coercive power of hunger. People willingly give up their freedoms for the perceived protection from hunger provided by a society that tightly regulates food.

When the protagonist steals a Green Jack’s mask in an attempt to gather enough food for herself (since the mask fuels growth of food) she becomes a target for the military and this mask brings with it either the potential to free her from the tight regulations of the city and allow for free growth or to become the subject of incarceration and control.

Alyxandra Harvey explores urban uses of population control and the danger that hunger poses for policing people’s actions. Much as the tight regulations of the city control vegetation and bring it under government will, so too the people are regulated, denied freedom of growth and become stagnated under imposed control.

To find out more about Alyxandra Harvey, you can visit her website at http://alyxandraharvey.com/ .

To read more stories from Urban Green Man, visit their website at http://www.urbangreenman.com/ .

Interview with Karen Dudley About Food For the Gods

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.  

Upcoming Interview with Karen Dudley on October 26, 2012.

Chef and author with an interest in Classical Studies, Archaeology, and Biology: Karen Dudley is an exciting read.  In our upcoming interview, you will have a chance to hear about her upcoming novel Food For The Gods and get some insights into her thought processes, and the role of the past for the present world.

Here are a few highlights from the interview:

Karen Dudley: “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.”

Karen Dudley: “Mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes.”

Karen Dudley: “I’ve always loved a good laugh mostly because I connect with humorous words and situations at a gut level.”

Karen Dudley: “Canadians (myself included) have a distinctive sense of humour – part bawdy British, part self-deprecating Canadian.”

Karen Dudley: “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.”

Karen Dudley: “Research will often lead me to interesting and unexpected story lines, plots, or even characters.”

Karen Dudley: “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.”

I hope that you enjoy Karen Dudley’s tour into the Classical world, and for her insights into the realm of creating mythology. Check in with Speculating Canada on October 26, 2012 for an interview with this modern mythographer.

You can read more about Karen Dudley’s work at http://www.karendudley.com/ , and you can read my review of Dudley’s Food For The Gods (posted October 16th on Speculating Canada)

Xena Meets Iron Chef

Cover photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

A Review of Karen Dudley’s Food for the Gods (Turnstone Press, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Make sure to eat a large meal before you read Karen Dudley’s Food for the Gods. Dudley sets her novel in the ancient Greek world where mythology and Athenian life mix. Nothing prepares an ancient Greek chef for a life of cooking more than being made into a meal for the gods. Celebrity chef Pelops was sacrificed by his father Tantalus and made into a meal that was offered to the gods as Tantalus’ attempt to mock the gods. Dudley’s story takes place once Pelops has been reconstituted from this primeval stew (missing only a piece of his shoulder that was eaten accidentally by Demeter and replaced by a prosthetic shoulder of ivory) with a new, very personal understanding of the cooking craft… one could say that his blood was infused with good taste. Having turned down the love of Poseidon, Pelops was forced to find a non-watery solution for cooking in – allowing him to instead use the gifts of Athene and Dionysus (olive oil and wine) to infuse his food with new, rich tastes that set him aside from other chefs.

Having been served as food to the gods, Pelops has the ability to see the gods, and Dudley infuses her work with the divine presence. Food for the Gods combines a mystery plot with a reality-TV-like plot of a celebrity chef insider view… and a hefty dose of ancient gods and furies. Her plot plays with ancient Greek notions of moira (fate), hubris, and miasma (the contaminating quality of polluted acts), challenging her readers to think in an ancient Greek mindset and envision a world where negative deeds are seen as being able to be transferred by touch or by proximity to others. She also interjects the gods into every aspect of life from boiling water to drunken revelry – who would have known cooking could be so divine.

Dudley infuses her work with her incredible sense of humour, combining a serious plot of mystery and intrigue with humourous interludes and several posters advertising anything from advice books on preparing a dinner party to advice on how to properly interact with prostitutes. Her style of humour is clearly influenced by the ancient Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, blending body humour, social commentary, and philosophy/theology.

Although infused with humour, Dudley’s work also challenges modern notions of the stability of morality structures and introduces aspects of the ancient Greek world that would be considered taboo or outsider narratives in modernity. Dudley discusses sex workers as normative and unthreatening, and, unlike many narratives today, humanises her prostitute characters rather than casting them as social outlaws or social problems. Rather than casting her prostitute characters as drug-addled criminals with complex and problematic histories, Dudley displays prostitution as an employment option and even portrays one of the prostitutes as the love interest for her story.

Dudley’s plot exemplifies the ancient Greek comfort with queer subjectivity, and does not feel the need to narrativise queer lives or to construct reasons why her characters are queer. The homosexuality of her characters is just another part of their existence and is not complicated as something outside of the norm.

This novel encourages the reader to think outside of the temporal subjectivity (outside of the tendency of modern society to think of itself as superior and “the only way things could be”) and question whether modern methods of viewing the world are better than those of the past.

Dudley combines the playful engagement with mythology of Xena with the culinary interplay of celebrity cooking shows, and a healthy dose of mystery and crime-solving. By the end of reading this, you will find yourself reading Homer while eating a gourmet meal and pondering about the crimes in your city. I look forward to more of Dudley’s work with a fork in one hand, a spyglass in the other, and ancient Greek pottery on the table.

Warning: Do Not Read On An Empty Stomach. May Cause Hunger.

To read more about Karen Dudley’s work, visit her website at http://www.karendudley.com/ . Visit RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press) for Food of the Gods at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/