Carpinello's Writing Pages welcomes YA author and fellow Muser Sherry Antonetti and her story The Book of Helen.
First, Sherry tells us about herself:
My name is Sherry Antonetti. I’m a married Catholic mother of ten. I have a master’s in Special Education and write columns, articles and blog. This is my first book.
Why did you pick to write books for YA?
It’s not so much that I picked writing for young adults, I picked writing stories about powerful women. I patterned these women after corporate CEOs. For people entering into the work force, they probably have experienced a boss or professor who dominates or controls everything like the two strong women in my book, Helen and Polyoxo. They (like my character Pythia), have to find their voice and find their feet in the world. This is done in part through apprenticeship to these difficult leaders/employers, and in part by graduating from being a mere follower and recipient of information, to being an active creator/orchestrator, speaking up and acting independently, and sometimes, in direct confrontation of those who have up to now, been the people in charge.
What types of books do you like to read?
I won’t say everything but I do love the classics, stuff English majors get assigned and everyone else rolls their eyes. Obviously Greek Mythology and the subsequent inspirations drawn from those early Greeks is a big part of my reading stack. I also enjoy historical fiction and auto-biographies (The Liar’s Club trilogy is a favorite) and semi-memoirs (Stephen King’s On Writing which I’m currently reading). They’re brilliant because even though every book that tells a person’s life or even selections of life, it reveals more comprehensively than the writer even knew at the time, they were revealing. I think that’s the joy of reading, finding that jewel of truth in whatever book you’ve found yourself.
When you are not writing, what do you like to do?
I’m a mother, I do everything. However I like to play games with my children and to cook. I’d love to tell you I collect tea kettles and raise heirloom tomatoes and meet with friends at the museum downtown to discuss politics. The reality is I make cupcakes not Instagram worthy, my husband is the gardener, and the closest I get to a museum is my refrigerator. The upside is every day I’m treated to new works of art from up and coming artists who show lots of love and passion for their craft and give me one on one analysis of their work for cupcakes.
Tell us about The Book of Helen and how the story came to be.
I started writing and submitting articles to various places in 2005. Amazingly, I had a rash of beginner’s luck with acceptances and that encouraged me to keep writing. By 2007, I'd begun to think, I should try something more than articles. I should write a book...but about what? My daughter Regina was born that year in April. She contracted a respiratory disease that took us to the hospital for a week. When a baby is sick and you're the mom stuck at the hospital, you can do three things...pester the doctors, watch bad television and worry over your child. Having done all three, while my daughter slept, I tried reading. My husband had placed the new translation by Faegles of The Odyssey in my overnight bag. Reading it, the line about Helen slipping a drug (opium) into the wine to allow the men to think about the Trojan war without getting upset, jumped out at me.
That afternoon I wrote the story with the tag, "It started with an apple." I liked the person who told the story so much, I began writing more Helen stories. The original idea had been to do a series of stories (sort of an Arabian Nights) based on the various trinkets and treasures Helen deemed sentimental. It turned into something more.
I thought about how she had to manipulate and charm and work the ancient world and envisioned her as a CEO in a predatory world. Helen became a composite of multiple strong women I've known in my life plus a goodly dose of the mythic woman from all the literature. As I researched, I discovered Helen to be the original Fan Fiction woman. She has been reinvented in almost every age of Western civilization. She still holds a grip on our imagination and culture today as illustrated by a recently coined word; millihelen: the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship. Beauty can be measured using the metric system. Who knew?
Writing this book, I sought to answer three basic questions that go unanswered in the original texts and many of the subsequent reinvisionings of the Helen/Paris/Menelaus Trojan war story.
1) What made Helen leave Sparta? (She's queen, she's in charge; she's the actual power of that world). Most of the time it's simply Paris being beautiful or the gods directly compelling the action or Menelaus bashing which oddly is designed in most cases to exonerate Helen for leaving.
2) What made the Trojans keep her? They could have ended the siege by sending her out or killing her. Her beauty alone would have been sufficient perhaps for Paris, but what made all of Troy decide to stick it out? If you read The Trojan Women, you’ll find not all of Troy found her beguiling, but the Helen in that play is so strong, she defeats the justified wrath of Queen Hecuba. So Helen had to be more than a pretty face to warrant a ten year war that ended a civilization.
3) What made Menelaus take her back after all of that? She’s the most famous adulterer of the Greek world. She’s shamed him. She’s forced Greece to empty its city states of grown men on her behalf to bring her back. She’s caused the deaths of countless people and suffering to those left behind. The line in The Aeneid, “She bared her breasts, he dropped his sword,” is all the explanation of their reconciliation we get. Yet in The Odyssey, it is clear that the two of them have a happy marriage later in life. So how do we get from running away and a 10 year bloody war to apparent tranquil domestic hearts in accord with one another?
I had fun running through all the myths to answer these questions. For a first time writer, having that wealth of material to draw from, allowed me to focus more of my attention on the crafting of their personalities and their interactions.
What’s next for your writing? Are you working on a new story?
Yes. A sequel of sorts, The Book of Penelope. When Odysseus went off to war, he took ten triremes. Those ships needed 200 people to operate. Thus he gutted Ithaca of 2000 people to fulfill his oath at the wedding feast of Helen, leaving his wife (a foreigner) to manage the decimated people not headed to Troy. Ithaca is an island based economy. There would be a tremendous strain on the whole community from the knowledge and labor base evaporating overnight. How she held them together for those ten years of the war and then coped when no men came home the following ten, interests me. I also think there was one hell of a fight when he returned, and that wasn’t because he slaughtered 108 suitors. So their relationship has some fire and spark, but there are long term ramifications to their relationship from his actions at home and abroad, and her long loneliness. Lots of unknown stories buried within the original material to tell.
What advice do you have for other authors?
First, read books. Read read read. Read everything. Good books will inspire, bad books will demand you prove you’re better.
Second, write. Every day. Even if the words are blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I belong to a poetry group just for this purpose, to make sure every day the creative muscles get stretched.
Third, rewrite. Editing stinks. You have to kill things you love. It’s painful, (for me, like weeding a garden). But it is the craft of writing, to trim and prune and pull out whatever does not advance the story. How? Read your work aloud. Nothing edits faster than hearing your own clunky prose out of your own mouth. As an added bonus, you will grow into your character’s voices faster.
Fourth, use coincidence to get into problems, but never to get out of them. Forced action feels forced. It makes the reader put the book down, it’s too hard a sell.
Fifth, writer’s block. Pick up a book and read. You can’t pour out words if your mind is empty of them, or all the words you have feel used up.
Final thoughts: Remember, all writing is an orchestration, a manipulation of words to create effect, so the goal of a writer is to shape the words to be as invisible as possible, and let the crafted creation pull people past the words and into the experience.
Anything else you want readers to know?
I can be bribed with good
chocolate and a diet coke?
I have a Facebook page: The Book of Helen. You can go there, like it, find links to buy the book, reviews and
supplemental material about the story, like things that were left on the
cutting room floor, character sketches and other tips on writing.
Where can readers find you and your books?
Museitup Publishing took a chance on me, assigned editors, a cover artist and helped launch this book. They’re the easiest and least expensive way to purchase it. They also have all the formats for e-readers available.
The Book of Helen is also available through Amazon in the e-books section or you can search their platform for Sherry Antonetti.