Shots: The Crime & Mystery Ezine

Margaret Doody speaks to Ayo Onatade for Shots Ezine

© Ayo Onatade

Margaret Doody
 
Margaret Doody is a serious academic who has lectured at a number of prestigious American Universities. She is currently Director of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University. A Professor of English Literature who has also written a number of scholarly papers including one on the history of the novel, her books have been translated not only into Italian but also German and French.


 
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Ayo:

For readers that donít know much about you could you give us a bit of background detail about yourself?

Margaret:

I am a Canadian, an offspring of a Canadian mother and English father. Book Jacket, Aristotle Detective English of Irish descent and I was born by the sea in a lobster fishing village in the province of New Brunswick. We moved to the States for a while and I was educated in Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and then proceeded to take a second BA degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. My MA is honorary and I studied for my Doctorate at Oxford as well. I became an academic after I had some experience of teaching. I thought that my doctoral thesis was really a license to go and teach. I discovered that I loved the research as much as the teaching and drifted into the academic life initially in Canada and then at the University of Wales in Swansea which is where I was when I wrote the Aristotle Detective. Then I went to Berkeley California - Princeton, Vanderbilt, and now the University of Notre Dame. I have had an endowed Chair at both Vanderbilt and Notre Dame.

Ayo:

What drew you to classical history?

Margaret:

I donít know I can put it like that! I was in Oxford and I had been visiting my former tutor and her husband, Katherine and Raymond Ing. She, incidentally, was a student of C S Lewis. I was reading Aristotleís Rhetoric quickly in translation because at that time my Greek was practically non-existent and I was thinking how Aristotle was so un-illusioned about human behaviour, what people do and how people will wrong others if they can, and I thought that all the stuff that Hobbs made such a song and dance about, he takes for granted and does nothing. I thought that somebody should write a detective story in which Aristotle was the Sherlock Holmes. The idea would not go away and three weeks later I realised I would have to be the writer of the story. So I then began to do some more serious research on Hamlin and to call in help from classicist friends - I am very lucky that I have very strong connects with people in classics. It appealed to me very much so I visited Greece as a student a couple of times. I donít think I would have written the novels if I hadnít had that physical visceral feel for the place.

Ayo:

What was the very first crime novel that you read?

Margaret:

The very first crime novel was really a crime story. I read the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and got hooked and read all of Sherlock Holmes since I was eleven, twelve, and then went on to Agatha Christie and the others that came my way.

Ayo:

When you are writing, what is your normal work schedule?

Margaret:

Well, it is very erratic because I have a very demanding job. I am not only teaching in the university but I am the head of a programme of which I am the inventor and I want to make a success of this. I am very dedicated to it. It is a programme for graduate students who want to study literature in more than one language - I feel that it is very important that we shift away in the twenty-first century from the idea of the controlling notion of what governs literature and how we categorise it, and look at literature in multiple language and inflexion: Spanish within the United States as well as South America and so on. This is for students who have a longer drive themselves and are very interesting people. It is a very fascinating and demanding job. It is administrative so Iím an administrator and a manager as well as a teacher. My days are full.

Ayo:

When do you get to write?

Margaret:

Well I have to wait for the weekends and not every weekend. Some weekends Iíve got papers to grade, or a report to write so that shoots that one down. But the good thing is that I donít suffer from writerís block because Iíve been writing the next scene in my mind and I am so anxious when I get to the computer at home it just comes out and I can do it.

Ayo:

What do you find most distracting when you are writing?

Margaret:

The telephone! I love being called but not when I am writing and sometimes I feel that people should have an invisible radar, some system of knowing what I am doing! What I find most encouraging is my present setup, what I call the writing room (not the study as I study all over the house). I mark papers downstairs on the dining room table. The writing room looks over the river - I have a bit of river frontage - and the river seems to energise me.

Ayo:

Is there any part of the writing experience that you enjoy the most?

Margaret:

Well itís hard to say. Writing is such a mysterious thing in itself because it begins with ideas humming and images and suddenly a whole scene will pop into my mind, or the voices in my head will say something and I think thatís so funny and Iíll laugh. They crack me up what my characters say or Iíll get a little scene coming dancing and later Iíll have to feel where that scene will go. That I suppose is the purest pleasure to me because when you are writing you are having to make rational decisions, you are working with the logic side of your mind as well.

Ayo:

Characterisation or plot? Which do you think is the most important?

Margaret:

Book Jacket, Aristotle and Poetic JusticeWell I really do agree with Aristotleís theory in poetics when he says that drama is an image of an action. I think he is essentially correct, and he does play a lot of attention to character, but without something being done you have no story and character itself only finds expression in what we do. I would take speech as an action, things we say to each other can be wonderful and moving vis ŗ vis our actions too. But you have to have an idea what people are doing in order to have a story of any kind, let alone a mystery story, because a mystery story makes it official that action is at the center, but without characters the actions become uninteresting so itís the combination of both. I think with the kind of fiction that I write, mystery fiction both modern and historical, there is an interest in how culture invisibly shapes the character and the action. Or an action in law because laws are very important for detective storywriters. An action has its meaning given by the law and another meaning given by the culture and a third meaning given by the individual that participates in it so itís a way of calibrating where we are in our in our society as we are creating it and the instability of law itself comes out in detective stories. You canít have a good detective story without a legal system of some sort, I think. It maybe a revenge system, but what revenge tragedies usually show is that the cultural demand for revenge is overwhelming and any legal attempts to regulate it is not going to work so it has to be a bit of both.

Ayo:

How do you do your research? Do you travel and, if so, has anything unusual happened to you?

Margaret:

Well, I am a great believer in travel because I do think you can actually buy a ticket to the past. But antiquity is much closer to us than we think. Since the end of the eighteenth century we tried what was called classical antiquities - often a very suspect phrase - and turned it into pictures of white monuments, stuck them in the walls of academy, stating this is our claim to our great civilisation and tried to ignore the actual location of people who were there. People just used to despise the Greeks thinking that since they arenít emancipated they are not the same people at all; theyíve nothing to do with the Greeks of Rome. But there was a real effort to separate the present from the past and the past became this noble idolised platonic thing. So much so they wiped the colour out, they didnít talk about Greek paintings except for the vases, which I think were horrible. And what I call the coloured arts of Greece disappeared. It was a long time before I realised that the temples were painted and the statues were painted. We can see a Greek temple as it was in all its glory; it was rather gaudy; blue, red and gold. They didnít want just shiny white, that was just our Aryan fixation of the nineteenth century. So I wanted to get back to a Greece which was a place full of dust and heat and people making stuff and making bargains and cheating each other, giving each other colds and running into debt. People had real lives, it had this common vitality. And also Greece has suffered from being seen through the eyes of Rome. All of us are honorary Romans. We knew so much more about Roman societies, civilisation, and attitudes that we forget that the Greeks came first and they didnít think like Romans.

Ayo:

Your first book was first published 1978 and then went out of print for an extremely long time. What happened?

Margaret:

Well, this is the question. The Italians thought, who is this mysterious lady and why has there been this long silence and this makes me laugh hysterically because for all my colleagues in the academic world I have been anything but silent. I am very noisy and Iím always giving talks at conferences and I have written lots of articles, chaired lots of meetings and written lots of books. I have a number of books to my name that are just not fiction. So I wasnít silent but I was certainly deflected. Book Jacket, Secrets Of LifeThe story of my writing life is rather unhappy in some ways because I had everything lined up. All the fates seemed to smile at me Ď77, Ď78. I came second in the historical novels contest and thatís how I got published at all. I think Antonia Fraser was one of the judges. It was run by Bodley Head historical novels contest and I heard in Ď77 that I had come second and would be published in Ď78. When it was published I had a letter from an agent, Curtis Brown, saying how he would like to be my agent. I thought this was great and he was very genial and then I got published in the US with a very distinguished publishing house, Harper & Row, and an extremely distinguished editor that specialised in crime fiction called Joan Kahn; her name on the front page was like a kind of guarantee. So everything seemed lined up and I happily went away to write my sequel but by the time I finished my sequel and turned round everything had fallen apart. Bodley Head had been taken over, the editor I had known at Bodley Head had gone, the Curtis Brown agent had been kicked upstairs and I was passed on to somebody who was not interested and had no connections with history at all or crime fiction. Joan Kahn retired and suddenly nobody wanted to know. It is funny these things do happen and I didnít know how to keep at it and knock on enough doors to try to get it started again.

Ayo:

So why and how did you resurrect Aristotle Detective?

Margaret:

I owe everything to Italy and to my Italian readers. In 1999 Sellerio asked if they could publish Aristotle Detective so of course I said yes but I wasnít thinking much about that. Translations donít make it; they donít usually give you much money. I thought that it was nice enough, Sellerio was a much respected publishing house in Palermo and Sicily, it came out in 2000 and was a surprised bestseller and then they wanted more. So they published the one short story that I had already published in Ď79, Aristotle ed il Javelin Mortale (Aristotle and the Fatal Javelin) and they ingeniously did it in a book form, padded out with a couple of essays by Italian writers and with a very taking cover and that sold extraordinarily well. It was easy for people to become au fait with this new phenomenon without great effort to themselves, because it was short. My success in Italy enabled me to find an agent and encouraged the agent to find a publisher and then I was taken on by Random House and appeared in English. Now I have translations in French, Spanish, Portuguese and the first Greek one is just being released. It is also coming out in Turkish. So everyone around the Mediterranean likes the stories.

Ayo:

The first book introduces us not only to Aristotle but also to Stephanos who becomes his biographer. I always think of Stephanos as someone akin to somebody like Watson and Archie Goodwin. What made you decide to give Aristotle a partner?

Margaret:

Itís probably the narrative voice. You will notice that when Conan Doyle has one story told by Holmes it works like a lead balloon, and how could I tell things in the voice of Aristotle, one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived! No, no, you need someone with a modicum of stupidity to write as somebody who is looking at a genius, which was what Conan Doyleís intention was, and I think that Conan Doyle himself was modelling it on someone like Johnson. The parallels with Archie Goodwin have occurred to my Italian friends, particularly my first discoverer the journalist Beppe Benvenuto who advised them to translate me. However I say that Archie is such a sleaze ball. The thing about Stephanos is that he is not just a Watson figure to Aristotle he is representative of Athens and shares all the Athenian assumptions of prejudice, someone of the ruling cast although fallen on hard times financially; and part of the irony of Aristotle Detective. Stephanos is kept from seeing by his cultural blindness. Aristotle, not being of that culture, can see but it is unspoken. Aristotle knows that it would be too dangerous for Stephanos to know too early. Stephanos is not somebody who keeps his feelings all buttoned up. Of course it changes. Stephanos starts out as the young man but he becomes more mature and sometimes, as the relationship develops, Aristotle will value him as someone to rely on. So the relationship is altering as Stephanos grows older and also Aristotle is not nearly as secure in Athens.

Ayo:

This is because he is considered to be a foreigner.

Margaret:

Yes, and the hatred of the Macedonians is going to find an outlet in distrust in him or desire to do him damage. He makes the mistake, which I think the historical Aristotle actually did make, of thinking himself as safer, more above the fray than he was and the upshot of real events proved otherwise. The anger of the monument to Pythias, his wife, is based on fragmentary historical accounts.

Ayo:

In the second book it deals with abduction, murder, and Stephanosí thoughts of marriage. Do you sometimes find it difficult to think of plots?

Margaret:

I get my plots from ancient stories usually. In Poetic Justice I thought of first using the actual story of the Demosthenes family mess. His trustees made a real mess of his inheritance, obviously a bit fraudulent, and then when he was seventeen he was suddenly faced with having to conduct the law case and try to straighten it out. But their affairs are too complicated for me to get into in the novels. You also have people who were making the new money were moving from being simply considered the hand workers to being financial powers. They were obviously part of this new world, they were beginning to see the globalisation of things; new generations who believe in money much more than the older ones did.

Ayo:

In Aristotle and the Secrets of Life you draw on Aristotleís scientific interests and we see Aristotle and Stephanos travelling. Do you sometimes think it is easier for authors to use real historical background issues when theyíre writing and deciding on their plots?

Margaret:

The whole series has a background; Alexanderís invasion of Asia. Instead of focusing on admiring Alexander what I wanted us to see was the backwash. All the lives that are ruined, the way the people were affected, the opening of trade routes, the sort of new and more luxurious world that was coming in. I am much more wary now than I was when I first started the series, that I am dealing with the point of transition which seems to me uncomfortably like our own where we are leaving an old system behind and we donít know what the new one is. I really think that the historical Athenians did not react well to the change and their answer was often to go back to be more pure, more correct, to do things the old way, get rid of the foreigners, and get rid of the sex workers and so on. Answers that were not adequate to the state of affairs and they were unrealistic. The Athenians were very unrealistic about the terrible power that Macedonia had. They really were subjugated, so they drifted on for a while trying to pretend that they were okay. At the beginning of Secrets of Life I use religious festivals a lot, they fascinate me, the way we celebrate, what we do as a community, May baskets, Halloween, whatever we do. Everybody has something, we all have them and Athens had very, very interesting festivals. The murder of the ox is a very significant. In a way it honours the animals that we sacrifice to our appetite, but also the reconstruction of the dead ox where they stuff it - I think that the image of a stuffed high ox which is no longer a real animal is a simulacrum of something that once survived but is now really just an image.

Ayo:

What was your starting point for your latest novel, Poison in Athens?

Margaret:

Book Jacket, Poison In AthensI have an outline of the whole series which my agent calls the bible, but I had promised Redattore Sellerio in Palermo that, as they were now going to have to work from the Random House copy and wouldnít get first dibs on the manuscript, I would give them a story just for them; so I started the story of the poisoning, which was based on a law case. I often refer to actual law cases or imaginary law cases invented by early rhetoricians for my plot ideas. Then I realised that this wanted to be a novel, it was not happy being a short story, so I had to drop it, and I wrote another story, Ring of Bronze (Anello di Bronzo), for Sellerio. It is published only in Italy and doesnít exist in English, although, as it deals with morally nasty character, male prostitutes, it is really a kind of twin pendant to Poison, which deals a lot with prostitution.

Ayo:

Politics always plays a part in the every day life of Greeks. In the case of Aristotle he at times seems to be quite controversial in some of the things that he did and the way he behaved. How do you reconcile yourself with not being too political, given the period that you write about?

Margaret:

I think that every historical novelist has an active political imagination because when Aristotle says that man is a political animal he means that we are people who want to live in settled communities. So we are all political whether we take it into party politics or in certain formulations. Of course in Athens only citizen males could participate in politics and there was this huge population who could not participate including women, slaves and many hand workers - freedmen. It is very interesting because they tried to invent democracy, speaking up and speaking out, but what happened is that although they are pretending to do what their ancestors did, they are already governed by the secret invisible power of Macedon; there is Antipater, the Regent of Alexandria, sitting there keeping an eye on the whole thing.

Ayo:

Has your writing style changed since you started writing?

Margaret:

One would not want to think that it hasnít changed at all. I think that I perhaps have more mastery of more effects. The big change that happened was in Greece because when I started Aristotle Detective I was much more cavalier about historical details than later. But with archaeology there has been a great deal of new work done in the classical field, and my own early interest in domestic lives, especially the wives and so on, has been matched by recent work. I read Greek so I am no longer dependent on translators and I can really chew on what Aristotle and Menander are doing as I am closer to their language and more aware of the resources in Greece. I am a bit warier of using Latinate words than I was. I try not to use many Latinate words in a paragraph because I want to keep things Greek, not Roman, and I have had more travel experience and so on and read a great deal more.

Ayo:

How would you like the character Aristotle to be remembered?

Margaret:

Well I think he should be remembered as the founder of the modern university, of all universities in the west from his own time to mine. He has the first research institute - the scientific work that he did on animals with research assistants endowed by Alexander. So he was at the head of study of science and the head of study of arts. You canít do literature without reading Aristotleís Poetics. You run into it in a thousand different ways and itís always a challenging book to go back to; the Rhetoric as well. He is a second philosopher about human relations, politics, and ethics, so he really founded even the subject areas that we do.

Ayo:

How do you feel once you have finished writing a novel? Do you breathe a sigh of relief or do you start getting anxious about how well it is going to be received?

Margaret:

I sense it with my big non-fiction work, itís like having a big snotty dog in the corner, something that is there and needs to be fed, you are looking after it and suddenly the beast disappears and you think where did it go? I donít have to look after it anymore. There is always a double feeling of joy and sadness at finishing a novel. Then there comes the awful period when it comes back to you in proofs and so it turns in to so much chopped straw and looks like nothing that anyone would ever read, it looks so dismal and you wonder if any of it makes sense.

Ayo:

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?

Margaret:

I do a bit of gardening and, of course, reading as it feels so much of my life, and walking and looking at the river, and friends. One of the pleasures is that I have breakfast in bed most days. I give myself some cereal and read a detective story and then I put that aside and start reading my latest book on Greek life, culture, and history, houses whatever, and drink coffee until it is time to move onto the main part of the day. But I have this little snatched time for doing my Greek reading. As soon as I get up and shower and change then I am off to work and I have to think about my day job.

Ayo:

Who is the first person that reads your novel once you have finished writing it?

Margaret:

I give pieces of it to classicists friends saying, ďis this okayĒ and things I want to check up on. Theyíve been very helpful. I have also been put on to new material pretty fast. For instance in Poetic Justice I took the accepted view of the oracle Adelphi, but lo and behold there was new research and I knew the guy who had crawled under the foundations to look at it and wrote a scientific article about gases. The gases are highest in the spring but after the spring run off comes and pushes gas up through the crevices. The accepted view for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that this was a whole of malarkey but now you suddenly discover that yes, this is correct. So I rewrote it to make sure that was in there.

Ayo:

Which of the characters in your books do you most identify with?

Margaret:

The interesting thing is that they are both me but they also represent interesting counters to me. For instance what makes men think the way they do - I get to try it out by being these male roles and seeing why Stephanos thinks the way he does and why his attitude to women is highly contrary to conventional views. More importantly, Aristotle fascinates me and I do love him most. As a person, the real Aristotle whom I am interpreting into a fictional one, does seem to me to be very conflicted. In some ways he bought into Platoís vision of the world, which is an aristocratic Athenian vision, about the inferiority of people working in the cattle trade, women, and so on. And at the same time his own life history is very different. His father was a doctor and although he officially says that women are necessarily inferior to men and that they are an imperfect biological product, yet he was most ardently in love with his wife which is why he got in trouble for putting up a monument to her. His slaves are not agents, they have no free will, no higher intelligence but his next consort is a slave. He obviously thought very well of her, however murky and undesirable their liaison, because he leaves her property from his motherís estate so she is not only free but a woman of property. And of course his son is far from being this ideal citizen who Plato was trying to train.

Ayo:

Do you have a favourite out of all the books and if so, which one?

Margaret:

Everyone likes the one they have just done or the one they are working on. But you canít read them until the years have passed so I am not going to be reading Aristotle Detective very soon. My favourite is Mysteries of Eleusis - number five which I am writing now - because thatís alive. When youíre writing a book it is so alive to you, it is not only like being in a movie, but you sense the textures and smells - you can smell the donkeys and feel the drip of rain on the Athenian roofs in the winter time and imagine the Parthenon with a bit of snow on top.

Ayo:

Is there a chance that your books will be put on tape?

Margaret:

Well nobody has asked for that so far. If they did I am sure that could be arranged.

Ayo:

Is there any book out there you would have liked to have written and why?

Margaret:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers. I think it is a novel that deals with the problems of being a woman that values her own mind and wants, not just a career, but a career of an intellectual; also the question of how your position as a woman in a world that has so many definitions of what you should be and has been so pre-empted by males that you really are invading when you come in. If that was true for her it was still true in the sixties and is still true sadly. The book is also fun and has the sense and flavour of Oxford. Itís Oxford of a different era but it is very, very recognisable as well.

Ayo:

Gaudy Night appears to be everybodyís favourite when they are talking about Dorothy L Sayers. It always comes in the top two.

Margaret:

I think it is her most original one in which she is investigating something that is really important to her and describing the city that she loves best.

Ayo:

What do you think of the state of historical crime fiction?

Margaret:

Book Jacket, AristotleIt is obviously flourishing. This is a golden age of historical mystery fiction, but the interesting thing is why? When I wrote Aristotle Detective I had only about three possible novels available to me, historical detective fiction. One was a remarkable novel by Agatha Christie, Death Comes to an End, set in ancient Egypt which is a really interesting departure for her, and then there were the Judge Dee novels set in medieval China and Sam Johnson, Detector by Lillian de la Torres. That was really the register for as far as what was new and it was always considered to be a bit of a sport, it wasnít something that people were doing. I actually made it into the history books myself, by setting one in ancient Greece.

Ayo:

But now it is just overwhelming, with people like Steven Saylor.

Margaret:

Whom I admire very much. He is doing something so different from Lindsey Davis. Because Lindsey Davis is what you would call a ďrompĒ and you couldnít say that about Steven Saylor. Dealing with the reality of history - a very dark story - and dealing with the transition between one state of affairs and another. The death of the republican Rome and the birth of the empire. His first was the life of Cicero and it is a period of history full of fascinating and shocking episodes. There is a sense of form in his relation to history.

Ayo:

He always uses a specific historical event, but Lindseyís are a lot more amusing.

Margaret:

Stevenís are real images of history on a deep level although I wouldnít say that Lindseyís arenít because I think that the greatest thing that historical novelists can do for you is to remind you that real people lived in the past and the past is not only in history books. People lived and breathed.

Ayo:

If you could pick five books to take away on holiday, which would they be?

Margaret:

They would have to be The Importance of being Ernestine by Dorothy Cannell, which is light reading, I have Aristotleís Ethics, and I am waiting to buy some books, so I should think of something good to take away on holiday with me. Of course I have been looking to see if there is anything new by one of my favourite detective storywriters. I shall probably take Brick Lane by Monica Ali because I havenít read it yet and I am carrying around with me the guidebook to the Bahamas; I have already done my trip to the Bahamas. Blue Guide to Greece - the Blue Guides are immense sources - you can get more information quickly from them than in a lot of academic books. The people who write those guidebooks are unsung heroes of research.

Ayo:

What are you working on at the moment? I believe that you mentioned a bit about it earlier.

Margaret:

The forthcoming novel - The Mysteries of Eleusis. Eleusis is a small town about 11 kilometres away from Athens which the Athenians took over but which retained its own character. They got all deeds for their own local Government and it was the centre for the worship for the goddess Persephone so every year the initiates processed from Athens. After they went through the initial rituals as candidates they went to this grand procession in September which amounted to three days of mystery celebration and initiation - a big religious experience and people came. There were only three regulations for becoming an initiate - you would allow male and female slaves that were free, but you had to be fifteen years old (old enough to know what you were doing), you had to have never committed a murder (because thatís a crime against the Gods which they canít forgive) and you must be able to speak Greek otherwise you wouldnít know what was going on. You had to pay for your sacrificial pig and for getting a guide and so on. You were not supposed to reveal what went on so to use the phrase Ďthe Eleusinian mysteriesí signifies something that is unknown and mysterious. But this is an extremely important religion and it is different from the worship of Zeus and Apollo. It is experiential, much more akin to Christianity I think - a sacramental experience enacted by the seeker and it changed peopleís lives, and it offered immortality.

Ayo:

Thank you for the interview.

Margaret:

You are welcome, I really enjoyed it!


Margaret Doody

Books by Margaret Doody -

Aristotle Detective
Aristotle and Poetic Justice
Aristotle and the Secrets of Life
Poison in Athens


 

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