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Q&A with Author Nina MacLaughlin on Wake, Siren

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

On July 15, Lupercal is hosting a book club in Latin to discuss Wake, Siren, a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a special interest in the female perspective. In depicting some acts of sexual violence, the author, Nina MacLaughlin, gives a voice to the victims and encourages the modern audience to view each myth from a more personal perspective. MacLaughlin conveys that problems existent in ancient society are still resonant today in often modernizing the women’s voices.

In preparation for the event, we had the opportunity to ask MacLaughlin a couple of questions about herself and Wake, Siren. She herself will be attending the event and we are looking forward to discussing her work with her!

Do you have a Classical background?

I double-majored in college, in English and Classics, at the University of Pennsylvania. In the Classics major, I focused on the "civilization" track (history/drama/art/literature) as opposed to the language track, though did take one year of Ancient Greek, and continued my four years of Latin in high school with two more at college.

If so, what has your experience been like as someone in the Classical field?

Though I studied Classics, and return to those texts and stories often, I wouldn't say I'm part of the field. I loved my education and had some knock-out professors. I will say, based on what I've seen since the appearance of Wake, Siren, the Classics community spread across Twitter seems like a lively, engaged, and very funny group of people.

 What made you interested in the Metamorphoses in particular?

As I was revising my first book, I wanted to read something that wouldn't interfere with the language and rhythms and ideas that I was working with, and figured Ovid's 12k-line poem would be just the thing, and despite majoring in Classics, hadn't read it before. I fell in love with it ---- how alive it is, how sensual ---- and it ended up becoming the backbone of that first book as well (a memoir about leaving my journalism job to become a carpenter). I'm drawn to themes of transformation, of "a thing becoming other than it was," and the stories felt so vital to me, these explorations of power, change, nature, love, time, our highest and lowest human impulses. It's all there!

Did you read the Metamorphoses in English or Latin?

English. Allen Mandelbaum's translation. My Latin translation skills are rusty to the point of non-existent.

What is your favorite story from the Metamorphoses and why?

Oh man, tough question! I will say that the story of Baucis and Philemon in Book VIII makes me cry every time I read it. I find it so stirring, so beautiful. It stands out to me for its tenderness, its attention to the quotidian, and its portrait of a deep and longstanding love.

What was your thought process behind writing some of the stories in a modern dialect?

It wasn't so much a thought process as it was an act of listening --- I'd read a story closely, read it again, take some notes, and then I'd go on these long runs, and I'd just sort of listen to the voice in my head, try to hear who this woman was, what she was saying, how she wanted to say it. I found that some made themselves heard in a more ancient or epic register, and some sounded more like the way you and I might talk to each other. So it was less, for example, I want Arachne to sound modern, and more, I'm hearing Arachne speak and this is how she sounds.

Did you encounter any difficulties in writing from the perspective of ancient women?

As you guys know, a lot of these stories are super violent. I wrote the book quickly, in a little less than three months, in sort of an extended trance state, which I feel weird saying, but it was true. I finished it, did a spell check, sent it to my agent, it sold, and it wasn't until the first round of edits that I actually read over what I'd done, and that was a very, very, very jarring experience. Firstly, not having much memory of having actually written any of it and being alarmed at the sense this came from me?, and secondly, the violence and depravity, both in the original stories and in our selves, now as then. Though I don't remember writing much of the book, I do remember finishing the Procne and Philomela story, which, to my mind, ranks as the most gruesome, the most horrific, and feeling wrecked, totally emptied out. It wasn't so much the sinking into the various perspectives that was difficult, but wading in to an atmosphere of such violence.

Was there any difference between your writing process for Wake, Siren and your other books?

Oh gosh, big time. I wrote Wake, Siren in a torrent, it just kept coming and coming, I didn't stop. My first book took three years and about seven drafts. The short book that was just published this spring, an extended essay called Summer Solstice, had a different pace and feel as well. The main difference, as I've been able to figure out, is that the other writing came from my brain; Wake, Siren came from my body. I hope I'll have another writing experience like the one for Wake, Siren, but I sort of sense that was a one-time deal.

Are there any other Classical texts you would like to rework in the future? If so, what and why?

With so many of these myths, dramas, stories, epics, histories, there's so much to mine, so much richness, and so much that resonates now still ---- I can totally imagine re-approaching another Classical text, but which one, and how, I don't know. I think if I were to, it would be less, here's a re-telling of the entire Odyssey!, for example, and more a tight-focused look at a single story or part of a story. These stories, these myths, not just in the Greco-Roman tradition, but from around the world, wrestle with the same ideas, the same themes, the same human triumphs and flaws, across time, across culture. We're always re-telling the same stories, they live inside us, which I guess is another way of saying, even if I weren't to directly rewrite a Classical text, I'd argue that all the stories we tell are overlays on top of these original stories.

We hope to see you at the book club meeting on July 15 at 5 P.M. EST! A link to the event can be found here.

Caroline Murphy-Racette is entering her third year studying Classics at the University of Oxford. While she is primarily a Hellenist, her first love was Latin, which she has studied for seven years. Having attended one of the first Lupercal meetings in 2018, Caroline is delighted to be joining the team as a summer intern. In her free time, Caroline enjoys fencing, kayaking, playing (and watching!) rugby, and making music.

Mercer Weaver is a rising sophomore in college double majoring in Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Women’s Studies. In addition to Latin and the ancient world, their interests include reading and crafting. They are currently in the Lupercal Summer Internship program and hope to continue participating in Lupercal events in the future.

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