Season 4

Transcript: Swati Teerdhala and Mary Norris

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 9.

JENN

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today we’re joined by Swati Teerdhala and Mary Norris!

JENN

Swati Teerdhala is a storyteller and writer. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Finance and History, she tumbled into the marketing side of the technology industry. She’s passionate about many things, including how to make a proper cup of chai, the right ratio of curd-to-crust in a lemon tart, and diverse representation in the stories we tell. She currently lives in New York City.

THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT is the first book in her debut fantasy series. Inspired by Indian history and Hindu mythology, it follows a dutiful soldier named Kunal and a rebel spy known as the Viper, who cross paths one night. A cat and mouse game ensues, and they soon learn that what they thought they knew about the world is not quite right.

GUEST 1

My name Swati Teerdhala and the book I’m recommending is Alanna The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce.

I believe it came out in the 80s actually but I first encountered the book when I was 10. I found it in my school library and it was recommended from a new friend, and a new friend who I thought was really cool. She kept on talking about the main character, this girl who kinda defied convention and was making the world her own. So I picked it up and it’s a story about Alanna who pretends to be a knight and takes her brother’s place to train to become a knight and kind of what happens after that. So as you might assume, lots of high jinks. She learns a lot. But more than anything, it was a great story of what you can do as a girl, and as a 10 year old it was a pretty cool thing.

I was an avid reader. I devoured everything in my path. I wasn’t really picky. But Alanna, this book, was the first time I really read a fantasy that I couldn’t put down. And it was really my first introduction into fantasy and magic and incredible world building and characters who, women, girls, who were fighting with swords and it was my first taste and I’ve never gone back since.

Definitely not appropriate for a 10 year old. So I think originally the book was … it’s actually part of a series, so book one out of four books. And that entire series was originally one book and it was supposed to be written for adults. If I remember the interviews I’ve heard correctly by the author, they realized that it would be much more appealing to a young adult or a younger audience and they split it into four books.

I read the first book but in the first book she’s young, I believe she is 13 or younger, so it seemed appropriate. However it does start to slowly explore her life as she gets older. It was actually really formative for me because I got to see what life would be like five years down the road or 10 years down the road and how to navigate a lot of those things that would come up. So while it was not quite the right age group for me, it really impacted me throughout the next 10 years ’cause I could come back and reread the book.

Yeah so the first one is really, I think it’s up until she’s 14 or 15 and then the second book is 16 to 18 or so. I might be totally messing up these ages but it’s really pre-teen, teenager, to young adult. Third book she’s fully on her own, more of an adult, and then the fourth book is kind of like the culminating story of her quest and adventures.

Yeah I would say that is the problem is that it follows her throughout her life so it’s from you know when she’s a pre-teen up until I would say her early 30s.

The one thing when I was younger that I was able to do is kind of know my limits. So I came to about the third book and I said to myself I don’t really understand what’s happening on an emotional level. Why was she feeling these things? I really couldn’t fathom it at that point. So I waited a year or two and then I came back to the series and I finished it and it meant so much more to me now that I was a wise 13 year old who could understand all of the information.

I would say at that age I was always looking forward and thinking what is middle school gonna look like, or what’s high school gonna look like. It felt a lot less intimidating reading it in the fantasy world. And it was also my first kind of foray into feminism and it’s the first book where I got to see a girl be that warrior and be a knight and it really shaped how I thought about what I could do as well when I was growing up.

I reread it every couple of years if not more often. One of the first things I did when I got my first job was to go and buy the set of the covers that I grew up with so they’re these older covers and I had to kind of scour around and look for them. But you have these beautiful illustrations and I grew up tracing those illustrations on that cover and drawing on and all her different ages, and all the different covers, and it was a really big part of my childhood. So I made sure to get them.

I think it’s very different reading it as an adult because there are a lot of decisions that Alanna makes throughout the series, especially in the last book that I now understand on a much deeper level and it has layered meaning to me now than it did then. Some choices she makes, you know, spoilers, that as a kid or even as a teenager I was so upset by and I would tell everybody, all my friends who loved the books, how upset it made me. But now I get it and I think I have hit that age and I’ve surpassed some of those ages and I’ve lived that life a little bit more and so it’s been a layered experience.

One of the biggest moments in the first book, Alanna The First Adventure, is there’s this moment where her secret is, this is a bit of a spoiler, is revealed but then the emotions behind that and what happens and the person who ends up finding out, how they react to it. That really impacted me because … and I’m really trying not to give spoilers here.

She’s been hiding this secret, she’s been pretending to be a boy for so long and it’s the first time someone sees her for who she really is. And so what happens and the reaction to that, it really mattered to me as a kid and that was a very emotional moment that I would go back and kind of read.

I think it would be amazing to be adapted. Actually I used to go on fandom forums and talk about this with people, like who are our fan cast for these, this book and the series, and you know it’s really interesting how much things have changed from 10, 15 years ago. It’s possible now and it never was possible before. I haven’t thought about that in a long time but I would be first in line to see that if that adaption came to fruition.

JENN

Thanks to Swati Teerdhala for joining us and recommending Alanna, The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT, published by Katherine Tegen Books, comes out April 23rd. You can follow her on Twitter at @swatiteerdhala.

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JENN

Mary Norris is the author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, published by W. W. Norton. She joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker in 1978 and has been a copy editor and proofreader there for more than thirty years. In her latest book, GREEK TO ME, she delivers another wise and funny paean to the art of self-expression, this time filtered through her greatest passion: all things Greek. Mary is recommending THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES by Caroline Alexander.

GUEST 2

She’s referring, of course, to The Iliad. And, Caroline Alexander did her own translation of The Iliad-

So, she’s deeply familiar with that material. She wrote her, she made her translation and she wrote the book during a war,

And so, she was trying to get at the truth of war-
And how it is … It’s, it’s just the same, you know?

It’s just as, it’s just as horrible now as it was then, and it was horrible then. And, in this book, The War That Killed Achilles, what she does is take, take up, almost in the order they occur to you-

The questions that come to mind while you’re reading The Iliad.

And, so, you learn, you know, about, um … Well, I don’t know, one of the things that I was , you know how they’re always reacting … They … You know how we always react when somebody talks about human sacrifice?

And, um, that this was, the idea that this was part of what the Greeks did is so horrible to us. Well, at the end of The Iliad when Achilles, um, initiates the funeral game for Patroclus-

His friend, one of the things they do is they p-, they sacrifice Trojan warriors. As well as horses. And, and that just kind of gets glossed over- It seems so strange to me. You know, clearly there was human sacrifice, um, at least according to the myths-

Uh, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia, you know-

That whole series of murders that went on after that. So, it surprises me that there’s still this reaction, “Oh, only the Aztecs did bad stuff like that.” You know, when, when it’s written into the, um, into the epic poems.

You know, when you come to think of it, war is all about sacrificing human beings, isn’t it?

Those are the things that make those, um … Those are the things that make the epics amazing and, and wonderful is that they’re still, there is still so much truth in them and so much that we can be guided by.

I mean, the idea of those, those epics, of Homer, was that they were, the books of Homer, the epics of Homer were like what the Bible is- certainly, in the Greek world, that was what passed for a Bible. That, that and the tragedies, that’s how people learned to live their lives. To learn good li-, to, to live good lives. To be good. In a sense, what Caroline Alexander was doing was bringing some of the reality of war today- To the epics. Making you think of things that really, um, that humans felt. You know, the pain and, and also the, the sense of honor that they felt. It, it makes Achilles more human, I think to, to picture or to have her , um, what was going on there and … Well, she brings out the, so, so many of the beauties of the poem.

For instance, the way at the very end … I mean, the salvation of Achilles, in a way- is when he invites, when Hector, old Hector goes to visit him- to get the body, the … Not Hector- But, Priam- goes to visit him, um, to get his son’s body back, and Achilles is, is just sitting apart from everyone else and Priam is able to approach, and they have this really human moment. Between them.

Priam was the enemy. Why didn’t they, why wouldn’t they have, um, taken advantage of the presence of an old man and- you know, beat him up? He was accompanied by Hermes, though- so, that helped.

I think we end up feeling for both sides. While it’s a Greek epic, and we should be on the side of … I think we should be on the side of the Achaeans, right?

Because the um, the Trojans were the ones that did the bad thing, Paris took Helen, and of course there’s some suggestion that Helen went along pretty willingly … But that was the cause, the Trojans were the offenders, so the Greeks, the Achaeans are the ones who I feel that I should be rooting for. But that’s another thing that’s genius about Homer, is that he gets you to feel for both sides.

And you do feel for Hector. You know, Hector just is so noble. And he’s doing all this for his father, for his brother, for um, for the Trojan people, for his wife, for his son. You know, he’s very selfless. And he doesn’t have the premonition of, of being killed so much … or, you know, until he gets chased around that by um, by Achilles, and then he realizes, “Oh, that’s why they call him Swift Footed Achilles,” right? He can’t outrun him for anything! And so that you do of course feel … so sorry for both sides.

And Hector is the supreme example of the Trojan who … who you, who you do root for, yes. I probably noticed it more because of Alexander’s book, that they have this opp- the Greeks have this opportunity to go home, and um … and it’s put to them a little bit like a test, right?

Um, Agamemnon, , it’s not working out, let’s go home. And they all say, “Yes! Let’s get out of here!”

But then, but then Odysseus or somebody creeps around during the night and tells, tells the, sneaks, you know, tells them in their dreams or whatever that, that this is a test. That Agamemnon is testing them to see if they’ll stay and fight or if they’ll go home. And, and so he gradually, I guess, changes the minds of everyone in the camp and they don’t go.

There’s also a wonderful scene where they’re … it’s just going to be Paris versus Menelaus, do you remember that scene? There’s just gonna be a man to man duel. And I think the Gods interfere, or something happens that … maybe Aphrodite takes Paris away?

There is a theory that the alphabet was invented, or perfected by the Greeks specifically in order to tell … to, and specifically in order to write down Homer. You know, Homer had been um, an oral tradition. And … and, yeah at some point they realized this, we need to hold on to this somehow and get it to places that these poets can’t get to by sea or you know, we want to make it more widely available.

And this is, it’s a controversial theory, but it really kind of makes sense, and they both were developed at the same time, that is the alphabet, we have the first evidence of things written down with the alphabet. And preparing for my first trip to Greece, and it made me want to go to the site of Troy and to Asia Minor. Because,, those were part of the Greek world. And, now they’re part of Turkey. But there has always been enmity between you know, those, those people, the, the ones in Asia and the ones on the European Continent

Well, it was certainly interesting. The, the Turks, let’s see. This area is called, is it called Kusadasi where they think Troy was? And there is a big dig there. There is not much, or when I went, which is in 1983, there was not much for tourists. The Turks had not caught on to these things yet.

There was not even a Coke machine.. There was, there was a big wooden horse. There was that. They built a, a horse out of wood. It was about four stories tall, and it doubled as a viewing platform. You could climb up there and look out at the plain, the Elysian Plain, right? Up in the, oh, how many millennia has it been since they think? The Trojan War was, they think it was like 1200 BC?

Anyway, the land is really, the land has grown. The sea is a lot farther away than you think it would be. You know, you think you should be able to see the sea. From the site of Troy. Maybe higher up you could. Anyway, it was- I’m not an archeologist. I’m not trained and I don’t know that much about rocks.

I was glad to be there and to look around, but it was all dusty. And, and, you know, Schliemann got followed up by so many more professional archeologists, and his methods were somewhat derided. You know, he kept everything (laughs). Didn’t occur to him to donate it. He gave it to his daughter, yeah (laughs). Finders keepers.

JENN

Thanks again to Mary Norris for recommending THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES by Caroline Alexander. GREEK TO ME, published by W.W. Norton, is out now. You can find out more about Norris at commaqueen.net.

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