I’m currently rereading an old favorite: Last of the Amazons, by Steven Pressfield. I’ve always known the book is seminal to my own work, but oddly I haven’t revisited it in many years. I’m starting to feel like the lengthy interim has been serendipitous. Experiencing the book again after all of these years is revealing much about my own evolution as a writer.
Even though I’ve always been aware of its influence, I hadn’t really recognized its prominence. I was already a fan of Pressfield’s historical fiction when it released, and bought it shortly after its publication in 2002. I just dug out some notes from my earliest research forays prior to my first attempt at storytelling (even before admitting to myself that I was preparing to write).
The notes are from the winter of ’03-’04. The subject? Amazons. Influential indeed.
Those of you who know my work features warrior women might have already surmised that rereading the book reveals one of the sources of my interest in them, as well as some of the enduring characteristics of the warrior woman archetype. And you’d be correct. But those things aren’t surprising to me. What is surprising is how influenced my early composing attempts were by Pressfield’s language and style.
In other words, I was influenced by his voice.
Initiation Through Imitation
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s discovered in hindsight that they had been imitating a literary hero, or heroes, in their early work. Rereading Last of the Amazons has reminded me how captivated and inspired I was by the fictive spell Pressfield’s voice casts. The style is definitely archaic, but without being florid, elusive, or overly metaphoric.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of the youngest daughter of an Athenian nobleman whose governess is an Amazon named Selene. Selene has surrendered herself to the father in war. I still love the introduction, in which the girl describes Selene and her background and circumstance in their household. Here’s a taste (or should I say a whiff?):
Selene smelled. Mother would not permit her into the formal rooms of the house, as the odour she exhaled, so Mother claimed, clung to every garment, to her hair, and even the very walls themselves. ‘Can you not smell it, children? Good God, what a stink!’ Mother chased out our governess, often with a broom, to peals of our laughter. For Selene’s part, she abhorred the house and entered it only under compulsion, as civilized folk will a tomb.
It was different than the typical archaic writing I was used to (which was usually vaguely Elizabethan, whether or not the story took place in England). I never found myself asking if this was how an ancient Greek girl from a noble family would sound. I just accepted it. I think I was as captivated and intrigued by that as I was by the elements of backstory and plot.
The voice didn’t work for everyone, of course. I checked the book’s Goodreads reviews, and it seems the style of the prose is among its most frequently cited complaints. But whether or not readers believed Pressfield succeeded in sounding like an ancient Greek girl, he’d succeeded in awakening me to the possibilities of writing from the perspectives of ancient Goths and Romans.
Looking back at those early drafts, written with Pressfield’s voice echoing in my mind, makes me cringe. [Read more…]