An Interview with Emily H. Wilson

Last Updated on July 11, 2024

Retellings and reimaginings are a huge trend in the traditionally published market right now, and have been for a while. But outside the usual culprits like Greek and Roman mythology and Arthurian legends, they suddenly become a lot sparser – though not any less exciting! One of the brilliant entries into 2023’s retelling line-up is Emily H. Wilson’s debut, Inanna. Taking the goddess of love and war from Ancient Sumer and stories from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she creates a dark epic fantasy trilogy attractive for readers of Grimdark Magazine. We had the opportunity to sit down and chat research, writing and retellings with her ahead of publication next month. Read on for her fascinating thoughts, and click here for our full review of Inanna.

Cover of Inanna by Emily H. Wilson[GdM]: Can you pitch Inanna in one sentence for our readers, please?
[EHW]: The man who would become my literary agent asked me for something similar. He said: ‘Tell me in a sentence why anyone would want to pay out their own money for your book.’ This is the reply I sent: ‘This is an epic adventure set in Ancient Sumer, the world’s first civilisation, starring the longest-lived and most powerful female deity in history (Inanna) and also Gilgamesh, the very first literary hero – who wouldn’t want to buy it!’ Since then I’ve realised that Inanna has just as much right to be called the world’s first literary hero as Gilgamesh does, but that’s another story. Editor’s Note: If that’s not a reason to go hit that pre-order button, I don’t think we can be friends, sorry.

[GdM]: Would you be able to go into your research process a bit? What sorts of things helped you create your world and inspired you during the writing process?
[EHW] For book one, I read translations of the ancient myths, for inspiration. Then I read various academic papers about aspects of ancient Sumer, to work out, for example, how many people would
have lived in Uruk in 3,500BC, or, did they have hippos? I visited the British Museum many times to look at the Sumerian objects on display there. It’s nice to know what sort of cup a Sumerian king might drink from, or what kind of necklace a princess would wear. I was also lucky enough to go behind the scenes at the British Museum into the library where many of the ancient clay tablets from Sumer and the Akkadian civilisations that followed are now kept. I also read travelogues from Iraq, written by people like Wilfred Thesiger, for some idea of the physicality of the wilder reaches of the country as it might have been even in the very ancient past. As I read Thesiger, I would make little notes for myself, for example: Add frogs.

[GdM]: One of my standout moments of the book was the royal burial scene. I read in the acknowledgements that this was inspired by an archaeological find. How did you come across it and why did it inspire you to include it?
[EHW]: Yes I took the details of the royal burial scene from an old book that my mother, a former archaeologist, happened to have on the bookshelves in her flat. The book, by the archaeologist Leonard Woolley, describes his finds from the city of Ur in the 1920s and 1930s. In the royal graveyard there they found what Woolley interpreted as a really grisly mass burial, dated about 2,700BC. Whether he was right or not, it looked to him as if more than 70 people were killed or chose to die there, presumably with the idea that they would pass over with the dead queen to another realm. According to Woolley, the women in the group wore what he called silver ribbons in their hair. But one girl died with her ribbon still in her pocket. That very moving, human detail led me to include a mass burial in Inanna.

[GdM]: Was there anything that took you by complete surprise while researching or that you wish you’d been able to include in the finished book?
[EHW]: The amazing sophistication of the Sumerians at such an early date … that continues to be mind-blowing to me. Other than that… The beauty of some of the language in the ancient myths sometimes stops me in my tracks. I’ve taken my favourite lines or phrases and woven them into the text of Inanna, just to have some of that language in there. There’s also a lot of very grim stuff in the myths. The only lines in Inanna that my editor at Titan questioned, as possibly being over the top, were straight out of the myths. A very nasty torture method, for example. Another example: a maggot falling from the nose of a corpse. I couldn’t get everything into Inanna, but luckily there are two more Sumerian books coming! Editor’s Note: Well that’s appropriate for a book reviewed here on Grimdark Magazine!

[GdM]: Who is Inanna to you? Of course, she is the character the book is centred around, but how did you encounter her, how did she come to fascinate you enough to build this world around her?
[EHW]: I first properly noticed Inanna, who was the Sumerian goddess of love and war, while re-reading the (ancient) Epic of Gilgamesh. That sent me down an Inanna rabbit hole, and I discovered for myself the myths in which she is central. The first evidence for Inanna appears in about 3,200 BC. After that she went on to become Ishtar, then at least aspects of her were used to make up Aphrodite and then Venus. That makes her the longest-lived deity in history, and yet almost no one knows her origin story. Plus, she’s probably older than Sumer. To me, her stories have all the markings of tales from deep prehistory.

She is also simply a brilliant character. There’s no settling down into a nice quiet marriage for Inanna; quite the reverse. Put all that together, and it’s just amazing to me that she had to wait all this time for someone to put her centre stage in her own epic. I was very happy to oblige.

[GdM]: Writing a story based on source material isn’t quite the same thing as writing something uniquely your own from the start. What were some of the joys and challenges the process of writing a retelling brought with it?
[EHW]: The joy is that you get a stab at recreating a whole lost world from history, even if it’s only your very personal, fantastical, totally made-up take on that lost world. You get to create a universe that’s fantastical, and yet rooted in history and ancient writings, which for me makes it more delicious. Of course the gods did not really walk the Earth in 4000BC. But what would it be like if they did? Imagining all that was joy, because that’s something I love in a book: time spent in a universe I love being in, but that also offers some sort of deep connection, however fanciful, to our ancient past. The challenge is that Sumerian myths do not fit neatly together into novel form. Far, far, from it. They’re a hot mess. It took me a while to realise that I was not going to be able to create novels that anyone would read unless, when necessary, I parted ways with the myths. Once my characters became real, breathing characters in my mind, that made it easier. When I played fast and loose with some myth, I would just think to myself: the myths that survived got that one thing wrong about Inanna. Of course my version is the accurate one!

[GdM]: Having written a brilliant book inspired by an ancient epic, what do you think distinguishes an excellent retelling?
[EHW]: My favourite mythological retelling is Mary Renault’s two-part take on the story of Theseus and the labyrinth (The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea). I think with Mary Renault, what she creates feels so real that it ends up feeling like history. You read her work and you think, how can things have been any different? She creates something that feels true. She did it even more brilliantly in the first two books of her Alexander trilogy (which are amongst my top five favourite novels ever). Of course the Alexander books are historical fiction, but when you’re spinning magic from what at times amounts to not much more than historical scraps, as Renault does, I’m not sure the difference between mythological retellings and historical fiction is that great.

[GdM]: Are you allowed to tell us anything about what you’re working about next?
[EHW]: Inanna was sold as the first part of a trilogy, entitled The Sumerians, so I will be chest-deep in the marshy bogs of Ancient Sumer for at least another year. Right now I’m a good way on with Book Two; I have to send it to my editor at Titan by July 30 this year. It’s currently titled The Secrets of the Gods. It has all the old characters from Inanna, plus some new characters. When I say ‘new’, of course, what I mean is, ‘very very ancient characters from Sumer who have not been wheeled into action by me’.

And then as soon as that’s off my plate, I’ll be starting in earnest upon the final part of the Sumerians trilogy, currently titled The Great Above, which I guess will be due in in July 2024.

[GdM]: What books (or other media) have been filling your creative well?
[EHW]: I recently enjoyed Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. After the extraordinary boldness of Rodham, I will basically read anything she writes. I’m now reading Demon Copperhead although I haven’t quite settled into yet. Books aside, I am enjoying Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne in Platonic. It’s my post-Succession sticking plaster. Oh and I’m rewatching (the relatively new version of) Battlestar Gallactica with one of sons. Oof, that Pegasus episode in season two! Such great, sustained storytelling.

Read Inanna by Emily H. Wilson

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.

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