Maria Dahvana Headley is one of those wildly imaginative, multitalented authors who can write everything from plays to memoirs to works of fiction. In her new novel, The Mere Wife, she rethinks the Old English tale of Beowulf.
Beowulf took its name from the original story's hero, who defends a Danish stronghold called Heorot Hall from the savage monster Grendel, and then from Grendel's furious mother. In The Mere Wife, Headley upends Beowulf's moral certainties, re-envisioning the conflict in a picture-perfect contemporary suburb, narrating the action from multiple perspectives, and complicating the question of who, exactly, the most monstrous character might be.
Here, she speaks to the Amazon Book Review about how she came to write this brilliant novel, her interest in cultural trauma, and the authors who have inspired her. Headley, who once sewed corsets for a Shakespeare company, now says "Language is the great costume, and I’ve changed my life over and over by telling new kinds of stories."
Sarah Harrison Smith: When did you first encounter the tale of Beowulf? Did you have an immediate fascination with it? And if so, what was it about it that excited you?
Maria Dahvana Headley: I’m not wholly sure, which is maddening! I feel like somehow I always knew Beowulf. I do know that somewhere in my childhood I encountered Grendel’s Mother in an illustrated monster encyclopedia, and that she was green and naked, and rising out of a swampy pool. She had a lot of teeth, and looked miserable. In the entry about her, which I read instantly, because even at that age I was always looking for female characters whatever their scariness, the author termed her a warrior who fought someone named Beowulf. She didn’t look like a warrior. She looked naked and sort of Night of the Living Dead. So I wanted to know what her story was.
Later, I got interested in epic things in general, poems, plays, and in why those stories endure when other stories have not. Often it’s a matter of one manuscript found by the right dude. So, that led me to notions of considering those manuscripts through Non-Dude eyes, as it were, and in considering what might make a woman a monster when she is in fact a fighter.
Last year, we saw Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey upend assumptions about the versions we all read in school. How do the old translations of Beowulf hold up to scrutiny?
A big part of the reason I wrote The Mere Wife the way I did was that I happened across a discussion of Grendel’s mother and the word aeglaec-wif, which is the feminine version of aeglaeca, the word used to describe Beowulf, and also used to describe, at various times, Grendel and the dragon. In most English language translations of Beowulf, aeglaec-wif is translated as some version of hag, hell-hell-bride, creature, while Aeglaeca, when applied to Beowulf, is translated as “hero.” If we apply a different translation to the word, something like “fierce fighter” or “formidable,” things in the Beowulf story change, among them that Grendel’s mother can be seen as human.
I’m interested in the ways that translating Grendel’s mother as human make Beowulf a rather more complicated narrative than it would appear in most translations. Emily Wilson’s Odyssey is similar - translating Circe and Calypso as goddesses rather than as witches changes a host of assumptions about those characters, and the ways Odysseus behaves with them, and is also an accurate translation. I have so much time for new translations and new perspectives on classic texts.
Could you tell readers about the multiple meanings of the title of this novel, The Mere Wife?
Of course! In the original Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is referred to as a “mere-wif” which would basically mean “lake woman” - because a mere is another word for lake, or deep body of water. In the poem, the mere is where Grendel and his mother live. They have a hall beneath the mere, and it’s parallel to Hrothgar’s own mead hall. Because the word mere for lake is no longer in particularly common usage, I could also use it to connote our current understanding of “mere” - as “of little consequence” -- which applies to both of the main narrators of my book. I wanted to tell a version of the Beowulf story from the perspective of the monsters and/or women, and here I use both Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar’s Wife as POV characters. Neither of them is of little consequence, as the book makes increasingly clear. Both of them are forces to be reckoned with.
You’ve written about PTSD in the past. What is it about that syndrome that you find engaging in fiction?
I always find it interesting to examine unreliable narrative and storytelling, particularly when one is immersed in it, as you are with a first person POV. In this book, Dana Mills, the Grendel’s-mother character, has been to war, and the things that happened to her there are a jumble of keen memories and flashes of confusion, gaps in the story, as, to one degree or another, traumatic experiences always are.
I remember being very young and assuming that the traumatic experience of someone I knew was less valid than other traumatic experiences, because to me that same experience would not have been traumatic. It was, to me, a basic experience. Someone explained to me that measles kills some people and only polka dots others, and that individual experiences are only to be judged on the scale of the person who experiences them, not on someone else’s.
This has turned out to be a useful way of thinking for my life as a fiction writer. Each character gets their own, wildly diverse, history of pain and experience, and I try to write with an understanding that their ways of dealing with said pain may in fact make sense to no one but themselves. That enables me to write stories in which certain characters can wholly justify actions that are not rational.
Passion and pain make for interesting stories. That said also, I always want to get into what trauma can do to an entire society. I was trying to do that here. Generations of trauma and indeed trauma rooted in the land on which the story takes place - that’s in the story too, and it’s on purpose.
One of your characters reflects, “I feel old things running around this place, like we’re in the center of the smoke of a burning book of wonders. As though all the pages have gotten stuck together and now it’s a world of everything at once.” It’s a vision of heaven, in part, but is it also a description of an imagination that moves back and forth in time? What is it about that vision or imaginative act that offers comfort?
I guess for me that’s a description of the pleasure of centuries of imagined things being available to me all at once, as well as a description of liberation, the joy of being released from the boundaries of one’s own story and set free into stories that have no role in place for you. In The Mere Wife, a lot of what the story is about is breaking down the barriers of societal roles - monster vs. hero - and looking at what created those roles. So if everything is running around in smoke of burning story, hierarchy is shifted and indeed eliminated. The idea of a reset on that pleases me.
You’ve written acclaimed short stories as well as fantasy novels (and a memoir, The Year of Yes). Often it seems that fantasy fits well into the briefer form of the short story. Did you start with a full-length novel in mind when you began The Mere Wife?
I did, yes, but I thought it would be a short novel, more like 50,000 words - the original poem is about 25,000 words, and that seemed a reasonable stretch. The final book is around 75,000, so it turned into a full fledged mid-length novel, but even so, I had it in mind to be somewhat sparse in the sentences, which is why, I think, some people feel that the book is written in poetry.
I wanted to combine Beowulf with a novel of American suburbia, so I knew it was going to be a novel of that type. The elements of fantasy that are in this book could as easily be read as elements of misperception, and indeed, many of them, especially the monster ones, are. I didn’t need to do any fantasy worldbuilding - it’s set our world, even if it’s our world with a poetic sensibility. I think the fantastic works best for me that way. Our world, with ghosts, with mountain POV, with an opinionated natural universe - that’s how I see the world anyway, whatever the form.
As a child, did you want to become a writer? Were there particular circumstances in your early life that you feel nurtured your imagination and helped form you as a writer? Did other careers appeal to you?
I didn’t know that people wrote for a living when I was a kid! I also didn’t know that living women could be writers. When I found that out, I was ready to go forth, though I had no clue. In my childhood, imagining was thoroughly encouraged - we were in the high desert of southern Idaho and it was fairly isolated.
We had a costume closet full of vintage finery from the 1800’s to the 1970’s and it was totally normal to deep dive there and construct a new identity. In fact, for years I thought I might be a costume designer, and for a while I made corsets and costumes for a Shakespeare theater. I was intrigued by the notion of changing one’s experience of the world by changing one’s clothes, and that’s all over Shakespeare. In Shakespeare, a girl puts on a pair of pants and is perceived as a man, and I loved the idea that I might change my status utterly with a few pieces of cloth and some buttons. That said, language is the great costume, and I’ve changed my life over and over by telling new kinds of stories.
Which women fantasy writers do you most admire? Have any of them directly influenced your work, do you think?
Ursula K. LeGuin, of course, and Kelly Link, Kathryn Davis, Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Gayl T. Jones, Tea Obreht, Joy Williams, Angela Carter, Sofia Samatar, Brooke Bolander, Nicola Griffith, Alice Sola Kim, Margaret Atwood, Nalo Hopkinson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Madeline Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Leonora Carrington, Lauren Groff, Anne Carson - I could go on and on. Not all of these women are categorized as fantasy writers on shelves, but all of them use those mythic elements and notions of storytelling that I consider to simply be brilliant writing. Just the existence of these writers and many others like them has made my career and work possible, and if that’s not influence I don’t know what is. I read them for soul refills and for inspiration.
Thank you, Maria Dahvana Headley.
(Author Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)