Updated: Nov 13, 2022
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Saint back in September- she is my author of the month for October!
Jennifer wrote Ariadne, a book telling the story of a Cretan princess in Greek mythology. I read the book when it came out and loved Saint's storytelling elements and the female perspectives shown throughout the story. Jennifer Saint is just as lovely over Zoom as she is on the page, and she said so many amazing things about her process! If you love writing or reading mythology- or are an author trying to get your pages in print, this is the interview for you!
If you want to purchase a copy of Ariadne or Elektra, her other novel, I'm linking a few images to Bert's Books, one of Jennifer Saint's favorite independent bookstores in the United Kingdom- shop local when you can and remember that the holidays are coming up- books make amazing gifts!
Without further ado, please enjoy this amazing interview with one of my favorite authors!
Were you into writing when you were young or did that come later?
Yes, I was! I always used to write stories and actually, I took a line out of a story that I wrote when I was young on holiday in Greece and I put it into Ariadne! It was always kind of my dream that I knew I wanted to do, but I didn’t keep a lot of my early writing because I’m extremely self-critical. But this one thing survived and I wanted to honor it and feel like it was coming full circle. I wanted to connect with this childhood version of me because this was literally my dream, and that’s something I stopped saying when I hit my teenage years, it felt embarrassing to say “I want to be a writer.” I felt like people would say “well…you can’t be a writer, it isn’t achievable.” It just seemed like it was something for other people, but I went to an event with some authors, kind of like you’re doing now, reaching out to authors, and you realize that this is not some kind of special magical elite career, this is something that people do if they have a passion for storytelling.
How old were you when you published your first book? What was that process like for you?
Ariadne was my first book and I was 36… I think. It came out in 2021 and now it’s 2022 and I’m 39. So it came out when I was 38. Goodness! But having the idea for Ariadne at the time that I did- the process of publication and getting an agent is so variable and every author has a different experience. For me, things happened quite quickly because I was writing Ariadne and I was really writing it just for me and I didn’t have many expectations because I’d heard a lot of authors say that they had their first novel in a drawer, that you write your first novel and then you write something better. So, I wrote this thinking “this is just something I’m going to write to see if I can write a novel and maybe only my mum will see it.” But as I was writing it, I just felt like “no, I think there’s really something here, I think this is better than I expected it to be.” I started following a bunch of literary agents and publishers on Twitter to get an idea of what it would be like and what they were looking for because I had no idea, I had no experience and no connections. And I started following a particular agent who I just had a really good feeling about, and she tweeted that she was looking for something set in ancient Greece, she was looking for a mythological retelling. She’s very tapped into everything, she’s a really good literary agent, and she thought there would be an appetite for that kind of story at the time, in 2019. So it was the right place, the right time. I thought - she is an agent I’m interested in, and I’ve written the thing that she’s asking for, so I’m just going to send it to her and see. And she really loved it, and she signed me. So, I didn’t go through the process of sending it out to lots of people and getting rejections. I kind of struck gold the first time, so that meant that things happened very very quickly. I’d started writing the novel in January, I had signed with my agent in August, and we edited it together for a couple of months, and it went out on submission to publishers in November. We had it preempted, which is when a publisher finds an author right off the bat, and want to secure it before it goes to other publishers. So, the whole process took under a year, which is a very short time frame. It just was a case of all of the right pieces falling into place in a way that could have taken five years but it didn’t.
What did you do for work before Ariadne?
I was an English teacher while I was writing. I don’t do it anymore, I came out of teaching right before the pandemic, which was very good timing! I’ve got children at home as well, so I was able to stay home with them when their schools closed.
At what point do you think someone should call themselves an author? Ooh, that’s hard! I suppose, to call yourself an author, you have a finished story or book available for people to read, whether self-published or traditionally published. The title “author” to me means that you have something other people can read.
What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
It’s definitely about making time to write. When I was writing Ariadne as I said, I was working as an English teacher and I have two young children, so to take that time to write, and I think that this is something that a lot of women might relate to, it felt like a selfish act, an indulgence, If I’m taking three hours out of my day to write my novel, especially in the early stage when I didn’t know if it was going to be anything, there was always that thought that there’s always something else I could be doing that would be more productive and more useful, whether that is working a job, time spent with my family, laundry, or going to the gym. But I think that you just have to say no, that’s not the case. Writing a novel is not just an indulgence if that is your passion. As women, we have this instinct to minimize the things we love to do, but it is work as well as self-care to do the thing we love.
Is there any particular environment that you feel is conducive to your writing? Like music, a certain place, total silence vs the buzz of a coffee shop? I don’t work at night anymore, because I find it super distracting, but I’m currently in my study, which we organized last year, as a proper place for me to actually work. Ariadne was written on the floor outside my son’s bedroom because he was a very bad sleeper. So, I was sitting on the carpet typing it into my phone sometimes. When I was writing Elektra, we were in lockdown, and I had both my kids at home doing schoolwork, so it was always a game of when-can-I-have-the-computer? And where can I find any place in my house where there’s not already a person, so last summer, I made myself a proper study in the house and it has all my books. It’s really calm, with nice pink walls. It’s a very soothing, very feminine space in my houseful of boys. So I like to come in here, light a candle, put on ocean noises, and write.
Who is your own favorite author and why?
I have a lot! The author I will always come back to is Barbara Kingsolver. My favorite book of hers is “The Poisonwood Bible.” She writes about nature in the most transporting beautiful way and she writes these very complex, very flawed, very human characters.
How do you deal with rejection or criticism of your work?
My first experience with criticism was putting Ariadne out into the world. Up until then, I hadn’t been through rejection with agents because my agent and I found each other fairly quickly. I hadn’t experienced people reading my book and not liking it because it hadn’t gone to that many people. As soon as your book goes into the world, there will be a lot of people that don’t like it, as well as people who love it, so that was a learning curve as well, and I think the one thing I took from that is that you absolutely should not read reviews. You can’t avoid them all, but it just doesn’t help to read them because often, one will say that they hated something and another will say that that aspect of the story was their favorite part.
How much research did you have to do for Ariadne? Did you do any traveling?
I wasn’t able to travel when I was writing Ariadne, the research I did for that was reading and I had my degree in Classics. So, I had a lot of books already but I also researched online. There is such an explosion in mythology at the moment that resources are really ample, especially if you’re taking a feminist approach. There are also lots of podcasts, there’s just so much material out there.
How much of Ariadne is true to the myths and how much creative license did you take in the storytelling?
The great thing about writing greek mythology from the perspective of a female character is that you do have these big gaps that you have no choice but to fill in creatively and imaginatively because these are the parts of the story that people didn’t think were worth telling. Or, they’d been sidelined by the stories about men and their heroics and glory and that very male-centric idea that is central in Greek literature. There are so many different myths about Ariadne because ancient Greece isn’t one homogenous place and time. People tell the stories with different agendas as well - for example, when it comes to Theseus being a very important character in Ariadne’s story. On the one hand, he is a hero in Athens, credited with the early foundation of what would become Athenian Democracy. But if you are telling that story from the Cretan perspective, Theseus wreaked havoc on Crete, and you’re going to get a very different story, so Ariadne’s story is influenced by those dynamics.
One thing I found particularly fascinating was the difference in perspective when it came to motherhood between Ariadne and Phaedra. Ariadne loved and found comfort in her children while it was so clear that Phaedra had postpartum depression and was forced into multiple childbirths. Page 200 is such an annotated page for me because there were so many immediate signs that Phaedra felt misery and shame about her relationship with her child. What do you think it says about society that the same kind of pressure is put on women today to have and love children that it did during the time of Greek myths?
It’s really interesting because there are things where you’re writing about a society that existed 3,000 years ago and you find things that are so relevant today. There are just some things that haven’t changed as much as you would hope or expect them to. I think that attitudes towards motherhood are extremely charged and put an enormous amount of pressure on women, then and now. When I’m writing about motherhood in the ancient world, it’s really important to me to convey that there are different experiences of motherhood because women in the bronze age until pretty recent history have not had control or choice in their fertility, and that’s something that there is an attack on now as well. The idea that women can make their own choices is still, somehow, a controversial idea for some people. Motherhood is so consuming that if that’s something you didn’t choose, then that to me is really barbaric. I think motherhood is wonderful and fulfilling for women who want to do it. I wanted to show both sides of that experience in my story because postpartum depression can happen to anybody, though Phaedra doesn’t have the words for that. There wasn’t a name for it.
Let’s talk about the men. Theseus was obviously awful, as was Minos. Dionysus was doing so well for a while and then towards the end, things all went epically bad. Do you think there were any truly good men in your story?
I think that Daedalus was a good person and he was a very important person in Ariadne’s childhood. I wanted there to be a decent man in her life who has shaped her worldview because that gives us some kind of optimism and hope for the future. Ariadne isn’t a book about men being terrible, but I do think it’s about the expectations of masculinity. Theseus is terrible and did terrible things in Greek mythology, but he’s also painted as a hero and I wanted to look at what the cost of that was to everyone else involved.
It takes a lot of bravery to embellish a Greek myth and make it your own while staying true to your research. How did you decide that this was a story that needed to be told?
Part of what I love about Greek mythology is that the stories feel like living, breathing entities and I believe that is because they are always evolving through the imaginations of storytellers over the centuries. I felt that Ariadne’s story was a really interesting one that had been somewhat overshadowed by Theseus and bringing her into the spotlight felt like a very timely thing to do.
I highlighted every instance I could find of women being blamed for a man’s actions, and it happened so much, which was unsurprising, but super frustrating. What were your emotions when researching and writing this aspect of the story?
It was an aspect that really built as I did more research. I began with Ariadne’s father, Minos, and one of the first myths I discovered about him was his exploitation and subsequent betrayal of Scylla, the daughter of a king whose land he wanted to conquer. This instance carried particular resonance because what I knew about Minos already was that after his death, he became a judge of souls in the Underworld. It was maddening to think that a man held up as so righteous that he could stand in judgment over others was the perpetrator of such a shocking story. That sowed the seeds of the theme that runs throughout the novel – I saw how Ariadne’s experience fits into a much wider pattern that once seen, is evident everywhere. It was infuriating but extremely cathartic to gather these stories together and place them side by side in the novel, exposing them to the light and examining them for what they are.
After Theseus abandoned Ariadne, Dionysus was her salvation. Do you think that she idolized him because of that and do you think that was the reason it took her so long to realize that he was doing some awful things?
When writing Ariadne's character, I saw her as an idealist, while her sister Phaedra was far more cynical. Ariadne had to be an optimist to trust in Theseus and take the risk that she does at the start in the hope that it will bring about a better world. She felt very hopeful to me, and that can make a person naïve in some ways but it spoke to the true heart of her character as someone who wants to do good and believes that others share the same goal. I also think that once she was heavily invested in her marriage and children, she preferred to look the other way until it really wasn’t possible any longer – I think that’s quite a human trait!
Do you think Dionysus was ever truly a good man (god)? On page 136, he tells one of his subjects not to kneel to him - they are friends. But later in the book, he becomes far more power-hungry and thinks everyone should kneel to him because he is a great and powerful god.
Dionysus is a really interesting Olympian god. He is an outsider, joining the other immortals later and having traveled more widely through the world, and his worship is rebellious too, embracing the outcasts and the misfits in society. So in many ways, he truly is not like the other gods. However, his wrath is truly terrible and his punishment of those who reject his cult is gruesome and cruel in mythology. As the god of wine, there is a lot that is fun and enjoyable about Dionysus, but there is a far darker side to him once the party is over!
The scene where Phaedra finds out that Ariadne wasn’t dead is one of my favorites because Theseus is caught red-handed in a web of lies. What was your favorite scene to write in the book?
I enjoyed bringing Ariadne and Theseus back together, years after he left her on Naxos. I found it very satisfying for Ariadne to come face-to-face with him and have that moment of empowerment when she realizes that she no longer feels anything for him at all. I also loved writing the epilogue and bringing Ariadne the recognition and elevation she deserved.
How great is she?! I've loved these author interviews for so many reasons- not only am I getting to hang out with some of the authors that have helped shape my own writing, but I'm getting different answers for all of the process questions! It's really showing me, and I hope, my readers, that there's no one good way to write a novel- you do what works for you to get to where you want to be.
I highly recommend reading Ariadne and Elektra, along with Saint's newest book, Atalanta, coming out in May of 2023!
Are you an author who'd love to share your process? Let's connect! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!