I recently asked Diane Havens, the enchantress voicing Iambik’s new audiobook of Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis, if the experience had left her with any sizzling questions for the author. Narrating a novel is a hugely engaging process– which is especially true when the novel in question is as intimate as Alcestis, so Diane had plenty on her mind. Fortunately, Katharine was forthcoming, and offered some insights into writing for a character’s “voice,” editing sex scenes in a laundromat, and bringing humanity to the ancient gods.
Diane Havens: First of all, let me start by saying what a truly enjoyable experience it was to narrate Alcestis. She is a real woman as you have portrayed her, not a character out of a dusty ancient myth — and she is authentically complex. It was gratifying to voice her as she develops throughout the book as a woman who discovers much about herself, life, and in this story, death.
What inspired you to write it?
Katharine Beutner: I’m thrilled that you found Alcestis a compelling character to voice, because the question of “voice” was what inspired me to write the book. I knew the basic story of Alcestis, but I didn’t know the entire thing — I thought it concluded with her descent into the underworld after she chooses to die in her husband’s place. In fact, at the end of Euripides’ Alcestis, Heracles brings Alcestis back to her husband after three days, but she refuses to speak. Nobody seems particularly bothered by this. But I was bothered. I was reading the play during my lunch break at a part-time job the year after I graduated from college as a classics major, and I was, to put it bluntly, pissed. I decided to write a version of the story that followed Alcestis into the underworld, and to make Persephone, rather than Hades, the deity most interested in keeping her there.
DH: Sexuality in the book is dealt with honestly, and in a more psychological way than commonly found. That’s important, since Alcestis’ sexuality is integral to fleshing out her character. Was it difficult for you to find the right tone and balance when writing those scenes?
KB: I didn’t find it that difficult to write the sex scenes in which Alcestis is participating, though I do remember copy-editing one of the Alcestis/Persephone scenes at the laundromat and really hoping nobody was reading over my shoulder. What I found challenging was the visual description of sex between gods from Alcestis’s POV. There’s a fine line between disturbingly hot and ridiculous.
DH: Though the style of the book has a a period feel, it nevertheless comes off as very contemporary fiction. At first the book reminded me of Ursula LeGuin’s writing, but as I narrated it, it seemed much more modern a tale. That’s no small feat. What was your stylistic approach?
KB: I love Ursula Le Guin’s writing very much, especially The Left Hand of Darkness. And I think her notion of science fiction as a thought experiment is related to what you’re asking here. My stylistic approach grew out of a desire to psychologize the content of the myths — to portray what it might really have been like to live in a world full of gods in a stylistically accessible way. I’d guess that’s what makes it feel contemporary.
DH: You made each character, gods and goddesses included, motivated by that which makes us human. Yet the gods and goddesses in the story do keep that otherworldly distance. Persephone especially remains enigmatic. It was her character which I found most perplexing. The relationship between Persephone and Alcestis is so pivotal — and the lure of both death and Persephone to her seem almost interchangeable by the book’s end. For all the powerful male figures in the story, Persephone ends up coming off as the most powerful of all. Was that intentional?
KB: Yes, Persephone is the most powerful figure in the underworld in this story. She doesn’t have power over the Fates, though, given the way the Greek mythos was constructed, and I think she maintains power over Hades partly because he allows her to — because they both get something out of that imbalance. I wanted all the gods to keep that distant nature, to seem both fascinating and repellent to Alcestis. Since Persephone is the god with whom Alcestis has the closest contact, she should seem the most enigmatic, so I’m very glad that worked for you.
DH: During the writing process, do you read passages aloud to yourself? If so, how do you find this helpful?
KB: Yes, often. I don’t read out loud constantly while I write, but any time I’m getting even slightly bogged down, I read that sentence aloud. A writer friend, Kate Elliott, talks about knowing that a section of writing needs revision because it just sounds off, and that’s true for me too. The problem may be deeper than the prose rhythm, but the prose rhythm often won’t sound right if something else is wrong.
DH: How is the experience of hearing your words performed in audio? Any surprises?
KB: Really exciting. It’s one thing to know that readers are privately experiencing the book for themselves, and another to hear a unique recorded interpretation of it. As I said on Twitter, I’m used to the intonation choices I make when reading aloud at book events, so that’s the only surprise so far, I think — the surprise of how accustomed you can get to your own reading voice!
DH: I love narrating in first person as it is more liberating for the actor to become fully immersed in the story and provides consistency of point of view from which to work. As the author do you find it at all limiting? What are some of the challenges?
KB: That makes a lot of sense in terms of characterization. For the writer, first person is limiting in that you create that consistency through limitation — leaving out anything that doesn’t suit the main character’s knowledge and perceptions. I originally began writing this book in third person POV, but it was such a tight, limited third that it became obvious that it ought to be in first person. I also think a lot of writers of historical fiction choose first person POV because it is a comparatively easy way to immerse your readers in another time period. I’m trying to write a third person omniscient historical novel right now, and it is incredibly challenging to find the right distance for each character and to construct a narrator who organizes the entire work.
DH: There is so much beautiful imagery in Alcestis. Do you also write poetry?
KB: Thank you! I wrote poetry in high school and college, but I eventually realized that my poems were turning into poetic line-broken prose, so I started trying to learn how to tackle characterization, plot, and the other components of fiction. I’m still working on that.
DH: What would you say to someone who might classify Alcestis as feminist literature?
KB: Alcestis is absolutely a feminist text. It’s inspired by the desire to give voice to a woman who is silenced in the play that bears her name, and it’s concerned with portraying the balance of power between men and women in Alcestis’s profoundly unequal society. To me, those narrative goals are feminist.
DH: I understand the book has been nominated for some literary awards — and they are…?
KB: The book is a finalist for a Lesbian Debut Fiction Award from the Lambda Literary Association, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award from the Publishing Triangle, and the Compton Crook Award from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. I haven’t seen a list of the Compton Crook finalists, but the other lists are pretty astounding and I’m honored that the book was included.
And, because I’d recently been listening to the audiobook of Alcestis, I couldn’t help but sneak in a few additional questions for Katharine:
Miette Elm: Do you listen to many audiobooks? If so, when and where do you listen, and what are some favorites?
Katharine Beutner: I haven’t been commuting to campus as frequently this year since I’ve been holed up writing my dissertation, so I haven’t been listening to much of anything, unfortunately. I do have a bunch of LibriVox recordings waiting on my iPod, though — mostly Victorian novels.
ME: Who else is writing smart literary historical fiction right now? What titles would you like to see made into audio?
KB: I can’t get enough of Sarah Waters’s historical fiction. I loved The Little Stranger. I’m really looking forward to reading Elizabeth Loupas’s The Second Duchess, which was inspired by the Robert Browning poem. Regarding audiobooks, I was surprised to discover that there aren’t many audiobook versions of Georgette Heyer novels, and the ones that exist are pretty expensive.
ME: What other mythological or historical characters are underrepresented and deserving of their own novel?
KB: Mythologically, Selene the moon goddess. She must have gotten to see so much. Historically, I’ve wanted to write a novel about Samuel Johnson for years, even though he’s had plenty written about him.
ME: What book would you most like to personally narrate into audio, if you had the time and resources to do so?
A Room of One’s Own, I think, though what I really want is an audio version of Virginia Woolf reading it herself.
ME: What are the world’s 5 best sounds? And what are the five sounds the world can do without?
KB: Top 5 sounds: the grumpy sounds my cats make when they’re receiving insufficient attention, cello music, grackle calls, someone else putting away dishes when I’m in another room, utterly helpless laughter.
Top 5 sounds the world can do without: leaf-blowers, repetitive noises in public places, uptalking, neighbors who play loud music — I’d add that annoying low battery alert smoke alarms make, but the world probably shouldn’t do without that.
ME: I love how Alcestis opens: “They knew the child’s name only because her mother died cursing it, clutching at the bloodied bedclothes and spitting out the word as if it tasted sour on her tongue.” That’s ONE HELL of a first sentence. Was it a moment of inspiration? Came to you in your sleep? Slaved over it for days/weeks/months? How’d it come about?
KB: Thank you. I just went back and opened my earliest saved document in my Alcestis folder, and the opening line is exactly the same. I don’t remember writing it, but I usually write in order, so I probably did write it first, right after I typed in the epigraphs at the beginning of the Word document. (There were originally two epigraphs, the Narihira poem and this line from Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country: “You’ll understand when you come there at last, Achilles… Hades is Women’s Country.”)
ME: Thanks so much for Alcestis, and for letting us turn it into audio!
KB: I’m so excited that you have! Thank you.
Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis was published in print by Soho Press, and as an Iambik audiobook narrated by Diane Havens. You can use the code our-favorite-customers for a 25% discount on Alcestis and all our titles through the end of April.