Jean Menzies has a PhD in ancient history and has a podcast called That’s Ancient History. She has also written several non-fiction titles for children and adults. Her latest book, Live Like a Goddess, is a YA collection of 21 mythological tales about strong women from around the world. To celebrate the release of this beautiful book, we sat down with Jean to chat about researching for this project.
What do you think makes these life lessons from myths and lores equally/more interesting than life lessons from women in real life?
I wouldn’t say more but I’d certainly say equally. But I think what draws me to these stories in particular is their age and seemingly timeless nature. These women and their stories have been shared between people for millennia, and we’ve been learning from them for that long too. Even then, however, there is always the possibility to learn something new as each generation examines their relevancy to our contemporary world.
These goddesses all dealt with a lot in their lives and stories. Why did you decide to write a book for the younger readers instead of adults?
Well realistically adults can read young adult literature too, but teen readers were who I had in mind when writing Live Like a Goddess. There’s a few reasons for this but I think first and foremost is that a lot of the lessons in this book are ones I wish I’d learned when I was younger. It’s never too early to learn to set boundaries, to be reminded of the importance of embracing joy or expressing your emotions out loud. In fact, I think with all the upheaval and self-exploration that being a teenager involves this is the perfect time to be reminded that those struggles have parallels in these ancient stories.
What’s the most challenging part in adapting these stories for the younger audience?
I’m not sure there is one, especially for a teen audience. When I write for younger children, I don’t always have the space to explore some more complex issues in an accessible way but with Live Like a Goddess space is exactly what I had. And it was such a wonderful experience. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the stories in this book were never just for adults, they would have been and still are shared between people of all ages, between generations, community members, and families. So sure, I had to remind myself what it was like to be a teenager, and how these women’s lives might best be able to serve as examples for younger readers, but it was all in there to start with.
Picking which goddess to include must have been difficult. How did you decide who to include? Are there any other goddesses you wanted to include in this project?
Ah so many. First and foremost, I wanted to demonstrate the range of lessons we can learn from these women, so I picked those I felt best encompassed this – Isis is not the only goddess who shows perseverance after all. But if I were to tell readers to go and look up a few more women after reading the book I’d probably point them to the Ancient Greek Titaness Circe who understood the value of her own company, the Chinese goddess Chang’e who made a brave but difficult decision, and Hindu goddess Sarasvati who demonstrated the power of words over violence.
You picked stories from all different corners of the world. Did you notice any interesting patterns or themes? Would you say the stories are more similar than different?
There are certainly parallels; for example, I was in awe of how much the Karukany reminded me of a Scottish story I’d grown up with: the Selkie, a mythical seal woman who is forced to marry a fisherman but finally, after many years, escapes back to the sea. But they’re also not the same. There are stories of determination and kindness being told all over the world in every culture that is true, but each figure, goddess or otherwise, still goes about it in their own unique way. They are still individuals. So, I suppose the wonder of reading so many stories like these is you start to see the overarching themes that we all value, while also noticing the small things that make everyone different too.
How did you make sure you got the stories from various cultures right, or that you are not missing any cultural context when rewriting these stories?
The biggest thing I’ve learnt as a researcher, and continue to remind everyone else, is that you have to source your information properly. As wonderful as the internet is to expanding our knowledge it’s a tricky place to navigate if you want verifiable info and a lot of mistakes get repeated over and over again until people are stating them as facts. So, where I sourced the information for the book was my biggest priority. Everything I included in the book was learned from academic and/or original cultural material, all of which is cited in the bibliography for anyone who would like to learn even more. I was also incredibly grateful to have the consultant Nozomi Tolworthy feedback on the book. This is something all authors and publishers should be doing as far as I’m concerned.
And there must have been a lot to research about. How did you manage the workload?
Oh gosh aha, I think the fact I enjoy my work and I love researching mythology is what made it achievable. But even when you love your work it can still get tiring or stressful at times, especially when your juggling a few projects like most writers and freelancers are at any given time. With this project in particular I did I have a lot of wonderful goddesses to remind me what was important though, to take care of myself, ask for help, enjoy the work, and persevere.
What do you hope readers take away from Live Like a Goddess?
It’s cheesy, but whichever lesson makes the biggest difference for them. We all go through different things at different times at our life so maybe one woman will stand out to you today and then in five years time you’ll remember another lesson when its relevant to you. That’s what I’d love to know this book gave people. That and an appreciation and love of mythology and history (that would be a big bonus).
Finally, please tell us one thing you learned from writing this book.
It’s OK to get a little personal. Maybe it’s having spent so long in academia but my instinct when writing has always been to keep myself at a distance. But with Live Like a Goddess, I had to draw on some of my own experiences. My wonderful editors were the ones who encouraged this and looking back I’m super grateful for that support and what came out of it.
We are giving one lucky reader a chance to win their signed copy. To enter the giveaway, simply follow the instructions in the tweet below: