Susan C Wilson – Q&A

Susan C Wilson is a working-class Scottish writer, residing in Fife. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra’s Bind, will be released on 15 June 2023 by Neem Tree Press. It is the first in The House of Atreus trilogy. The second book, Helen’s Judgement, comes out in 2024, followed by Electra’s Fury in 2025.

Susan aims to make ancient stories resonate with modern audiences, through historical fiction and contemporary retellings. She studied journalism and classical studies, and has worked in a variety of environments, such as the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Courts.

Susan can be found here:
Twitter: @BronzeAgeWummin

Tell me what inspired you to write your debut novel?

Clytemnestra is one of the most reviled female villains of Greek mythology: a wife who killed her husband. I wanted to consider her actions from a woman’s perspective, against the backdrop of a fiercely patriarchal Bronze Age society. I also wanted to explore an inciting incident from her youth that’s usually overlooked: the fate of her first husband and baby at Agamemnon’s hands.

What came first the characters or the world?

The characters. I used their portrayals in such sources as Aeschylus and Homer as starting points, then considered how the traumatic events in their lives must have shaped their personalities and behaviour. Before beginning to write, I spent several years reading as much as possible about the Greek Bronze Age and studied Classical Studies with the OU. The research remains ongoing.

How hard was it to get your debut book published?

Very difficult to attract an agent. After a while, I decided instead to query independent publishers directly, which was a much more successful approach for me.

How long did it take to write?

I’d feel dejected if I tried to calculate this! I don’t have nearly as much writing time as I’d like, as I’ve always worked full time in busy roles. The first draft of Clytemnestra’s Bind took form during NaNoWriMo (a method which wasn’t the best for me). I then put the story on simmer and wrote a political satire. After that, I edited an early version of Helen’s Judgement, which I’d originally conceived of as a standalone novel. Finally, I returned to Clytemnestra’s Bind – and edited, and edited, and edited …

Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?

I’m more likely to wear noise-cancelling headphones or have white noise in the background. Even instrumental music is too distracting, since I find myself ‘singing’ along to it.

How many publishers turned you down?

Clytemnestra’s Bind wasn’t offered to any big publishers, as I don’t have an agent representing me. Initially, I sent queries to numerous agents but only had two full manuscript requests. After discovering Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide (best writing money I’ve ever spent), I approached independent publishers directly. This was the morale boost I needed. Full manuscript requests soon came in, along with the first offer, which I actually felt confident enough to turn down.

What can you tell us about your next book?

The House of Atreus trilogy continues with Clytemnestra’s sister, Helen, who flees to Troy with Paris – providing the pretext for the Trojan War. Achilles narrates the story from beyond the grave, in his Iliadic dimension as a bardic warrior. The story explores the consequences of pursuing one’s desires to the limit, along with the fear of being forgotten after death.

Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre.

Yes, maybe satire or low fantasy. Or else, I’d write fiction set in other distant historical periods. But there are so many Greek heroines I’d like to write about, especially the lesser-known ones. I’ve spent so much time, energy and money researching Mycenaean Greece that I intend to get all the mileage out of it I can.

Which author(s) inspire you?

Sigrid Undset’s ability to immerse the reader in time and place leaves me awestruck. I feel as if I’m there, in medieval Norway, in the characters’ homesteads, experiencing every sight, smell, sound and taste, sharing in every gut-wrenching emotion and every joy, while enmeshed in the characters’ all-too-human dilemmas. Undset accomplishes all of this without overwriting.

Another author I esteem is Henry Treece. He’s been out of print for years, which is a travesty. I know him from his adult novels. I love how he owned the myths and legends he wrote about, how fearless he was in taking liberties to suit his intended purposes. He also proves that a writer can be wildly productive without being formulaic.

Which genres do you read yourself?

Most. My favourites genres are historical fiction, contemporary international fiction, classic literature, ancient and medieval epics, and historical non-fiction. I’m intrigued by anything set in a time or place I’m unfamiliar with. Also, if a story has been read for many decades or for centuries, I want to discover why.

What is your biggest motivator?

The pressure of having limited writing time is my biggest and most painful motivator. I’m often at my most productive on a Sunday evening, knowing I have work in the morning, or at the end of a period of annual leave.

What will always distract you?

My cats inserting themselves between me and my laptop.

How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?

My publisher sent me in-depth questionnaires to help inform the cover artist about the trilogy’s themes, symbols, characters, and so on. They also sought my opinions on the covers-in-progress. We chose the final versions by consensus, and I’m delighted with the artwork. It manages to appear both modern and ancient, and very much reflects the stories.

Were you a big reader as a child?

Yes. My dad took my sister and me to the library on Saturdays when we were small, which was the beginning of the magic for me. We always had books in the house. I was a painfully shy kid and loved to escape into the worlds of Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, L Frank Baum and C S Lewis. As a teenager, I discovered classic literature and historical fiction. I also worked my way through every Viking saga and Hercule Poirot novel my local library possessed.

What were your favourite childhood books?

I picked up a complete Hans Christian Anderson at a Brownies jumble sale, a small, thick hardback with very thin pages. It was my treasure. I still wonder what became of that book. The Snow Queen was my favourite.

I also couldn’t get enough of Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Brothers Grimm or an illustrated book of full-length nursery rhymes my gran gave me.

Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many bookshops in my area. I still mourn the loss of a fantastic second-hand bookshop we had years ago, where you could find out-of-print books galore. It worries me how many books are lost through recycling, rather than being resold, due to the preference of many charity shops for books in fresh condition.

What books can you not resist buying?

Historical or contemporary novels with settings unfamiliar to me. Fairy tales and folk stories from around the world. National or heroic epic literature such as the Shahnameh, Kalevala, Iliad, Odyssey, Epic of Gilgamesh, Nibelungenlied, Thousand and One Nights, and so on. I’m obsessed with stories that originated long ago.

Do you have any rituals when writing?

Not a ritual, but a regrettable tendency to procrastinate by looking online at bookshops, the news and Twitter. If I didn’t have a day job, I’d begin my mornings with a walk and a quick internet surf, then settle down to write.

How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?

I have thousands of unread physical books, plus about a thousand audiobooks, and several thousand e-books. Sadly, many more books than I’ll ever read. I’m a compulsive book buyer. My mother once told me there are worse addictions. I usually have about fifteen gathering dust in the ‘read immediately’ pile beside my bed, but another book almost always comes along to distract me.

What is your current or latest read?

At the moment, I’m finishing Le Morte d’Arthur (exhausting). I’m also reading Classical Mythology in Context, by Lisa Maurizio, and have just started She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, which so far I adore.

Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?

Any of the books I own. I’d also like to revisit the Shahnameh, perhaps in an abridgement.

Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?

Neem Tree Press will release Helen’s Judgement, the second book in The House of Atreus trilogy, in 2024. Electra’s Fury, the concluding book, comes out in 2025.

and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?

As a child, I used to search the dictionary for rude words with a friend, but I was more intrigued by the descriptions of Greek gods, heroes and monsters I kept espying. After my friend went home, I’d pore over these entries and look up all the connected characters. Unaware that you could buy dictionaries of Greek myth, I tried to create my own in a hardback jotter, adding horrendous illustrations. Every time I thought I’d surely discovered every character in the whole of Greek mythology, I stumbled across dozens more, which knocked my A-Z hopelessly out of order. But a lifelong fascination had begun.

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