Jennifer Saint’s 2021 debut novel Ariadne, a Sunday Times bestseller and Waterstones Book of the Month released in the US by Flatiron, brought fascinating women from Greek myth to life. She now turns her attention to the famous House of Atreus and the women of the Trojan War in Elektra, sharing the intertwined stories of neglected princess Elektra, cursed priestess Cassandra, and vengeful queen Clytemnestra. I connected with Jennifer to talk about how her background in classics influences her research, finding light to balance the darkness, and which mythological figure she’s tackling next.
One of the things I loved most about both your previous book, Ariadne, and this one is that the title character isn’t the only one whose perspective we see. Elektra’s name is on the cover, but Clytemnestra and Cassandra also get to say their piece. Was that part of your plan for this book from the beginning, or did it evolve?
I always intended to have all three women as narrators but their roles definitely evolved a lot over the course of writing it. I started with Clytemnestra – what happens to her when her daughter Iphigenia is promised in marriage to Achilles is a moment in Greek mythology that always resonated very powerfully with me from the first time I read it as a child. I had always wanted to tell her side of that story. Cassandra is also a mythological figure who drew so much of my curiosity and sympathy. In today’s world, the idea of someone who can see impending disaster but isn’t believed when she tries to warn everyone about it felt so tragically relevant. I also wanted to include the story of Troy, a subject of endless fascination and appeal for anyone with even a fleeting interest in classics, but I wanted to see it from inside the besieged city rather than from the perspective of the Greek camps which is how it’s so often presented. Throughout the writing process, it was Elektra who grew and developed the most – she was certainly the most challenging character to understand and it took much longer for me to find her voice. I think that made her the most intriguing to me and it was so important to me to try to figure her out. When I did, and as I realised that the whole novel was really built around her and the decisions she makes, I made her the central focus.
How closely do you stick to your sources when writing a novel? Given that you studied classical literature in your university years, I’d assume you’re familiar with many different versions of the same myths as told in epic poetry and plays and depicted in ancient art and artifacts. Did you use, say, the Oresteia as the jumping-off point for your characterizations, or did you pull from different inspirations depending on the character?
This is a myth with a wealth of sources to draw from and I absolutely started with the Oresteia. The prologue of the novel is the lighting of the beacons to signal the fall of Troy, which is how the first play in the trilogy, Agamemnon, begins – I still remember reading that scene in the classroom when I was seventeen and how it gave me chills. It’s so atmospheric and the way that Aeschylus uses the motif of dark and light was something I wanted to emulate in this novel too. However, there are many more inspirations – I took ideas from other plays such as Euripides’ Electra, Sophocles’ Electra, and keen-eyed readers will spot moments from the Iliad and the Odyssey too. I always search out artwork relating to the myths – paintings, vases, and statues which give me a strong sense of what I want to create visually as well as giving hints about the characters and their situations, and the ruins and artifacts from Mycenae are invaluable – the stone lionesses at the gate to the Mycenaean palace are so wonderfully symbolic and so they feature in the novel too.
Anyone who’s read even a little bit about the Trojan War knows that some very dark stuff happens in that story, especially to women. How do you find enough light to balance that darkness? How do you keep the stories of women in these situations from being unrelentingly grim?
This was a major preoccupation for me when I set out to write this novel. The horrors of warfare, in particular the abuse of women, was an unavoidable and integral part of the story and I wanted to give it the weight it deserved without lingering on it. I looked at how other authors had handled it, for example Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which doesn’t shy away from the women’s suffering but creates a camaraderie between them along with some hope and humour which makes it such a compelling and brilliant read. My characters, however, are far more isolated in their suffering, so I had to find something internal in each of them that gave them the strength to continue and to have faith in themselves to forge their own path. I wanted them to find meaning and purpose in their lives and for me as an author to guide them towards some kind of peace. These stories have survived so long for a reason – I think we tell them to make sense of terrible things and to find hope and connection, so however dark they get there is always something to keep us going.
Was the process of writing Elektra similar to the process of writing Ariadne, or did the two books feel different? Were you more confident going into your second book than your debut?
They were very different because the world was such a different place when I was writing them! I wrote Ariadne in 2019 around my teaching job as a creative escape with no expectation that anyone would ever read it apart from me and maybe my mum. When I came to write Elektra in 2020, everything had changed: I had a publishing deal which was amazing but then the pandemic struck. We were in rolling lockdowns, I was home-schooling my young children and I think that the intense pressure and claustrophobia in the novel is certainly reflective of that anxious and strange situation we were all so abruptly plunged into. I also knew that people would read this one, so I had to make an effort to push aside any self-consciousness while I was writing and not to let that influence me or distort the process. I was so buoyed up by the lovely messages I had from readers and I knew that I wanted the second book to be the best it could be – having an audience created more of a sense of responsibility, but also a great feeling of community. I’m very excited to share Elektra with them!
Speaking of that audience, I have to ask what readers and fans want to know – what’s next for you? Do you have another figure or figures from myth in mind?
I have recently finished the first draft of my third book and I can reveal that it is about Atalanta, the only woman to join Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece! Atalanta is a brilliant heroine – she’s bold, fearless and determined to create her own legend in a world dominated by male heroes. Writing her story has been a real joy.
By Jennifer Saint
Published May 03, 2022
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).