Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sydney Author Gary Corby on Socrates, Bill Gates,'The C Problem' and Athens' Golden Age

Gary Corby's first mystery, The Ephialtes Affair, will debut in 2010 from St. Martin's Press.

Gary, your first mystery about Nicolaos “the unknown but ambitious son of a minor sculptor” in Classical Athens, comes out from St. Martin’s in the fall of 2010. You have all sorts of neat details about the books on your website, but most interesting to me is that Nicolaos has a 12-year-old brother named Socrates.

So, a couple of questions: is this THE Socrates?

This is THE Socrates. Socrates was a child at the time Pericles became the foremost man in Athens. It's certain Socrates and Pericles knew each other. In fact Socrates learned rhetoric from Aspasia, the wife of Pericles.

And why focus on Socrates’ brother rather than Socrates himself?

That's a great question, and the answer is Socrates would make a rotten detective!

By all accounts Socrates had an astonishing ability to irritate everyone around him, and a personality that was impossible to ignore. It's hard to imagine Socrates hiding unobtrusively behind a classical column.

Also, the life of Socrates is very well documented. Nicolaos can penetrate the Persian Empire, travel to Egypt, go to sea with Herodotus, visit the barbarian tribes to the north. If Socrates did any of those things, people would ask how come Plato never mentions it?

So the books are definitely about Nicolaos, not Socrates. Of course, being the brother of Socrates, there's a fair chance Nicolaos is quite bright too. But Nico has a problem . . . his girlfriend, his boss and his brother are all world-class geniuses. What's a poor average guy to do in company like that?

Did Socrates in fact have a brother named Nicolaos?

Very little is known about Socrates’ family. He had no known full siblings. His parents were Sophroniscus and Phaenarete. By popular tradition Sophroniscus was a “polisher of stone”, which is code for a sculptor in marble. I’ve accepted the tradition as true in the absence of anything better, though there’s a fair chance it’s apocryphal; the family trade isn’t mentioned anywhere until the following century. Phaenarete was a midwife, which we know for sure because Plato says so in Theaetetus, one of the many books he wrote featuring Socrates. There was a half-brother who came along decades later.

The fact that Nicolaos doesn't show up in the historical record is no surprise. The early period of the democracy is poorly documented and even some quite prominent men get only a few lines in the histories. When you throw in the fact that Nicolaos is doing discreet investigation…of course no one has heard of him until now.


What spurred your interest in Ancient Greece?

It was an incredibly exciting time! Athens went through a golden age of about 50 years during which the people invented almost everything fundamental to western society.

Here's a list of what's happening 461BC:

The world's first democracy has begun. It's only days old. A sovereign state with one man one vote, free speech for every citizen, written laws and equality before the law, with open courts and trial by jury. Sounds very modern, doesn't it?

Drama as we know it is being invented. Aeschylus is writing his plays; two young men called Sophocles and Euripides are beginning to write their own.

Scientific ideas are about to explode: Anaxagoras is developing a theory of matter in which everything is made of infinitesimal particles. It's the beginning of atomic theory.

Herodotus is traveling the world, writing his book and in the process founding both history and anthropology.

A young kid called Socrates is outside somewhere, playing in the street, and on the island of Kos, a baby called Hippocrates is born to a doctor and his wife.

Nicolaos begins his career right at the start of those 50 golden years. If he survives, he'll live to see the founding of western civilization.


Fantastic setting. You have encountered all sorts of problems as a historical writer, including what you call “The C Problem.” Why is the letter C a challenge when writing about Ancient Greece?

There's no letter C in the Greek alphabet. It's maddening for a writer! All the familiar Greek names, like for example Socrates, are Latin alphabet versions of the Greek. His real name was Sokratos, but if I called him that, no one would know what I was talking about. Same goes for many other names. So in the book, I've stuck to the Latin alphabet versions of names to make it easy to read.


I think you'll be forgiven.

You have worked for, and met, Bill Gates. What’s the most striking thing about this very famous man?


Bill's command of English is outstanding. He's one of the few people I know who you could quote verbatim and it would read like edited text. Most people repeat themselves in conversation. Bill doesn't. He's very precise with his words.

You have a wife and two daughters. Does your very feminine household influence the way that you write your female characters?

There are no helpless, wimpy female victims in the book, and that might partly be because I wouldn't want my daughters to think being a wimpy victim was okay. My heroine Diotima was a real person who is known to have been intellectually brilliant. She was always going to be a strong character.

Having a female household has made me aware of details I would otherwise never have known. Ask a woman to describe someone, and she's very likely to begin with what the person was wearing. Few men would do that. If there's ever a scene where Diotima has to read a map, she's going to turn it upside down. Also, I now know how to plait hair!

How many Athens mysteries will there be?

I'll write them for as long as people want to read them!

I have rough notes for at least six books right now, and no shortage of material to work with. The Golden Age was 50 years packed with tales of adventure, war, conspiracy, lust, love, corruption, power politics, assassination . . . you name it and it happened.

Do you read history books for fun?

Definitely. If I didn't read history books for fun I would never have begun this series. The biggest danger with book research is I find some ancient text and read the lot, instead of merely the small part I need.

I also read piles of historicals, mostly historical mysteries, across every period.

What are you reading now?


This week I finished two mysteries: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin and The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. Both excellent. The Janissary Tree is set at the close of the Ottoman Empire with Yashim, the eunuch detective. I'll be reading the rest of that series. The Broken Shore takes place in a modern Australian country town.

Since your mysteries take place in Ancient Greece, will your characters attend the theatre? Will Socrates meet Sophocles?

I can absolutely guarantee Nico will be meeting Sophocles. I can be so sure because I already have notes for a future book in which Nico is lumbered with Sophocles AND Euripides AND Socrates as co-detectives. Poor Nico! With two of the world's greatest dramatists and a philosopher on the team, you just know we're looking at serious investigation fail.

That book perforce has to be some way down the track. I also have mild plans for a book in which Herodotus guest stars.

I can't wait! What, aside from the writing of these books, are your hobbies?

My wife and I do ice dancing. A very weird sport for sunny Sydney, but there you are. Our coach is a former Olympic skater, who I've managed to drop twice! Any fool can drop his wife; try dropping an Olympian.

Sitting beside my desk is a Fender Strat electric guitar. When I'm stuck on a scene, I can practise playing instead.

A fair amount of non-writing time is spent transporting the girls to their hobbies and sports. Anyone with kids will know how that works.

That's for sure. I’m guessing you enjoyed Greek Mythology as a student? What’s your favorite myth?

The Greeks were brilliant at expressing the human condition through their myths, and they were particularly inventive with cursed fates. If you're ever looking to torture your worst enemy with an ingenious fate, just ask an ancient Greek for recommendations. I think the tale of Cassandra is my favorite.

Cassandra, daughter of Priam of Troy, had the gift of true prophecy. The God Apollo had the hots for Cassandra, but she spurned his advances, so Apollo cursed her always to tell the truth, but never to be believed. So subtle!

And didn't they say she would only be believed when she was about to die? The irony being that she would finally get what she wanted, but she would not be able to enjoy it?

There are a few variations on the death of Cassandra. I'm not sure which one you're referring to here, but possibly Trojan Women by Euripides, in which Cassandra comforts her mother during the fall of Troy that the victorious Greeks will suffer terrible fates after. In that speech Cassandra predicts her own death.

The usual version is Cassandra is taken as a prize by Agamemnon. When they arrive back in Mycenae Cassandra predicts her own death by the two-edged sword. Agamemon goes to his bath, where he is promptly murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, who has been plotting his demise for years, because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter before leaving for Troy. Clytemnestra is less than pleased to see Cassandra and she gets the chop too.

Yes--and before Clytemnestra kills her, Cassandra predicts her own death, and this time the chorus believes her. Lovely Greek irony. :)

You chat on your blog about Greeks and their dogs, including the dog of Xanthippus, who swam alongside his master’s ship from Piraeus to Salamis, and then died of exhaustion on land. This calls to mind the dog of Odysseus in THE ODYSSEY, who waits 20 years for Odysseus to come home and then dies the moment he hears his voice. How did the Greeks instill such devotion in their dogs? Mine doesn’t even get up when I enter the room. :)

I'm afraid you're on your own with your dog, who I'm sure is very obedient and lovable. If you want to know how the Greeks trained their dogs, you can read about it in their for-real original manual. A man called Xenophon wrote a treatise called Cynegeticus, which means On Hunting With Dogs. It includes advice on how to treat your dog, and even recommends names for your pet! Cynegeticus is seriously out of copyright, by about 2,400 years. You can find English translations online.

How do you get inside the head of your main character? Is he also the narrator? Do you have to work to find an “ancient” voice, or do you write with a modern sensibility?

I've never had the slightest trouble getting inside the characters' heads. Sometimes my biggest problem is getting out of them when they go in weird directions. I think my lack of trouble is because, right at the start, I wrote down all the character motivations, and did little test scenes in which every character has a talk with every other character. The conversations were all throwaway, except I kept the one between Pericles and his Dad because it turned into an interesting argument.

The books are all narrated by Nicolaos in first person. I deliberately wrote idiomatic English. The conceit is that you're reading in modern, everyday English what was originally spoken 2,500 years ago in modern, everyday Attic Greek. It makes no sense to give the characters a fake "ancient" tone that doesn't match what they really said. So for example an angry Pericles at one point says to Nico, "You trashed the Agora? What in Hades were you thinking?"

You worked for Microsoft; but you don't live in California?

Nope. I live in Sydney, Australia. I'm fifth generation Australian; descended from a convict who was transported in the 1830s with a 7 year sentence for stealing a handkerchief, and he couldn't even get away with that. Not a great genetic heritage for a crime writer.

Having said that, I'm rather fond of California. Particularly San Diego and San Francisco.

I hear they are lovely--but I've heard that about Sydney, as well. :) Have you ever been to that gorgeous opera house?

Frequently! The Opera House is a standard part of Sydney life. They don't merely hold operas there; also concerts and plays. Definitely worth a visit.

How can readers find out more about Gary Corby and his books?

http://blog.GaryCorby.com

Thank you so much for the chat! One thing that's delighted me in turning to writing has been the deep sense of community between book people. It's a pleasure to meet so many other readers.


Likewise, Gary! I can't wait to read your first book.

14 comments:

Mimzy said...

Nicolaos mystery:
2010 is a long time
to wait. Write faster!

^-^

Gary Corby said...

Hi Mimzy,

The second book is almost done! It's being reviewed by Janet as you read this. I'm actually up to writing the third book. So what you mean is, publish faster.

If it's any compensation, once the first book's out, there'll be a new book released each year.

Thanks for dropping by!

Julia Buckley said...

That's very exciting, Gary! But sounds like a lot of work.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I've always loved Greek culture and I love historical mysteries. No one has yet done it as well or made it as popular as the Roman histmysts. I look forward to your debut, Gary.

Deb Vlock said...

What an engaging interview! Gary, your erudition never fails to amaze me. But you're also a really nice guy. :) Can't wait to read the whole series!

Great questions, Julia!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for commenting, Deb and PK. See, Gary, we're getting you a built-in audience! :)

Carrie said...

I'm soooo excited about Gary's book! Thanks for posting this delightful interview. =)

Julia Buckley said...

Yea! I am too. I'm not always a historical mystery fan, but something about Gary's just sounds irresistible.

Joanna said...

This is a wonderful interview!! I'm sitting here, reading it with my loyal dog--he probably wouldn't wait 20 yrs for me, but he's a good swimmer!

Diotima rocks!! Strong heroine, indeed. :)

And I love Iphigenia's tale myself--the interwoven stories are my favorites...

Gary Corby said...

Thanks PK. If I can make Classical Greece live for people half as well as the Roman mystery writers have their period I'll be very happy.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Deb and Carrie! The support is very much appreciated. I'm looking forward to doing the same for your books.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jo! I've thought about doing a short story of Iphegenia as she's on her way to be sacrificed. I haven't been brave enough to try it (yet). It'd be tough to write, but she's a fascinating subject.

Gary Corby said...

May I agree with everyone else who's commented, by saying a huge THANK YOU to Julia for some outstanding questions!

Julia, you showed me some different ways of looking at my own work by what you asked. You have a talent for interviewing.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Gary and all visitors.

Gary, the Iphigenia story sounds great! I don't know why history has labeled Agamemnon a hero and Clytemnestra a villain, considering what happened to Iphigenia. I would have killed him, too.