Author Interview: Melanie McDonald
© 2011 Faith L. Justice
Melanie McDonald was awarded a 2008 Hawthornden Fellowship for her literary historical novel Eromenos about Emperor Hadrian’s doomed young lover Antinous. She has an MFA from the University of Arkansas. Her short stories have appeared in New York Stories,Fugue, Indigenous Fiction, and online. An Arkansas native whose Campbell ancestors were Highland Scots, McDonald talked to me about her novel, historical research, and writing process from her home in Virginia.
Eros and Thanatos converge in this story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity, Antinous.In this coming-of-age novel set in second century Rome, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, the fourteenth Roman emperor. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian’s political marriage, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on the earth.
This version of the story of the emperor and his beloved ephebe envisions the life of the youth who after death achieved apotheosis as a pagan god whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years, and gives voice to Antinous, whose image still appears in museums around the world.
Faith L. Justice: I’m sure two of the first questions readers have for you is, “How do you pronounce the title?” and “What does it mean?”
Melanie McDonald: Eromenos is the ancient Greek word for the younger man in a pair relationship with an older partner, or erastes. As written in ancient Greek script, there’s an accent mark indicating the emphasis is on the second syllable, so that we would pronounce it eROmenos. The word in English closest to its original meaning probably would be “beloved,” and it was understood to refer to a young male. In these partnerships practiced by the Greeks, the younger man was the passive partner pursued by the older lover, who also took on the responsibility of training the younger man to be a proper citizen.
FLJ: Previously you’ve written contemporary short fiction. What inspired you to tackle this historical story?
MM: That’s an interesting question, because I tend to think in terms of telling a particular story, rather than pursuing a particular genre, when I write. Most of the short stories I’ve written happen to have contemporary settings, including “Looking for Red Star” and “Rain Dance,” but “Unraveling the Queen of Heaven” has a dual narrative structure, alternating between the voice of a young scientist and the voice of the mummy whose clothing she is studying in Peru, a young Inca girl who is about to be “married”—that is, sacrificed—to the local mountain god. This story appeared in Indigenous Fiction, later received a nice review from a zine in the UK, and eventually was included in a review index for science fiction in 2000. I never thought of it as science fiction at all when I was writing it, and I certainly was delighted by the responses it received.
My first encounter with Antinous occurred when I read Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian. I was struck by the way she portrayed this young man, silent as a statue already in Hadrian’s memories of his love for the youth and grief over his loss. Hadrian had commissioned numerous artistic portrayals of Antinous both before and after his death in the Nile, and in later years took his favorite statues along on his travels. When I began to read up on Antinous, I discovered that many of those works, meant to capture his beautiful appearance, still exist, but I never found a single document that either quoted him or offered up his thoughts, which seemed to me both odd and sad.
FLJ: The story is told in first person as a memoir by Antinous. What did you find most challenging about giving a known historical figure a voice?
MM: Since there are no existing quotations or writings by Antinous, I think I may have had an easier time than if he had been a prolific speaker or writer like some other members of Hadrian’s court, or for that matter, Hadrian himself. I felt that I could create the character from whole cloth—that is, as long as I found the right voice for him. As the editor Rust Hills said, the right voice never lies.
Antinous came from a Greek province in Asia Minor, though I imagine that by the time he went into the Nile, he was no longer at all provincial. One day while I was thinking again about who this young man might have been, where he had come from, and who he had become at court with Hadrian, a voice came into my head that said, “I was born in Bithynia, in the town of Claudiopolis, during the reign of Trajan.” Later that phrase became part of the opening sentence of the first chapter, though I didn’t know where it would fit into the story at the time, or if I even would use it. I just knew it was him. That voice belonged to Antinous.
The structure of the novel was challenging. I knew I wanted to have Antinous write his own memoir, in the Greek manner of self-examination, just before he chose to commit ritual suicide. Since anyone who is familiar with the historical Antinous knows that he drowned in the Nile under mysterious circumstances—but readers new to him might not—it seemed important to show how the character as I imagined him arrived at this decision and prepared himself to carry it out. I became fascinated by the paradox that he lost his life in order to find himself—to regain the freedom of self-definition through self-destruction.
I knew the novel must be brief—as his life was brief—and that it needed to show the arc of his journey as he grew from boy to man and his innocence became jaded by life in the imperial milieu. Structure is always hard, for me at least, but it’s also crucial. I began to find that the first working draft could be divided into four parts: childhood, leaving home, life at court in intimate association with the emperor, and the mature realization that this life, and his relationship with Hadrian, must come to an end. Once I saw how each section worked to carry the story forward, the idea of using the names of the elements earth, air, fire, and water as headings for each section arose as an organic part of the revision process.
FLJ: How did you go about your research? What was most fun to study/write about?
MM: The research was a pleasure, especially the opportunity I had to spend some time in Italy while I worked on the novel and visit several museums, the Pantheon in Rome and Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. There is so much material about ancient Rome in general, and about this era in particular, it sometimes seemed overwhelming, but always remained fascinating.
And sometimes I would find some story or anecdote that fascinated me and suddenly realize, I can’t use this because it happened after Antinous died. For example, in a fit of pique, Hadrian once lashed out at a scribe with a stylus in hand, and blinded the poor man in one eye. Hadrian felt horrible about it as soon as it happened, and later apologized profusely and offered anything to the scribe, who sent back this curt response: “I’d like my eye back.” But Antinous never knew that any of this happened—he died before it occurred.
FLJ: What’s your writing day like?
MM: More than anything, that depends on whether I have a story in progress. When in the throes of telling a story, I write at least three hours a day, sometimes much longer. With Eromenos, I often found whole days melted away while in its thrall.
When I don’t have a project underway, I write down notes for story ideas, or draft pages to catch a voice or an image that’s been in my head, and see if these pages inspire me to begin a new draft. I also keep notebooks full of quotes from books I’ve read or speakers or songs I’ve heard or movies I’ve seen. When the well of inspiration seems empty, I find it helpful to review these. I do think there’s an ebb and flow to the writing process. When it ebbs, I find that I need to read, listen to music, go to plays, go to museums, anything to fill up that well of imagination, inspiration, the subconscious, whatever it is, in order to be able to draw from it again. I have started to work on another novel just recently.
FLJ: Care to give us a hint what it’s about?
MM: It’s set in contemporary Italy and France, with lots of food, and may end up a dual narrative, since one character seems determined to butt in on the other’s story. That’s probably about all there is to say for now. Thanks for asking about it!
FLJ: Any advice for people who want to write a novel?
MM: Write it. Give yourself permission. Carve out a space and time for your writing and defend it like a dragon guards its treasure. No one else will care whether you write if you don’t.
FLJ: There’s always a question you wished the interviewer had asked. Please feel free to ask and answer it!
MM: Yes, I’m dying for someone to ask who I’d like to see in a literary “Celebrity Death Match” because I’d vote for the Brontës, Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Charlotte (Jane Eyre)—wouldn’t you love to see those bad b-girls throw down?
I’m Team Emily myself, because taking your man back after he’s been injured and blinded (JE) always seemed like small beer compared to avowing that if your man Heathcliff’s not allowed into heaven, you’ll fling yourself back down to the moors below (WH). That’s passion, baby. Though I must admit JE did inspire another amazing book—Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea takes up the story from the perspective of the mad wife in the attic, and addresses that earlier book’s blinkered view of colonialism. And there’s always Anne, the forgotten Brontë. Perhaps the three of them could wrestle as a tag team against the Rossettis and Lord Byron, or the Shelleys. Of course, Mary Wollstonecraft could swab the decks with the lot of them. Just call her the Vindicator. . .okay, I’ll stop now.
Thanks, Faith—this interview was a lot of fun!