Through her acclaimed books, Laura Amy Schlitz has transported young readers to a medieval English village, Victorian London, a big American city at the turn of the 20th century and more. In Amber & Clay, she sets her sights on ancient Greece to tell the story of an enslaved boy named Rhaskos, who longs to become an artist, and a privileged girl named Melisto, who chafes against familial and social expectations. Told in a mix of prose, verse and artifacts illustrated by Julia Iredale, Amber & Clay is historical fiction at its most inventive.
How familiar were you with ancient Athens before you embarked on this project? What did you learn about it that surprised you?
I didn’t know much when I started work on this book. I had to dig in. After a year or two, I had to buy a new bookcase to accommodate all the Greek books I bought. I drew maps, made lists, filled notebooks and tried to make clay pots. I went to museums and stared at things for long periods of time. I went to Greece. I tried to learn the language.
When I began my research, I was often angry. I was angry with the Greeks for being a slave society. I was angry with them for being misogynist. I was taken aback by how hard their lives were, how omnipresent the threats of war and enslavement were. Those fifth-century Greeks experienced little in the way of creature comforts, nothing of abundance or security. At the same time, I was astonished by their creativity, their appetite for beauty, their staggering ingenuity, their leaps of intellect and imagination. They adored excellence and aspired to justice.
I told a wise friend how confounded I was by these contradictory Greeks, and she said, “When you are simultaneously repelled and attracted by something, sometimes it’s because you’re standing on holy ground.”
I didn’t understand that, but I believed her. I kept researching. After a while, the Greeks began to come into focus for me. I started to see how their struggles and hardships and aspirations came together to form a culture. I was able to see them in a way that felt clearheaded and not sanctimonious.
As I was writing the story, I wanted to be able to drag children to a museum and say, “See? That’s what I’m talking about!”
What was it like to travel to modern-day Athens as part of your research?
It was one of two major turning points for me. I took an archaeological tour of Athens, and two fantastic guides tirelessly answered my questions.
Greece is astonishingly, hauntingly beautiful. I was moved to tears. When you see those dense forests and the mountains against the sky, when you see the water and the rocks and that fierce light, you understand how the ancients peopled their world with nymphs and gods and monsters.
The second turning point for me was trying to learn the language. I didn’t succeed; I had no teacher, and the language is hard. But trying to fit those jawbreaker words in my mouth—struggling to muscle out those consonants—I fell in love. Trying to learn Greek brought the story closer to me.
As you wrote, how did you decide which characters would speak in verse and which in prose?
For the first hundred pages of the first draft, everything was written in prose. But one day I was tempted to write a passage from Hermes’ point of view, and he spoke in verse. That encouraged me to see if the Rhaskos chapters would work better in verse. To my surprise and relief, they did.
I became very interested in different forms of Greek verse. Perhaps I was guided by Hermes, god of thieves: What else could I steal? I liked the strophe-antistrophe structural technique, which was commonly used by the chorus in a Greek drama, so I tried to copy that. When I encountered hendecasyllables (11-syllable lines), I thought they would be suitable for a ghost. Ghosts and prime numbers seem to fit together.
As I went on writing, it seemed to me that the gods and the sphinx should speak in verse that was tailored to the character. Hephaistos, god of the forge, for example, is a bass; his lines are slower and heavier than the fluent pattern of Hermes.
Honestly, I was just messing around. Some of my efforts entertained me, so I kept messing. Sometimes when I was stuck, I’d throw back my head and yell in Greek, “Sing to me, Muse!” It seemed to help. My terrible Greek probably snagged the attention of the muse.
Was it fun to incorporate the philosopher Socrates (whom you call Sokrates in the book) and Socratic dialogue into the story?
Choosing which ideas would make sense to children and working them in was fun. But Rhaskos generally ran the train off the tracks, because he wasn’t answering Sokrates’ questions the way I thought he would.
In the Platonic dialogues, Sokrates asks questions and he’s answered by a well-educated adult, but Rhaskos is a child, so he sees the world differently. He’s intelligent, but he’s had no education. Because of his life experiences, he’s developed a nose for hypocrisy, injustice and malice. He can also be very literal, because children are.
I sometimes posed Sokrates’ questions to my students. I asked fifth graders whether there was anything in the world that didn’t change or couldn’t change. One of them answered that the only thing that didn’t and couldn’t change was the past. I put his words in Rhaskos’ mouth.
Amber & Clay includes moments in which supernatural events (gods, ghosts, magic) exist alongside the human events of the story. Was that always the case?
The earliest drafts didn’t have the gods, though I was planning on a ghost. The first god to poke his nose in was Hermes. Later I came to understand that leaving the gods out would be negligent. It would have been un-Greek. Nowadays, we draw a line between what is natural and what is supernatural, but the ancient Greeks didn’t. They divined the gods in the land, in their dreams and in their passions. If I’d omitted the gods, I’d have ignored a huge chunk of their experience.
How did you get the idea to include the novel’s visual elements, illustrated images of historical artifacts and museum placards, as part of the narrative?
As I was writing the story, I wanted to be able to drag children to a museum and say, “See? That’s what I’m talking about!” I wanted the reader to feel a little bit like an archaeologist, to have to search for the story behind each artifact.
There are many emotional moments in Amber & Clay and some desperately sad ones—but there’s humor, too. Was it challenging to include funny moments when you were exploring some pretty dark themes?
No. What I’ve discovered is that if you try to write something funny, that’s challenging. But if you try to write truthfully, even about sad things—maybe even especially about sad things—humor trickles in uninvited, like rain through a leaky roof. Over the years, I’ve come to trust that.
Author photo of Laura Amy Schlitz courtesy of Joe Rubino.