Thursday, September 29, 2011

Marie Phillips on Setting the Olympian Gods in Modern-Day London

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2007)

In her debut novel “Gods Behaving Badly”(Little Brown, $24), the British author Marie Phillips has updated the story of the Olympian gods, set in a dilapidated house in London. The twelve gods have lost most of their powers. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is reduced to being a phone sex operator; Apollo, the god of the Sun, is a TV psychic; Ares, the god of war, promotes the War on Terror; Artemis, the goddess of hunting, is a dog walker, and Dionysis, the god of drinking and excess, is a nightclub owner.

For four centuries, the extended family of bitter gods has been living, sleeping together and fighting in a filthy house. Two mortals, Alice and Neil, become entangled with the lecherous, self-centered Apollo. Zeus kills Alice and Neil, following in the footsteps of Orpheus, must go down through the London subway, to Hades, the underworld, to rescue his beloved Alice from the world of the dead. Phillips has written a raucous tale of Greek gods run amok in modern times.

Phillips, 31, was raised in North London and educated at Cambridge University. She has worked as a researcher for the BBC and as a bookseller. Phillips spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley from her home in London.

Q. How did you come up for the idea of ”Gods Behaving Badly”?

A. It was very much a Eureka moment. A friend of mine was making a documentary about a school on an American air base and I was doing the sound recording. A philosophy teacher was talking about how the gods of the ancient world were more human and complex and had very dark sides, which is much different than the god in the Judeo-Christian religions, who is a benign, loving presence. What would happen if the Greeks were right and we were wrong? The Greek gods would still be around because they are immortal. I thought this would be a great idea for a novel.

Q. What kind of research did you do for the novel?

A. I started off with reading “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” by Robert Colasso. It’s this incredibly impressionistic book. It looks at the gods very schematically and artistically, and it sparked my imagination. Then I read Robert Graves and others on mythology in a more methodical way. It is not really the facts in the research that are most useful, but the time that you get to develop this great imaginative world.

Q. Why have the gods lost most of their powers?

A. Belief in the gods of Olympus has not worn well. Except for a few fanatics in Greece, no one believes in these gods. A lot of this story is the metaphor of aging, the fear of aging and a fear of mortality. When you are young, you think you are the center of the universe. As you get older, you don’t get the attention you used to get. As we lose our powers, we start to feel irrelevant.

Q. The gods all have jobs. How did you give them out?

A. I knew the gods were going to lose their powers, so I knew they had to have jobs. I was thinking through the characteristics of each god and what would suit them. Dionysis being a club owner and Athena being an academic struck me as obvious, but Apollo being a TV psychic allowed me to play around with my own experiences working on a live TV show. The jobs for the gods came quite organically and were quite good in letting me develop the characters. Since many of the people who read the book won’t know anything about the Greek gods, it also allowed me to summarize who they are and what their powers were.

Q. You make Hades the underworld similar to a suburb of London. Why?

A. There’s this road that is called the North Circular Road, which goes around the northern part of London, where I am from. The road is lined with these endless, fake Tudor houses. Every time I drive down the road, which is constantly, I look out the car window and say, “This is hell.” When I die, I am going to end up in one of these little houses.

Q. In your conception of the modern underworld, you envision gigantic gaming halls where people play Scrabble for all eternity. Why?

A. There’s a bit in “The Odyssey,” a short moving passage where Odysseus goes to hell. He speaks to some of the people there. They are so unhappy because they have no bodies. They drink the waters of the River Lethe to forget. A lot of my conception of the underworld came from this. If you had no body forever, what would you do? Entertainment to stave off boredom would be the only thing left. The economy of the underworld became these strange casino-like complexes. They wouldn’t need money, so it wouldn’t be gambling. There would be enormous Scrabble or Boogle rooms that would go on forever.

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