The face that launched a thousand ships inspired yet one more person to embark on a journey, only this time it wasn't to wage war with shields and swords, but instead it was pen and paper (or fingers and a keyboard). Madison author Margaret George bestowed the honor of title figure in her latest historical novel to the Greek tragedy star Helen of Troy.
George's past novels featured historical characters like Mary Magdalene, Henry the VIII and Mary Queen of Scots. Her novel on the Egyptian queen Cleopatra -- “The Memoirs of Cleopatra” -- was turned into the successful TV miniseries “Cleopatra,” which starred Billy Zane and Timothy Dalton.
“What I do is a biographical novel. They used to be quite well known; more people used to do it than now,” she explains. “It’s a docudrama, rather than make things up, it sources history as a backdrop. The characters are fiction, like in ‘Gone with the Wind.’ There was a Civil War, but (the characters were fictitious).”
In her books, George says she takes people that really existed and tries to give them a psychological background much like Irving Stone did with his novel about Andrew Jackson and his wife.
And now, Helen is at the forefront of her work with "Helen of Troy" having been released earlier this month and a book tour which includes the Milwaukee area. But why are these the characters that have captured her attention?
“I’ve thought about that, trying to ask myself the same question and finally, after a pattern began to emerge, I tend to be drawn to operatic lives. Maybe I find all the things that are so melodramatic, and that only happen in an opera, fascinating,” George says. “The rest of us don’t lead lives like that. I don’t really get execute myself; I experience these second hand.”
She says, regarding what story she’s writing, she chooses between first and third person and it’s dependent on whether she needs a reader to see something they can’t see.
“In this case, I felt the most interesting case would be only what Helen sees. Readers don’t have to see Agamemnon and Menelaus fighting,” she says. “It made it a strong story. People wanted to know what it’s like to be Helen of Troy.”
George says that it took her almost six years to complete the book -- with three or four of those years dedicated to researching Helen.
“First I would do all the reading, as much as was know. She was actually a Greek princess not in Troy. So I had really needed to go there (to Greece),” she says. “I needed to learn what it would have been like when she grew up and when she ran off to Paris. I got to go to the town where they eloped. I also went to Troy and tried to do it in the same order that Helen would have done everything.”
One of the most surprising things George encountered while writing the novel may surprise those who only know Helen as a mythical beauty.
“I think there’s some surprising things about Helen. She’s athletic; you wouldn’t think that. One of the sources said she liked wrestling.”
George also says that Helen has come across, in other renderings, as vacuous and simpering while she says the real Helen was a commanding figure.
Although “Helen” has just reached stores, George is already planning her next book: The last 10 to 15 years of the reign of Elizabeth I. But there are a few historical figures’ stories she’d love to tackle, like Alexander the Great. But due to conflict in the Middle East, where Alexander originated, she won’t have the chance.
“Even before (the war) those areas weren’t exactly where a woman can go. Now I’ll never get to go. I’d like to do Nero,” she says. “I’d like to do Edgar Allan Poe, such a different time period. You’d have to be inside his mind. It’s hard to think just about his viewpoint of the world. Many of his stories in the first person, he says ‘I’m not really crazy.’ He’s clearly talking about himself. It’d be a challenge to capture that madness of his to keep him a sympathetic character.”
In the mean time, George already has another book out, a children's book: “Lucille Lost: A True Adventure.”
“It is a Wisconsin book, cause it happened here in Wisconsin. It’s a true story about my friend who has a tortoise. He came to leave his tortoise with me and she got away,” George says. “Someone relocated the tortoise to an arboretum here and we didn’t think we’d get it back. It’s unusual to see one walking around in the bushes. A student found her and brought her back.”
Besides Lucille’s story of survival, the story includes factoids about tortoises and illustrations.
George will be doing readings of both “Lucille Lost” and “Helen of Troy” this Thursday. She hopes that people will come to get more information about her books.
“I hope that they will get to ask me some questions and have me tell them about the book. It always makes a difference to see the author,” she says. “Although, it can disappoint, especially if they don’t look like Helen of Troy.”
She says that she wishes she could have been able to go to readings of authors she enjoys. “There’s so many questions I’d like to ask them. Like Poe, I’d love to ask him a few questions.”
Originally from Des Plaines, Ill., Heather moved to Milwaukee to earn a B.A. in journalism from Marquette University. With a tongue-twisting last name like Leszczewicz, it's best to go into a career where people don't need to say your name often.
However, she's still sticking to some of her Illinoisan ways (she won't reform when it comes to things like pop, water fountain or ATM), though she's grown to enjoy her time in the Brew City.
Although her journalism career is still budding, Heather has had the chance for some once-in-a-lifetime interviews with celebrities like actor Vince Vaughn and actress Charlize Theron, director Cameron Crowe and singers Ben Kweller and Isaac Hanson of '90s brother boy band Hanson.
Heather's a self-proclaimed workaholic but loves her entertainment. She's a real television and movie fanatic, book nerd, music junkie, coffee addict and pop culture aficionado.