LOS ANGELES – Sharon Gerstel, Director of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture, sits down for an interview with Louis Anastas, author of Zeus Rising. Anastas is a writer and creative director who has created campaigns and hundreds of videos for brands like Boeing, GE, and L3Harris, among others. He has also written a dozen screenplays, a few pilots, and directed a feature film, A Day in the Country, after earning his MFA from Columbia College Chicago, where he also taught. Anastas currently runs The Blue Agency in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife Nicole and their two daughters. Anastas' parents immigrated from Greece to the U.S. in the mid-20th century. More information about Anastas and his first novel is available online: louisanastas.com.
Sharon Gerstel: You've had a career as a writer of screenplays, advertising campaigns and other types of commercial endeavors. What pushed you to write a novel at this moment in your life?
Louis Anastas: I have written and directed hundreds of commercial videos and loads of written and digital work, too, and about a dozen (unproduced) personal screenplays. I am proud of this work, but friends and family had never really read or watched them. And, with the screenplays, which were quite personal, there really was no audience other than the professionals to whom I routed them to. And, while my commercial work was more public, it didn't delve, of course, into my personal ideas. I just felt it was time to share my ideas with the world. And, to that end, there was no better platform than the old-school novel. No budgets, just time in involved. And, I could call upon writer/editor friends to help get it ready for publishing. Well, I guess all artists have this yearning to be heard. It was a bit scary, but so happy I did it. The reviews and random notes I receive from friends, family, and random strangers (I guess I can call them fans now) have been nice to experience.
SG: Can you discuss the challenges of writing a first novel? Did you set aside writing time? Was the plot in your mind long before you write the novel? How many drafts did you go through before the plot became clear in your mind? How long did it take you to write this book?
LA: I started my novel in November 2017 with the hopes of getting a rough draft completed in 30 days, as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge, which challenges writers to get a book out in one hard-fought month. Crazy. I was working full-time for a creative agency and, of course, putting in time as a husband and father when I took this on. Well, the book took some turns, as did life, so the 30-day sprint was not possible. I put in the time, and did not blow off writing days, and just kept rolling forward and finished it before my birthday in January of 2018. Not bad. I did not outline the story, as I did for my screenplays but, per Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King, I trusted the process and wrote it over a short period of time to keep the momentum going. More to the point, I trusted my subconscious, my experiences (life and literary), the ether, and a connection to these characters to drive me forward.
There were two major rewrites, the first was to get it readable, for others, so I could share with friends for their feedback in the summer of 2018. And then there was a rewrite after all of the compiled feedback came back during the summer of 2018, from smart friends, far and wide. And this is where the serious commitment comes in. I then did about 10 polishes and proofs. It is grueling, tedious, clarifying, and unifying but all leading to a work that was ready to share, respectfully, with readers. It had to good for them. Taut, crisp, and focused on the story, not the words, and also not so much about myself either.
SG: Your main character is a god who lives in the modern world. He is a divinity, but he is also flawed. What were the challenges of finding his voice?
LA: His voice came fairly easily, once I defined the scope of his life, a few billon years that is. Zeus had been in my head for a few years but, I suppose, that presence in the mind doesn't mean that much. The character all comes out into the open when you write the story. You must just do it. (David Milch said that in a talk I once attended.) And, of course, as a writer, you are always putting yourself into someone's else shoes and seeing what they do. It should be different from you and the situations should probably be fresh to this story too. Yes, in this case, the scope was so grand, but it was fun to be in his shoes and imagine how he would think, react, and navigate the world.
And, for the record, characters in history are typically “awful” in comparison to us, because we continue to evolve. We sometimes have to go somewhat easy on them. Think of America's founders, we are superior to them in most ways, but they did set us on a course to keep refining our sense of justice. And, yes, the democratic Athenians were so awesome but, of course, it was all a man's world. Now, just imagine that you had been alive this whole time and you, yourself, had gone through all these stages to modernity. You would actually have to keep adapting and growing in real time. Well, it was challenging to imagine what that road would be like and to work through, too. Talk about character arc!
SG: There are a number of very tender scenes in this “memoir” – the encounter of Zeus and the shepherd, his relationship with his son, his concluding scene with Hera. In the end, Zeus is a very complex character – full of bravado, but also uncertain about his purpose and future. Can you discuss him as a character?
LA: Zeus has lived thousands of lifetimes and has seen and done just about everything, but that comes with a massive amount of baggage. It occurred to me, that our limited lifespans of 75-100 years, if we are lucky, may be more about how much baggage/strain/memories we can bear than about physical deterioration. This opinion of mine is not rooted in social science but occurred to me as an artist contemplating Zeus and the span of his (very) long life.
Well, he has bravado, carried forward from his time when he had a hold on power, but he has come to see that power as hollow. And, of course, most of us don't live long enough to learn that. And, he is also hiding his identity in plain sight, by design, so he can't call upon that reverence from others, even if he was still “full of himself.” Zeus is quite humble and empathetic, too. Nearly everyone he comes in to contact with is a mortal and is here for a short time. He feels deeply for us and that informs his behavior, too. This is especially true for his family and those close to them. He knows he will outlive them, and this is troubling of course. In the end, he's like a fallen king — or movie star — who has mellowed for the better. That said, he still knows the old ways and times, of which he is not completely free. He saw the emergence of the club and spoken language. What a journey he's been on.
SG: Your book makes reference to the work of a number of authors, including Nikos Kazantzakis and Pär Lagerkvist. Who are the authors that have exerted the most influence on your writing? What do you read for pleasure?
LA: In this case, the obscure but brilliant Pär Lagerkvist fit into the book since one of his great short novels, The Sybil, was a story about a Delphic Pythia. It was fun and somewhat effortless to reference that story herein and make it seem as though Lagerkvist had tapped into some truth in the writing of his book. (That is according to Zeus). Many writers do feel like they are tapping into something and I like weaving those notions, herein.
Cormac McCarthy is surely an influence. His prose is not only deceptively simple, but it looks beautiful on the page. He does not use quotation marks to clutter the page, but it also forces extreme clarity, which, of course he pulls off. His stories are simple and powerful and his prose soars too, it suddenly becomes unpretentiously poetic. I suppose I try to write like him but fail. Most do. I love simplicity and don't believe words should take center stage. This comes from a lifetime of writing all types of scripts too, which is all about what happens on the outside. Stephen King is a great writing teacher and probably has the strongest work ethic of any living writer. And, right now I am reading Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I figured that a pandemic might be the time to read a much-heralded 700-page novel. And, being raised in the Greek Orthodox faith, its heady and spiritual talk, often amongst monks (albeit in Russia), is fascinating. I feel that I am quite modern, but my upbringing still links to me to that old-school past. And, as always, I also love Elmore Leonard's crime thrillers; they are so tight and exciting. I think the last third of my book was actually influenced by him.
SG: For readers in Los Angeles, one of the great pleasures is in moving with Zeus through the city – through Westwood, along Mulholland, on Mount Olympus, etc. You also bring readers into the joys of Kolonaki and the streets of Athens. How important is location in the construction of a story?
LA: I think it is important to root your scenes in specific places that you see in your mind. It's certainly part of the experience but people and actions, of course, drive the story so you should see the world, quickly describe it to help the reader along and also paint your characters in the fullest terms, and keep moving. (We are, to some degree, a product of our surroundings after all). I am fortunate to live in L.A., and I also have a deep love and connection to Athens. These cities, along with some of the islands referenced in Greece, are gorgeous and were fun to depict. Should Zeus Rising ever become a movie or show, then place will become even more vital. That said, one of the worst things you can ever hear as a filmmaker is that your film looked great. If a feeling or scene or a truth is not mentioned first, it often stings a bit.
SG: This book takes the reader back and forth in history, from the creation of the world to the modern day. What are the challenges of creating a plot that gives equal weight to the Minoans and modern-day Angelinos? What kind of research did you need to do to describe ancient cultures, battles, achievements?
LA: I actually didn't do much research during the writing process but did so in the years before. I'm not trying to sound like a history snob, which I`m not, but I tapped into what I knew and loved, in order to tell this story while employing the earlier-mentioned free-form process. Like most folks of Greek descent, I have an obsession and pride in my parents' homeland. (And, in the case of Greece, millions who are not Hellenic, also share that love). And, of course, by selecting Zeus as my hero, I got to weave in everything I felt passionate about, but I left that mostly to my subconscious. It was a fun process. I am now reading some Dante and maybe some works on Lincoln for my next book on Zeus. Yes, this will (most likely) become a series. That is all I'll say for now.
SG: Are there elements in the book that are derived from your own story? For example, are you afraid of flying?
LA: Zeus' first walk through Athens was pretty much all me, but little else was like that. It was my tribute to Athens and a walk to the home of my grandparents, which I will forever love. In a sense, I took a self-indulgent break from the story but did want to paint that picture of a neighborhood I love. I do think Athens is arguably the most important city on earth since it fueled our notions of freedom. I respect all cultures, and I know that can sound Eurocentric, but I am a democrat first (little “d,” not talking party here) so that “gift” of democracy, even though it's so cumbersome, is why I feel that way. It is everything to me and, I suppose, Zeus inherited this same love during the last 2,500 years. If he were still a tyrant, I suppose I couldn't write about him. I actually see him as a protector of democracy now. This is something I will definitely explore further with him in the series to come.
And, no, I don't fear flying, but Zeus does. As he mentions in the book, if he crashes into the sea, he may survive and then float for millennia. Scary. (Yes, it would be beyond horrific for us in those few short moments, but, potentially, 1000x worse for him). I tried to consider his fears while living in his skin and keep my mortal fears out. That said, he is braver than us in many ways too since he put himself in the middle of the fight when he could have watched from the sidelines. And he is a bit of a lothario, unlike me, but that is somewhat understandable due to his long time on earth. I always aimed to show Zeus great empathy since he is tired of his (very) long life - and all of its baggage - but he keeps fighting.