February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Olympians” Author George O’Connor Shares His Tricks of the Trade

It’s been eight years since George O’Connor launched his acclaimed “Olympians” series, and the books continue to fly off shelves. With his latest installment, Hermes: Tales of the Trickster (Jan. 2018, First Second; Gr 4-8), an SLJ star and Popular Pick, O’Connor finally had the pleasure of tackling his favorite deity, the god of thieves, lies, travelers, and more. Readers are sure to delight in this dynamic depiction of Hermes—who can resist a god whose first act as a newborn is to prank his older brother? The author/illustrator spoke with SLJ about how he pieces together the various myths and discussed what’s next after the “Olympians.”

Why does Hermes so appeal to you?

When I was in third grade, my class had to do an oral report dressed up as our favorite Greek god, and I chose Hermes. He’s got a great visual—the winged helmet and sandals, very Flash-like. Also, super speed is an awesome power. Finally, I liked that he was always the smartest guy in the room but mostly used [his powers] to cause trouble. I’m a bit of a prankster at heart, so that’s always appealed to me.

How do you take the myriad other versions of Greek mythology into account when you write your books?

I think of it as a boon that there are so many variations of the different myths. It enables me to pick and choose which versions I will retell, to massage the myths to better fit my own narrative. Sometimes I make the choice of which versions I will use to make sure they don’t contradict one another. Like, Hephaestus couldn’t have been birthed by Hera by herself in imitation of Zeus’s solo birth of Athena if Hephaestus was the guy who split Zeus’s skull to free Athena. And sometimes I will omit a version if it’s too similar in type to another story I’ve used before. Basically, I view all the different stories as the raw clay that I get to mold my own take on the gods with. The more clay I have, the better the story I’ll be able to craft. I hope.

What were your favorite mythology texts when you were younger?

I still love D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths—it’s such a masterwork and does an incredible job of knitting all the various and disparate threads of Greek mythology into one coherent narrative, which is no small task. I love it so much I recently wrote and drew an illustrated homage to it for the New York Times.

There was another book I really liked as a kid that I’ve recently reacquired, called Gods, Men & Monsters from the Greek Myths. It’s not as good as I remember, but it does have this totally bizarre giant naked Medusa on the cover, so it’s got that going for it. I also really loved Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It’s a little dry in parts but a total classic.

You explain that you don’t usually let readers see Hermes’s eyes, because he’s the god of lies. What other artistic choices have you made throughout the series?

Thanks for not revealing the color of Hermes’s eyes—it’s a secret I’ve kept for nine books now, and I want it to be a surprise for readers!

My designs for the Olympians are full of clues as to the nature of the gods. Zeus is the god of thunder and lightning, and I draw his mustache as a little lightning bolt. The sacred bird of Hera is the peacock, [so she] has a peacock’s long, elegant neck, and her hair resembles the weird antenna-like plumage on a peacock’s head.

How do you handle writing about complex or harsh deities?

I try not to pull any punches. It’s all part of the human nature of the gods that makes them so compelling. That said, I’ll try not to have too many stories in a row of a particular god being a complete monster. I try to switch up the stories so we get a more nuanced portrait.

I think the portrayal of the gods as petty and cruel is realistic. If I were suddenly granted the power to do literally anything I wanted—to be as powerful as like 30 Supermans—I like to think I’d mostly be a benevolent deity, but I have no doubt I’d occasionally do cruel or monstrous things. No one is 100 percent good, and very few people are 100 percent bad. I figure that ratio applies to Olympians as well.

How do you choose your framing devices? For instance, Hermes is narrated by a traveler who tells stories to Argus, a watchman covered in eyes.

The extra work I put into the framing devices often makes for a lot more stress. It would be so much easier to write with a simple anonymous omniscient narrator. But I get to convey so much more information and story through the use of creative narrators.

Hermes is the god of travelers, so I thought having a traveler relate his stories would illuminate that aspect of his mythology. Also, if you know the story of Argus, you might realize why I went with the traveler as narrator, but maybe not in the way you think.

After you finish the “Olympians,” what do you have planned?

You mean after a long nap? I‘d love to do a nonmythology graphic novel—just a stand-alone graphic novel to stretch my muscles.

I’ve also been working on some sketches for a Norse mythology companion series with the working title Asgardians. I’ve been drawing the Olympians for a long time, and they are, by and large, incredibly beautiful. I think I’d like to draw something ugly for a while, and the Norse gods—Loki, Thor, Odin—well, they ain’t models, at least in my sketches.

That said, I don’t think I’m done with the Greeks yet. There are a lot of stories I’d still love to tell that don’t particularly relate to one of the canonical Olympians—stories like Bellerophon and the Chimera, Eros and Psyche, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus and Eurydice, just to name a few off the top of my head. I guess it will come down to what my editors let me get away with.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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