INTERVIEW WITH LAUREL CORONA
I am delighted to be able to interview an author I’ve long admired, Laurel Corona. Laurel has a very interesting background; she was a professor of English and the humanities at San Diego City College and is the author of a number of Young Adult books written for school libraries. She is also the author of Until The Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, and The Four Seasons, a novel about Antonio Vivaldi’s Venice. And she has perfectly expressed the responsibilities of the historical novelist in what I think should be our Eleventh Commandment–Do not defame the dead. Today is the publication date for Laurel’s new novel, Penelope’s Daughter. This has been at the top of my TBE list as soon as I heard about it, and I plan to treat myself as soon as Lionheart goes off to my editor. But I will let you learn about Penelope’s Daughter and its fascinating premise in Laurel’s own words.
How did you come up with the idea for PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER?
I guess you could say I gave birth to Xanthe, the main character in PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, over the dinner table one night. (That’s a weird image isn’t it–giving birth to someone else’s child among the dinner plates and wine glasses?
My partner Jim and I had recently returned from a midwinter trip to Venice, where I was researching a few final details for THE FOUR SEASONS before it went to press. We were reminiscing about how much fun we’d had, and Jim wondered aloud what might be an equally fun location for my second novel.
At the time I was already in the very early planning stages for what I thought I was going to write next, but out of curiosity, I asked him where he wanted to go. Jim is a great lover of the classics, so I wasn’t surprised when he said Greece, but it was news to me that, as widely traveled as he is, he had never been there.
“Okay,” I said, “we have to go. Now all I need to figure out is what the novel will be about.” I don’t remember which one of us suggested Homer, but I will never forget Jim’s reaction when I said, “How about if, when Odysseus goes off to the Trojan War, he doesn’t know Penelope is pregnant with a daughter?”
“You can’t mess with Homer!” Jim insisted. And of course, once he said that, I had to write PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER just to prove him wrong!
How does putting a daughter in the story change it?
The ODYSSEY has two narrative strands, Odysseus’ adventures and the “meanwhile, back at the ranch” story about the suitors trying to steal Odysseus’ wife and kingdom. Odysseus’ adventures aren’t part of my book at all, but once I thought about the impact of a daughter on the story of the women left behind–whom, quite frankly, Homer shows very little interest in–the whole epic broke open as a far more fascinating tale than the one Homer wrote down.
Homer’s Penelope is a male fantasy, a woman stubbornly faithful to–and helpless without–her man. Odysseus is gone nearly twenty years, but what’s that to a good wife? There was no way I could base a novel around someone who does nothing but weep and moan about her situation and pray for her husband’s return.
What is there between the lines in Homer’s story, however, is that Penelope is a teenaged bride, a pampered princess taken from her luxurious childhood home to a rocky, poor, island kingdom. She lives with her new husband, a rough-hewn local warlord, only long enough for their first child to reach his first birthday. She is probably at most seventeen when he leaves her alone, without the support of friends or family, for twenty years. That’s an interesting starting point for a story about a girl who must rise to the occasion and become a strong woman, mother, and queen.
The other immediately obvious thing was that the suitors would have no interest in Penelope if she had a daughter. That daughter, not Penelope, would be Odysseus’ heir if Telemachus, her older brother, were to die–which, Homer tells us, the suitors have in mind. My story revolves around the fact that in this violent and predatory environment, the victorious suitor would be the one who impregnated Xanthe, forced a marriage, and produced an heir. Penelope, therefore, must figure out how to keep her son from being murdered and her daughter from being raped. All this becomes part of the plot of my novel.
The third revelation was Helen. We know from other sources that Helen was married at twelve and had an eight-year-old daughter when she went off to Troy. That means she had to be at least twenty-one at the time the Trojan War started and thirty-one when it was finally over. Helen and Penelope are cousins fairly close in age, so when Penelope sends thirteen-year-old Xanthe to Sparta to keep her safe in Helen’s care, the Helen whom Xanthe lives with is middle aged by the standards of the time. Being ravishingly beautiful is enough to make her important in Homer’s story, but an older woman had better be interesting in her own right. I wondered what someone like Helen would be like at that age, after all she has seen and done, and it was really a joy to give her substance in my story.
What have you learned about yourself from writing fiction? How is your own personality reflected in your novels?
I have to agree about the autobiographical underpinnings of all fiction, but I think this means something different from what many people think. It doesn’t necessarily mean that our characters are aspects of ourselves, or that our plots connect to events in our lives. What is autobiographical is that the outlook on life that is the product of an author’s genes, environment, and experiences is going to show up in the way he or she chooses a subject for a novel and then goes about formulating the plot, characters, and settings.
I am blessed with what some people call the “happy gene.” Even at the lowest points of my life I have been optimistic, and I tend to see others in a positive light. I am most comfortable telling stories about healthy, functional people who manage to thrive where they are, and have the courage to act to change what they can. Tension and conflict in my novels are far more a result of historical events, and the societal limitations put on women (and men too, but women are my focus) than they are brought on by nasty or villainous characters–although I have a few of those too.
The message I have for readers is the same one I have for myself every day, that life is manageable regardless of our circumstances, that people have the strength and character to rise to whatever the situation demands, and that tomorrow is always worth sticking around for. My novels have helped me to clarify and affirm those beliefs for myself and I hope readers hear those themes loud and clear in all my books.
What can readers expect next from Laurel Corona?
Novel number three, FINDING EMILIE will be released by Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books in May 2011. This, by the way, was the idea I was mulling over when that dinner table “birth” changed my plans. It is based on the story of real-life mathematician and physicist, Emilie du Châtelet, a Parisian noblewoman who lived during the Enlightenment. Most who know of her recall that she was Voltaire’s lover for many years, but she should be far better known for her scientific work, which include a translation and commentary on Newton’s Principia. She was a free-spirited and flamboyant character, whose life was cut short at age 43 by complications of childbirth after an unexpected pregnancy from her affair with a dashing young soldier/poet.
The story follows the daughter she gave birth to six days before her death. Through vignettes about Emilie, readers learn more about the mother than the daughter herself knows, and the story revolves around the daughter’s quest to figure out who she is and what she wants, and to shape her own destiny by discovering the facts about the remarkable woman whom, unknown to her, she so resembles.
There’s a lot more about FINDING EMILIE and PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER on my website, www.laurelcorona.com, as well as a peek at my work in progress, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD. Also, as a way of delivering on my dedication of PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER to “all the children left behind when fathers and mothers go off to war,” I maintain a blog, “Xanthe’s World,” on issues affecting military children at www.pensdaughter.blogspot.com.
Thank you, Laurel, for stopping by. If I was eager to read Penelope’s Daughter before, now I am downright impatient!