The Bookshelf: David Elliott's Novel in Verse Revisits the Myth of the Minotaur

Jun 9, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire author David Elliott. The myth of the minotaur—the beast with a bull’s head and a man’s body—has been with us for centuries. New Hampshire author David Elliott has found a way to retell the story of the minotaur. In Bull, a novel written in verse, Elliott shares the voices of familiar gods, such as Poseidon, Minos, and Theseus, and these voices are nothing like what you’ll find if you crack open a translation of Homer’s Odyssey. David Elliott is the author of several books for children and a board member of the New Hampshire Writers Project.

David Elliott's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Ransom by David Malouf. "In this novel, David Malouf expands on one of the most famous passages in literature – that moment in The Iliad when Priam, king of Troy, leaves the safety of his citadel to reclaim the body of his  beloved son, Hector, whom Achilles has killed in retribution for the death of Patroclus.  Malouf’s ability to fully imagine the terrible humanity of this moment is matched only by the power of his lyrical gifts. I loved it as a reader. I loved it as a writer. If you are one or the other, or both, run to your local independent bookstore now."

2.   An Imaginary Life by David Malouf. " Yep! I’m on a Malouf kick. Everybody should be. Somewhere around the 1st century AD, Caesar banished Ovid (of Metamorphoses fame) to a barbarian village on the outskirts of the empire. Malouf takes this fact of ancient history and expands it by imagining the refined and sophisticated poet’s life in that strange place. Among other things, he befriends a feral child. The NYT Book Review says it much better than I ever could. 'A work of unusual intelligence and imagination, full of surprising images and insights...One of those rare books you end up underlining and copying out into notebooks and reading out loud to friends.'"

3.   Search for the Lost City of Z. by David Grann. "What can I say? I love reading about those larger than life Victorian explorers, obsessed eccentrics like Percy Fawcett, and Knud Rasmussen. And let’s not forget about Mary Kingsley. This book brought back that nearly irretrievable pleasure of reading when I was a fourteen-year-old boy devouring Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Love anything by David Grann, by the way. In this same vein,  I also loved  A Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffmann. In it, Hoffman gets to the bottom of Michael Rockefeller’s 1961 disappearance in New Guinea."

4.   "When I first met my wife –more than 33 years ago now –she gave me a copy of Richard Wilbur’s translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope and Tartuffe. I still love these. They still make me laugh. And I still marvel at the way Moliere and Wilbur were able to make rhymed language sound so natural. I’ve only just realized that in many ways, the seed for Bull was planted through Barbara’s good intuition by introducing me to both writers, neither of whom I had heard of."

5.   "One book for younger readers. Though I have read it a countless number of times, I still tear up when I read the prologue to Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting. I think it was Louis Carroll who said that fairy tales were love gifts. I never understood that until I read this short, beautiful middle grade novel."

Let’s start with a reading. Can you give us a reading of Poseidon’s voice, to give us a sense of how he sounds? 

I can, and this is how the book starts.

Poseidon

Whaddup, bitches?

Am I right, or am I right?
That bum Minos deserved what he got.
I mean, I may be a god, but I’m not
Unreasonable, and when I am, so

What?

Like I said,
I’m a god.
Reason’s got nuthin’
To do with it.

In this passage, Poseidon doesn’t sound like the formal Greek you will encounter if you open up, say, a translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

That’s right. There’s a little prologue before that that’s just 11 lines long—the whole book is in verse—I had that prologue in my head for probably five years, and I never wrote it down. I knew it was about the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, but that’s all I knew.

I repeated it to myself when I was doing the dishes, when I was falling asleep. I would say it to myself when I was walking the dog. But I could not get farther into the book—I just felt kind of locked out. And then, one day, for reasons I don’t really understand—or really have to understand—I heard Poseidon say: “Whaddup, bitches?”

I thought, oh—oh no. But also, oh good! Because that’s really what gave me an entrance into the book, that’s what unlocked the door.

You’re writing this for people of high school age.  The language is provocative enough to feel  risqué.

Yeah, but that really wasn’t my intention. It was interesting, because when we first sent the book out, lots of good things came back, but the first two things that came back were from a bookseller and a librarian. They both said the same thing: “Once I saw that word ‘bitches,’ I stopped reading immediately.”

I understand that, and I think that would make Poseidon very happy to hear that, because he comments on that sort of attitude in the book. I knew it was part of the language of young people. But for me, I wasn’t really thinking that when I wrote the book. I just heard Poseidon say ‘Whaddup, bitches,’ and I thought, okay. That opened the door for me. I understood who he was going to be.

This reminded me of when I first read the Greeks in college, and I was surprised by how dirty they can be. To recap this story, Poseidon offers up a white bull for Minos to sacrifice, but Minos decides not to sacrifice the bull. Poseidon says, I’m going to get my revenge by making your wife incredibly desirous of this bull.

To use clinical language, she copulates with this bull and the offspring is the Minotaur. How do you write a book that’s marketed for teenagers that includes that scene?

That was problematic when I got to that point in the book. But, you know, a lot of people don’t realize that almost anything goes in (young adult) literature these days.

There’s a writer named Francesca Lia Block, who originally thought she was writing for adults, but when the editors got her manuscript they said, oh no this is for young adults. It’s very urban, it’s very gritty, every possible thing you can think of that would shock you are in her books.

But still, I don’t know of too many books that have sex with animals in them—so that was kind of tricky, but I did the best I could with it.

Also it strikes me as something that, as a teenager, you would think: “This is something adults don’t want me to read, so I need to read this.”

Yeah, there’s some of that, too. But it’s also in the myth itself. That same adult who might say, you should not read this book by David Elliot, I’d hand them Ovid or any of the others who wrote down these myths, and they would find that same information in there.

So what draws you to this myth?

I’m not really sure. I’ve always loved the myths, and I came to them, by the way, through Scrooge McDuck. My family was not a very rich family, in fact we were very poor when I was growing up. My family was really not literary. I think my dad maybe finished eighth grade and my mom didn’t finish high school. They had a lot of native intelligence but they weren’t readers.

But in my house, there was a big box of comic books, and I don’t know where those comic books came from. I have two older sisters—there were a lot of true romance comic books in there, but there was also a lot of Scrooge McDuck. And one of my favorites was called “The Golden Fleecing.”

In that book, Carl Banks, who is the creator of Scrooge McDuck, did a take-off on Jason and the Argonauts, so Scrooge was after the golden fleece in that book. So the myths came to me through that, and I remember later, when I was older and got introduced to the real myths, thinking oh, they stole this from Scrooge.

But I think my pleasure in the myths really comes from that illicit pleasure in reading comic books when I was younger.

Why that myth in particular, I don’t know. The Minotaur—we love heroes like Theseus, but we see these heroes over and over again.

Theseus is the perfect Athenian who ends up founding democracy. He’s flawless, perfectly chiseled young man who can seduce whoever he wants—something we see, as you say, fairly often.

Right. He’s also someone who solves a lot of his problems through the club or the knife. I think we show this to ourselves again and again, and we begin to believe this is the only way there is to solve a problem or be a hero.

So my sympathies have always kind of been with the Minotaur. I mean, it wasn’t his fault he was born with the head of a bull. As I got to know the myth, and I discovered that he actually had a name, which is Asterion and it means “ruler of the stars,” that kind of broke my heart. It made me realize that somebody loved him. His mother loved him when he was born and gave him this beautiful name. That just broke my heart because in the end he becomes the monster in the labyrinth.

It also made me think, not to get too hifalutin, that each of us has this potential every day of our lives, if we’re going to become the ruler of the stars or if we’re going to become the monster of the labyrinth.

I could tell reading this that you sympathized with the Minotaur, and I sympathized with the Minotaur. He’s a kind soul, and all the gods around him are using him to irritate each other.

To let people into the book, the sections with Asterion start out on gray pages, and as the book progresses and he becomes more evil the pages become black with his words in white.

I have to thank my editor, the great Kate O’Sullivan, who bought the book. It was brave of her because the book is risky, both in content and form, and she bought it when I had only twenty five or thirty pages written.

What she said was, I don’t know who is ever going to read this, but I love it. We actually had another offer on the book, for more money, but I just thought I wanted to go with somebody who had that kind of enthusiasm.

Almost immediately, long before I finished the book, she had this ideas to make the pages darker. It’s such a smart thing to use the book itself to help tell the story.

Some of the ways the book shapes up: As Pasiphae becomes more and more insane, the words are scattered almost randomly across the page, to demonstrate how her thoughts are losing coherence. So you turn the page and you get a sense of what her mind is like without even reading the words.

Yeah, and that was fun for me to experiment with as well.

One of the ways you distinguish one voice from another here is you use different poetic forms. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Well, first I should say, full disclosure, I do not consider myself to be a poet, and how it is that I came to be writing novels in verse is a mystery really. And I’m not being disingenuous, you know, I just had this prologue in my head and it was in verse. Then I heard Poseidon and it was in a much freer form.

So then I thought, if it’s going to be in verse, not everyone can speak like Poseidon can. I have a really great book—I think I picked it up at a yard sale some place—by a poet named Miller Williams, who’s quite a good poet, and he, I think the name of the book is The Encyclopedia of Poetic Forms. What he does is says, this is what a sonnet is, this is what a villanelle is, this what a sestina is.

Basically, what I did—and I would never suggest this to anybody to try to write a book like this—I just thumbed through the book, closed my eyes, and said oh, that looks good, I’ll try that. So I assigned each of those characters a form and followed what Miller Williams said.

I actually think my unconscious was guiding me to those forms, because they played a principal part in writing the book, and they helped shape each of the characters in ways that seemed right to me. So it’s almost as though the forms were writing the book, and it was very helpful to do that.