Natalie Haynes is the author of seven books, including A Thousand Ships, which was a national bestseller and was shortlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction, and the nonfiction Pandora's Jar. She has written and recorded eight series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics for the BBC. Haynes has written for the Times, the Independent, the Guardian, and the Observer. She lives in London. Her latest novel is Stone Blind and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Stone Blind?
I'd written a chapter on Medusa in my last nonfiction book, Pandora's Jar. And usually, that would be enough—I would feel like I'd covered a character pretty thoroughly in a 9000-word essay examining their myth in ancient sources and then across time, right into modern ones. But I was still so mad about everything that happened to her when I finished that chapter. I couldn't get past it, how unfair it was at every stage. And if you're still angry after 9000 words, I figure you owe that character a novel. So, righteous anger is my answer.
The characters in Stone Blind are all based on characters from Greek mythology. Were you intimidated or hesitant of the idea of writing a new work re-interpreting, and re-imagining the characters as well-known as those in the Greek myths?
I wasn't, no. There are relatively few ancient literary sources for the story of Medusa and the characters who fill her narrative. A line here and there in Hesiod, a chunk of Pindar. I used vase paintings and sculpture much more than literary sources this time round. I have lived with these characters for so long (I started studying Latin at the age of 12, and Ancient Greek at 14—I am a proper nerd), that they feel like old friends now. Besides, my last novel, A Thousand Ships, took on the characters of the Trojan War, which meant following in the footsteps of Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides etc. I survived that, so I wasn't going to be intimidated this time by a pot (although full disclosure: some of those vase paintings take my breath from me, so they could definitely take me in a fight).
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
It was mostly written when London—where I live—was locked down. So the thing I didn't notice I was doing until I'd finished it was essentially writing myself a set of friends and family to keep me company. It was a really long time to be alone, I guess. I edit hard as I go—I rewrite yesterday's words before I start today's. And when I get to the end of a section (this novel is in five acts), I go back and edit again. So nothing survives very long unless it adds to the whole. There is a scene near the end which I thought would be much longer and more detailed, but when I got there, it turned out to be less narratively significant than I'd assumed. So it's short and told slightly askance. But it's near the end, so I can't tell you which one without spoilers. Sorry.
How familiar were you with the gods, goddesses, and demi-gods of ancient Greece prior to writing Stone Blind? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Stone Blind?
Ha! It's taken me my whole life until now, like every book I write. I knew the gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters of Greek myth pretty well before I started: most of my books are in or about Greek Myth, my degree is in Classics, I really do live here. The research was into the physical world more than the mythical one—Libya in the Bronze Age, especially—I wanted to find a way of making the gorgons' home feel really solid to you as you read it, and I didn't know a lot about Libya before the Romans got there. So that took some reading. Athens I already knew pretty well, Olympus I built with nods to all the versions that came before me. Finding a spot for the Gigantomachy was fun—I had never been to Phlegra (one of the locations named in ancient sources for it), and I couldn't travel because flights were suspended. So I had to hunt down a location from pictures in books and online. Luckily I have a vast reference library these days…
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
The Sahara desert was a lot greener in the Bronze Age. I didn't manage to use this, but I liked finding it out.
Is Medusa your favorite character from Greek mythology? If so, what draws you to her? If not, who is it and why?
My favourite is the one I'm currently writing about—I am a serial monogamist at work and at home. So I can't tell you, otherwise I'll be spoiling later work for you. But Medusa is and always will be one of my favourite characters in any mythology: I loved spending a year with her and her sisters. I tour a live show about the books in the UK and Europe and I have loved spending another six months with the gorgons doing that too. But if I am absolutely honest, I think it's her sister Euryale I love most.
Do you have a favorite pastiche, television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation of these mythic characters? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don't. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)
I rarely remember things I don't like—I was a film reviewer for many years and it's the only way to survive it.
Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how the Greek myths, literally thousands of years old, continue to be so culturally significant?
This is a dangerous question to ask a woman who would cheerfully stop strangers in the street to talk about Greek Myth with them. I think it's because the Greeks made their myths in their own image—man is the measure of all things, as Protagoras once wrote. So we see ourselves reflected in them, with a clarity that beguiles us. Myths are a mirror - they reflect the times in which they are read or viewed as much as the time in which they were created.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
I definitely can't. I fall in love with a book (or more often a text) every week. I didn't even know I loved Pausanias until this year, and I've had his books on my shelves for years. But here is a modern (by my standards) influence—Borges. I just love him. And actual modern? Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith. I would read literally anything they wrote.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Hahaha! No! My parents are both nerdy readers too—my mom taught English and my dad taught history. They have exactly the daughter they deserve, so I doubt much would shock them.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
Only when I was trying to save the feelings of the author…I have also faked not having read a book for the same reason. Generally, no—I've read an awful lot of books, but I don't feel bad for the ones I haven't. They're something to look forward to. Or avoid…
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Julian Barnes’s Talking It Over. I loved the cover (I stole, well, rescued the poster of it from work when I was a teenager), and then I bought and loved the book. I still have the poster on my wall now, and Julian has forgiven me for thieving his promotional materials when I was a juvenile delinquent.
Is there a book that changed your life?
My first Greek text book, called Thrasymachus.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I have one collection of Borges short stories that I have never read. I must have owned it for 25 years. I can't bear the thought of never having him to read for the first time again.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Ruination, at the Royal Opera House—an incredible mix of contemporary dance, singing, comedy, courtroom drama and more. I didn't know what to expect when I bought my tickets, but it surpassed every expectation I could have had.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Ask me again when I've met this next book deadline…
What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Why yes, keen-eyed reader, I did. Thank you for noticing.
What are you working on now?
The sequel to Pandora’s Jar. It'll be out this fall in the UK and next year in the US (I'm sorry about the lag between the publication dates for my books, we're closing it as fast as we can, I swear).