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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 95: Jennifer Saint (Atalanta)

Charlie and Jennifer Saint (Atalanta) discuss the forgotten story of the female member of the Argonauts – Jennifer’s use of and changes to the various versions of the mythological story, including her usage of motherhood as a theme, Homer’s thoughts on his women characters, the assault of Callisto, and the fact that Jason isn’t much of a hero.

Please note there are mentions of sexual assault in this episode.

Episode 60 of this podcast is my interview with Jennifer about Elektra
Jennifer’s Elektra
Jennifer’s Ariadne
The Argonautica
Sarah Clegg’s Women’s Lore
Cicero said, in the Tusculan Disputations, Book I, On The Contempt Of Death, section XXXIX: “If a child dies young, one should console himself easily. If he dies in the cradle, one doesn’t even pay attention.”
Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad

Release details: recorded 7th November 2023; published 8th April 2024

Where to find Jennifer online: Website || Twitter || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

You can contact the show at

Go back to the list of episodes


01:42 Why Atalanta, what drew you to her?
03:19 Why the first person in particular and how did you create Atalanta’s voice?
06:31 The relevance of Atalanta’s story to our present day, especially compared to Elektra
08:49 The unimportance of Jason (of the Argonauts)
10:07 Atalanta’s growth as a person and her relative genderlessness
12:49 How and why Jennifer included motherhood in the way that she does (and how there are bad parents in Greek mythology)
17:54 Depending on the version of the story, Atalanta doesn’t always meet Artemis – Jennifer talks about this and her choices for her story. We then move on to Callisto’s story and the different versions of it
24:25 Jennifer talks about how Homer seems to have empathy for the women in his stories as part of a wider discussion as to the reception of the female characters in Ancient Greek society
27:49 How Jennifer approached writing the male characters, who revolve around Atalanta rather than the other way around
34:57 The ending – becoming lions would’ve been seen as a punishment in Ancient Greece, so how did Jennifer change this for her story?
38:02 Artemis’ and Aphrodite’s relationship
41:16 What’s next – Jennifer’s book on Hera
42:23 Might Jennifer ever write a ‘regular’ high fantasy novel?


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 95. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Jennifer Saint, who was last here in episode 60 to discuss Elektra. Elektra was a good book, it was a very good book, but today we’ll be talking about Jennifer’s latest, Atalanta, which is absolutely exceptional. Jennifer has woven so much more into this mythological story than there was already – and that’s saying something because there are various story elements depending on which original version you’re looking at – she’s done a lot of work here. Let’s get us a premise: Atalanta was left on a mountaintop as a baby because she was a girl; taken in by a female bear she spent time in a litter of bear cubs before the mother bear chased them all off so the mating cycle could begin again. Atalanta was then found by the goddess Artemis who has her join a group of nymphs devoted to herself – there’s only one rule: no men – Artemis has seen enough of the suffering women go through as wives and mothers, and she visits women who struggle during labour. Atalanta grows up to become the fastest runner around, and a keen archer, and at some point her story will join that of the Argonauts, the group of the biggest heroes around, who are of course all men. Hello Jennifer!

Jennifer: Hello! And thanks for having me back.

Charlie: It’s great to have you back, and, yeah, absolutely enjoyed your book. So going to have to ask why Atalanta, what drew you to her?

Jennifer: I mean, honestly, when I started writing it, I thought, ‘why didn’t I do Atalanta before?’ As soon as I started writing the novel, it was one of those things where I just thought, this woman is incredible and her story is amazing. And I think it was really important to me to have her name emblazoned on the title of a book because what I always say is that anyone, even if you know nothing about Greek mythology at all, you’ve heard of Jason and the Argonauts. But almost nobody outside of classicists [laughs] has heard the name Atalanta. And so to redress that balance and to put her front and centre was something I just thought was – not only really fun because her story is a wild ride [laughs] – but also I just really felt that she was somebody who deserved that spotlight. And I think after writing Elektra which was so full of darkness and based on a cycle of tragedies in the aftermath of the Trojan War, I really liked the chance to write an adventure story this time, I think this is such a wonderful thing about Greek mythology, that it contains within it a whole multitude of genres. And Atalanta is the only woman in Greek mythology who gets to go on a hero’s journey. So as somebody who writes about the women of Greek mythology, this was a great opportunity to write something that I had never written anything like before.

Charlie: Well, it felt to me, particularly when we got to the Argonauts, that I was reading a kind of classical fantasy story, high fantasy story with a journey, which I really liked. But something that I have noticed, particularly reading this book – and I do need to read Ariadne, I have got a copy of it ready but I’ve read Elektra, as you know – is that you’ve used the first person narrative. You’ve used that in all three books. But in this one particularly, it was just something that really drew me, and I wanted to ask you what was important, particularly in this book, maybe, about using the first person narrative? And also, how did you find your Atalanta’s voice? How did you create it?

Jennifer: It’s so interesting because, actually, this has come up a couple of times recently, and it’s the first time I’ve had cause to think a lot about a narrative voice., because for the first time ever, I have just finished writing a novel in the third person. And I really think that that shift, or that choice, is one that feels instinctive – it’s how it works for the character. And actually, for my fourth book, I did write the first 10,000 words in first and then I just thought, this isn’t working, and I went back to the start. So you just know if it’s wrong or it’s right. And with somebody like Atalanta, nobody else could tell her story but her [laughs]. She is somebody with such a strong and powerful and dominant voice that it just felt there wasn’t another way to capture it. And that opportunity to get inside her head, the way that with a first person narrative, you’ve got access to the world through that character’s eyes – for somebody like Atalanta, that’s even more important, because you mentioned in your introduction, that she grows up among bears. She grows up in the wild. She grows up in the forest. And so human society isn’t something she’s encountered before until she goes to join the Argonauts as a grown woman. She knows the company of the nymphs, but she hasn’t actually walked in the mortal world up until that point. And it’s a great way – again, you’ve made such good points in your questions [laughs] – the fact that you referred to it sort of classical high fantasy, well, in a fantasy narrative, you need somebody to show you the way through that world. And the world, the ancient world – people read my books who maybe have studied classics all their life, or they love it, but also people who have never come to Greek mythology before. And so to walk them through – this is the Bronze Age world, this is a world of gods and monsters and all the rest of it – I think the first person narrative is a great way to do that. If it’s somebody like Atalanta who is encountering for the first time herself as well, we really get to go on that ride with her and we get to experience the thrill of that discovery.

Charlie: You saying that has made me think, since Elektra, I haven’t done too much reading on mythology, and I need to improve that, but something that did strike me so much is that your narrative has made it that it does open the world to people that don’t know too much about mythology. You’ve got that good balance of, as you said, basically, stuff that will interest people who know what you’re writing, basically, and know it really well. But then also, it’s very open to beginners and people all over the scale – I think I said last time that I was, like, somewhere in between, because I know a little bit, but not tons, but yes. Yeah, I just really liked the narrative, but also something on this that I noticed – and I think with the way that you’ve used language and what you focused on – there seems to be a particular amount of relevance to our modern day with Atlanta’s story, more so, I think, than Elektra. Would you say that’s true?

Jennifer: Yeah, so I think the premise of Atalanta joining the Argonauts is that here are the greatest heroes of Greek mythology – so Jason is there, Heracles is there, there’s this whole host of famous names that a lot of people will recognise – and what really stands out about Jason [laughs], who gets the title role most of the time, is that he’s really, surprisingly, ineffectual [laughs] as a hero, as a person. So I used as my source text, really, for that part of the book, the Argonautica, which was written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BCE. And that’s our extant surviving version of the whole of the Argonauts voyage. And what really stands out when you read that is that Jason, as the leader, avoids, making a decision as much as humanly possible! He’s the least obvious leader you’ve ever met in your life. Other Greek heroes get these epithets, for example, you have the ‘mighty’ Heracles, you’ll hear him referred to as. But Jason, his epithet is the ‘one sandalled man’ because he lost his shoe in a river, and that’s his defining attribute! So the idea that you have a group of mediocre men who rise to greater prominence than an incredibly talented woman – I’m not going to say that was a completely brand new concept that I’d never encountered before in life; I think there are parallels in Atalanta with the modern world in that respect, and to present this very ambitious, very dynamic woman who doesn’t let herself be held back – sometimes, as I was writing it, it felt like she’s a very modern heroine, whereas Elektra is very much a heroine of the ancient world. Her values don’t align with ours. She’s quite a hard character to understand in so many ways, whereas Atalanta feels like somebody who actually, she could be part of a modern story. You could transplant her out of the ancient world and put her in a Marvel movie or something!

Charlie: Yeah, absolutely. To kind of finish on Jason, I suppose, and then move back to what you’ve just said about Atalanta – you hear ‘Jason and the Argonauts, Jason and the Argonauts’ and then from what you’re saying, it sounds like even in Ancient Greece, maybe, it was literally that just his name was used and he wasn’t seen as important. Am I right in that?

Jennifer: I mean, he was – he gets to be a hero, and he does get other stories further down the line after the voyage of the Argonauts. But I do think it’s really interesting that when you read the Argonautica, which is another epic text – you have the Iliad, you have the Odyssey, and you have the Argonautica comes much, much later, about 500 years later but it’s sort of supposed to be in the style of a Homeric epic, whereas in the Iliad – you have these incredibly powerful characters like Achilles. Jason just really stands out as a surprisingly unimpressive contrast, I found – that’s my personal opinion, anyway.

Charlie: No, fair enough. I like that you were able to show that so well. I know I was maybe halfway through the whole section of the Argonauts in your book and just thinking effectively, ‘where is Jason?’

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s how you feel reading the Argonautica – where is he? What’s he doing? [Both laugh.]

Charlie: Yeah, it’s something that I’ve definitely learned here. But you were saying about Atalanta, she seems to have an element, or there seems to be a theme, of her growth as a human in terms of her having grown up with bears, at least at the start. So she’s got to kind of learn how to be human. But then also with the way that Artemis has her behave, as much as she tells her what to do, which isn’t all that much, but still, it has a big impact. She’s also genderless, effectively, would you say? Is this something that is important?

Jennifer: Yeah, that was very much on my mind in creating her as a character, that it was an opportunity, again, to do something, to have this kind of blank canvas of a character – because she grows up outside of human society, unlike my other heroines, who are very much constrained by the world in which they live, which is a very patriarchal society – Atalanta just doesn’t encounter that; she has no concept, by the time she goes to join the Argonauts, it doesn’t even occur to her that as a woman, she doesn’t have a place on that ship, or she wouldn’t be expected to be on board. So there was that feeling of she grows up genderless in terms of she has no gender expectations imposed on her. But the fact that she is a woman ends up being incredibly important to how her story plays out because she has to discover how she is perceived by the outside world. I just remembered, you said we can do spoilers.

Charlie: Absolutely.

Jennifer: So if I say now, I’m going to do a major spoiler. If anybody hasn’t read the book yet, don’t listen to the next minute or so! It’s the fact that in some ancient mythology, Atalanta, while being incredibly unmaternal, sometimes the story is that she gives birth to a son, and there’s various different fathers suggested, and that was a part of her mythology I wanted to include. And that’s where I think her gender really catches up with her – that’s the first time she’s hampered for the first time by the fact of her sex, because all of the other Argonauts can behave however they want, and it doesn’t matter if they leave babies behind them on their voyage, you know, whatever they do. But for Atalanta, she can’t just walk away from that situation, she finds herself trapped by that happening to her, and that’s where she comes up against it, I think. And although she hasn’t got any drive to be a mother, and she doesn’t really have that maternal instinct, and she doesn’t want to be a mother, there is nothing that she can do about that situation.

Charlie: Well, this is kind of branching off from that, I suppose – I’ve noted that you have had motherhood and being a good mother [Jennifer agrees], and being a good father, sometimes, where Atlanta will look after her son, after so many examples of bad mothers in her life and bad fathers, absolutely. And there are many awful parents in mythology. So I was actually wondering if you can elaborate on this, the importance of concentrating on motherhood in the way that you do?

Jennifer: So it’s such a present theme in all of my work, and I think this is partly writing women of the ancient world, motherhood is so often the way in which women in these societies are defined, it’s the way in which they’re assigned value, and it’s a role that they have very little choice or autonomy over. And I’m always interested in exploring that. And from a personal perspective, I’m a mother, and that’s something that I chose, and therefore, that’s something that I have got an understanding of, the rewards of motherhood that can so easily make you imagine, what about a world in which I didn’t choose this? What about a world in which this was something imposed upon me and something so fraught with danger? I mean, that’s not exclusive to the ancient world, pregnancy and birth is still a dangerous time for women all across the world today. And so it can become something terrifying, or it can become something completely restrictive. And I’m always fascinated by how that affects women’s lives, how it controls women’s lives, and what the repercussions of that are going to be. So, in Ariadne, I had two sisters, and I was really interested to explore the two different sides of that, and the idea of experiencing post-partum depression in a society that has no terminology for that and no understanding of that. Then in Elektra, Clytemnestra’s actions are so very much driven by the fact that she’s a grieving mother – because, again, when we come to discussions of the ancient world, infant mortality is so extremely high that it can almost become something that’s treated as less important just because it happens so often. I did an event, actually, with a woman, an author called Sarah Clegg, who’s written this brilliant non-fiction book called Women’s Lore. And she was talking about goddesses, demons of childbirth, and the way that women would worship them or have wars against them, or whatever it was. But she mentioned… I’m sure she said, and I hope I’m not slandering him, that Cicero wrote a treatise on why women shouldn’t get too upset when their babies die! Because it’s something that is so absolutely appalling. And then apparently, his daughter died, and he was very sad about it, so I think he learned his lesson. But it’s the fact that it is a terrible, terrible, tragedy. Whether it happens to everybody, you know, or not, is still a devastating thing. So I’ve really taken a long way around of saying this. So Clytemnestra’s actions are driven by the fact that she loses a daughter, and she cannot forgive, and she cannot forget, and she cannot move on. So when it came to Atalanta, I thought, ‘well, I’ve written about women who love motherhood, women who are destroyed by motherhood. Now, I’d quite like to write a woman who is indifferent to the whole concept of motherhood’. She’s not interested in it when it happens to her. She does what she is required to do, but it’s not where her story is going, and it’s definitely not where it ends. I think so often for female characters, their story arc is about finding a man and having a baby [laughs] and becoming a mother – and there you go, that’s your arc, that’s what’s going to encompass the entirety of you. And there is so much more to so many people’s lives than that, which is not to diminish the importance of motherhood at all, because I consider it to be very important, but also just to say, well, it’s not important to everyone, and it’s not that important to Atalanta, and it’s just something that she has to deal with.

Charlie: Yeah, you saying that, I kind of expected, knew – I suppose either one of those words will do right now – that you were going to follow the story or you were going to follow different elements of the story, which I want to ask you in a minute, actually, because there’s obviously different versions of Atalanta’s story. I liked where it went, with how you’re saying about the motherhood and Atalanta; she is a good mother; she effectively places her child for adoption, so she’s good in that way. She’s effectively understood that she’s not going to be a good mother, so being a good mother in that way, she gives him up for adoption. Also, I think, turns out to be a good thing, because who knows what would happen if her father worked it out. But I did like how you had this thing with her choosing, effectively, lovers and romance against what Artemis said to her as well, which I know also obviously happens in the mythology, but it’s how you’ve written it which is good. I think this is partly why I know I’m having trouble with getting these questions in the right order, because everything relates so much to everything else in mythology!

Jennifer: Yeah.

Charlie: So if I go first for, you’ve got Atalanta and we’ve got Artemis, and they are in the story together. But from what I’ve read, Atalanta doesn’t always meet Artemis in the stories; there are different versions of the tale. Could you tell us about these different versions?

Jennifer: Yeah, first of all, Atalanta, after the bears, she’s rescued by hunters in mythology. And I think it’s generally assumed that these hunters are human men. In those versions of the mythology, she does grow up within society, kind of on the margins, kind of in the woods with the hunters, not the royal life that she would have led being the daughter of a king. It’s quite a fairy tale origin, that one where she’s taken in by peasants or hunters or whoever. For me, what made sense was to make these huntresses rather than hunters, because the woods is where Artemis lives, and Atalanta can be read as a mortal counterpoint to Artemis. She reflects Artemis in so many ways, and she becomes a devotee of Artemis whether or not she actually meets her. So Atalanta is described as being taller than everybody else. She’s described as being incredibly fit and agile and athletic, she’s the fastest runner, she’s the best with a bow and arrow, so she’s got these superlative attributes about her that mark her out as different, that mark her out as special. So we can see her as being almost like a version of Artemis on earth, if we want to, and that’s definitely how she’s sometimes portrayed. I was more interested in the idea of her as being a protege of Artemis, as developing those traits because Artemis has taught them to her, and Artemis as being almost Atalanta’s adoptive mother, because Artemis is famously a goddess who spurns a company of men and who never has children herself, but who helps women in childbirth. And so there’s this kind of dichotomy with Artemis in that respect, that she’s ruthless in so many ways, that there is this protective element to Artemis as well. And I just thought it was much more interesting to have Atalanta be the foster daughter, if you like, of Artemis, and how that affects you to grow up with a mother who is an Olympian goddess [laughs] who has very little interest in you in so many respects, and how that gives Atalanta a lot of her drive and a lot of her ambition and a lot of her determination to succeed at all costs, but is probably an experience that hardens her as well.

Charlie: Well, I was interested to read, when I was doing research on the mythology, that in some versions, Artemis is the mother bear. And also when it comes to Callisto and getting pregnant and raped, that [in] your version, Artemis changes Callisto into bear, which is whoa, okay, that’s something that’s also in the mythology. It’s quite damning, obviously, especially, I think, nowadays. But also there’s different versions where I think it’s said that… I want to say Zeus [Jennifer: Yep] changed Callisto himself, or another God does. And there are all these different versions of what goes on there in terms of that.

Jennifer: Yeah, so Callisto can be a really unfortunate pawn in the ongoing game – well very twisted game – between Zeus and Hera, which is that Zeus sexually assaults a whole host of mortal women and goddesses, and Hera vents her frustrations on them. So it’s quite often Hera who will transform his victims into animals or punish them in some terrible way. So sometimes Zeus turns Callisto into a bear to conceal her from Hera, sometimes Hera turns her into a bear as punishment, sometimes Artemis turns her into a bear. I mean, it’s a wonderful and weird thing about mythology that you can really have every possible version of a story existing! But when I’m making decisions about the story that I want to tell, then I also don’t want to complicate things too much. And in this case, this is a story about Atalanta, and it’s a story about Artemis. And I think the most compelling version of that story – maybe because we have so many stories about Zeus and Hera and the altercations that they have – is when it’s Artemis who inflicts the punishment. Artemis is a goddess who is so brutal in her vengeance, because the other major story about Artemis is the one of her and Actaeon, who is a hunter, who stumbles across her completely by accident and sees her naked when she’s bathing in a pool, and Artemis inflicts this terrible punishment of turning him into a stag and having him torn apart by his own dogs. And that story and Callisto’s story, I think the purpose that they serve in this novel, in Atalanta’s life, in how these episodes affect Atalanta, is here’s a warning about who Artemis is and what Artemis is capable of, and that quality that the gods have – which is this total lack of empathy and this lack of mercy – and that even if you do something by mistake or you do something that you have no choice in, say in Callisto’s case, she has no choice about what Zeus does to her. She is very clearly, in all the sources, I think, she is a victim of Zeus, and she doesn’t welcome his advances and most people don’t. And the fact that Artemis punishes her, while Artemis can’t punish Zeus, Zeus is untouchable, so the only way for Artemis or Hera to actually be able to take any sort of revenge for what’s happened that has offended them is to punish the woman, is to punish the victim. And it serves as a warning to Atalanta, I think, about what could happen to her and how careful she needs to be, because this is a world in which she sees the nymphs being assaulted, so she knows that danger exists. She knows that you have to be the fastest or the strongest or the smartest to get out of these situations as much as possible. And she knows the consequences if you don’t. And so that’s something instilled into Atalanta from a really early age. So I think, for me, that’s the reason for going with that version of the story.

Charlie: No, that’s really interesting to hear. Obviously, we know our own modern day interpretations and thoughts about this myth and myths in general. Do the collective ‘we’ know how the ancient Greeks of the time saw these stories, saw the… I suppose the portrayal of women?

Jennifer: We don’t know; I think all you can do is extrapolate. And I think if we’re talking about the ancient Greeks, then in a source like the Iliad, for example, which I’m thinking of because I’ve just very recently re-read Emily Wilson’s translation, the treatment of women in the Iliad, which is the war story, women are prizes to be won or lost in war. There’s no questioning of that. There’s no point at which Homer, as the narrator, draws our attention to how terrible it is for the women in those circumstances. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t create developed female characters because Helen is one of them. Hecuba, the queen of Troy, is another. Andromache as well, the wife of Hector. Women are treated with empathy, and understanding, and they are fleshed out and fascinating characters, but nobody is protesting about the fact that they are used as slaves in the war – and the whole concept of slavery in general is not something that is questioned in the ancient world; it’s the natural order of things, i’s the way things are. I think it would be wrong to say that, in a similar way to the fact that I was saying that people obviously understood it was terrible to lose a child because when it happened to them, it was devastating and heartbreaking, I think that we can see in the way that ancients wrote about this kind of thing that there’s definitely an understanding that if you are in that situation, it is an awful situation to be in. And I’m thinking of Ovid’s Metamorphosis here. There’s an incredibly powerful, vivid, passage in Metamorphosis where Apollo, the god Apollo, is pursuing a nymph called Daphne. And she’s so desperate to get away from him, she calls out to her father, who is a river god, for help, and he turns her into a tree. And it is this agonizing description of how the bark creeps up her skin and she stiffens and she loses her sensation, and she is still conscious while this is happening to her. And Apollo is still touching her, he’s got his arms wrapped around the tree trunk. And it is absolutely horrific. And I think, I have no idea what Ovid’s thoughts and feelings are about this situation and the rights and wrongs and the morality of it, but I can see that he can put himself in Daphne’s shoes there – she has got shoes any more, she’s a tree – but you know what I mean [laughs], and that he can convey this to us with a really vivid sense of the horror of that situation. So there are a whole host of really fascinating female characters who I think have a very full experience in the myths and the way that they’re treated by the ancient world. But as to kind of speculate on how people listening and helped to hear these stories or telling these stories really thought about it, I just think that’s impossible to know.

Charlie: Fair enough. It sounds, from what you’re saying, that there is definitely a possibility of it being shown in the text, we just don’t necessarily know the approaches that people went to or the point of views that they had themselves, the authors. Yeah, fair enough. You have the male characters and obviously, with your approach and the way you’re writing your story, you’re making them fit Atalanta’s narrative instead of the other way around, which is obviously what happened all the time beforehand. And you have differences and things like that with the different texts, as we’ve mentioned. How did you approach writing your male characters in general? I know you’ve said a bit about Jason, obviously, he doesn’t do much leading, but you’ve also got Hippomenes, I hope I’ve said that right, who seems to have a bit more of a place in your story than potentially in the mythology; I think he’s there when Atalanta kills the centaurs, but I think, from what I’ve read, he seems to have not been there in the mythology.

Jennifer: No, I invented that, yeah [laughs].

Charlie: I wonder if you can talk about that, making the male characters.

Jennifer: Yeah, so this is, again, another new opportunity for me in writing this novel, because my stated aim in writing Ariadne, which is my first novel, was, do you know what, this story has been Theseus and the Minotaur forever, and now I’m going to sideline him and put Ariadne in the centre in a reversal of the way it’s been done before. And so the male characters are really pushed to the margins in that. And then similarly with Elektra, and that’s particularly because that is a war story, and so a lot of what’s happening is what’s going on in the women’s lives while the men are fighting, and so the men are not major players in a lot of what is happening. But when it came to this story, now I’ve got a heroine who gets on a boat with 50 men [laughs]. And so I’m definitely going to get the opportunity to start writing some male characters and give them a bit more of a major role than they’ve had before. And that also gives me the opportunity to explore some different types of masculinity and some different ideas about what it means to be a hero. And so obviously, Jason is our kind of disappointment [laughs] as a hero, somebody who comes across as really not doing much of it himself. And that’s definitely the case when we come to them getting the golden fleece, and we find out it’s all Medea who enables that to happen. But then we’ve got Heracles, who is this incredibly powerful hero who embodies so much about this very raw, very dangerous, masculine energy that is a threat to Jason, that’s really a threat to everybody around him. But then there are men in between those two extremes [laughs] and that’s where somebody like Hippomenes comes in. So I did insert him into the narrative earlier than he ever appears before, because when Hippomenes meets Atalanta in mythology, it’s one of these sort of love at first sight moments and the way that Hippomenes falls in love with her – and again, this is Ovid, Ovid’s had a huge influence on this novel [laughs] – when Hippomenes sees Atalanta for the first time in the myth, it’s when she’s running the foot race against the suitors. So her father has said she’s got to get married. She said she will not marry anyone unless they can run faster than her. And if they lose, then she will cut off their heads, and she will put their heads on a spike. And this is the moment at which Hippomenes falls for her. This is, like, 100% his type of woman [laughs], because he goes as a spectator to the foot race, thinking, ‘this is ridiculous, why would anyone be prepared to leave their head for this woman?’ And then he sees her cutting off people’s heads, and he’s like, ‘yes, she’s the one for me!’ This is great. And while I absolutely love that in Ovid, that was not going to work in my novel [laughs]. That just didn’t feel plausible. I think this is the thing; when we’ve got these very self-contained episodes in mythology, that you try to fit them into this broader arc of a novel, you start to realise the things that just don’t make sense. And Hippomenes really, really, fascinated me because he knows he can’t beat Atalanta, but he’s willing to try. And the way that he beats her in the end is through trickery. But also, I think because she doesn’t mind losing to him, and it’s so at odds with everything that we know about Atalanta and everything that she has been up until that point. But the fact that when Hippomenes challenges her, and again, it’s like a love at first sight moment – she looks at him, and she thinks, ‘maybe I don’t want to cut his head off [Charlie laughs]; I wanted to cut everybody else’s head off, but his head is really nice’! She lets him win, I think. And that also wasn’t going to work unless there was some sort of prior connection between them, unless there was some sort of deeper connection that had already been building. And I really had to think about what kind of man is going to accept a woman like Atalanta. What kind of man has got the maturity and the self acceptance to not be threatened by a woman who is so much more skilled and so much stronger and so much more ambitious and powerful than he is? And that has to be quite – I think if we’re talking about ancient mythology and we’re talking about a world of heroes – that has to be quite a special kind of guy [laughs]. So, um, building Hippomenes up and working out his motivations. Similarly, what it is then Atalanta is going to see in him. So she has been exposed to all these different kinds of heroes, these different kinds of men. And she’s figured out by that point of the novel – I really feel this is a coming of age story – she’s figuring out what does she want? And she doesn’t want someone hyper-aggressive like Heracles is. By this point, she has rejected that version of heroism. And so somebody like Hippomenes who can offer her, perhaps for the first time in her life, a kind of gentleness, that then started to make sense to me. That felt like, here’s a woman who has never wanted this, now I can understand why she would marry, why she would risk losing herself. Because that’s what marriage might mean for Atalanta, for a man like this.

Charlie: Well, on that then, back on the foot race, slightly. Are you saying then that in the original, Atalanta is basically in on the golden apple idea? She knows what’s going on?

Jennifer: Well, it’s implied that she’s torn – I’m just thinking back to the whole passage – yeah, that she’s kind of torn, that she keeps looking back at Hippomenes. She’s reluctant. She’s reluctant to go ahead with killing him and she’s definitely intrigued by him, and she’s attracted to him and she doesn’t want it to end there. So there’s that along with the lure of these golden apples. So both of those things – because she’s so phenomenal, you can’t beat her with just one! You can’t beat her with just the golden apples or just with your pretty face. And I think you have to have a combination of the two!

Charlie: Fair enough. Fair enough. And I’ll go to the ending, actually, because this is towards the ending. I was wondering if you could talk about the way you wrote the ending. Some say the belief back then was that lions couldn’t mate – I suppose we should say that Hippomenes and Atalanta, they basically are transformed into lions after they’ve had sex in a temple, in a sacred place – and some would say the belief back then was that lions couldn’t mate, so it would have been seen as a punishment that Atalanta and Hippomenes were transformed because they did what they did, where they did it. And then you’ve accounts of the person who transforms them, being Artemis or Zeus instead of Rhea. I just wanted to ask can you talk about the way you wrote the ending?

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, it just needed a little bit of simplification because actually, it’s Cybele’s temple, and she is a goddess who is often conflated with Rhea. And you just end up down this whole rabbit hole, which at this point in the novel, I do not want to introduce multiple different goddesses and the difference between them. So I wanted to simplify that because the important thing here is the transformation. And, yeah, I absolutely love the explanation that that’s why it was a punishment, that tey’ve had sex in a place they shouldn’t, so they’ll be transformed into animals who can’t have sex with each other. I have no idea how the ancient Greeks accounted for the existence of baby lions if they believed that lions couldn’t mate [laughs]. But, yeah, that is apparently possibly the case, and that’s why it seems like a fitting punishment. But so many Greek myths end in a mortal being transformed into an animal, and it’s always bad. So Arachne is transformed into a spider because she challenges Athena to a weaving contest, and she’s maybe better than Athena, and Athena doesn’t like it. Dionysus transforms three women who refuse to worship him into bats, and it’s this really horrific scene. There are just so many examples of people being transformed into animals, and it’s terrible. But for Atalanta to be transformed into a lion, actually, when you consider who Atalanta is, you consider her origin story, you consider her whole place in the world by the time she comes to this, it just didn’t seem like a tragic ending to me. And I was so excited to write a happy ending for the first time [laughs] that I wanted to make that something joyful and something triumphant and something that actually, she and Hippomenes can just keep going – well, for as long as a lion lives [laughs] – that they can be wild and that they can be free and that they can carry on exactly as they were, but as lions! I really loved it, I just found it magical, and I think the fact that the story starts with bears and ends with lions, there was a really beautiful symmetry in that for me.

Charlie: Yeah, I can see why you say that. And, yeah, I was very impressed with the ending. I liked how you brought your interpretation into it because I could see where it was going – I’d read research and read up the story. I was going to ask as a question that’s not so important to the book, but still something that I know interests me – I wanted to ask you about the relationship with Artemis and Aphrodite, I suppose how they’re portrayed, but also how it changed.

Jennifer: Yeah, so, I mean, so often we do find situations where women are pitted against one another quite unnecessarily, but in the case of Artemis and Aphrodite, they are goddesses with such conflicting stances. Aphrodite’s whole purpose, whole reason for being, is to inspire desire in people. Love and desire, that’s what she’s the goddess of. And she takes it very personally if anybody rejects love and sex and desire, it’s an insult to her, because that’s what she’s the goddess of, so you can’t turn your back on it. Whereas Artemis, she and Athena and Hestia as well, would always be called virgin goddesses. And I think the word ‘virgin’ in this sense, it means that they don’t have sex with men, I don’t think it means they don’t have a sexuality or they don’t have sex with anybody, but they don’t have sex with men. So Artemis absolutely having nothing to do with any of that. And it enrages Aphrodite and so we do see that they come up against each other multiple times in mythology because they’ve got this kind of innate conflict, this innate, irreconcilable difference between the two of them, because anyone who worships Artemis is going to swear off the opposite sex as well. So she’s taking a whole swathe of worshippers away from Aphrodite in that sense. So they are rivals. So while I wouldn’t want to just be like, oh these two women are rivals for no reason, in this case, they actually are, so it’s fine. So there’s several stories in mythology where that has terrible consequences for the mortals who get in the middle of it. And that really comes into play in Ariadne with the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus; and it’s something that, in Ariadne, I left Aphrodite out of that story, because, again, it’s just in the interests of not making things too complicated, not introducing elements for readers who aren’t familiar with Greek myths to try and square with the rest of the narrative. But in this novel, I could bring more of those in. So they’ve been playing these mortals off against one another, so Aphrodite has destroyed Hippolytus, who is a worshipper of Artemis, and Artemis has destroyed Adonis, who is a lover, a mortal lover of Aphrodite. It’s just going to be this ongoing situation between the two of them where they’re going to battle over human beings, and it’s never going to come to a conclusion because they can never reconcile their conflicting stances with one another and human beings are always going to be the collateral damage. And so Atalanta is obviously, as somebody who is so very, very, much like a mortal version of Artemis, she’s an obvious target for Aphrodite to go for and to try and take away from Atalanta. She’s the crowning jewel in Artemis’s collection of mortals, and so Aphrodite is going to have it in for her.

Charlie: Okay, fair enough, yeah. The question that I definitely have to end on with you is you said that your fourth book, you’re writing in the third person [Jennifer agrees] which is very exciting. Can you tell us more about this fourth book, as much as you can say at the moment.

Jennifer: I absolutely can. So I think possibly the reason that we’ve gone into the third person is it’s a real shift – I’ve written about these three women of Greek mythology so far, but now in my fourth book, my heroine is Hera, the queen of the goddesses and the wife of thieves, who we have mentioned a couple of times in this podcast already! And it has been so different to write from a goddess’s perspective, so very different to capture the world of the Olympians rather than the mortal world. And yeah, I really felt that with this novel, it was something new and something ambitious and something that I felt in the world of Greek mythology retellings perhaps hadn’t been done so far. So it was a huge challenge [laughs] to write it, and I am extremely glad to have done it and I am just so happy with how it’s turned out and really, really proud of it. So I can’t wait to share it with people, honestly.

Charlie: Honestly, this seems more fantastical – obviously, mythology is fantasy, so it feels very historical as well. It’s somewhere between historical and fantasy. And obviously your love and your focus is mythology. Have you ever thought, however, of delving into, I suppose I want to say kind of ‘regular’, in quotes, ‘regular’ high fantasy?

Jennifer: Yes. So I think I love Greek mythology, and I have studied Greek mythology, and it’s definitely a passion of my whole life but it’s not the only thing that I read, and it’s not the only thing that I would ever want to write. So there’s definitely, I think, scope for me to do other genres, other types of fiction in the future, but, you know, I will always, I hope, return to Greek mythology as well!

Charlie: Sure, sure, that makes absolute sense. So, Jennifer, this has been lovely having you today. Oh, my goodness, I have enjoyed your book so much. Thank you so much for being here today.

Jennifer: Oh, well, thank you very much for having me back!

[Recorded later] Charlie: Thank you very much for listening. Please do share this episode with anyone you think would be interested in it. The Worm Hole Podcast episode 95 was recorded on the 7th November 2023 and published on the 8th April 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.


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