Peter Fiennes is the author of the critically acclaimed Footnotes, Oak and Ash and Thorn, and To War with God. As the publisher for Time Out, he nurtured a lifelong obsession with old guidebooks, creating award-winning city guides, walking books, and titles about Britain's countryside and seaside. He lives in south-west London. You can find him on Twitter.
In this post, Peter discusses his quest to find hope in his new book, A Thing of Beauty, how COVID altered his process, and more!
Name: Peter Fiennes
Literary agent: Rebecca Winfield, David Luxton Associates
Book title: A Thing of Beauty: Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Expected release date: 30 November 2021
Genre/category: Travel Writing/Greek Mythology
Previous titles: To War With God: The Army Chaplain Who Lost His Faith; Oak and Ash and Thorn: The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain; Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers
Elevator pitch for the book: A journey around Greece in search of beauty and hope, visiting the sites of some of the most resonant Greek myths, inspired by exquisite beaches, mountains, forests, and archaeological wonders, while trying to shake off a feeling of ecological doom.
What prompted you to write this book?
I wanted to write a book about the human relationship to nature—our strange idea that we are somehow not part of nature, but are above or outside it. I wanted to write about our impact on the world, but in a way that would not terrify or depress people (myself included!), because although (of course) we are part of nature, our influence is now beyond all imaginings: There is nothing on this earth or in the wide sky that has not been affected by us, most often for the worse, from the convulsing climate to mass extinctions. There are traces of plastic in every newborn baby.
So, cheery stuff! And that is why I went to Greece, looking for beauty and above all, HOPE. Surely the ancient Greeks, who seemed to know so much about everything, would have an answer for this impending ecological doom (or at least suggest ways to be more philosophical about it). I dug deep into the myths, looking for resonances and relevance … and I asked: Is there anything in the myths that can help us?
If the ancient Greeks had possessed our tools and technologies, was there anything—any belief or code—that would have held them back from taking and using and killing anything they wanted?
It seemed like an urgent question.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I have loved the Greek myths ever since I read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy as a child. And then I discovered the mythic/historical fiction of Mary Renault in my teens.
So, I have been keen to write about the myths for a while, especially any that might have an environmental element. Myths about trees and nymphs!
In the first place, the book took about a year to plan and do the bulk of the desk-bound research. It then took another six months to travel, expand the research, and write. Then there was three months of editing, and off it went to the printers. Unfortunately, COVID arrived when I was on the brink of traveling to Greece for the first time, and my trip was delayed (and delayed again), so the book inevitably underwent a process of metamorphosis! I traveled less, read more, and visited fewer places. It’s possible that it is better for that, because I spent so much time trapped at home, tumbling down rabbit holes, planning and setting up more interviews and meetings than I would normally. This is my first travel book that features Zoom interviews …
The other thing that happened is that I became preoccupied by the myth of Pandora and her Jar. As the fires raged in California, Siberia, and Greece, it seemed more and more urgent that I could find some hope to write about. Or indeed “Hope,” the spirit that was trapped in Pandora’s Jar when all the evils in the world were released. Or so some say.
I even consulted the Oracle at Delphi. “Where can I find Pandora’s Hope?” I asked—and I got my answer. In fact, I asked everyone I met where I could find Hope, from taxi drivers to Arcadian shepherds to activists. Their answers are in A Thing of Beauty.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
I learned that I cannot draw …
I was hoping to include my picture of Pandora’s Jar (with Hope trapped inside) and my editor very tactfully explained that I was “very good at describing things with words so my book did not need illustrations.” And then he commissioned some beautiful drawings by a truly talented artist, so everyone was happy in the end.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I really enjoyed retelling some of the myths, and I wasn’t expecting that.
I discovered Epirus, in northwest Greece, which is a wondrously beautiful place, now threatened with oil and gas exploitation. I met the Dancing Women of Vrisoules, who are campaigning to stop this from happening.
I found that the beaches of Greece are more beautiful than I ever remembered or imagined. And I discovered I have an unquenchable appetite for Greek salad, despite dining on it every day for a month.
And I learned that you can still consult the Oracle at Delphi, if you do your research on the wilder shores of the internet.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
Hope! I went looking for Hope and Beauty, and found them both.
And perhaps an introduction to (or a rekindled interest in) the Greek Myths. They are the most amazing, ever-evolving stories, and some of them are still so relevant to our lives.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
You have to know when to stop researching and start writing.
And (sorry, this is two): be open to anything.