Tracy Barrett holds a Bachelor's Degree with honors in Classics-Archaeology from Brown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Italian Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly interests in the ancient and medieval worlds overlap in her fiction and nonfiction works, which is certainly reflected in her new young adult novel Dark of the Moon (Harcourt Children's Books, September 2011 print and ebook editions). Sixth grade student Michael recently had the opportunity to ask the author a few questions about the book.
Have you ever been to Greece, is this what inspired you to write about Greek mythology?
Photo courtesy Tracy Barrett.
Photo credit John Russell.
I’ve been to Greece, but it didn’t inspire me to write books based on Greek mythology. It’s the other way around—my interest in the Classical world (ancient Greece and Rome), including Greek mythology, led me there! I spent my junior year of college at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome. We had a field trip to Greece, and when the field trip ended, it was spring break and I was on Crete, which was amazing. All the people I was with were classics majors so we spent the break wandering around the ancient Cretan ruins, trying to reconstruct what they must have looked like, and imagining the lives of the people who lived in them. The sand on most of Crete is black, by the way!
Why did you name the characters these names Ariadne, Asterion, and Pasiphae?
Their names come straight from the myth. “Ariadne” means “most pure” or “most holy,” “Asterion” has something to do with the stars (there’s probably some tie with the bull constellation, Taurus), and Pasiphaë means “she shines for all.” Many scholars think that this means that Pasiphaë was a title, not a name, for the priestess of the moon goddess or the incarnation of the moon goddess, Ariadne was the title of the priestess, and Asterion was the title of someone who incarnated the sun-god in the form of a bull.
Do you think that you could have written the book from a different place, time period, and point of view?
I have no doubt that someone could do that, but not me. At one point I tried to re-cast it in the modern day and had a great deal of trouble. I’m really interested in trying to reconstruct ancient cultures, and so I was happiest keeping the setting where the myth was born.
Why did you have Pasiphae die after she gave birth to Ariadne’s sister?
Pasiphaë disappears from the myth before the Minotaur is killed, and I had to explain that somehow.
Why did you have Ariadne tell Theseus that he should kill Asterion?
That was a hard call. I had set it up that Ariadne loved Asterion, and the myth says that she and Theseus fled after the Minotaur was killed. I couldn’t see her leaving Crete with someone she hated for killing her brother, and I didn’t want her to be kidnapped. This was her time for taking charge of her life, and being kidnapped is much too passive. The solution I came up with was that Ariadne approved of the mercy killing.
How did you decide that Theseus’s dad would jump off the cliff?
The myth says that Aegeus committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea when he saw that his son’s ship was flying a black sail, which Theseus had told him would be a sign that he had been killed by the Minotaur. (This is one of the big problems I have with the version of the myth that we have, which is a Greek garbling of Minoan religion: How could you forget to take down a black sail if you knew it would make your father think you had been killed?) The way I had set up King Aegeus, he wouldn’t have done such a thing out of sorrow for the death of his son (whom he had sent to almost certain death—another problem I have with the myth: if Theseus had indeed been killed, it would hardly have been a surprise). The closest I could come to the myth and still stay true to my characters was for Aegeus to commit suicide rather than face the shame of being defeated in a duel.
Could there have been a way that Asterion could have gotten to Athens, and what is that way?
Oh, no. Not at all. The Minotaur is purely Cretan. Where the story we have most likely came from is that Greek travelers to Crete must have seen a priest wearing a mask shaped like the head of a bull taking part in religious ceremonies, and either misunderstood what was going on or deliberately made it out to be a barbaric ritual (the Minoans, who lived on Crete, were the Athenians’ big rival in the Aegean Sea, and they could have wanted to make them look bad). The Minotaur is Cretan, and could never have been possible anywhere else.
Why did you have the Goddess powers in yarn balls?
One of the most famous parts of the myth is when Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. Women’s work in the ancient world, especially spinning and weaving, was a huge part of the economy and daily life, and there are many Greek myths about weaving and spinning. I wanted to make that ball of yarn have more importance than it had in the myth.
Did Ariadne’s ball of rope really rip the sail on the boat or was it the wind? Why did you make that choice?
I don’t know! What do you think? I made that choice because I wanted her to have some hand in her own destiny. The island of Naxos, where the myth says that Theseus abandoned Ariadne (and where she married the god Dionysus), turns out to be a very holy site in the religion of moon-goddess worship.
How long did it take you to write the book?
About two years, counting revisions.
When you started did you know what you were writing at the end when you were writing the beginning or was it a work in progress?
I hardly ever know the end of a book when I get started, which is why I don’t like to work with outlines. If I know too much of what’s going to happen, it feels like homework! I did know that Theseus had to kill the Minotaur, that Ariadne had to help him, that they had to leave Crete, and that Theseus had to leave Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Those were the basic elements in the myth that I couldn’t mess with. But the myth is very sparse on motivation, and that’s where I had to work the hardest—to make a very unlikely story emotionally believable.
Clearly, Dark of the Moon is based in Greek mythology, but did you use the myths more as a guide or do the story lines follow actual Greek myths?
The story line—the plot, the main characters, the setting—are from the myth. I invented almost everything else: details of the moon-goddess religion, the characters’ personalities, etc.