In 'Olympus, Texas,' Stacey Swann brings divine debauchery to the Lone Star State
“I don’t believe in fate...except maybe that character is fate.”
Readers with a passing knowledge of Greek Mythology might notice some familiar characters in Stacey Swann’s debut novel “Olympus, Texas.”
A philandering patriarch and his jealous wife, twins born out of wedlock to a downtrodden mother, two brothers fighting over a beautiful woman, a highly logical sister who does not have time for your nonsense — ringing any bells?
There are clues in each character’s name to help the uninitiated make the connection between the source material and the novel, but the book also offers plenty of suspense and family drama to interest readers who have never heard mythic tales about Artemis, Apollo or Athena and don’t care to peruse Google for more information.
Swann said her goal was to write the story with Easter eggs for readers who care about the original stories, and to build a compelling narrative for all readers regardless of their background knowledge.
“As a writer, I like retellings and making those connections but I feel like as a reader, what I love is reading for characters and reading for a plot,” Swann said. “I always wanted to make sure that even if someone didn't know anything about mythology, that they would still really enjoy the novel.”
The story follows the Briscoe family during the course of one week in the fictional town of Olympus, which sprawls over river-fed farmland outside of Houston. The book begins as March, the youngest son of established landowner Peter Briscoe, returns to town after he was publicly caught cheating with his brother’s wife. Across town, trying to avoid getting pulled into their half-siblings’ drama, Peter’s twins by another woman find themselves in a deadly quagmire of their own making. As the story proceeds, Swann weaves in backstory, adding depth to the plot and characters.
Swann said it felt only natural to her, a native Texan, to recast larger than life mythological deities as everyday residents of the Lone Star State.
“I have a lot of friends that are not originally from Texas and I remember thinking about how they would get a little frustrated with just the way that Texans love Texas so much,” she said. “I was thinking about the Greek gods and how they seem so larger than life, and that Texas really thinks of itself as larger than life, so I thought well, let’s put those two together and make those Greek gods just regular mortal Texans. I thought that would be fun to play with.”
Swann is not a classicist, she was quick to say, but she harbored a love of Greek myths in her childhood that translates into references both large and small in her book. While she pulled from many different myths, there are three tales that make more or less direct appearances in the novel.
The first is the relationship between the goddess Artemis and the human Orion (of constellation fame). The second is god Apollo’s unsuccessful, and in some renditions problematic, romantic pursuit of the nymph Daphne. The third is the public humiliation of Ares and Aphrodite in their extramarital affair.
Through the recasting of these myths into the human world, in which characters have to account for their actions in ways Greek gods rarely do, the novel poses some big questions that lend the book a deeper layer beyond the suspense and family dynamics: What does it mean to face consequences for our actions? Are we bound by the content of our character or can we change? Is it our love for the people in our lives that makes us who we are or our choices? What makes people different from gods?
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To that last question, Swann has at least a partial answer.
“The gods don't ever have to apologize for anything, they just keep doing the things that they do and because they're immortal they rarely face consequences,” Swann said. “In making them human, I was thinking a lot about when people wrong each other. What is necessary for forgiveness? So often we put the burden of forgiveness on the person who has been wronged, rather than the person (who commits the wrong). I was thinking about how change can be driven when we seek forgiveness or seek to atone for the things that we've done wrong.”
(Swann is part of an in-person Texas Book Festival panel called "Novels as big as Texas" at 3 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Central Public Library. Details and RSVP at www.texasbookfestival.org. The fest lineup and schedule is subject to change.)