Author of the newly published 'The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas'
Recently having had the chance to review E.S. (Gene) Kraay's book entitled 'The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas', I can state without reservation that it was found to be extremely entertaining. Very intrigued by its content and how it evolved, I asked Gene if he wouldn't mind answering a couple of questions which can be seen below. It seems as if the truth was stretched a little!!! Two questions became three, then four, then five............
It is my belief that you will be captivated by the Olympian Theagenes, the poet Simonides and its finale, the Battle of Thermopylae. Therefore, if you would like to read more about 'The Olympian' and its author, please visit Gene Kraay's website.
To read more reviews of 'The Olympian', please click on the link below
JT: Gene, you had taken a hiatus
from writing and then decided to make the commitment to really put
the 'pen to paper'. What was the defining moment which provided
the inspiration to go 'full throttle'?
had stories floating around in my head for decades. While I've always been an historical novel enthusiast, no book has ever captured
my attention like Steve Pressfield's Gates of Fire.
Like you, John, I've followed Mr. Pressfield's writing
with great enthusiasm. During the summer of 2002, just after the
release of Last of the Amazons and The War of Art, my
middle son Brad and I were in Los Angeles visiting the Spanish
Embassy to get Brad's Visa to study in Barcelona that fall.
The night we were there, we had dinner with Steve at a quaint Italian
restaurant. I remember we all had tortellini. It's one thing
to listen to Steve on the History Channel, quite another to engage
this personable man in friendly conversation over a bowl of pasta. I
tossed the basic story line of The Olympian at him. He smiled
and raised his eyebrows. Remember, he's just written The
War of Art, so he tells me with great conviction and enthusiasm, "Just do it." Somewhat reminiscent of the Nike
commercials. I had just sold an aircraft engine company in Tucson.
On the trip back, I decided I would do what I've always wanted to do:
write a book. I had a story to tell and I was convinced it could be
of value. I was, as you put it, ready to go 'full throttle.'
JT: There are
writers like J.K. Rowling who wrote the first Harry Potter book in a
cafe with all the hustle and bustle around her, while David
McCullough, the author of 'John Adams' has a studio without phones,
computers; in other words, devoid of any distractions. Which
method seems to work better for you and why?
prefer a solitary environment. Me and the computer in an office
dedicated to nothing but writing. My wife and I actually moved into
the woods in a small town in Central Georgia, Gray, where I wrote The
Olympian. We've since moved back to Defiance, Missouri,
again into the woods. I prefer this type of environment because when
I do get up from the computer, I can walk outdoors 'into the
quiet' and maintain my focus and concentration. I found that I
could go for five hours, six hours tops. I never put a quota on
myself, but seemed to settle into a five or six-hour routine. Some
days might only produce 100 words, other days 1,000. I just kept
going until I knew I had written what I intended to say. That moment
of finality, bringing the book to its conclusion came in a very
emotional, physically and psychologically exhausting way. You've
read the book, John, so I can say it this way and not spoil it for
anyone who hasn't. I had the final chapters in mind from the
beginning, but when I finished Chapter 11, I knew it was time to
bring the tale to its conclusion. Seriously, when you write a book
like this in the solitary environment in which I work, I wasn't in
that room writing, I was there with Theagenes and Simonides. It was
Pressfield took a unique approach in writing 'Gates of Fire' through
the eyes of the helot Xeones as opposed to one of the Spartan
warriors. In your book, the primary character is the Greek poet
Simonides, the author of one of the most, if not the most famous
epitaphs, 'Go tell the Spartans, passerby........ Why did you write
the book using him as the focal point whom the story revolves around?
I violated several novice rules of writing, and I learned of my crime
only after the manuscript was completed as I read some editing
advice. Rule one: a novice should not write in the 'first
person.' Worse yet, I selected a real, historical person to
narrate my story, and even worse yet, a famous poet and writer
himself. In theory, the process of 'first person' writing is reserved for writers with far more experience than I had.
Regardless, as I typed the very first line of the manuscript, it came
out in the first person. Not to confuse potential readers, there are
two other stories within the story also told in the first person.
Boon or bane? I'll leave that to the critics, but so far, so
authored one of the most compelling and enduring epitaphs of all
time, "Go tell the Spartans ...." I first
encountered that poem in the 1962 film "The 300 Spartans." It is presented at the conclusion of the film. The phrase entered
contemporary culture again in 1978 with a terrific Burt Lancaster
film by that title, "Go Tell the Spartans." Bottom line:
the phrase and poem that Simonides penned 2500 years ago remains
very recognizable today. Thermopylae could not be a part of my book
without that poem. Given those assumptions from the beginning, the
story flowed easily from me as told by Simonides. How's that
for avoiding spoilers!
must note, however, that the historical Simonides was accused of
greed by many contemporaries including Aristophanes (known as the
Father of Comedy). My Simonides is a noble and honorable sort who
would disdain such a reference. I perceived him from the start as an
older gentleman, even grandfatherly who could bring moral balance to
a story that focuses on human values and is not without violence and
conflict. Another writing faux pas, I held a vision of Anthony
Hopkins in a chiton through the entire process. I still do. "They
say" never to write a character with an actor in mind. Maybe
"they're right," but I think Sir Anthony would make a great
JT: There are thousands of Greek islands,
several of which are really well known, such as Corfu, Crete, Ithaca,
Rhodes, etc. The Olympic hero Theagenes comes from the island
of Thasos which I found very interesting. Why did you choose Thasos
as the locale, of all the places in Greece?
I did not choose the island of Thasos (sometimes spelled Thassos);
the island chose itself. Despite the fact that I think Theagenes of
Thasos flows smoothly off the tongue, indeed the real Theagenes as
reported by the second century Greek geographer Pausanias in his work
Description of Greece is actually from Thasos. Sounds cool ...
JT: Your book is about the trials and
tribulations of the aforementioned Olympian, who after all his
victories is still unsatiated unless he can defeat the Spartan
Lampis. Why this internal conflict and what do you think it is about
the Spartans that people find so compelling?
address that second half of the question first, why do people find
the Spartans so compelling. Frankly, your average Joe knows little
about Spartans, their culture and/or history. The vast majority of
people who are familiar with the Spartans know of them only because
of their last stand at Thermopylae. I knew nothing about them until
I saw Ralph Mate's film The 300 Spartans as a kid in the '60's. After I saw that film, I could never let it go.
Steven Pressfield truly rejuvenated interest in this fascinating
culture with his classic Gates of Fire, and the film 300
has brought it into popular culture. Whether it's Gene Kraay
as a kid, Steven Pressfield as an accomplished author, or my
15-year-old grandson watching the film, the fascination, I believe,
evolves from two, simple words: sacrifice and commitment. If I had
to describe Spartan culture, that is how I would describe it:
committed to a morality and willing to sacrifice even their lives for
it. Albert Einstein once said, "Only a life lived for others
is worth living." I'd suspect that most people who
watched 300 didn't think about that, but the heart of
the stand at Thermopylae was indeed sacrifice for others, and that
sacrifice did - as Einstein suggests - make each of their
lives worth living even when faced with such a gruesome death. The
second part of the equation is commitment. We all want to be
committed to something. Many of us say we are, but many of us are
just fooling ourselves. The Spartans on the other hand, lived and
died with their commitment to something greater than themselves.
When we identify with the Spartans and their memorable stand at
Thermopylae, we are putting ourselves with them and sharing in their
sacrifice and commitment.
the second half, why the internal conflict. It's taken me a
lifetime to get to the same place Theagenes arrives at. Like my
protagonist, I was an athlete and enjoyed some success. I was an
alternate to the 1972 Olympic team, but more significantly, as a
graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, I was a pilot. In
1972, the United States was still engaged in a Cold War and embroiled
in the conflict in Vietnam. The United States needed pilots, not
soccer players, so I plied my trade in the cockpit of an F-106, not
on a soccer field. After all of his success, Theagenes is still
compelled to face the man everyone expected him to fight, the Spartan
Lampis. But Lampis has left the games for Thermopylae. In the final
analysis, Theagenes does come to understand that the sacrifice Lampis
made at Thermopylae in defense of all Hellas is of far more value
than any sacrifice Theagenes had ever made for the self-gratification
he might receive from an Olympic crown. Indeed, that is at the heart
of The Olympian. We have two men faced with a choice: do I
act for myself or do I act for my country? I am well aware of the
personal sacrifice an athlete is required to make to reach the
pinnacle of his sport and I'll not diminish that personal
sacrifice. On the other hand, we've got thousands of nameless
young men and women whose sacrifice and commitment is for something
far more important than their personal well-being. They've stood at Lexington, defended the Alamo, marched at Gettysburg,
huddled in the trenches of Verdun, dropped from the night skies at
Normandy, froze in Korea, weathered the monsoons of Vietnam and even
today shield their eyes from the scorching sun in Iraq and brave the
desolation in Afghanistan. I still contend we are here to day due in
no small part to Leonidas and his Spartiates at Thermopylae.
JT: Gene, without
divulging any of the plot, would you say that the Spartan Olympian
Lampis was patterned after Herodotus' Dienekes?
a reader of the book, you ask a great question, John. Frankly, it's a tricky one to answer without inserting 'spoilers' for
those who haven't read the book. Notably absent from the film '300' along with arguably the greatest military retort
and act of defiance in the history of warfare, "Molon Labe," the historical Dienekes was recognized as the bravest of the 300
Spartans who marched to Thermopylae and the famous quip about "fighting in the shade" of the Persian arrows is
attributed to him. He is a leader and a Spartiate officer. My
fictional Lampis is not an officer and is not so clever to offer such
an enduring statement as Dienekes. Lampis is the 'military
everyman.' Indeed, he represents the power and strength in all
of us and epitomizes the sacrifice and commitment that soldiers past,
present and future have, are and will be prepared to make to protect
those things that they value.
JT: Gene, do you feel your
readers will think that there is redemption for Theagenes by the end
of the book?
wrote Theagenes as the classic "tragic hero." I believe that he finds redemption by the end of the book in a very powerful
and convincing way. To explain why I believe he does would require
me to disclose the finale and create a 'spoiler' for
those who have not read the book. Those familiar with Greek
mythology are no doubt familiar with the Twelve Labors of Herakles.
I've created a "13th Labor," and the
completion of that labor, in my mind is Theagenes' redeeming
act. Even that act, however, is not enough for Theo, and while we as
readers may find redemption for him in that act, he never does and
hence the book concludes with our "tragic hero."
your book would be classified as a historical novel, what books did
you use as a reference?
have been a fan of historical fiction my entire life. The first "adult" book I ever read was Spartacus by Howard
Fast. I read that book when I was 13-years-old and re-read it again
about five years ago from a completely different perspective. I also
am a fan of one of Fast's early novels, The Last Frontier.
While I enjoy a number of historical authors, I acknowledge Steven
Pressfield as the master of the genre. Why? Because he can take a
handful of historical facts and create a fascinating, fictional
account around those, sometimes few facts. Last of the Amazons
is probably the best example of his ability to do that. He does not
regurgitate history, he creates morality plays. There's a
moral of lasting value, a greater purpose behind each of his books.
I do believe in Stephen King's premise that "You can't
write if you don't read." I read a lot. I've
developed my own style, but I'm certain it's been
influenced by the hundreds of authors I've read through the
years. I tried to establish a rhythm to this book that is
uncharacteristic of most books but somehow identifiable to the
period. Trade secret: I started each day by reading five minutes of
Lord Byron's narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Can't tell you what it's about today, but it did help me
establish the rhythm I was looking for.
amount of research that goes into an historical novel can be
staggering. The "favorite places" on my browser was
loaded with websites and references that I continually referred to
throughout the writing process. Simple things that are often taken
for granted require research. For example, what would a traveler
eat? How long would it take him to walk from point "A"
to point "B?" In addition to my Internet sources, I
acquired a small library of books to support the project not the
least important of which was the Loeb Classical Library volume of
Simonides' lyric poetry. I read Herodotus, Pausanias, Hesiod
and a number of other ancient writers to understand the time and
establish a rhythm to my prose. I came to revere the "Perseus"
site at Tufts University. A researcher can find a plethora of
classical texts at that site in multiple languages. I recall I even
pulled drawings and pictures from the Perseus site that showed the
layout and even the specific buildings at Olympia in 480 BC. I had
my office wall-papered in those drawings.
there anything in your research that you were amazed by with respect
to either Simonides or ancient Greece?
a deep and long interest in ancient Greece, I can't recall
anything that put me back on my heels. I learned tons of new
information through the research, but again, nothing that made me hit
my forehead and grab a V8. Simonides, on the other hand is a
different story. I knew little about him. Given his age as I tell
the story, I envisioned a grandfatherly type of man. His writing
suggests he was a man of strong character with high moral values and
integrity. "Go tell the Spartans ....." exemplifies
those ideas very graphically. I never 'researched' Simonides as a human being. I suppose I created him as I imagined a
man who could compose the poetry he did, would be. Is that the way
he truly was? Maybe not, but a guy who wrote what he did should have
been like that! I was surprised to learn that some of his
contemporaries and countrymen from the relative time frame did
characterize him as greedy, and his tendency toward avarice has
survived the ages through a handful of quotes attributed to him.
JT: There is a liberal amount of Anglicized Greek in your book. What book(s) or whom
did you consult with to translate these words into English?
the Greek implements and other physical items I might have included
like xylos, chiton, etc., I drew from the popular Osprey book series.
Regarding "Spartanology," I relied heavily on Internet
sources just like your own excellent site,
The greatest, single source of information for me was the
aforementioned Perseus site at Tufts University in Boston. Virtually
all texts are available in English and in their original languages.
That means that you can translate just about anything and then
re-confirm your Perseus translation on other sites. There are many,
many sites I turned to for support of the mythology I use quite
liberally in the book as well. As an example, rather than say, "I
couldn't fall asleep," I was inclined to write, "Hypnos
would not take me." I have included a glossary in the back of
the book to help the reader when he or she requires it. Other than
the lyric poems I personally composed that are included in the book -
and I'll never reveal which those are - I turned to the
Loeb Classical Library Collection which I consider the definitive
source for classical texts and writings. I gleaned from Loeb the
actual Simonides and Pindar odes from those pages.
JT: Thank you for the kind words, Gene.
took about two years from the completion of the manuscript until 'The
Olympian' was released. Were you ever discouraged during any
point and if so, what was the turning point which allowed you to see
the 'light at the end of the tunnel'?
was discouraged, John. Writing a book is not the simplest of tasks,
but I've learned that it doesn't get any easier after
it's completed. I was very fortunate early on to place it with
a well-known agent in New York City. That in itself was interesting.
I believed in my story, but I was not convinced of quality of my
writing or my style. When the agent who took the book contacted me
his very words were, "I think the story will be a hard sell,
but the writing is so good I want to take it on." This agent
has a stable of very powerful writers, so I was encouraged by his
assessment of the writing. Regardless, as time passed with no
action, I did become discouraged. You have to remember that I wrote
this well before the 2008 Olympics and well before the film 300
hit the theaters. In 2005 and 2006, I brought those two upcoming
events to my agent's attention. He responded that he'd
put his "Olympic effort on The Olympian." Two years and
no activity later, I amicably parted ways with that agent. Early in
2008, I came across an article regarding the POD (print-on-demand)
process. I was intrigued and decided to take this into my own hands.
I decided to give it a shot, and here we are. The book actually
came out coincident with the Olympic Games in Beijing. It was
actually featured on the official Beijing 2008 site during the games.
I continue to post bits and pieces of reviews on the book's
website (www.eskraay.com/theolympian). The reviews have been very positive and supportive. The absolute
bottom line at this stage is: readers get it, that is, they are
seeing more than just the story of a boxer and a poet who end up at
Thermopylae. Readers just like you, John, understand the depth of
this book as evidenced by the very questions you are asking in this
interview. The fact that readers "get it" is very
gratifying to me. If I had to predict the book's audience, I
would have suggested male athletes and military personnel 20 to 60
years old and certainly Greek enthusiasts with an interest in the
rich history of this great birthplace of democracy. I'm
pleased that the audience has been far broader. I've received
supportive emails, however, from teenage readers, men, women ...
even a priest. I think my biggest fan is my 87-year-old Mother who
was "uncomfortable with the sex part (Chapter 3)" and
some of the violence. But she got through it all and has read it a
second time! I do see the light. The next story is in process and
will be going "full throttle" in a very short time.
you have any 'words of wisdom' for aspiring writers?
Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. Don't try to
do this halfway. It doesn't work. You have to commit your
body and soul to it. When I was finished, I told my wife Marie, "This book defines me as a human being." That is how
committed I was to it, it literally defines me. When the book came
out, my middle son (I have three sons and one daughter) coordinated a 'congratulatory 'gift from the family. It was a framed
poster-size cover of The Olympian with a very appropriate
quote from Mr. Pressfield written across the bottom. I can't
top this for words of wisdom: "Creative work
is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.
It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of
your contribution. Give us what you've got." There it is,
John: "Give us what you've got!"
JT: Thanks Gene!!!
you, John for the opportunity to discuss my book with you and your
audience. You are keeping the Spartan mentality alive, the mentality
of sacrifice and commitment that is essential to maintaining the life
we are blessed to have, preserved for us in no small way by those
valiant men at Thermopylae some 2500 years ago!