I’ve been following Noble Smith’s career ever since the publication of The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life last year. And, it seems, Smith has been following mine. Mwwhaha!
Smith is a cool guy. He’s an award-winning playwright, video-game writer, documentary-film executive producer, and the former media director of an international human rights foundation. He is the author of that aforementioned nonfiction book, The Wisdom of the Shire, and he lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children.
Now he’s got another book [Writer's note: curses, preccciousss!, so prolific!]–the brand new action/adventure novel Sons of Zeus, just out from St. Martin’s Press.
We convened our Mutual Appreciation Society recently, via the magic of email, and virtually sat down to talk about that new tome, Sons of Zeus, what connects Dungeons & Dragons to ancient Greece, and how exactly Smith gets it all done.
Noble Smith: It seems like an odd transition, right? Well, I wrote Sons of Zeus several years before The Wisdom of the Shire. I put it out myself as one of the first iTunes ebooks (where it was downloaded over 20 thousand times). My guide to life for Hobbit-lovers was part of a four book deal with Thomas Dunne Books, but it was released first to coincide with the Hobbit-hysteria of Peter Jackson’s film. Ancient Greeks and Hobbits were very similar, however. They both loved wine and had very hairy feet.
EG: You’re a D&D nerd (like me) and a Tolkien fan (ditto). I did not know about your interest in classical Europe. How did you get up to speed to write this book or did you already have a knowledge base in this area?
NS: You know what’s great, Ethan? You helped make being a D&D nerd cool. [Interviewer blushes.] All those hours I spent locked in my bedroom painting Ral Partha figurines and drawing dungeon maps on grid paper have finally paid off! Actually, when I was a kid I went straight from Tolkien to ancient Greek mythology and history. Tolkien was a huge fan of the Greeks and he said that he was introduced to the classics through Homer (and I’m not talking about Homer Simpson, kids). Several things in Tolkien’s legendarium were most likely inspired by the Greeks, from the fall of Númenor (Atlantis) to Sauron’s One Ring (the Greek legend of the Ring of Gyges–a ring of invisibility).
EG: Talk about your research trips. How does one do research in a country like Greece for a book project? Or was it more for inspiration?
NS: I just got back from a trip to Greece. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. The people are incredibly kind. My series takes place in 5th century B.C. in the independent city-state of Plataea. This small democratic nation became caught between the two warring superpowers of the day: Athens and Sparta. Their heroic stand against tyranny is a remarkable true story that most people have never heard. You can go to the archaeological site of Plataea and stand in the ruined guard towers or walk through the ancient cemetery with its crumbling sarcophagi. You feel the weight of history there. You realize that this place was as real as the stones beneath your feet. Or the big huge scary snakes that I kept stepping on.
EG: What do you think explains this resurgent interest in ancient Greece and Rome, and particularly for kids reading the YA genre and the mythological spin we see in Percy Jackson et al?
NS: It’s weird. My eight-year-old son loves those Percy Jackson books. Back in the day I was hooked by the same sort of cheesy mythological adventure stuff with the Ray Harryhausen films. (I’m still terrified of skeleton warriors!) People love magic and heroism. I guess that that time period and the mythoi associated with it are filling a void left by Harry Potter. I’m waiting for Gilgamesh to become hip. He was the original superhero, after all.
EG: Does your novel largely conform to the reality of that era or are there magical/mythical elements or other ways you’ve taken liberties with the past?
NS: My book is straight-up historical fiction, like the TV shows Spartacus or Rome, or the novel Gates of Fire. There is no magic. But the characters in my story believe with all their hearts in those gods and the power of their magic. So my story is infused with mythology/religion through the thoughts and actions of the characters.
EG: What are the overlaps in building a world and storytelling for D&D, or having a deep knowledge (as you do) of Middle-earth, vs. telling a story in ancient Greece?
NS: This is where being obsessed with D&D and Middle-earth as a kid comes in really handy. God is in the details, as the old saying goes. Tolkien knew where every damn twig and leaf was in his world. And a great Dungeon Master knew every square inch of his realm. When I set out to write Sons of Zeus ten years ago, I started by reading every single work of literature that had survived from that era. And I created for myself a sort of dungeon master’s guide to ancient Greece. In the end I knew everything from the clothes that they wore to what they ate to how they liked to make love.
EG: How do you make all the parts of your life work together–playwright, author of nonfiction, doc film producer, video game writer, novelist, in and around the various less artistically-satisfying day jobs you’ve held?
NS: With lots of help from my lovely and geeky wife. With whom I just celebrated our 20th anniversary!
EG: Wow. Congrats, man. AND you’re also a parent. How do you find time to be creative and also raise a kid? I can barely find the time and I’m without kids. [Interviewer sniffs.]
NS: The thing that you have to learn when you have kids, Ethan, is how to be a selective listener. Believe it or not, it is quite possible to completely tune out all the crazy noise in your house and concentrate on writing. I call it “Going Lobot.” It’s like you’ve got built-in noise cancelling Bose headphones glued to your ears. But make sure at night that you still have time to read The Lord of the Rings or Percy Jackson out loud to your kids. That’s way more important than being creative. That’s geekdaddy love.
EG: Anything else you’d like to add?
NS: Could you put in my Twitter handle and blog?