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December 16, 2022

BookLife Reviews named Pericles and Aspasia an Editor’s Pick, calling it “a stellar, epic-length evocation of the golden age of Athens, rich with historical insight.” With its unusual historical setting, characters, and the significance of both, our discussion with Korshak covered much ground. 

How did you come to write Pericles and Aspasia?

I fell in love with classical Greece in my ninth grade ancient history class. I was smitten by Euripides, described as “the first modern mind,” until I read Pericles’s famous oration in which he essentially outlined democracy for all time, and then I fell in love with him. Fickle? Well, after all, I was only 15 years old. In college, I decided to write a novel about Pericles and Aspasia but soon found I didn’t know enough about antiquity. So, I went to grad school to learn enough. Circumstances drew me to an academic career. But at one point I said to myself, “Yvonne, if you don’t know enough to write your novel now, you never will.” And that’s when I set about writing Pericles and Aspasia in earnest.

As this is your debut novel, what was the writing process like?

I spent so much time learning about ancient Greece that I neglected to learn how to write a novel! I had to catch up. I went to writers’ workshops and consulted editors who encouraged me to clarify the characters’ purposes and to bring out their inner lives more than I’d done. That was wonderful—it was like a permission to do what I’d always wanted to do! Mainly I wrote the book in drafts, more drafts than I could keep track of. I would get to the end and then go back to the beginning, each time with a deepened vision of what I wanted to accomplish in the next draft. I cut out a lot, whole chapters that I liked and thought readers would like, but when I saw that they did not drive the story forward, out they went. 

You’ve written nonfiction in the past, but was writing fiction always a goal? 

The goal propelling and shaping my choices was not so much to write fiction as it was to write this particular story. I wanted to share the wonderful world of Periclean Athens. Of the four greatest playwrights who ever lived, three—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—lived in this time. Phidias the sculptor, rivaled only by Michelangelo, designed the sculptures of the Parthenon temple to Athena. History was invented during this period, philosophy flourished, and the ideals of democracy that drive us to this day took shape, largely under the guiding hand of Pericles. Of course, the achievements are one side of the picture. The “golden age” carried a lot of tarnish. Enslavement of war captives was a given. Women were under the thumbs of men and not educated. The tensions between ideals and realities are woven into the fabric of Pericles and Aspasia.

Your bio says that you’ve visited most of the places that figure in the book. What was your favorite place to visit, and which places do you wish you could see as they were during Pericles and Aspasia’s time?

There are few places I’d rather be than sitting in a taverna by the sea in Greece, feeling the breeze and hearing Greek music while eating freshly grilled sardines. But my favorite place to visit is the Acropolis of Athens with its stunning classical architecture and, above all, the Parthenon. In a way, I never really leave there. To be in classical Athens as it was in Pericles and Aspasia’s time and to make it come alive, for myself and others, is why I wrote the book.

Can readers expect more books from you? 

I am currently completing the sequel to Pericles and Aspasia, The Sword of the War God. Pericles and Aspasia is fundamentally a joyous book. The Sword of the War God spins forward the underlying tragedy.