Ancient Greek history continues to inspire writers and artists through the millennia to the present day. Historical fiction can often highlight ancient history and historical figures in its pages in ways that nonfiction cannot.
Pericles and Aspasia by Yvonne Korshak, her historical fiction debut, is a novel that highlights the relationship between the Athenian statesman, Pericles, and the courtesan Aspasia, who was the daughter of a philosopher. Those familiar with these powerful historical figures will undoubtedly enjoy Korshak’s novel and especially her attention to detail.
Korshak received her BA cum laude from Harvard, and her MA in Classics and Classical Archaeology and PhD in Art History from the University of California, Berkeley. As a professor at Adelphi University, she has taught Art History and topics in the Humanities, served as Chair of the Department of Art and Art History, Director of the Honors Program in Liberal Studies and Director of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. Korshak has written and spoken widely on topics of Greek art and archaeology and on European painting, particularly on van Gogh, Courbet, and David. Her blog, Let’s Talk Off-Broadway, focuses on art and theater. Korshak has excavated at Old Corinth, Greece and, to write this novel, she followed in the steps of Pericles and Aspasia, visiting almost all the cities and towns, landscapes and seascapes in Greece and in what today is Turkey that figure in the book. She spoke with The National Herald about Pericles and Aspasia as well as its upcoming sequel.
TNH: What inspired you to write the novel?
Yvonne Korshak: I fell in love with classical Greece in my ninth-grade ancient history class. I was smitten by Euripides, who was described as “the first modern mind,” until I read Pericles’ famous oration in which he essentially outlined democracy for all time, and then I fell in love with him. Fickle? Well, after all, I was only 15 years old. In college, I decided to write a novel about Pericles and Aspasia, but soon found I didn’t know enough about antiquity. So, I went to grad school to learn enough. Circumstances drew me to an academic career. But at one point I said to myself, “Yvonne, if you don’t know enough to write your novel now, you never will.” And that’s when I set about writing Pericles and Aspasia in earnest.
TNH: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing the book?
YK: How vividly the characters came to life for me as I wrote, and moved into our house! When I sit at the table with my husband, drinking breakfast orange juice, in some mysterious way, Pericles and Aspasia are with us— smiling. The other characters also magically hover near: Aspasia’s hetaira friend Silky, the maid Zoe—“life”, and who like life itself persists, Dion, the albino bookseller whom the gods forgot to paint— they’re never far.
TNH: Are the sites mentioned in the book still standing and can people visit them?
YK: All the sites can be visited and, following in the tracks of Pericles and Aspasia, I made sure to visit almost all of them— not that I had to work hard to “make sure” – there’s nothing I’d rather do than travel through Greece! The sites are in various states of preservation and there are often guides to help visitors understand the truths of classical antiquity in the fallen or reconstructed stones. The ancient Greek theaters, lying on the hills, are often better preserved than standing structures like columned temples and walled dwellings – moving upward from the earth, they haven’t had a rest from gravity for 2,000 and more years! At the ancient theater at Epidaurus, particularly well preserved, I had the thrill of seeing The Persians by Aeschylus produced by the National Theatre of Greece. And the first producer of Aeschylus’ Persians? None other than Pericles, in the year 472 BC.
TNH: How has your love of history and archaeology helped you and inspired you to bring these historical figures back to life?
YK: I wanted – really yearned — to create Pericles and Aspasia and the other figures of the time – famous and unknown — as living human beings. But, if they were to be real, they couldn’t just float in some idealized vacuum. To know them, to encounter them on the streets of ancient Athens, in the Agora, on the Acropolis, at home, on the battlefield, or sailing the Aegean Sea, as you will in my novel, I had to experience ancient Greece as if I lived there— or as close to that as possible. I had to know not only what happened but also what the world was like in all its physicality. And what does it take to travel back to that ancient reality? The fuel is imagination, and the path lies through archaeology, history, and literature.
TNH: What are you working on next?
YK: I am currently completing the sequel to Pericles and Aspasia, The Sword of the War God. Pericles and Aspasia is fundamentally a joyous book. The Sword of the War God spins forward the underlying tragedy.
Pericles and Aspasia by Yvonne Korshak is available online