A Dark, Mythical Epic: An Interview with Katherine and Elizabeth Corr
What would your dream job be? Who would you want to work with? For Katherine and Elizabeth Corr, after achieving degrees in History, they discovered that fictional people are much easier to deal with than real ones, and on account of them also being best friends, thought that writing YA fiction together sounded perfect. Their latest, complete, duology, House of Shadows, takes us into the murky world of Greek myths and the darkness of Hades for some surprising revelations...
Daughter of Darkness introduces us to Deina. Trapped as a Soul Server for the House of Hades, she has responsibility for shepherding souls to their place in the Underworld, but will the offer of freedom and fortune from the tyrant Orpheus, an uneasy alliance with fellow Severers and a journey into Hades be her making or her undoing?
Queen of Gods gives Deina a chance to save herself and free the mortal realm from the cruelty and power of the gods - for there is a legendary object that even they fear, and that, if found, could mean their end. Deina has a new quest ahead of her, but this one is even more deadly than the first: this time she must turn away from all she holds true. The reward could be infinite, but the punishment could be eternal. Is she strong enough to sing her rage and return to the Underworld?
With thanks to Hot Key Books and their amazing publicity department ,Louise Ellis-Barrett, Armadillo editor, shared her questions about the books and a love of ancient mythology and history with Katherine and Elizabeth Corr...
Why did you chooese Greek and not Roman mythology as the basis for the books?
Kate: We chose Greek mythology for two reasons. First, so many Roman myths are of course based on earlier Greek versions. Although Orpheus’s story is vividly recounted by Ovid, his legend is much older, and in Greek myth he was associated with pre-Homeric tales such as the quest of the Argonauts. This ties in much better with the setting of the House Of Shadows duology: an alternative ancient Greece where the mighty Bronze Age cities like Mycenae never fell, and the gods never retreated.
Liz: Second, apart from Orpheus’s entry into the Underworld, the other characters who famously make that journey are mostly found in Greek myth – Odysseus and Theseus, for example. Virgil’s Aeneas does make a trip there too, but his journey is very much based on Odysseus. The Greeks were there first!
What is - for you and also perhaps for the audience as well - the attraction and lure of Hades and the underworld? Is it because despite the mythology it is still very much an unknown?
Liz: It’s both unknown and known, a place of contrasts – that’s what seems to us to explain the Underworld’s perennial appeal to readers and writers. There’s more surviving description of the Underworld than of Olympus, and lots of people are familiar with some of the most famous features: the rivers of the Underworld, for example, or Cerberus the three headed dog, or Charon the ferryman. But there are also lesser-known elements like the Wall of Night or the presence of the Oneiroi, the dream children, which as writers we’ve been able to take and expand upon to create something fresh.
Kate: There’s also the contrast inherent in the idea of an Underworld as it developed during the classical and Hellenistic periods. It became a place that encompassed both the possibility of eternal bliss in the Elysian fields, and the threat of eternal punishment in Tartarus. As a reader, you never know quite which version of the Underworld you’re going to end up in, and that’s what makes it so exciting!
It's often seen to be the case that the mythology makes the gods into tyrants - they certainly don’t come across as being very compassionate! Is this why you chose to also present some of the humans this way?
Kate: Absolutely. The ancient Greek gods were very much in the image of the humans that worshipped them, something that wasn’t lost on classical authors. Sophocles in Ion points out the irony of gods punishing humans when they commit far worse crimes themselves.
Liz: The origin stories of the gods start with a quest for power – Cronos killing his father and becoming ruler of the gods, only to be killed by his son in his turn – so it made sense to us for the mortal realm in the House Of Shadows duology to be dominated by tyrannical humans. Tyranny is very much a human trait too.
Thanatos however, despite being god of Death, appears, eventually, to have a kinder side and his story twists and turns, particularly as it mingles with that of Persephone. What made you write his character in this way?
Kate: The idea that gods themselves might die is found in other mythologies, for example the concept of Ragnarök (Doom of the Gods) in Scandinavian mythology. Applying this to Greek mythology, we thought about Thanatos, as god of Death, eventually coming for the other gods, and the possibility that at the end of time, once all life has been extinguished, Thanatos would for a moment be the only consciousness left an empty universe.
Liz: Unlike the other gods, Thanatos feels the weight of time as a burden, and he has an awareness of his ultimate fate – to be utterly alone. It’s this, plus the time he spends with humans at the last moments of their lives, that makes him different to the other gods – it enables him to develop a slightly different perspective.
I found it quite interesting that you portray Hades as being able to be both male and female. Why did you do this and what do you think is the significance to the story? Is it important or just a narrative tool?
Liz: There were two aspects to our decision to make it possible for Hades (and the other gods) to be able to switch between being male and female. First, we wanted to remind readers that although gods often behave like humans, both in our books and in classical myth as a whole, they’re fundamentally something very different. Many readers will be familiar with the idea of Zeus changing his shape to seduce various mortals (e.g., becoming a swan, a cow, or a shower of gold) so changing from male to female or vice versa doesn’t seem that difficult in comparison.
Kate: Second, and more importantly for the story, we wanted to subvert the trope of automatic maternal affection. In Daughter of Darkness, Hades is revealed as Deina’s mother, but maternal instinct is entirely lacking. The limited amount of maternal affection Deina receives comes from mortal women in the House of Hades where she grows up, and this plays into the choices she makes in Queen of Gods.
Orpheus, according to the myth, went into the Underworld to rescue his wife. Was it this story specifically which inspired the books or are there more layers to your reasoning and story development?
Liz: Our story started with the idea of someone – or some group of people – having the ability to journey into the Underworld. It seemed natural to set this story in ancient Greece since there are several Greek myths that have heroes entering the Underworld, Orpheus probably being the most famous of those. Once we started thinking about Orpheus, we also thought about Eurydice, his wife, and how in all classical versions of the myth, her story is never really told; the focus is always on Orpheus. We asked ourselves about Eurydice’s desires: did she actually want to return to the mortal realm, and if not, why not? What could it have been about Orpheus that made her prefer to stay in the Underworld?
Kate: We were also intrigued by the Bronze Age Collapse, the sudden and still unexplained disruption of the civilisations that existed around the Mediterranean around the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. It has been suggested that the civilisation described in the Iliad is an echo of life in Bronze Age cities like Mycenae and Thebes. This gave us the idea for our setting: a world where that collapse had been averted because the ancient kings had struck a deal with the gods…
Deina begins, in book one, as Daughter becoming Queen. Why did you choose the title of Queen rather than Goddess? Is there a reason for the distinction or do you feel that the Olympians were King or Queen of their realms?
Liz: There’s definitely a hierarchy among the classical gods: Zeus is described as the king of the gods, and the others – even his elder siblings, like Poseidon and Zeus – are subordinate to him.
Kate: There is an attempted coup against Zeus at one point, but it’s unsuccessful and he stays in charge. We wanted to reflect that hierarchy in the title, as well as referencing the scale of the temptation that Deina is faced with, and the fact that she ends up wielding so much power.
Some of the humans are little better than the gods in their behaviours! Humans only had themselves and their own behaviours to base their stories on. The gods are greedy and lust power as well as control. Do you think this is what the myths tell us?
Liz: Absolutely! The gods tend to magnify the worst aspects of humanity. Whereas we might roll our eyes at someone showing off about how good looking they are, the gods will respond by turning that person into something ugly or cursing them to fall in love with their own image.
Humanity often has to surrender to the might of the gods, but are you trying to show that they can also fight back?
Kate: Yes – everyone needs hope. One of the joys of so much fantasy writing, ours included, is it that is shows good triumphing against almost impossible odds. Ultimately, the Gods need the mortals as much as the mortals need them, probably more. But it’s only when they fight back that the mortals in the book begin to understand this.
Ancient myths and stories are often about the quest - after all, it makes for good storytelling. Is this the reason for Deina and Theron being sent on a quest, or are there other reasons for the challenges you present to your characters?
Kate: Great question! We chose a quest structure partly because it does reflect the myths that we love so much. Quests are all over the place in the ancient stories: the quest for the golden fleece, the quest to kill the minotaur, Odysseus’s quest to return home.
Liz: And of course, if you throw your characters a long line of challenges, you get to see them respond to those challenges and develop as individuals and as a team during the course of the quest.
The stories reflect the dark beauty of the Greek myths and their savageness, especially Queen of the Gods where we spend more time in the Underworld and you bring the Titans into the story. Why did you choose to include them, along with the Furies?
Kate: We didn’t want to assume that our readers would know about the power struggles between the ancient Greek gods. Including the Titans enabled us to introduce readers to the Titanomachy, the battle between the Titans (the old gods) and the Olympians (their children and successors) for control of the realms.
Liz: It was important to us to show that shifts in power were possible: Zeus happens to be in control now, but if another god should accumulate enough power and support, he could find himself in Tartarus, just like his father Cronos. As for the blood-thirsty Furies, with their iron-tipped whips – they were just fun to write!
Deina is a strong heroine, although not necessarily kindly, playing tricks on the gods and getting her own revenge. She is a clever mortal made demigod, like many of the heroes of myth. Would you describe this story as your heroic epic?
Liz: We’ll be delighted if readers think the story is epic! Although obviously a modern novel, the story does pick up on some of the forms found in epic poems, such as the quest structure mentioned above.
Kate: We also used the prologues to give a more specific nod to the great Homeric epics. ‘Sing, O muse’ references the opening of the Odyssey, while ‘Sing, goddess, of rage,’ mirrors the opening line of the Iliad.
And, on that note, are there any other myths that have inspired you that you would like to retell to a modern audience? If so, which and why?
Kate: I’d love to write something based on the Trojan War. So many stories were spun out of that one beginning: as well as the Odyssey, we have the tales of Clytemnestra, Hecuba and Ajax, to name just a few. It even reaches forward into Roman myth and literature: Aeneas is a Trojan prince who escaped the destruction of his city.
Liz: I’ve always been drawn to the story of Medusa. What happened to her varies from retelling to retelling, but ultimately, she was a victim of the gods in just the same way that Deina and the Theodesmioi are.
Finally, if you could have been an Olympian, Titan or one of the other immortals of Greek myth (maybe even a demi-god or hero) who would you have been and why?
Kate: I’d go for Ariadne, who starts as a mortal but ends up as a goddess. She does get dumped by Theseus after helping him defeat the minotaur (ancient Greek heroes seem to have been extremely unreliable boyfriends!) but she then attracts the attention of Dionysus, who falls in love with her, marries her and makes her immortal. I reckon as gods go he would probably be a better husband than most.
Liz: Difficult choice! I think I’d have to pick Athena, goddess of war (among other things). Not many women – or goddess – get to be as powerful as her, especially in a traditionally male arena like warfare. Having said that, she was really horrible to poor Medusa!