Today, we shine our “Book Notes” spotlight on one of our own. Although I have never met author, blogger and mom Sherry Antonetti in person, she feels like a trusted friend. She’s been a contributor here at CatholicMom.com for several years, so of course I celebrated with her when her first novel The Book of Helen was recently released. Today, Sherry shares this novel with us — her inspiration, the challenges, and how a mom of ten manages to find time to write fiction. Enjoy!
Q: Hi Sherry and thank you again for being a part of the CatholicMom.com family. Congratulations on your recent publication of your novel The Book of Helen. Please briefly introduce yourself and your family to our readers.
Thank you Lisa. I’m very grateful to be here. My name is Sherry Antonetti, I’m a Catholic mom to ten children, six girls, four boys, one with special needs. Around 2005, I started writing columns and articles for Catholic newspapers and blogging and found I loved it. Over the years at CatholicMom.com, I’ve written Small Success Thursday, shared the births of three of my children and come to have a deeper understanding of our Faith through the stories and insights of fellow writers and readers.
Q: What prompted you to pen The Book of Helen?
I’d been wanting to write a book, but I didn’t know what that book would be about. I kept looking for the story that I would tell. In 2007, my then youngest daughter landed in the hospital with RSV, a respiratory virus hard on newborns. Unable to do much other than pester the nurses and worry, I tried reading. My husband had tucked a newly released translation of The Odyssey in my overnight bag. These words jumped out at me as never before.
“Then Zeus’s daughter Helen thought of something else. Into the mixing-bowl from which they drank their wine she lipped a drug, heart’s ease, dissolving anger, magic to make us all forget our pains…No one who drank it deeply, mulled I wine, could let a tear roll down his cheeks that day, not even if his mother should die, his father die, not even if right before his eyes some enemy brought down a brother or darling son with a sharp bronze blade.” Homer, Odyssey Book 4: lines 243-251.
And I thought, “That little minx!” she’s drugging the men so they won’t get upset at her for starting the Trojan war. I grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote a story about this woman, “It started with an apple.” And liked this very flawed but beautiful needy manipulative creature such that I wrote more Helen stories. How she would have had to work every day to survive from the point of her leaving Menelaus and Sparta, to keep people’s memories of her pleasant, and numb them to her own transgressions.
Originally I’d planned for it to be sort of a Helen’s tales, but it became something more. I’d been asking the question of my husband and in my reading, why is it that we need beauty? Why does it lead us? What does it mean and what does it do to our hearts? How? In writing The Book of Helen, I started to explore that question and the effects of beauty or its absence in a heart, in a society.
Q: Please give our readers a basic synopsis of the book.
Well, the one line pitch is best made by Helen herself. “Everyone thinks they know what happened in the Trojan War and afterwards, but no one ever bothered to ask me.” –Helen of Troy
Newly widowed at 65, Helen of Troy finds herself in the odd position of starting over in life with no husband, no family and facing exile on the island of Rhodes. She hopes to establish a legacy including the stories and memories of her life beyond the events both known and embellished, that made her the most famous beautiful woman in the world.
Writing this book, I sought to answer three basic questions that go unanswered in the original texts and many of the subsequent reversions 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 versions give her motive short shrift. I wanted her to have a thinking/feeling real reason for her actions and not be a mere pawn of the gods in the machine or carried away purely on emotional adrenaline.
2) What made the Trojans keep her? Yes she brought Spartan gold but eventually, that would have been an insufficient cause. They could have ended the siege by sending her out or killing her. Her beauty would have been sufficient perhaps for Paris, but what made all of Troy decide to stick it out? Helen had to be more than a pretty face to warrant a ten year war that ended a civilization and somehow survive.
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? At 65, the famous Helen of Troy finds herself in a new role, that of having no title, husband or things to do as she faces exile on the island of Rhodes. Her hoarded wealth, fabulous stories of the past, and a newly acquired servant/scribe named Pythia , should allow Helen to establish her own legacy, but there are some who won’t be courted.
Helen begins to ply her legendary charm, wit and capacity to create beauty and spectacle in her new home to win the hearts of the people with great effect. But Helen rarely recognizes that as she ascends, others might resent her casual winning over of everyone. Queen Polyoxo has granted sanctuary to her childhood friend for reasons other than friendship, leaving Pythia caught in the wake of two very powerful women with very different means of conveying and maintaining authority.
Can Helen with all her treasures and stories and charisma win over everyone? Or will the need for revenge, threaten the life of the most beautiful woman in the world and those who serve her? At 65, the famous Helen of Troy finds herself in a new role, that of having no title, husband or things to do as she faces exile on the island of Rhodes. Her hoarded wealth, fabulous stories of the past, and a newly acquired servant/scribe named Pythia , should allow Helen to establish her own legacy, but there are some who won’t be courted.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges of writing historical fiction?
Getting not just the facts right that paint the scene, but picking the right facts to paint the scene. A fellow writer of historical fiction called this finding the “telling details.” I’ve never been to Greece or Rhodes so crafting the world had to be a willful act of research, of reading and rereading and secondary source finding to get the feel, the taste, the air of the world. When you write historical fiction these days, you will have readers who double as fact checkers. They’ll let you know you missed the mark and why. Further, if you get it wrong, the story becomes a clunky CGI version of reality that no one believes.
World building in the past requires faithfulness to the limitations of the time, and that’s tough because we often forget we are writing for a different time period, and there are terms and slang and phrases which the modern world “gets” and which would make no sense in the ancient time. I remember having to strike certain words from conversations my characters would have, as they would ring false for the reality of the world of the story.
Q: What was your greatest “aha moment” in the writing of The Book of Helen?
There were lots of those sorts of moments where I was either scribbling with a faded marker on a checkbook or leaving a message to myself at home because I could see where the next part of the story was going. Trying to weave the contradictory myths about Helen of Troy into a grounded reality meant I had to pick and choose which myths I would ignore. What allowed the story to really take off was letting Helen speak. She told the stories. By constantly researching her myths, it honestly felt like I had a complete puzzle and writing was simply putting one of the proper pieces into place.
I do remember shaking with happiness when I understood that this whole book dealt with forgiveness, given, needed and refused. The discussion between Menelaus and Helen at the burning of Troy during the pivotal conversation between Helen and Queen Polyoxo is one of my very favorite scenes. But the greatest Aha was the evolution of Pythia (the scribe) from a passive simple recipient of Helen’s stories to a necessary integrated part of the story, she had to matter, she had to take risks, she had to stop simply taking down the inventory and stories and become an active participant in the world. She grew up in the story, as I matured as a writer.
Q: I know that our mom readers will want to know how you managed to balance your domestic responsibilities with finding time to write a novel. Any secrets?
We all have 24 hours every day. What we do reveals who we are. It took six years to write this book, so I can’t say my book writing discipline was so very disciplined. But writing is a process and if you keep at it, it eventually bears fruit. If you write every day a page a day, within a year, you will have a body of work. The trick is to keep at it and believe, this story you’re telling, it’s worth sharing. It’s worth knowing. As the book grew, I learned to let myself jot notes down, to write or read or think about the book every day.
To manage the rest of my life, it took time to shake out a balance and manage the business of writing and homework and housework and creating a healthy happy holy home. My screen saver said, “WRITE NOT SURF” for several months. Some days, writing was done in the dead of night, others in the early morning.
In the realm of the domestic, I hate laundry so I learned to do it only once a week, at the laundry mat. It keeps me sane not to be wedded to the machine. It gave me back roughly 10 hours of time for the investment of three. A good exchange I think.
As for the rest of the home, I try to do the domestic (house cleaning) with the mass on in the back ground on Catholic radio – so I don’t get irritated. When mass is over, I stop cleaning. Whatever I didn’t get to, will be addressed later. I make a list every day, and every child is listed every day with something I hope to get to or do with that specific child. It keeps me from dropping any of the balls I’m supposed to juggle, or at least lets me know which ball I need to pick back up if I forget. My brain is in that notebook. Without it, nothing gets done.
Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from their experience of reading The Book of Helen?
I hope they start to think about being deliberate creators of beauty in their world and in the lives of those around them because beauty helps bring a whole people, a whole culture alive. We are more alive when we seek to create a luminous world.
Think of how any of us feel when we are surprised by beauty, we express wonder, delight, we have a taste of joy. Now imagine being a deliberate creator of beauty to surprise others, and their faces. Think of Christmas, of birthdays, of roses that show up at the door unexpectedly, this is what we are in part called to do.
Beauty is more than makeup or dresses, it is deliberate thought about the other, about putting their comfort/delight before ours. All of creation was painted to be lovely for us by God in His desire to delight us, so when we create a lovely meal or send a card or call a friend or offer a shoulder, we are adding to the loveliness of the world, giving others a glimpse of God’s love, of the beauty of Heaven.
Q: Are there any additional thoughts or comments you’d like to share?
One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a favorite teacher of mine. She told me to pray before engaging in any endeavor. It absolutely works. Prayer before pursuing a hobby or a desire or a goal keeps you from being consumed by it. It’s so easy in this day and age to become obsessed, with fitness, with writing, with surfing the internet, with shopping, with whatever pursuit is shiny enough at the moment to drive us to distraction. I wish I could say I always do this, but I admittedly don’t. Fortunately, toddlers do climb on the lap and hit the keys on the laptop and that’s a pretty good cue to me to put away the computer and pay attention. But I do know praying before beginning helps with perspective. It keeps the talent or interest, (whatever it is) from becoming an idol. To prevent this very human flaw, consider whatever goal you have, offer it to God first. If this gift you wish to give is of the Holy Spirit, it will flower with your obedience, and it will not keep you from your responsibilities or obligations, it will enhance those same responsibilities and obligations, it will deepen your vocation.
Lastly, I hope everyone enjoys The Book of Helen, I loved writing it and reading and researching to create it. Thanks for hosting me Lisa!
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Copyright 2013 Lisa M. Hendey