Karen Dudley has worked in field biology, production art, photo research, palaeo-environmental studies and archaeology. She has written four environmental mysteries and a several wildlife biology books for kids. Her Epikurean Epics, including the Aurora-nominated Food for the Gods, are historical fantasy novels set in ancient Athens. Born in France, she now lives in Winnipeg. Visit her website here.
by Karen Dudley
The comedic spirit of Food for the Gods and Kraken Bake was born years before I ever got the idea to write the books. I was attending the University of Alberta and I had the good fortune to have the amazing Dr. R.J. Buck as my Greek history professor. Dr. Buck really brought the Classical period to life for me. The man was the master of understatement. Whenever he talked about the reasons behind a war, he always started off by saying something like, “Well, when someone steals your women and cattle, you’re liable to get a little cross about the whole thing.” He wouldn’t just give us dates and places for these armed conflicts, he’d act them out, marching up and down the classroom like a hoplite, emphasizing the whole time about how ‘cross’ they all were with each other.
Oh, he did teach us things like who won the Battle of Salamis and why, but he also told us about stuff like Alcibiades and the Incident of the Theban Dancing Girls. Through humor, he made ancient Greek history real. And when I decided years later, to write a book set during this time, I knew I wanted to make it real in the same way that he had. I didn’t want my readers to feel the distance of history. I wanted them to feel like they were in the story, in that world. Like the characters really weren’t that different from themselves.
One of the ways I chose to inject comedy into my story was to use anachronistic voices for the characters. I adore the movie A Knight’s Tale, so I suspect that the inspiration for this originated with that film, but really, Athens during the Classical period was a melting pot of different peoples and accents. As many as a third of these were slaves-people who came from all over the Classical world-so having characters with a bunch of different accents isn’t really much of a stretch. Having them sound like working class Brits or California surfer dudes was a stretch, but that was just my way of having fun with them.
I also had a bit of fun with the gods’ accents. One of my pet peeves is the way Greek gods are usually portrayed in movies or books. You know the type. Stiff and superior, complete with snooty accents and white draperies and laurel wreaths decorating their heads. But when you actually read the myths, the gods were, shall we say, somewhat earthier than that, and that’s how I wanted to portray them. Not only is it more accurate, but hey, score for humor!
Apart from the anachronistic accents, there was one other technique I used to bring a comedic element to the story. Because I was writing about an historical period that most readers might not be familiar with, I had to figure out a way to get certain information across without slowing down the narrative with a writer’s greatest enemy: the dreaded Info Dump. But how best to accomplish this?
Some years ago, I’d read a wonderful kids’ book published by Usborne called The Greek Gazette. Basically it was Greek history written as a tabloid. It was hilarious! I still have a copy of it. So when I started working on Food for the Gods and realized I needed to impart all this information, I decided to play with the Gazette idea. Thus was born the interstitial chapters: stuff like recipes, scripts from ancient Greek game shows, and excerpts from self-help scrolls. I’ve got everything from advertisements for Cato’s Chitons (Nothing comes between me and my Cato’s) to an ad for Pharsalia’s Bakery where one can purchase bread dildos (which really were a thing back then). Score again for humor! Double points for bawdiness!
When Food for the Gods came out, a reviewer wrote to me to tell me he’d loved the way I captured the feel of ancient Greece and particularly, the Aristophanic humor. I thought, what the heck is Aristophanic humor, and is that a good thing? So I looked it up and discovered that it’s humor that is crude, vulgar and surreal. Huh. And here I thought I was just being crude, vulgar and surreal. So remember this when you read the books. Food for the Gods and Kraken Bake are not ribald or rude or surreal, they are Aristophanic.