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Stacey Swann's New Book Is A Classic Greek Tale, Set In Texas

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Olympus, Texas" is set in hardscrabble territory, the plains of Texas, with the Briscoes, a family who brim with infidelity, some acknowledged, others still concealed, tick, tick, ticking away in a small town that history seemed to leave in the underbrush and poison oak. There are clues beyond the title, such as the twin dogs named Romulus and Remus, that this family tale is rich in classical themes. Think of it as a classic Greek tale, but pungent and falling off the bone like Texas barbecue.

"Olympus, Texas" is the debut novel from Stacey Swann, a native Texan who's a contributing editor of American Short Fiction. And she joins us where else but from Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

STACEY SWANN: Oh, it's such a pleasure to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: The story begins with the prodigal son, March, who returns to see his parents, Peter and June. But they're not happy to see him, are they?

SWANN: No. No, not at all, especially June - not happy that March has come back into town. So two years before the novel kicks off, March was discovered to be having an affair with his older brother's wife, Vera. And when that comes to light, he leaves town. The novel kicks off when he's decided that he misses home too much, and he misses his family, and he's come back to see if he can stay. And his mother, caring for her son Hap and being worried about March returning and destabilizing his marriage again, she also has her own baggage because her husband, Peter, has been unfaithful many times over the course of their own marriage. And so March's behavior hits a little too close to home for her.

SIMON: March has what professionals call intermittent explosive disorder. I looked it up. It's apparently a real condition, not just in your novel. But does he use his diagnosis to avoid accepting responsibility for the hurt he causes?

SWANN: One of the challenges of writing a book that is kind of riffing off of Greek gods but making them mortal and making them fully human is, how do we translate, like, the traits of Mars? Like, the god of war is going to be hard to make a character that you can empathize for - right? - and root for. I realized that this kind of rage might be easier for the audience to approach if it was part of a condition he had that wasn't actually his fault. You know, I think it's a very human trait for us to want to avoid responsibility for the hurt that we've caused.

SIMON: Stacey Swann, what is it about Texas? I mean, what - I love Texas. What makes it unique, extraordinary but, you know, sometimes unnerving, too?

SWANN: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, I'm not a person that - you know, like, when I was in high school - I'm not a huge kind of school spirit kind of person, a huge joiner. But even I am not immune to this draw of Texas. Even I can't help having this kind of outside love for my home state even when it's doing so many things wrong and it has so many difficulties on its own, as well as wonderful things here in Texas.

And I'm not quite sure. I don't know if it's - part of me wonders if it's this - it's the state that is in between the West of the United States, and the West has its own mythology, and the South of the United States, and the South has its own mythology. And so we get both. And that just leads to this really outsized kind of presence for a state, I think.

SIMON: How aware do you want a reader to be about what I'll just call the Greek stuff?

SWANN: As a writer, I really love puzzles. Like, it's the fun part of writing, you know, kind of working with these big metaphors or working with the scaffolding of the Greek myth. So I had a ton of fun writing it. And that was kind of the foundation when I started it. People read novels, I feel like, and I read novels for the characters and for the plot. And I wanted to make sure that even if you had zero interest in Greek mythology, you didn't know it at all, you didn't care to know it at all, that you could read this novel and enjoy it just as much as somebody who was enjoying the references to Greek mythology 'cause, really, books are about emotions, and puzzles aren't about emotions.

SIMON: Well, and there's this wonderful funeral scene, which I won't give away, but it does make you think that - it does make you see the people who have some right to think they built Olympus are also the source of the town's original sin.

SWANN: I grew up in a small town, and it's - you know everyone, right? So it's easier to see who's in control and who's pulling the levers and who you've got to pay your rent money to, you know, and their kid is next to your kid in their classrooms. And so I think that feeling of the kind of hierarchies can be felt more in a small town. But on the other hand, I love the fact that small towns - no one is isolated from each other. Like, you're dealing with everyone because they're all with you in Walmart. So there's no escaping any of the people in your town.

SIMON: Peter Briscoe at one point - the patriarch, if I may - says, we are all armed with sharp knives we can barely control.

SWANN: Yes. He's talking about family members and the damage that we can do to each other. And it's - I think that's one - it's why there's so many great novels about family, is that no one is as important to you as your family members, but also, no one can hurt you as much as your family members because those are the people that you know best and that you trust most.

SIMON: Stacey Swann - her novel, "Olympus, Texas" - thank you so much for being with us.

SWANN: Oh, thank you, Scott. Such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.