Blog 115 A Literary World. 11/02/2023 An Interview with John Martino
A Literary World
An Interview with John Martino
Welcome to a Literary World. Today I am bringing you something a little different. All of us are aware of the Olympic Games. It has such a rich history. In antiquity, winners had victory poems, ‘Odes’, written in their honour by famous poets, and they were immortalized in art. One only has to think of the wonderful vases often depicting the winner’s name for posterity, and sculptures such as the Discobolus – Discus-thrower, a Roman marble copy of the original by Myron, but few of us know about the origins of the games. How did it evolve and who came up with the idea in the first place? My guest today is award-winning, historical fiction author, John Martino, and he’s going to answer this question for us. When the idea for the book, Olympia, came up, John worked with Dr. Michael O’Kane, a published academic author who has worked extensively with Australian Aboriginal communities. This collaboration worked well, but as we will see, Dr O’Kane continued with his own university work while John went on to complete the story.
Rather than a long question-and-answer format, which I usually do, I put a few questions to John and let him run with it, e.g. How did you come up with the idea, and what is the book about? Olympia is his first book and it was awarded First Place in the CIBA Awards (Chanticleer International Book Awards), Chaucer Category, Pre-1750. This award says a lot for his writing and the subject matter, as there are quite a lot of excellent authors with great books who enter this category. So without more ado, I will let John explain more about this intriguing book.
“The Untold Story of the Founding of the Olympic Games… In ancient Greece and across the Mediterranean, kingdoms strive for dominance. The great powers of Carthage and Egypt look on with avarice as the might of the Greeks is spent warring between themselves, oblivious to external dangers. Year in and year out, the people suffer at the hands of their rulers and the famine and pestilence that comes with conflict. The great rulers of the day are themselves helpless to end this cycle of destruction. While life on the battlefield is cheap, the slave trade flourishes through the years of interminable battle and death. Kings and queens pray to the gods and seek wisdom from the oracles, but the gods, it seems, prefer combat to diplomacy. At Olympia, the peace of the temple precinct is an island of calm in a sea of turmoil. Here on this sacred soil grows the seed of a better future, yet even here there lurks danger and deceit as the forces of destruction reach into the sanctuary of the gods. For this seed to thrive, it will take more than prayers and goodwill. Yet often hope springs from the most unlikely sources. There is one amongst the Greeks who sees light where others only perceive darkness. One who sees that there is another way to settle conflict – with honor and courage. One who will set aflame a torch that will burn for thousands of years, down through the ages. In an epoch of chaos and strife, a new force for peace is born. Olympia. “
Welcome to A literary World, John. Tell us a little about yourself and the world of Olympia.
Although born in a small country town (Colac) in southern Victoria, I am of Italian and Greek heritage. After I finished a stint in the Australian military, wherein I was quite badly injured, it felt very natural to re-enter university to study Greco-Roman history (or the Classics) and archaeology. I thrived in this environment and felt like I’d really found my metier. I completed my undergrad’ at Monash Uni’ (picking up the Alumni award for Best in Department), was head of the Classics Society, had sufficiently high enough grades to skip having to do a Masters after my Honours year and – after the very unfortunate closure of the Monash University History and Archaeology Department – I transferred to Melbourne University to complete my PhD in the field of ancient history.
Writing my dissertation there over a number of years on martial societies (I compared Republican Rome with the Aztecs as ‘cultures of violence’), I began to greatly wonder about societal mechanisms to discharge the incredibly warlike customs of these societies and many others. After tutoring and guest lecturing at more than one university, I decided to go freelance as a writer; however, this idea of pacifying mechanisms stuck with me through the years of commercial writing I then engaged with.
Being fortunate enough to come from quite a creative family, I was encouraged to take on screenwriting as an outlet (by my brother-in-law who wrote and directed the Australian horror classic, ‘Wolf Creek). I then worked with him on a state-funded historical fiction epic and branched out into my own work. The first of these solo film-writing projects actually became my debut novel. ‘Olympia: The Birth of the Games’ began as an exploration of the greatest peace-building institution ever devised, was originally written up as an epic historical fiction screenplay and then ‘evolved’ into a novel.
Full credit for this idea of writing about the fateful birth of the ancient Olympics belongs to my Japanese partner, Maki. It was she who was astonished to discover that no feature movie on the topic – let alone an accessible historical fiction novel – had ever been created at any time, by anyone on the planet, in any language. Given that the modern Olympics are the most watched event on the planet (with upwards of 4.7 billion viewers) and have some 205 countries competing, Maki’s suggestion for me to write something ‘big’ on this topic was a fabulous idea.
If ‘Olympia’ is the previously untold story of how the first Olympics came into being, why haven’t the authors just told it as history rather than historical fiction?
Well, the answer to that is twin-fold.
Firstly, the incipient Games took place in the year 776 B.C.E., but the invention of the Western genre of history – which was also an ancient Greek achievement – occurred over 300 hundred years later. Herodotus of Halicarnassus worked all his adult life on just one monumental work – and invented a whole new form of intellectual and literary enquiry with his ‘Histories’ – and thereby gave us the first, reasonably systematic attempt at a scientific approach to remembering ‘things done’ within a contemporary time-frame.
Herodotus sought to explore and commemorate the fateful Persian-Greek War(s) and in so doing would define this new genre as one that centred around warfare and contemporary events. His intellectual successor within this new genre, Thucydides of Athens, would then write his work in a very similar – though, arguably more ‘rigorous’ – fashion by concentrating again on monumental events that occurred largely within his own lifetime, the greatly protracted Peloponnesian War that was fought between Sparta and Athens.
Hence, for the ancient Greeks, who are our primary (and only) sources for this period of the distant past, the era we recount within ‘Olympia’ not only lacked any contemporary historians, but was only remembered as fragments and random facts by much later writers.
Secondly, while there were two possible founders of the first Games – Heracles (or Hercules, as the Romans remembered him) and Pelops – both of them are somewhat shadowy, essentially mythical figures. While this is a delightful product of the ancient Greek mythical imagination as well as the lack of any sort of contemporary history of their lives, as authors we had to first settle upon who was the most likely actual founder of the first Olympics and then try to reconstruct what we could of this monumental achievement with an eye more towards plausibility and ‘believability’ rather than historical veracity.
Thus, Pelops emerges within Olympia alongside much better known historically-recorded figures – Koroibos and Homer, for example – as more of a ‘legendary’ character and drives towards his epic accomplishment of the original Olympics as an agent of history, rather than a truly historical ‘doer of deeds’ himself. Moreover, we deliberately (though delicately, we believe) chose to secularise this saga as much as possible by reducing the supernatural or mythical Olympian aspect – even though the Olympics were always held in honour of Zeus, while the all-female Heraean Games were held in honour of his divine wife – in order to increase its accessibility to a global audience.
Taken together, then – that history itself didn’t actually exist for many hundreds of years after the first Olympics and that the founder of the first Games has to be largely ‘reconstructed’ – it should be reasonably clear that the authors of Olympia had to tread a fine line between what can be surmised and what is actually known of those fateful days in 776 B.C.E. in order to produce a linear, narrative-driven account of such an achievement.
What sort f research did it involve?
Once I realised the enormity of the topic and then the task, I decided I needed help. I approached an old university mate who had graduated with a PhD in anthropology and had spent many years investigating the folklore and mythology of First Nations people here in Australia and we decided to fuse our skill-sets to churn out a screenplay that could hopefully do this topic justice. Dr Michael O’Kane and I set to work researching everything we could – which was a real melange, as the Western genre of history was invented by Herodotus over 300 years after the first Olympics in 776 BCE – and we methodically assembled our source material from ancient Greek myth, legend, art representations, archaeological traces and then later historical and anthropological research. Researching and then writing up the initial screenplay of Olympia took us over 12 months, as we had to frequently bounce the script between us, edit each other’s work, sit on it for periods while we worked our day jobs, mull over and discuss what we would and wouldn’t add and then get together periodically to discuss the ‘bigger picture’ of what we might dispense with from our original screen story outline so that it wouldn’t balloon into some sort of bloated 5 hour plus never-ending film. These proved to be hard but valuable writing lessons.
After having the script professionally ‘breathed upon’ by an ex-Hollywood studio writer, we started marketing to potentially interested parties. Despite the exceptional difficulties associated with trying to have optioned an historical epic that would require a 100 million plus budget from the modest film-making shores of Australia (especially as a non-studio-based team, who’ve just generated their first ‘spec’ script) we got dangerously close to getting lucky, as the following media piece indicates:
“After working on the Olympia novel (and film) project for a number of years, Michael and I decided that to properly complete the work a trip to Greece was required to inject into the manuscript a real sense of atmospheric authenticity. As Michael was consumed with his day job as a senior anthropologist and I had the luxury of more time by dint of living with my disability (a spinal injury), I took the plunge and winged it to Europe in early 2020. My arrival in Hellas coincided with global news breaking of the COVID-19 pestilence. Having endured so much over the centuries – including the great plague of classical era Athens, which robbed the city of one third of its residents – the Greeks were initially indifferent to this new Age of Anxiety.
I took up residence at a spectacular Athenian writers’ retreat that turned out to be owned by one of Greece’s most eminent families. The worldly sisters, Matina and Alkistis Agio – the former possessing very fine curatorial skills, while the latter held a PhD in humanistic sciences – became close ‘Socratic friends’ and we spent many an occasion eating, drinking and debating in true Mediterranean style. Both sisters were heavily involved in the Stoic philosophy revival and Alkistis hosted such forums within the spacious residence – a huge boon for a writer seeking inspiration. Each day I also ventured out to an interesting Athenian archaeological site, museum or gallery for the stimulation I felt I needed to churn out my best writing. These initiatives proved productive – five key chapters were completed at first draft level within six weeks.
Departing Athens, I explored the extraordinary clifftop monasteries of Meteora (where some of the Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, was filmed), shot past a town that left me a bit gob-smacked – called ‘Martino’ – and then paused wistfully at the site of ancient Thermopylae, where Western history’s most heroic battle took place. I arrived two days later at Greece’s so-called second city, Thessaloniki, where I spent more quality time with family, my two Greek-Australian step uncles and their extended clan. Departing these festivities, I shot across northern Greece – pausing at King Phillip’s tomb, Alexander the Great’s former capital and then Mount Olympus, to thereby hail the ancient Greek gods – and arrived through the top of the Peloponnese at Olympia on March 11. The following day was the scheduled official torch-lighting ceremony for the 2020 (now 2021) Tokyo Games.
As I parked myself at a lovely al fresco café (owned, quite wonderfully, by Greek-Australians from my home city of Melbourne) on the beautifully decorated main street of Olympia, the disturbing news broke that the pandemic had now forced the closure of the torch-lighting ceremony to the public. I was, to put it mildly, crushed.
But the café owners, having recognized my Australian accent, introduced me to a gentlemen sitting only a table away (Mr Stavros Potouridis), who turned out to be not only a manager of Greece’s Panathenaic Stadium but licensed by the IOC to take photos of the torch-lighting ceremony. In the spirit of Greek hospitality, friendship and giving (philoxenia) he immediately offered to share with me some of the photos – as long as they were duly credited – as he was as disappointed as so many others that thousands of us would not be able to physically attend this special ceremony. As my Greek-language skills are unfortunately not good, I reciprocated in the universal language (of alcohol) by ordering a couple of fine Greek beers to express my gratitude.
We drank and chatted to a few other travellers who had also made the pilgrimage to Olympia to witness the event but were now, like me, sidelined by the cautionary pandemic restrictions. As we conversed, we were approached by one of Stavros’ friends, the marathon runner Kostas Hatzis (renowned throughout Europe for always completing his runs in full traditional Greek national costume, while waving his Olympic-style flag to remind spectators that the marathon is as Greek as it is Olympic), and I shared a few laughs with this very genial and humble ‘icon’. He invited me to dinner that night in the same café we were lunching at and as I joined him and Stavros, the Japanese Olympian, Minori Hayakari, also joined our table, to my great pleasure. It was quite a dinner.
Minori and Stavros departed after dinner to get some much-needed rest, but Kostas invited me to another gathering that was being held in the function room of a local hotel. Arriving there I was soon introduced to some 50 or so enthusiastic international travellers, all of whom had a vested interest in sport, the torch-lighting ceremony and the Olympics. I took particular pleasure in chatting to the U.S. YCA Youth Ambassador, Mr Atharva Vispute, and his very proud family. I also became acquainted with Assoc. Prof. Alexis Lyras (who, seconded from Georgetown University to the University of Tsukuba in Tokyo, was travelling with a troupe of sports studies students from across the globe), who has subsequently become a firm friend and now penned the Foreword to the Olympia novel that Michael and I have since completed.
The following afternoon I had the extraordinary pleasure of getting ‘up close and personal’ with the torch-lighting relay after the sun’s rays had ignited the Greek torch maidens’ ‘genesis flame’, then jogging a little alongside Atharva who was also kind enough to pose for a photo with me. It is that very same photo you will see on the rear of the Olympia novel cover, which is also reproduced below on this blog piece, as well as cropping up in various places on this website. After this opportunity of a lifetime, I took my stiff and sore bones back to my favourite Olympian café, ordered a Mythos beer and flipped open my ‘lucky’ laptop. There, at the head of a string of emails, was a publishing offer for Olympia. I whooped with joy, to the laughter of quite a few, and hastened to contact my co-author Michael, who was nearly as excited as I. I couldn’t help but blurt out that I thought I was having the best day of my life.
The following day also proved memorable, as I witnessed the actor Gerard Butler brandishing the Olympic torch in the streets of Sparta before a statue of King Leonidas – the role he played in the movie 300 – to mark the 2,500 year anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae, but that is a story for another time…”
Michael then bowed out of our team to concentrate upon his busy career, while I took over promoting and marketing the book with the official book launch at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum.
Thank you for sharing all this with us, John. An immense amount of work and such an interesting subject. I remember my visit to Olympia and it gave me goosebumps. It’s a place not to be missed by anyone visiting Greece. I do hope the film comes to fruition one day. On behalf of my readers, I wish you all the best with the book and also for your future literary works.
I should add that the book is enriched with a foreword by Professor Alexis Lyras, founder and president of the ‘Olympism For Humanity Alliance’.
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