Interview: Marie Phillips, Part 1

PhotobucketWould you believe the Greek gods are alive and sharing a run-down flat in London?

Arrogant Apollo, responsible Artemis, lusty Aphrodite and conscionable Eros are feeling less than mighty when house cleaner Alice sweeps her way into their lives. What happens next is a hilarious tale about love, heroism and belief that is, truly, larger than life. Debut-novelist Marie Phillips‘ high-concept work had Hollywood taking notice; soon Gods Behaving Badly will be made into a new television series.

We’re thrilled Marie took time out from her busy schedule to talk to us about Gods, her process and her journey. Enjoy!

Interview with Marie Phillips: Part 1

Q: Your book, Gods Behaving Badly, is a fun romp—a modern day spin on Greek mythology—but with plenty of conflict and high stakes. How did the idea for this story evolve for you?

MP: I first got the idea when I was helping a friend work on a documentary set in a school. We were filming a Philosophy class and the teacher started talking about the differences between the gods of ancient Greece and the modern Judeo-Christian god, describing how the ancient Gods were much more like humans with human failings – arrogance, lust, jealousy. I immediately thought: what if we are wrong and the Greeks were right? What if the Greek gods really were the gods and they were still around today? Where would they be and what would they be doing? I knew that I had just had a great idea for a novel. But it took me a long time to get all the details right. In the first draft, for example, the gods were powerful and people believed in them, and it was only later on that I realised it would be more interesting to have them fading and forgotten.

Q: You said in the first draft the gods were powerful and still believed in, and that the script didn’t really start to sing until you turned that convention on its ear. Do you think there’s a lesson in that? Trying to think about things in unconventional ways and hitting upon new story concepts because of it? Have you tried that solution with other story snags and found success?

MP: I think that something strange happens when I’m writing, I tend to forget that I have total control over the story. For some reason I think that things have to be one way or another and I forget that I can do whatever I like: it’s my book! So yes, a good thing to try if you’re stuck or something isn’t working is to change something radical, turn an idea on its head. It doesn’t always work but it gets you thinking in new directions. When I was studying documentary filmmaking, my teacher always used to say that if the film isn’t working, it’s often the scene that you’re most attached to that’s standing in your way. The same is true of books. You can love parts of your writing beyond reason and they hold up everything else. In the end you have to ask yourself: yes I like it, but do I need it? In GBB there was a whole section involving the Fates weaving the fabric of time that I still miss, but it had to go, it just didn’t fit. I wonder if books should be released with extra cut scenes, like DVDs?

Q: What’s your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

MP: I’m a pantser who would like to be a plotter! Though I do think that every book is different. With Gods Behaving Badly, I knew from the start that I was going to base the structure of the book on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, so all along I had the shape and the ending of the novel in my mind. That made it easy to be spontaneous with the rest of it. With the novel that I’m writing now, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I find that much scarier as a process. But there’s not much I can do about it – I just don’t know what’s coming and there’s no way to know except to get on with it! I don’t know how other people go about plotting – it’s a mystery to me. Fortunately writing a novel is slow, slow, slow, so I try not to worry too much about what’s coming as long as I am thinking a day or two ahead and have a vague sense of direction.

Q: Was GBB your first book? How long did it take you to create a draft, and then to polish that draft?

MP: No, I wrote another (unpublished) book before GBB, the least said about which the better! But writing bad books is good for you, you learn a lot from them… though I’m hoping not to have to write too many more bad books in the future. It took me about two and a half years to write Gods Behaving Badly from start to finish but it’s very hard to break that down into drafts and polishing. I am always having to go back and restart when I make a decision halfway through which takes me in an unexpected direction and needs a new set up. If I look at all the saved versions of GBB, they are numbered up to 8 with a few sub-versions, and then a series called things like “last version”, “positively last version”, “final final version”…

Q: I enjoyed these outrageous characters, especially Apollo and Ares. You must’ve had a blast writing them! Which was your favorite? And which of them, if any, posed a problem for you? What did you do to get around it?

MP: Apollo was my favourite god to write. He completely took over the novel. He was only meant to be a minor character but gradually his role got more and more important. Which is pretty characteristic of him, I’d say – such an attention seeker! There’s something seductive about writing villains in general, they get to do and say all of the outrageous things that in real life you could never get away with. And in fact it was the heroes of the novel, Neil and Alice, that I found the hardest to write. For the first two years that I was writing GBB, they were two completely different people with completely different personalities – far less meek. They didn’t fit into the world I’d created at all and I nearly dumped the novel completely because I couldn’t get them to work. It was a friend of mine who hadn’t even read the draft who suggested I should try again with two new characters, and that’s when the book really started to take flight.

Q: You mentioned the problems you had with Neil and Alice and how they didn’t fit in with your world. I’d love to learn more about that. How were they wrong for the world, and how did you make them work? What were your “AHA” moments with fixing those characters?

MP: Actually there was a very specific “aha!” moment with the characters of Neil and Alice. Previously, the mortal couple were called Doug and Claire and I had tried to make them as normal and average as possible, which I thought would work in contrast with the over-the-top gods. But it didn’t. They were just boring in comparison to the larger-than-life god characters. And then one evening I was watching a storytelling show by the comedian Daniel Kitson, and one of the characters in his story was a very mild-mannered lollipop lady (do you have those? They help children to cross the road) – anyway, watching the story, I suddenly thought: that’s it! They need to be meek! I had thought that the contrast with the gods would come from the mortals being natural and the gods being exaggerated, but that means that they didn’t inhabit the same world. What I realised was that the mortals had to be just as exaggerated as the gods, just in a different way. So I came up with these two new exaggeratedly meek characters on Neil and Alice, and that’s when the novel first started to work.

Q: Though the main characters were Gods, their personal traits (arrogant, deceptive, vengeful, guilt-ridden, needy and really sloppy) were painfully human! Why not keep them in some lofty position above humans?

MP: What interested me from the start about the Greek gods is that they are not god-like in a way that we would recognise. Fundamentally, they are not good. And what I wanted to do was to explore the implications of a world where the gods who have created it are not good. It undermines all of our assumptions (those of us who have any, anyway) about what being god-like means. The question of whether this world seems to have been created by a benevolent god or by gods who couldn’t care less about us strikes me as an interesting and subversive question.

Q: How immersed in Greek mythology did you become while researching this book? (Has mythology been a passion for you?) And did you find it challenging to weave the necessary mythological “backstory” into the script?

MP: I didn’t know a huge amount about mythology before I started researching GBB, just stories that I had been read at school and movies I had seen like “Clash of the Titans”. As soon as I started reading the myths I was delighted to discover how clearly the characters of the individual gods shine through, and what a wealth of stories there is to build on. I really don’t think that I’ve changed a huge amount at all – obviously I’ve updated everything into the contemporary world, but the personalities of the gods are straight from the myths. Each of the stories I read told me something about the characters that I could use.

So, for example, there’s a myth where Apollo flays Marsyas alive for claiming to be a better musician than him – obviously, I didn’t use that actual story, but it does tell you something about Apollo’s arrogance and his temper, and so that was the part that I kept. All of my ideas for the gods characters and stories came from one myth or another, and so it wasn’t really a question of putting in the backstory – I just had to explain some of the details as I went along so that anybody could understand what they needed to, about who was who and so on.

Q: You mentioned that there’s a wealth of stories to build on using the architecture of Greek mythology. Have you considered going back to this world and these characters in the future?

MP: I don’t think so, or not straight away anyway. I’ve only written one successful novel so I have no idea what I’m capable of doing, or indeed not capable of doing. I need to experiment with new ideas or I won’t learn anything as a writer, I won’t grow. So right now I’m more excited about moving on to something else.

Click below for part two of my interview with debut novelist Marie Phillips, when we’ll talk about pre-publication hype for a high-concept story, the new TV series in the works and more!


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.