Philip Womack catches up with the author of the Who Let the Gods Out series, as book three, Beyond the Odyssey, is published.
Maz Evans’s first novel, Who Let the Gods Out, (Chicken House, 2017) saw her young hero, Elliott Hooper, hurled into an adventure with the Greek gods, who still lurk among us in varying, usually somewhat seedy, guises. His mother is going crazy; a property developer has her sights on his family farm; and his father’s in prison: and he must also deal with the prim constellation Virgo, who’s plummetted to Earth, along with a whole host of other Immortals, including the Demon Thanatos. With a background in script writing and creative writing workshops, Evans initially self-published, and sold over 2,000 copies through her own efforts in schools.
As a result she was snapped up by Chicken House, and the rights have since been sold to 17 countries. Two sequels have followed with divine swiftness: Simply the Quest, in which Elliott must face his old enemy Thanatos once more; and Beyond the Odyssey, out now, which brings his father into play. Hardly canonical, the immortal gods are instead happily mixed with elves, pixies and goblins – the kind of imaginative hodgepodge that sees Father Christmas entering Narnia alongside Bacchus. The books are characterised by a snappy pace and a humorous, playful touch, which suits her child readership enormously well and has found her well-loved by librarians and teachers.
I have met Maz Evans before: in person she resembles a small and energetic whirlwind, gleeful and bubbly: characteristics which she brings to bear fully into her work. Various obstacles placed themselves in the way of this interview, and we ended up talking over the telephone as I perched in a particularly unsuitable branch of Pret a Manger in the London King’s Road. If only I were the fast-talking Hermes – whom Evans characterises as a kind of spivvy city boy – able to bypass mortal transport to her house in Bournemouth.
Before we start the interview proper, I note that the second thing that comes up when you Google “Maz Evans” is “How old is Maz Evans?” I ask her, somewhat facetiously, if she’s been checking her age online. She laughs. ‘You mean I’m so old I can’t remember? Or I can’t remember what I lied… Children always ask that, and I always say something fatuous like 25 and they accept it without question. And I used to feel absolutely flattered until someone pointed out to me that to a 9 year old 25 is ancient. One foot in the grave, frankly. But I am 25, obviously, for the purposes of this interview.’
25 it is. Why did she try self-publishing? ‘No one would buy the book! Is the short answer,’ she replies, frankly. The literary department of her script-writing agency didn’t want it, and although she tried a couple of open submissions, ‘no dice at all.’ One submission ‘was actually my fastest ever rejection – in about 90 seconds flat.’ She left the idea alone for several years, but whilst working on her creative writing business, Story Stew, she decided to take a punt. A punt which paid off.
Was she always interested in myth? ‘Always,’ she confirms, ‘always, always. I was fairly unremarkable at school, but I did win one prize when I was 8 – I’m looking at my prize now, a copy of the Usborne Book of Greek and Norse Myth. I was absolutely hooked. As I always say to kids, the great thing about Greek mythology is if you continue to study it as you get older, it just gets ruder and naughtier and filthier. So they’ve kind of grown – or I’ve grown with them. Obviously when setting the debut novel it came very quickly and very naturally.’
Evans read English, but with a heavy slant towards classical literature. Her ‘absolute all time favourite’ was The Odyssey, ‘which is very fitting for this particular time in my authorial career. It’s kind of an anthology myth, and when coming to write Beyond the Odyssey, which is very heavily steeped in it, it is just a dream because there is so much source material there. And so much that you can do with it.’
I ask if she was influenced by Marie Phillips’s Gods Behaving Badly, (2007) who incidentally, like Evans attended Bryanston School (which has an echo in Elliott’s school, Brysmore.) ‘I haven’t – I deliberately don’t go and look … you know how it is as a writer, you don’t want to absorb something even subconsciously and repeat it. The first thing I’ll do when I finish writing this series this year is to binge watch American Gods and Percy Jackson and what have you. So I know even if I have hit on the same idea as someone else that it’s a coincidence.’
How did she conceive the characters of the gods? Hermes in particular. ‘Hermes had a very interesting evolution – he was originally a very fashionista kind of character. Scholastic, my American publishers were concerned that he was a gay stereotype.’ She changed him into the city boy he is in the current edition: ‘And it slotted in very quickly, and it was one of those things where constraint was good for creativity. Hermes has been very popular with the children.’
Which of her characters would she like to be? ‘I loved writing Virgo because she’s new to the Earth, and it’s a brilliant chance to explore the absurdities of human experience. In the second book she’s trying to understand joke structure. She’s a creature of pure reason. Then she tries to tell jokes and can’t quite nail it. As the series progresses she’s coming from what she thought of as the perfection of her world to see the beauty of who we are for all its imperfection, and that’s been very joyful. I’d like to be on her journey.’ With typical Evans impishness, she adds: ‘I’d like her lovely silver hair.’
I ask her how she feels about the way that writers now have to be promoters, presentable on media, active on their social media, and effectively all-singing and all-dancing. ‘You’re essentially your own business. Perhaps it helped for me that I was self-published before. A book is not going to sell itself. The reason that Gods has had any sort of longevity thus far is because I do so many school visits. If I stopped doing them tomorrow I’m quite convinced my book would disappear without trace. I’m in schools at least twice a week every single week.’ Not everyone can do that, I say. ‘You have to choose what gives in your life to enable that.’ The noise in the café grows; the line crackles; and Evans must be off. The series will finish with a fourth book, out next year. As Hermes himself would say – bosh!
Philip Womack is an author and critic. His books include The Double Axe and the Darkening Path trilogy. He is crowdfunding his new novel The Arrow of Apollo, with Unbound.
Who Let the Gods Out, Simply the Quest and Beyond the Odyssey, are published by Chicken House, £6.99 each.