INTERVIEW: Krista Hoeppner Leahy, author of “Too Fatal a Poison”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Too Fatal a Poison” is the story of two friends, members of Odysseus’ crew who are enchanted by Circe on their journey home after the Trojan War.   The story explores the consequences of Circe’s enchantment — both the pleasure and the poison of her sorcery.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

A couple of years ago I was researching Circe for a poem I was writing, and as I reread Homer — I was struck by a couple of things.  

One, how awful I felt for Odysseus’ men.  All of them died over the course of his journey.  All of them!  So many died, and yet we only remember Odysseus.

Two, Elpenor, in my opinion, gets kind of a raw deal.   Through the ages, his death has been held up as an example of the recklessness and drunken foolery of youth.   I asked myself, what might have driven him to drink, to lose himself so completely that he would fall off the roof?  And why weren’t any of the older men keeping a watchful eye out for the youngster? 

Three, I’d forgotten about Circe’s coterie of animals.  I was struck by their presence, and how many of them there seemed to be, even before Odysseus’ arrival.  I wondered, what if some of the men enjoyed Circe’s enchantment?  Of course, that’s not the way Homer tells the story, but if any of the men enjoyed being beast more than human, they wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone, would they?

From there, the story wrote itself.  

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

While this was one of those gift stories — a joy to write — the revision process proved tricky.

The power and horror of war needs to fuel the story, but for the piece to succeed the readers’ imagination has to do the work, without my subjecting readers to anything too gruesome.  Whether or not I succeeded in walking that difficult line is up to the individual reader to decide.

Also, balancing the intoxicant aspect of the pigs’ sensory experience with the demands of plot and pace posed a humbling challenge.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

My eldest brother died unexpectedly a few months prior to writing this story, and while he had a very different life and death than any of the characters, my grief and confusion at his death informed the writing of “Too Fatal a Poison.”  

What kind of research did you have to do for the story? 

I had to do a bit of digging around the actual story and interpretations of Circe’s enchantment and Elpenor’s fate, so that I would know where I was departing from Homer’s version.  And I had to research some of the historical details of the locale and time period — what kind of vessel the men might be drinking from, or which gods they might have called upon at the time.

What is the appeal of wizard fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Wizards embody iconic magic in human form.  Wizards look like us, talk like us, act like us, even love like us, but are immensely more powerful, controlling time, space, circumstance, matter and non-matter, sometimes even life and death.  There’s the tantalizing promise, when you’re reading about a wizard, that wizardry is nearly within your grasp — that you, too, could be the master of your domain, if only you could find the right master, magic book, school, or combination of words.   So while they are often the most powerful magical beings in their realm, they are also the magical beings most like us. 

What are some of your favorite examples of wizard fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Two of my favorites would have to be Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  Ged’s journey to wizardhood and adulthood is so finely and honestly wrought that every time I reread the LeGuin series, I learn something new.  And for me, White’s Merlin is absolutely unforgettable.  Funny and wise, accessible and mysterious.