Historical Fiction Writer Shauna RobertsI am super excited to have my good friend and critique partner Shauna Roberts visiting the blog today. Shauna's first novel, Like Mayflies in a Stream, was released on October 5, 2009. If you love history and reading about ancient civilizations, you need to go out and get this book right now! It is fabulous!
Shauna, I remember reading The Epic of Gilgamesh back in my World Civilization class in college, and being intrigued by the story. What interested you in this time period?
When I was in high school, I came across Samuel Noah Kramer’s History Begins at Sumer and read it. I was totally blown away. Here was this civilization I had never heard of, that existed thousands of years ago, yet it invented things we still use today, such as writing, literature, and monumental architecture. Enthralled, I read all I could about ancient Mesopotamia (which today is part of Iraq) and took classes about it in college.
Why did you, a science fiction and fantasy writer, write a historical novel?
Personally, I consider many historical novels, particularly those set long ago, as part of the speculative fiction genre, along with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Many science fiction and fantasy writers have also written historical fiction or alternate history—off the top of my head, I can think of Ursula K. LeGuin, Barbara Hambly, Harry Turtledove, and Robert Silverberg. (Silverberg, in fact, wrote a historical novel about Gilgamesh.)
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror rely heavily on the author making an alien world believable and engrossing, so much so that the reader understands that world and feels a part of it. Other places and other times are alien to us, and we have far from a complete record of history, even for some recent events. When a historical fiction writer recreates a place and time and fills in the blanks in the historical record in a novel, I consider it worthy of being called speculative fiction.
Interestingly, Like Mayflies in a Stream is the second in a series of archaeology-related novels published by Hadley Rille Books . . . a company that otherwise publishes science fiction.
How did you go about researching the story?
Like Mayflies in a Stream is based on the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” so one source of information was Stephen Mitchell’s translation (Gilgamesh: A New English Version), which contains a thorough introduction and copious notes. The epic, other myths about Gilgamesh, and an ancient list of kings all place Gilgamesh in the city of Uruk, which has been discovered and heavily studied by German archaeologists. As a result, I was able to use actual buildings and the city layout in my book; I even worked in a huge vase from the temple of Inanna that had been broken and repaired in antiquity.
To keep from having to spend years reading primary and secondary sources, most of which were in French, German, Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian, I relied heavily on tertiary sources: textbooks, books intended for students and laypeople, Wikipedia articles, articles found through Google.
For a more detailed discussion of my research, I refer your readers to my recent blog post at Novel Spaces.
For those who know the story of Gilgamesh, what might they encounter in Like Mayflies in a Stream that may surprise them?
For one, my book is told primarily from the viewpoint of an intelligent upperclass woman. This woman, a priestess of the goddess Inanna, patroness of Uruk, has a quite different view of Gilgamesh’s exploits than Gilgamesh himself does.
Second, the epic we are familiar with today is a very late version from 1200 BCE. The Babylonian editor/author was, of course, unfamiliar with Sumerian society of 1,500 years earlier, so the epic is riddled with anachronisms. My book relies on archaeological and historical evidence to create as accurate a depiction of Uruk and its people in the time of Gilgamesh as possible.
Third, the epic contains many fantastical elements. The gods meddle in human affairs, Gilgamesh has superhuman powers, Enkidu the wild man not only survives but thrives on a diet of grass, Shamhat and Enkidu encounter a caterer in the wilderness, and so on. My novel is not a fantasy; nothing in it contradicts natural law as we know it.
Fourth, although I have kept some of the themes of the original epic—the conflict between civilization and chaos is still relevant today, as is the conflict between knowing we will die and wanting to live forever—I’ve added a few of my own, such as the conflict between duty and personal desire, which most of my characters struggle with.
What does the title Like Mayflies in a Stream refer to?
I believe I came across the phrase in an old translation of the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” I was struck both by the beautiful image and by how in a few words it encapsulates the epic’s theme that our time on earth is short and then, without exception, we die.
Fascinating! Thank you so much for stopping in at the blog and giving us some insight into what went in to crafting this fabulous story, Shauna.
Mayflies in a Stream is available now! You can also learn more about Shauna through her website, blog, and Novel Spaces.