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The Parthenon Sculptures inspire a historical novel

Two more reviews of Karen Essex’s new book Stealing Athena [1], a story with the Parthenon Marbles at its heart & inspired by the Author seeing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.

Los Angeles Times [2]

This time, Karen Essex tackles ‘Stealing Athena’
The author’s historical novels give voice to powerful women who flout traditional roles. Her latest involves the Elgin Marbles.
By Swati Pandey, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 14, 2008

Novelist Karen Essex remembers when she first encountered the name Aspasia, a courtesan in ancient Greece, while wading through a copy of Plutarch in graduate school.

“Plutarch suddenly starts talking about Aspasia as Pericles’ mistress,” she said, mentioning the Athenian leader. Aspasia “had the respect of the most intelligent men in an Athens in which women weren’t even citizens and were completely sequestered. It was very titillating, and just a tease, because Plutarch mentions her, and that’s it.”

Where Plutarch kept mum, Essex has filled in the blanks.

Her fourth historical novel, “Stealing Athena,” expounds on the weight of the past, the power of art and the strength of women who exercised free will even when they had the fewest rights. But “Stealing Athena” seems uniquely relevant, as historical novels gain popularity and powerful women are again very much in the public eye.

“Stealing Athena” parallels the lives of Aspasia and Mary Elgin. Aspasia witnesses the Parthenon being built; Mary watches it being taken down by her husband, Lord Elgin, who, in a still contested move, lugged the marbles that now bear his name back to England. Both women flout traditional roles and both suffer for it.

“Women made virtually no progress from ancient Greece to post-Enlightenment England,” Essex said over steak at the restaurant Fraiche.

Essex isn’t so convinced of women’s progress in post-millennial America, either.

“There’s this resurgence now of the discussion about whether women should work or not if they have a child,” Essex said. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through two graduate programs and I have to feed myself and support my daughter. There’s been a real shortage of men who want to give me money.”

Back to school

Essex made it through an interdisciplinary program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, before which she had been working as a film executive in L.A., where she’d moved to pursue costume design.

After realizing that she’d “forgotten to be a writer,” Essex got a master’s in fine arts from Goddard College in Vermont in 1999 and sold her thesis to Warner Books. Now she splits her time between writing novels and scripts in Studio City.

That thesis became “Kleopatra,” the first in a two-novel series that rounded out the seductress of popular memory, depicting her as an intelligent, fierce ruler rather than a conqueror of powerful men.

Cynn Chadwick, a writer and instructor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, met Essex in graduate school and now teaches Essex’s work to her freshman, precisely for its depiction of powerful women.

‘Human stories’

“I wanted to look at women in power, not women who are oppressed. We’re all in the patriarchy, so how do we get our power?” she said.

But when asked whether Essex’s work is feminist, Chadwick said, “Do we have to use that word? The stories are about women, for women, by a woman, but they are so much bigger than that. They’re human stories.”

Essex was hesitant to use term too.

“Feminism has gotten a bad rap and is now associated with anger and man-hating and shoulder pads, none of which I endorse, though I did think I looked fabulous in shoulder pads in the ’80s,” she said. “The label can carry a heavy cost.”

Still, Essex admits that part of her inspiration to write historical fiction came from the omission of women from most histories, except for the stray mention of sexual liaisons. Essex’s daughter, in elementary school as Essex began to write, couldn’t name any powerful women other than Madonna. Essex’s third novel, “Leonardo’s Swans,” is her now-21-year-old daughter’s favorite book.

“Leonardo’s Swans” was also the book that set off Essex’s popularity. It follows a rivalry between sisters who seek to be muses for the legendary artist and has sold more than 40,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. Essex won Italy’s Premio Roma prize for foreign fiction last year.

“Europeans have so much more of a command of art and history; they’re an older culture,” she said, imagining why the book was such a big hit there.

Despite all that, one of the things Essex likes most about L.A. is its lack of history.

“I am from New Orleans, which is a history-drenched culture, and it’s a little bit stifling because you’re so defined by who your family is and where you went to school,” she said. “In about 15 minutes, Angelina Jolie was rehabilitated from this sort of kooky blood-drinking bisexual to a supermom and humanitarian spokeswoman. I’m sure the transformation is sincere, but only in L.A. can that happen.”

Essex’s historical novels join a field increasingly filled with female writers rehabilitating female characters, such as Ashley Crownover’s “Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf” and Susan Fraser King’s “Lady MacBeth,” noted Christopher M. Cevasco, editor and publisher of the historical-fiction-focused Paradox magazine.

“Female figures in history have tended to be viewed as extremes, either the virtuous extreme or the dastardly extreme,” Cevasco said. “They almost tend not to be described as real people. I think Karen succeeds in making her characters come alive as women rather than as caricatures.”

Historical fiction in general is enjoying a boom, as literary authors such as Phillip Roth, with his alternate-historical “The Plot Against America,” and Salman Rushdie with “The Enchantress of Florence” are trying their hands at puppeteering historical characters.

Essex in fact avoids reading most historical fiction, so the invented parts won’t interfere with her research into actual events and people.

For “Stealing Athena,” that research required studying and often directly quoting her characters’ letters, journals and speeches. Few plot points are pure invention; where they are, they seek to fill a gap in recorded history — for example, Essex had to imagine why Aspasia might have been prosecuted for impiety.

Essex also traveled to the locations where the book takes place, having first found inspiration for the novel when eyeing the Elgin marbles at the British Museum. “The ideas come to me just by looking at a piece of art,” she said. “It’s a magical process really.”


The same marbles inspire Essex’s characters to mystical and spiritual thoughts as well: Aspasia speaks of “a spell . . . cast by the gods over everyone who entered” the Parthenon. Mary says to Elgin after the removal of one of six Caryatids that “it appears as if a family member has been ripped from the clan.”

Mary’s concerns are often voiced today. Italy, Greece and other countries are pursuing allegedly stolen antiquities, American museums recently agreed to stricter acquisitions rules, and the Getty Center has agreed to return dozens of pieces, including a sculpture of Aphrodite dating to the 5th century BC.

Greece has built the New Acropolis Museum specifically to house the Elgin marbles, in a glass gallery from which the Parthenon is visible.

Despite her passion for art, Essex is leaving it mostly behind for her next book, which will focus on women and mysticism, a subject that has fascinated her since she was a child, when, Essex said, her great-grandmother “could raise tables and make the room shake and predict events.”

“I’m the first person to cringe at these New Age, airy-fairy, goofy people, but I do feel like I’m always in touch with some other presence,” Essex said. “It’s hard to argue with it because inspiration comes from somewhere. I just say, ‘Oh, thanks, that was great.’ And I just hope I live long enough to write it all down.”

Tennessean [3]

Parthenon statues, powerful women inspire Essex’s absorbing historical novel

Los Angeles-based writer Karen Essex is fascinated with women and antiquity. Her latest novel, Stealing Athena, uses a dual narrative to explore the complex and involving story behind the Elgin Marbles, the statues that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens. At one end of the historical tale stands Mary Nesbit, Countess of Elgin, whose husband brought the statues to England at the turn of the 19th century. At the other end is the ancient Greek philosopher Aspasia of Miletus, who became a courtesan to Pericles, the Athenian statesman who built the Parthenon in the fifth century BC. The correspondences between these two women’s stories serve as a jumping-off point for Essex to explore the ways in which society has always struggled to accept powerful women. The author — a onetime Nashvillian — talks about her former hometown and about her new book, published by Doubleday.

What brought you to Nashville in the ’90s, and why did you leave?

It’s a funny story: I was bribed into moving there by my ex-husband. We were already divorced, but he wanted to get into the music business, and we were sharing custody of our 6-year-old daughter. I’d never been there, so he gave me a trip to Nashville in 1993 and sent me to a big party with Trisha Yearwood and The Mavericks, and I thought, “Gosh, Nashville is pretty cool.”

So I moved there, and it turned out to be fantastic for me. I was able to enroll in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Vanderbilt University, during which I researched my first novel, Kleopatra, and I ended up teaching a workshop, Why Women Don’t Write, at Vanderbilt’s Cuninggim Women’s Center. I also worked as a music journalist, which was incredibly fun.

I moved back to Los Angeles in 2000. I had a hankering to get back into screenwriting, which is much better accomplished if you live here. I had sold Kleopatra to Warner Books, and I really wanted to sell the film rights, and I had the intuition that if I moved back to L.A., I could do that. I did sell the rights to Warner Brothers, so I guess I was correct.

Your inspiration for Stealing Athena came from seeing the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, but the question has to be asked: Did our Parthenon in Nashville in any way serve as an influence in the development of this book?

I don’t think it was the presence of the Parthenon so much as the presence of Vanderbilt and some of the courses I took in classical studies there. That had a much more direct impact on me. The venerable professor Susan Ford Wiltshire was a friend and mentor of mine, and I think she really enhanced my love of the ancient world.

What fascinates you about classical history?

I wish I could tell you. It’s like a chemical attraction — like you have when you see a member of the opposite sex you really like. I can’t explain it in any logical terms. I’m just very deeply drawn to ancient Greek world, specifically the Age of Pericles.

Mary Nisbet Elgin and Aspasia occupy parallel roles in Stealing Athena. What kinds of correspondences and commonalities did you want to establish between them, and where do you see them as being most distinct from one another?

The reason I chose to tell this narrative with parallel stories is that I wanted to demonstrate what these statues meant at the time they were created. But I didn’t want to have to give a history lesson. Aspasia was the device by which I was able to accomplish that; I could put the reader right there watching the creation of these magnificent monuments.

Though these two women lived 2,300 years apart, their stories resonate to me in an almost haunting way: Both were extremely independent and spunky and certainly acted outside of the confines that society set for women — and both paid a terrible price for it.

The issues that women deal with remain universal and constant: love, romance, pregnancy, childbearing, child-rearing and, most importantly, what place are we supposed to hold in society? That was an ongoing conversation in Aspasia’s time, and it was an ongoing conversation in Mary Elgin’s time, and it’s still an ongoing conversation.

As for their differences, Mary was a “respectable” woman, because she was married to an aristocrat, and supposedly she would have been protected by that. Aspasia was a courtesan and, as a result, had no legal status in ancient Greece. The irony is that any woman reading my book will say that they’d have chosen the life of the courtesan.

What challenges are involved in writing historical fiction that jumps between two totally different time frames and cultures?

I was able to structure the narrative around the two women’s life stories, and lucky for me, these stories had similar trajectories, so that worked out in a narrative fashion. The statues and pieces of artwork themselves were the device I used to tie their stories together, almost as cinematic links between the two time periods.

The biggest challenge for me was holding all of that tremendous sweep of history in my head. I was dealing with the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars and classical Greece, so trying to synthesize all that into a seamless narrative was a huge challenge. This book beat me up in a big way.

Women and their relationship to power are at the core of your books. Does this speak to the ways in which even today society continues to see powerful women as an anomaly? How do you reconcile the idea that women have a right to achieve on the same level as men, and yet the very fact of our genders means that men and women remain fundamentally different?

Men and women are different, and one wants to say, vive le difference. I think it is a very big challenge to honor those differences and still honor that each sex should be allowed to perform in a productive way in society. Now we have this whole discussion going on about whether women who have children should even go back to work, but you can’t have a society where you educate 50 percent of its members and then say, “Forget all of that.”

That’s why I write these stories. Even though my female characters lived so long ago, we’re still talking about the same thing. I don’t think we’ve been able to solve it yet. At least our legal system has evolved tremendously. And yet, as a woman, I have found it difficult in relationships with men who have a problem if I make 50 cents more a year than they do.

If I had to say what my ideal vision of feminism would be, it’s leave women to be whatever they are. There are plenty of women who enjoy living in a more traditional structure, and plenty of women who don’t want that. It would be very nice if we could quit trying to find the perfect formula for how women should live their lives.

As a writer, what did you gain most from your experiences in Nashville?

Because Nashville is a gentler place to live than Los Angeles, I had more time to develop the finer aspects of my craft in a less harried environment. The thing I really take away from having lived in Nashville is a sense of a community. People will take the time to nurture relationships, which, frankly, we don’t get a lot of in L.A. Everyone is so busy with their lives and with traffic and the hassle of living there, you only see your best friend once a month.