The Way Home: Origins of the novel

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home officially launches in just a few days. The pre-order also has found its way to Amazon early, both for the paperback and the e-book. It’s actually doing pretty well already, given that I haven’t officially announced that it is available! It is a little bit surreal, seeing it in the top ten of its little niche, alongside Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. It’ll be properly available next week, and you can bet I’ll let you know when it’s out. In the meantime, a few people have asked me where I got the idea to write the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, a YA adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

37781381_214333729285109_8694746899422380032_n

Check out some of the amazing illustrations from Matt Wolf!

It started when I was an undergraduate in Latin class. My lecturer’s enthusiasm for the Aeneid was infectious, and I was not immune. Just about every lesson he would put a passage from Virgil on the board for us to decipher with the air of Santa Claus pulling a toy from his sack. Determined to know more of the story, I picked up a translation of the Aeneid and read it cover to cover. I had encountered Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey before, but the plight of the Trojan prince Aeneas spoke to me on a level I had not really expected. Perhaps the desire for a place to belong spoke to me in my late teens. On a more superficial level, I loved the sense of adventure. I had always been a reader of fantasy and historical thrillers, and here was a classic quest with monsters, gods, and epic battles. More than that, I adored the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. Though I sometimes found the character Aeneas difficult, it helped me to understand that when we are reading classics we are dealing with the ideals of another age. Discovering the joys of Latin scansion helped me to find the music in Virgil and gave me an appreciation of poetic language which I had never really found before. Every time I returned to the poem, the same thought would occur to me: this would make such a great novel!

Later in my degree, when I came to translate the poem itself, I decided to translate it into the prose of an adventure novel whose language echoed the historical thrillers I had always enjoyed. Something along the lines of Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell. There was just one problem: the translation was awful! For some reason, dactylic hexameters didn’t gel with the direct language of a thriller or fantasy. I hated what I had written, and so would anybody with sense, so I shelved it and moved on.

Several years passed. I wrote a lot of terrible stories which will never see the light of day. I married and became a young dad. I did a postgrad research degree, worked for a museum, and immersed myself deeper into the classical world than is healthy. Eventually I went to present a paper at the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading. This was the first time I had travelled overseas on my own, and I felt very far from home. It was worth it though. One of the themes of the conference was the reception of Greek and Roman culture in children’s and young adult novels. There were a lot of great panels on Caroline Lawrence and Rosemary Sutcliffe. But the key moment didn’t come until I was on my way home.

At Heathrow I met a young woman who was struggling with her luggage. I offered to help, and we got chatting, and I casually asked where she was from. At this point she started crying—she was from Bosnia, but she was effectively homeless, a citizen of nowhere. Neither side of the civil war wanted anything to do with her. One side rejected her because of her heritage, and the other side because of her father’s religion. The war had been over for years, but she was still a refugee. She had endured horrors as a child which no human being should have to go through. I was sitting on the plane home, reflecting on what she had said. And that’s when it hit me: the Aeneid is in its essence a refugee’s tale from a world of gods and magic. It’s a tale for anybody who has felt there’s no place in this world for them. A theme which, two thousand years after the Aeneid was written, is still sadly relevant. And somehow this idea connected with the panels on YA literature I had seen. By the time I got off the plane, a plan was forming.

I wasn’t going to translate the Aeneid. I was going to adapt it, tell the story in my voice. I wasn’t going to put Virgil up on a pedestal. Instead, I would write an original work which captured something of what made the story significant to me. It would still be a rip-roaring adventure for young readers. Yet it would focus on the deeper theme of the refugee crisis. My goal was to make it a great story in its own right, not edutainment. And I would infuse it with something of my own experiences, make it personal. And you know what? This last part was actually really scary. But for the first time, I felt like the writing worked. It was real.

Five years and many drafts later, here we are. The book will be in readers’ hands very shortly. I’ve done all I can to make it the best story possible.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

promo4

Free short story: The Electric Touch

Salvete, readers!

I have been hard at work for a few weeks on a short story, a prequel to Ashes of Olympus, my historical fantasy novel which comes out in July. I finished the draft this very morning and will send it to my publisher soon. Working on the short story got me looking through my old files in which I dabbled with the genre, and I was startled to discover a YA science fiction story I had completely forgotten. I thought I would share it here. If you enjoy the work, please consider signing up to my newsletter. 

THE ELECTRIC TOUCH

You never forget your first love.

She was called Maya—naming your children after American provinces was fashionable, once upon a time. She had freckles on her nose, wore a beret sometimes, and would whistle a tune as we walked hand-in-hand. I suppose it’s Maya’s eyes I remember most. They would glow like St. Elmo’s fire when she smiled. They were meant to do that, of course. She’d designed them herself.

In my day, they still called people like Maya cyborgs. Such a cold, clinical name for something so beautiful! And people like me? My parents took me to a psychiatrist, and ze diagnosed me as a bionsexual. It’s strange to think the word doesn’t carry a stigma any more, but it had them worried. They weren’t the only ones. Somehow it was everyone’s business that the organic-looking kid wanted to be with the ‘borg. To most people, me and Maya were just a dirty pair of sparkers.

Maya didn’t care; her parents were OK with it. Mine weren’t.

Dad almost had a fit when I first brought Maya to our place for afternoon tea. He stormed out, gnashing his teeth. Tata, who was so much gentler, ran after him. That night, after Maya had gone home, I tried to talk about it with them.

‘Dad, it’s no different from when you met Tata—G’pa didn’t like that, either. But you showed him—you’re married now and everything!’

But that didn’t help. Dad didn’t much like talking about his father.

‘The Church forbids it, I tell you! The Imperatrix Sacra will never, ever forgive you!’ he said.

As I sobbed into my pillow, Tata stroked my hair.

‘Why is Dad so angry?’ I asked.

‘That girl has corrupted her flesh into the likeness of a man-made object,’ said Tata.

‘But Tata, I love her.’

‘I know you think you love her. And I’m sure she’s a very nice girl, underneath all the tech. But her very soul is corrupted, my honey. Your daddy’s right to be upset.’

‘But… I don’t see how someone like Maya—’

‘It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older. Anyway, there’s still plenty of time for love. You’re barely seventeen after all. Don’t be so quick to decide. After all, this could just be a phase. A lot of kids go through a curious stage. You’ll grow out of this someday, you’ll see.’

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

I wanted to be what my parents wanted me to be. It would have saved me a lot of mobbing on the cybernet. Great G’ma would just tut and tell me not to worry about ‘trolls,’ whatever that meant. But it’s hard not to worry when shimmering holographic avatars mob you as soon as you log into school.

‘Hey, lover-borg,’ they’d hoot as my avatar entered the library-space. Sometimes they’d scrawl the words ‘sparker slut’ on Maya’s Socialspace Wall when the administrative mainframe wasn’t looking. No-one was ever as brave as Maya.

To this day, I still don’t understand why they were so afraid of us: for some people like Dad and Tata, it was a religious thing. That, I could get, sort of. But the other kids? Maybe they were just repeating what their parents told them. Maybe they were just weirded out because a bionsexual connects to the conscience and not to the body. I dunno, I got my contracep on my eleventh birthday like everybody else: Dad and Tata said to go nuts. And I could have, I suppose. But I just sort of… forgot.

I wished I could like organics, wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t have anything against organics and I still don’t. It’s not like I hate people or anything. Or at least, I hope not. When I was little, some of my best friends were organics. By the time I was a teenager, there was a kind of distance there, but I still cared for them. It was weird. I could love an organic like they were my own family but not in any other way. Even then, I could not deny the allure of the synthetic. I could not resist the electric touch of Maya’s hand stroking my face, or the way the sunlight would catch in the golden wire of her hair.

I decided I didn’t care what Dad or the Imperatrix Sacra said after we had interfaced for the first time. We made sure we had the house to ourselves. It was important that we were connected face-to-face. It wasn’t safe to interface over the cyberweb. You never knew what pervs were watching and recording: this way, our brainwaves were our own. We were careful, we were cautious. We used a firewall. At school they had warned us of spontaneous virus transfer.

She brushed her fingertips against my temples: a slight tingling. I stared deep into her eyes and our breathing synchronised. The world fell away in ripples of colour and light, and we let go of all but each other.

I could feel anxiety emanating from her like ink-drops in water. In her eyes I saw mine widen in surprise. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t realised this was her first time too. Breathe. Just breathe. The tendrils receded. Reach. Touch. Never moving, we caressed in the twilight. Slowly, hesitantly, our very selves merged. This was communication beyond words, beyond skin on skin. We walked together in a dream, flew together over the Advanced Nations and joined the stars. Our consciences crackled and then roared as euphoric fusion. I lost myself in her, and she in me.

And then the greatest shock of all: to see myself as she saw me. Not with her eyes, but with her heart. How could I be so lovable?

At last we withdrew back into ourselves. Maya wiped my eyes. The decoupling was gentle, but it almost seemed the connection was lost before I knew it. Holding her against me, I understood. I had Maya, and she had me.

The rest was up to God.

 

© Julian Barr, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Julian Barr and jbarrauthor.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.