Today we're talking with Tess Collins, author of Helen of Troy
FQ: What inspired you to base a novel on the legend of Helen of Troy?
I've always loved mythology but the basis for the novel came from a real life situation of finding myself as the object of affection between two really terrific men and having to make a difficult choice. Of course, I wasn't married and had never found myself in that situation before or since, but it's not as enviable as one might think. As I was pondering my own circumstances, an odd thing happened every night as I lay in bed. I started hearing Helen's voice in my head and she started telling her story. At first, I didn't realize who she was or what kind of story this would be, but I knew some character was wanting to be born. So I transcribed her words, applying the writer's craft along the way, and Helen's book shaped up into a tale all it's own. Out of moon-looney emotion come art! Helen of Troy is myth-based fiction as opposed to metafiction. James N. Frey describes metafiction in The Key, How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, as being “...nothing more than authorial sleight of hand. Metafiction grotesquely turns myth-based fiction into an academic exercise, a parlor game for the well-read classicist.” In contrast, Helen of Troy is its own story, a struggle where the characters are transformed through conflict. Subjects explored in this novel are pride, passion, friendship, and the effect of the past upon the present.
FQ: Did you find that having a basic plot already in place made it easier to write this book than your other novels? Or was it more difficult to come up with a fresh take on a well-known story?
I believe all human beings respond to a mythic structure, whether they know it or not. Myth is an obsession of mine because it delves into our collective psyches. The Helen myth has a basic structure that is familiar but I needed to make the old new and the situations fresher, add elements that are different from the original, eliminate others. I also added a great deal of humor in this story that you rarely see in other renderings of the myth. The myth is basically a tragedy while in this story everyone ends up where they need to be, a great deal wiser even though most of them would never admit it.
FQ: You did a great job of reminding the reader of the key points of the Helen of Troy legend throughout the book. I really appreciated this, because my Greek mythology is pretty rusty. Can you recommend any good, readable sources that you came across in your research for anyone interested in reading the original story in more detail?
FQ: You included some really lovely descriptions in the story, such as the moonbows, orchids, and ice castle, which gave it a kind of fairytale quality. Do you plan out these scenes or do they just come to you as you write?
I'd been wanting to use the moonbow in a story for a long time since it is a phenomena that occurs only a few places in the world, and one of those places is Cumberland Falls near where I grew up in Eastern Kentucky. Love is the one emotion that unhinges even the most stable of us and the moon plays right into that lunacy, shall we say. So this story seemed the perfect placement for the moonbow. Orchids, as well, are one of the most seductive flowers in the world and there's a whole cult of the orchid among those who grow them. It's been said one bitten by the orchid bug, you're never the same again. They call it orchid fever. As for the ice castle, I knew I had to come up with some sort of Trojan Horse and it would have to be something readily available in a small mountain town. When I come up against a story issue where I'm not sure what to do, I ask myself--what have I never seen before or what would be really fun here—an ice castle popped into my head.
FQ: Your work in theater management must have exposed you to a lot of great dramas. Do you feel that this work has helped you in writing your own stories?
We have a saying in theatre that there is always more drama off the stage than on; and I've found this often to be true whether it three ushers in a love triangle or an engineer making death threats against me. I've had a great run in theatre and couldn't have asked for a better day job. I think there's a novel in the making about theater since I know where the bodies are buried and who has slept with whom, but I have to wait until a few more people die before I write it.
FQ: The picture you paint of small town life in Troy sounds both great, in the way people stick together and take care of each other, and somewhat confining, in the way that everyone knows everyone else’s business. Was growing up in Middlesboro at all like living in Troy?
In Helen of Troy, I've drawn the best parts of living in a small town, and in Middlesboro, there are many good people who would help you any way they can in times of need. It also has a colorful history of shootouts, murder, and mayhem. So, if you want to read about the dark side of living in a small town, try out one of my mysteries.
FQ: Your website says that you are currently living in San Francisco, but the Appalachian setting of your novels implies that this area is close to your heart. Do you have any plans to return there in the future?
Though I've lived in San Francisco for many years, Appalachia is in my blood. It's a place I love and hate, and as I've grown older I come to realize I'll never escape it's hold. When I go back to visit I'm always astounded by the beauty of the mountains; the wit and humor of my cousins; and the contrasts of poverty and crime. There are as many successful people there as poverty-ridden no-accounts who star in the documentaries. People battle for justice as they see it, and if that means a knock-down fistfight breaks out on election day, then there's gonna be a fight. Many of us who leave the area struggle with who we are in that page of history that is as bloody and infuriating as it is nostalgic. But don't bad-mouth our hometowns to us. We'll usually come out fighting to defend our heritage. Will I ever return there... yeah, probably, but there's a part of my mind and heart that really never left.