Strong myths never die. Sometimes they die down, but they don't die out. In many ways, myths cannot really be translated with any accuracy from their native soil—from their own place and time. We will never know exactly what they meant to their ancient audiences. But myths can be used—as they have been, so frequently—as the foundation stones for new renderings that find their meanings within their own times and places.
This seems to have been the concept behind the Myths Series, cooked up during one of those legendary, superheated Frankfurt Book Fair evenings by Jamie Byng of Canongate in the U.K., Louise Dennys of Knopf Canada, Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic in the United States and Arnulf Conradi, then of BerlinVerlag in Germany.
The idea was to ask writers from around the world to retell a myth, any myth, each in his or her own way and in his or her own language, at a length of roughly 100 pages. The results would be translated by all participating publishers—as many as the original Fearless Four could entice into their Myths series corral.
It would be fun of course to ascribe a mythological character to each of the original four publishers. Jamie Byng is surely Hermes, player of tricks, master of crossroads, patron of thieves, bearer of messages and shameless devisor of entanglements.
It was in this guise that Mr. Byng waylaid me one morning in Edinburgh, several years ago, at breakfast, my weakest time of day. I knew this designer-stubbled, well-worn-cashmered person by reputation—he was then a rising small publisher who'd had some very bright ideas. He made his pitch in an artfully ingenuous manner befitting the stealer of Apollo's cattle and the inventor of the lyre and the first practical joke. I was ensnared: in a help-a-young-publisher, unfamiliar-corn flaked, pre-coffee moment, I promised to give the Myths caper a try.
I did give it a try. I tried it this way and that, with no results. I couldn't seem to get the kite to fly. As every writer knows, a plot is only a plot, and a plot as such is two-dimensional unless it can be made to come alive, and it can only come alive through the characters in it; and in order to make the characters live, there must be some blood in the mix. I won't sadden myself by detailing my failed attempts. Let's just say there were so many of them that I was on the point of giving the thing up altogether.
"Do you think Jamie Byng would mind very much if I just gave back the advance and cancelled the contract?" I asked my British agent, Vivienne Schuster of Curtis Brown. By this time I was embarrassingly behind deadline, and the first page was just as blank as it had always been. True, I had quite a few 30th pages, but they were crumpled up in the waste bin.
Vivienne's upper lip is nothing if not stiff, but I detected a quavering over the telephone as she said actually she expected that he might in fact mind quite a lot. But that I shouldn't let that influence me one way or the other. And if I couldn't, I couldn't. But Jamie would probably be gutted.
I am susceptible to British slang. I did not want to be responsible for gutting anyone. "Give me a couple of weeks, then," I said. Desperation being the mother of invention, I then started writing The Penelopiad. Don't ask me why, because I don't know. Let's just say that the hanging of the 12 "maids"—slaves, really—at the end of The Odyssey seemed to me unfair at first reading, and seems so still; and that my brain was addled early in life by reading Robert Graves's The Greek Myths.
Writing The Penelopiad allowed me not only to revisit an ancient and powerful tale, but to explore a few dark alleyways in the story that have always intrigued me.
I offer up an egg at the crossroads to Hermes, god of articulation, patron of neural pathways. He or somebody like him opened a door for me when all doors seemed closed; and, as protector of travelers, he helped me make the necessary connections. In addition to that, he has been very good company along the way.
Atwood is the author of more than 35 internationally acclaimed works of fiction, poetry and critical essays. She has won many major literary prizes, including the Man Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, the Giller Prize in Canada for Alias Grace and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for The Robber Bride. She lives in Toronto.