Thursday, June 15, 2023

Q&A with Luna McNamara




Luna McNamara is the author of the new novel Psyche and Eros. Also a social worker, she lives in Boston.


Q: What inspired you to write this novel based on the mythological characters Psyche and Eros?


A: In short, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve loved the myth since childhood, but despite its romance, the original story is somewhat peculiar. Eros and Psyche don’t have much bonding time, and the mechanics of the curse are somewhat vague.


In my retelling, I decided to riff on the original and make it into the sort of a love story I wanted to see, about characters who change because of the love they have for each other, but not necessarily for each other.


I also wanted to highlight the unusual agency of Psyche; even in the original myth, she is the one who completes the divine labors and descends to the Underworld to reunite with her beloved. Such a heroic role for a female character is unusual in Greco-Roman mythology.


Q: The writer Gregory Maguire said of the book, “Myth itself has many guises, and in Luna McNamara’s poetic and nervy retelling we get a new glimpse of how love strengthens perception and perception, love.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was tickled pink! For the next week after I received that blurb, I walked around muttering to myself, “I’m poetic AND nervy!”


And I did have a lot of nerve retelling the story in the way I did, which we’ll get to in a moment. But I believe poetry is best when it’s paired with irreverence and humor and nerve, as Apuleius himself might agree.


I think Maguire was spot-on in his description of myth. Sallustius famously said of myths, “These things never happened yet always are.” Myths are variously forms of entertainment, sacred stories, and reflections of profound truths. Like dreams, myths put us more deeply in touch with ourselves and the world around us.


The Eros and Psyche myth, for example, has some profound things to say about love. The two characters fall in love without ever really seeing each other, as we all do, in a way - we don’t know everything about a person when we fall for them, and only come to know their true character over time. Though usually this doesn’t come with a journey to the gates of the Underworld.


Q: As you were writing the book, what did you see as the right balance between the traditional myth and your own interpretation of the story?


A: I believe that the right balance involves following the spirit rather than the letter of the original myth, and expanding on seeds that are present in the source text.


For example, I’ve already mentioned Psyche’s unusual agency in completing the tasks assigned by Aphrodite, which some scholars have likened to the labors of Heracles. So I wondered: what if I tapped into that heroic connection, and dialed it up to 11? What if I used Psyche’s story not only to talk about love, but to question the violent self-aggrandizement so rife in mythology and history?


There’s also a lot of space for interpretation in the traditional myth. It’s set “in a certain city,” with no real clues about time period or location. We aren’t given the names of Psyche’s parents or their lineage, or much information about her childhood. Eros has his own set of myths, but they aren’t discussed in the text. There’s a lot that is glossed over, and I wanted to fill in the gaps.


Setting Psyche & Eros during the Trojan War was indeed my own innovation, but myths in the ancient world were often spliced into one another or rearranged.

For example, there’s a mosaic dating from the 2nd century CE that depicts Eros and Psyche watching the judgement of Paris, the event that would eventually lead to the Trojan War. They’re in the background of it, as they are in my novel. The mosaic is on display in the Louvre, and you can find out more about it here.


I also wanted to engage deeply with the source text in a way that went beyond mere repetition. Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, from which we get the Eros and Psyche story, is a rollicking tale which brings the protagonist into conversation with the stock characters of his day. It heavily features human-animal transformations, and uses irreverence and humor to shape a narrative that is ultimately about the ascent of the soul.


The Golden Ass features both scatological donkey humor and celestial visions of powerful goddesses, but I’ve always found it interesting that Apuleius doesn’t end the tale with a divine revelation – instead, he finishes the novel by describing the various initiations he undertook in honor of the gods who preserved his life, and how these benefited him.


Apuleius is ultimately interested in relationships and reciprocity, and how the individual fits into the wider world of society. I hope he’d be proud of how I’ve played with his story.


There’s also the fact that myths are not written in stone, and that it’s impossible to develop a proper canon of myth. The sources we have represent only a fragment of what was available in antiquity, and they often contradict each other.


For example, was Eros the impetuous young son of Aphrodite as he’s described in Apuleius, or was he a primordial deity as in Hesiod? A narrow, literalist reading of myth is an attitude that has far more in common with 16th century European Protestantism than anything that Homer or Apuleius would have recognized. Sometimes the most mythologically faithful thing you can do is to be a little unfaithful to the mythological sources.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Psyche and Eros?


A: A love born from error and mutual suspicion that eventually develops into profound affection based on shared experiences and similar interests. Neither Eros nor Psyche are particularly interested in romance at the beginning, but they find themselves thrust together unexpectedly and love creeps up on them. When they are separated, they are each surprised to realize that they would do anything to get the other back.


Some of this comes from the way that they first encounter each other in the darkness of a bedroom, because they cannot see each other face-to-face due to the curse. This darkness provides an environment for two individuals burdened by their beauty to fall in love with someone who doesn’t value them for that. Psyche and Eros become known to one another through their ideas and conversation rather than mere appearances.


But their happiness is incomplete; they are lying to each other, and a solid foundation cannot be built on lies. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on a retelling of the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, which describes the quest of Jason and his Argonauts to obtain the Golden Fleece from King Aeetes of Colchis.


But a close reading of the text reveals an unlikely hero at the center of the story: Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes and an accomplished witch in her own right. Medea is the one who ensures Jason’s success, protecting him from fire and serpents and even destroying a robot on their journey home.


I’m interested in Medea’s relationships with two other unlikely heroes in the Argonautica mythos: Jason, whom even the source texts treat as a bit of an underdog; and Atalanta, the great female hero, boar hunter, and racer, who was such a joy to write in Psyche & Eros.


Medea finds herself in a love triangle, torn between her affections for Jason and for Atalanta. Eventually Medea must choose between the love thrust upon her and the love she chose, between being a victim and becoming a murderer. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think that’s all for now, but I very much appreciated being featured on your blog.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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