“Whaddup, bitches?” says Poseidon at the start of David Elliott’s Bull (Houghton, 14 years and up) a verse-novel retelling of the Minotaur story from ancient Greek mythology that keeps readers on their toes with whip-smart dialogue, narrative double-crosses, changing poetic forms (seven main characters each has his or her own), and, of course, the stormy, changeable will of the gods.
1. First, you can’t have an author bio like that without raising questions. Which of your jobs — writer, singer, popsicle-stick maker, cucumber washer, English teacher — has been the most rewarding?
DE: Yes, I’ve had lots of jobs in lots of places. I might be the only person you know who actually has gone from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. Those years of my misspent youth spent traveling and taking whatever job I could find to support myself enriched my life and work in ways that still surprise me. For example, near the beginning of Bull, Poseidon recites some lines about the island of Crete that are among my favorite lines in the book. I don’t think I ever would have written them had I not stood shoulder to shoulder with Roma people washing cucumbers at the CriCri Cucumber Factory in Ierapetra, Crete. By the way, you can never really understand Freud unless you have washed cucumbers ten hours a day for weeks on end.
More important than the jobs, though, were their locations: Mexico, Libya, Israel, Greece, the Philippines, Palau. Those years of traveling with very little money taught me not only to be resourceful but also to be responsive to whatever was on the road in front of me. I’ve found those are very good skills for a writer to acquire.
2. This is your first YA novel, and it’s quite different in tone from your picture books and middle-grade stories. How aware of audience were you with this book?
DE: Well, I knew that if I were going to take on a story in which a queen consummates her lust for a magnificent bull, I wasn’t writing a middle-grade novel or a picture book. (Uh…yikes!) Beyond that, I didn’t give it a thought.
I know that some folks may be offended by Poseidon’s profanity and also by his disdain for us mortals. To be quite honest, I myself was sometimes taken aback by the sea god. But it wasn’t my job to censor him or send him off for sensitivity training before I allowed him to speak the way he wanted to. That isn’t writing; it’s moralizing. I guess it’s Poseidon’s joke on me that although he is the one with a potty mouth, I‘m the one who has to take responsibility for it.
3. What should people know about Greek mythology going in to the story?
DE: Don’t expect a happy ending.
4. Ariadne is a badass…until she’s struck by love (which doesn’t go well). Have you thought about spinning off (pun intended) any other characters’ stories?
DE: Oh, I love that you describe Ariadne that way. We all think we’re badasses, don’t we? Until we’re struck down by love. Or hate. (Or Russia.) Maybe that’s one reason I felt so much sympathy for her. She might be the one character whose story is worth spinning off. First, she flees Crete with Theseus. (In one version, she cuts up a baby brother and throws his various parts into the sea in order to distract her father from pursuit. Love that! Those Greeks! They don’t mess around.) Next, she is abandoned by Theseus. He’s got more important things to do, apparently, including marrying her sister Phaedra and becoming a little thing called the father of democracy. Finally, she becomes the bride of Dionysus, you know, the god of wine? Now that would be a story. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of writer who is interested or able, really, to write a series. It’s just not in me. And besides, if I were to do such a thing, I think I would be obligated to continue with the poetic form that I used for Ariadne in Bull. It’s a Welsh form called a cywydd, pronounced cu‘with. That should tell you something right there. Couplets with lines of seven syllables. But only one of the end rhymes can be stressed. It practically killed me.
I am working on another novel in verse now. It’s based on a historical figure and very different in tone from Bull. No f-bombs. It isn’t interesting for me to do the same things twice. As I get older, especially, I want to push myself into new territory. In writing and in life.
5. Any chance we’ll see Bull: The Musical à la Hamilton?
DE: Actually, there has been some interest, but nothing solid yet. Of course, nothing would make me happier. Several people have suggested it would make a terrific opera. That’s a thrilling possibility, since after the cucumber washing, etc., I studied classical voice at New England Conservatory.
But I try not to think about such things. What happens to a book once it’s in the world is out of my control. As hard as that is, it’s probably a good thing. I know, too, from previous experience that the world of the performing arts is one in which something is almost always going to happen — emphasis on almost. I have a new book to write, one that is requiring a lot of me, so I need to keep my energy and concentration on that. Still, hope springs eternal. Fingers crossed.
From the April 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.