The House of Atreus: Clytemnestra’s Bind by Susan C Wilson: An Interview
By Danielle Hernandez
Through generations of warring brothers and murdering uncles the House of Atreus has been cursed. Caught in the middle of this destructive fate, young Clytemnestra's life is changed forever when powerful Agamemnon, a rival to the throne of Mycenae, destroys her family and not only claims the kingship, but Clytemnestra herself, as his new wife.
With a recent resurgence in Greek mythology retellings, I was a little skeptical that another novel could offer a fresh perspective on tales already told. But I’m happy to admit that Clytemnestra’s Bind by Susan C. Wilson has proven me wrong.
This is Clytemnestra’s story. A captivating account of the horrors that tore her world apart, her struggle with this tumultuous fate, and how it shaped her character. Wilson certainly doesn't shy away from the more grotesque traumas that Clytemnestra experienced in the lead up to the Trojan war. At an enthralling pace we are confronted with the crimes inflicted upon our protagonist and the ways she found to persevere. I really liked that we got to meet a younger Clytemnestra as we journeyed with her through these world shattering events. Despite knowing how this will famously end, I was intrigued to keep turning the pages as yet another piece of Clytemnestra's earlier story fell into place and I gained a deeper understanding of the protagonist’s nature and motives.
More than just retelling the events, this is a character driven narrative that gives the reader insight into the raw emotions of a vulnerable woman, not yet a vengeful queen. The first person narrative voice exposes flaws and internal conflicts that ground the character in a more sympathetic reality. Meanwhile, Clytemnestra’s relationships to her romantic loves, family and children are explored with interactions and witty dialogue that felt natural and authentic. Through Clytemnestra we see the consequences of the self-destructive behaviour of men as her experience of them is at the heart of the story.
Wilson offers a deeper and more compassionate look at an often vilified character in Greek mythology. This was a story I thoroughly enjoyed falling into and I know I won’t be alone in eagerly anticipating the second instalment. We spoke with author Susan C Wilson to learn more about her debut novel, what sparked her interest in Clytemnestra as a character, and what advice she would give aspiring writers.
We asked Susan why she thought that, particularly Greek retellings, were proving to be so successful in captivating a modern literary audience. She noted that, “until recently, modern retellings have tended to focus on men, from Mary Renault’s Theseus novels through to, say, David Malouf’s Ransom (all superb retellings) and the many fantasy stories of war and adventure. Female characters often dominated the ancient source material, but their perspectives were filtered through male storytellers. The appetite for women telling women’s stories is understandable.”
“The retellings draw from sources that explore timeless and universal motifs, such as the unease between men and women, the possession of too much or too little power, the conflict between humans and gods (or religion), excessive pride, fatal stubbornness, love gone sour, and so on. It’s easy to become hooked on stories with such broad appeal, and retellings might be a reader’s introduction to them, with classics being so undertaught in UK state schools.”
We were interested to find out when Susan’s interest in the character of Clytemnestra began: “I’ve been fascinated by Clytemnestra since first reading Aeschylus’ Agamemnon as a teenager. It always appalls me that she’s judged more harshly for killing her husband, in an act of vengeance, than he is for killing their daughter. Clytemnestra is one of the only characters in mythology who condemns Agamemnon’s murder of Iphigenia. Others might express, at best, a grudging sympathy for her grief, while also describing her as a monster.”
“Agamemnon’s dilemma was unenviable, of course: the goddess Artemis had demanded Iphigenia’s sacrifice before the Greek army could sail to Troy. If he’d refused, he might have faced the wrath of that army – after all, what was a girl’s life compared to the desire of men for glory and plunder? But this still doesn’t explain the lack of empathy for Clytemnestra. Clearly, her grief counted for as little as Iphigenia’s life. From the ancient Greeks onwards, the threat of a woman rising against her husband has generated more horror than a father’s sacrifice of his daughter.”
We were intrigued by her decision to begin the novel a little earlier in Clytemnestra's timeline than readers might be used to. “I love digging out lesser-known stories. The references to the murder of Clytemnestra’s first husband and baby, in Euripides and Pausanias, are strikingly brief. Most ancient writers ignore this episode, if they are aware of it. It’s as though the horror of a woman being forced into marriage with the murderer of her husband and child should leave no impression on her psyche. In Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, Clytemnestra describes herself as putting the murders behind her and getting on with the business of being an impeccable wife to Agamemnon. I find this inconceivable. Her loss would have been life-changing, something that merits far more than a passing mention.”
“My other reason for starting with the lesser-known murders is to take the plot of Clytemnestra’s Bind, and the character of Clytemnestra, in a full circle. Electra’s story, in the third novel of The House of Atreus trilogy, picks up where Clytemnestra’s narrative leaves off, with the characters reeling from this second tragedy.
We wanted to find out all about Susan’s writing process and whether she has any routines or rituals. “I don’t have any writing routines. I’m in full-time employment, so I simply try to snatch writing time whenever I can, mostly at the weekend. I’m a plotter, so I began Clytemnestra’s Bind by writing a huge synopsis, which I broke down into scenes. I knew what I wanted to achieve with every scene, though not necessarily where it would take place or which characters would feature alongside Clytemnestra.”
“My approach with the House of Atreus series has been to write a first draft and edit as I go. Then I put the draft aside and return to it later with fresh eyes. Editing stops when all I’m doing is jiggling commas about.”
To conclude our discussion, we asked Susan about her experiences of being published and if she would give any advice to other aspiring writers.
“I actually began the first draft of Clytemnestra’s Bind in 2011, before the renewed interest in Greek mythology. I worked on it until 2013, then put it aside and experimented with other projects, including the follow up, Helen’s Judgement. Eventually, I returned to Clytemnestra’s Bind and submitted it to Neem Tree Press in 2020. The plot and Clytemnestra’s personality haven’t changed since the first draft, though her first-person voice is less formal, following feedback.”
“It’s been a slow process. Before signing with Neem Tree Press, I queried the novel with agents for about a year. After growing impatient/disheartened, I began approaching various independent publishers, using Mslexia’s excellent Independent Press Guide. This proved much more successful. Several publishers expressed interest. One offered a contract, and a few others seemed likely prospects. Then I got into an email conversation with Archna Sharma after submitting to Neem Tree Press, and I knew I’d found the right publisher.”
“As a born worrier, I had sleepless nights waiting for things to start moving after signing the contract. A few tentative release dates were put back, but things moved rapidly after the editing began. I’m thrilled by my publisher’s efforts to secure interviews, articles, podcasts, book signings and other promotional opportunities. I’d urge authors to establish how much promotional effort a publisher is willing to carry out, before committing to a contract.”
In terms of advice, she offered us lots: “First, decide which era to set your novel in. Most Greek myths have roots in the Bronze Age, but the surviving versions were committed to writing from the so-called “Dark Age” (Homer), onwards. I’ve set The House of Atreus trilogy firmly in the Late Bronze Age, which is when Clytemnestra, if real, would have lived.”
“Then do your historical research – and keep doing it. Avoid grating anachronisms unless deliberate, in which case make this obvious. Read as much Greek mythology as possible. Read the ancient writers, the modern retellings, and everything in between. Read the dramas, poems and handbooks. When reading ancient works in translation, consult as many versions as you can. Some translators strive for literal accuracy, some to preserve metre or meaning, others to offer new interpretations.”
“This isn’t genre-specific, but I wish I’d known the importance of sharing my work, years before I did. Find a group of people you can trust to give honest critiques. If they are writers, critique their work in return. Mastering the skill of critiquing is as invaluable to a writer as receiving feedback.”
Susan is currently editing Helen’s Judgement, the second novel in The House of Atreus trilogy. This novel tells the story of Clytemnestra’s sister, Helen, whose elopement with Paris led to the Trojan War. She will be be posting updates on her website and on Twitter, @BronzeAgeWummin