“Greek literature and poetry have many violent images with the action, killings and tragedies,” says Pochoda, who received her bachelor’s degree in classical Greek and English and American literature from Harvard.
“In the Greek classics, the worlds overlap. The underworld is present in the human world and that is not fantastical, but literal in Greek literature. The world of the gods overlaps with the [human] world. The same in mysteries. The otherworld is touching our own. The elements are layering just below the surface,” adds Pochoda, the author of four well-received mysteries.
“In the classics, the agon, which is a contest, a conflict, is at the center. In the Iliad, should Achilles give up his principles and pride to go back to war because they need him? It is just this little conflict, but it sets the story in motion. Small conflicts can set a story in motion,” she says.
The framework of Greek literature also correlates to mystery fiction. “What has always interested me in Greek literature is the structure. There is a set structure in all Greek plays. The plots are different but they all have a prologue, a chorus and the story. I think of that structure as scaffolding. Someone pointed out to me that I use that structure in my books,” says Pochoda.
As for the athletics connection, Pochoda says that sports often show up in Greek literature: “Sports also comes down to self-determination and drive.” Both are, of course, traits in mysteries and are solid writers’ tools.
For her personally, athletics has played an important role. Pochoda played squash professionally from 1998 to 2007, representing the United States during her career. She reached a career-high world ranking of 38th in March 1999, having joined the Women’s International Squash Players Association full-time in 1998. In her college career at Harvard, Pochoda was an individual national champion in 1998, and led Harvard to national championships during three of her four years on the team. She was also named Ivy League rookie of the year, player of the year, and was a four-time all-American and first team all-Ivy. In May 2013 she was inducted into the Harvard Hall of Fame.
“I take the work ethic from being an athlete. I only have myself to push my writing forward,” says Pochoda, who still plays squash and occasionally teaches young players.
Take the provocative opening of her third novel, Wonder Valley, in which a naked man is running through a traffic jam in Los Angeles. His quest to get back home will take him through many trials. And maneuvering through LA’s perpetual rush-hour traffic takes a bit of athletic prowess.
This alchemy of Greek literature and sports has informed Pochoda’s novels. Pochoda can speak at length about Greek literature as she is obviously attuned to its minutia. Her expertise at weaving this into her plots has earned her universal praise for her novels. “What’s exciting to me is the unexpected combinations, say, of poetry and violence, or action and humor in the Greek,” she says.
Pochoda was born and raised in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood; her father was a publisher and a book editor, her mother a journalist and magazine editor. After graduating from Harvard, Pochoda moved to Amsterdam to train because her squash coach had played for a couple of the country’s national leagues. As much as she enjoyed squash—and was quite good at it—she knew it would not be a full-time career. While there, she started writing for Amsterdam’s equivalent of The Village Voice and began working on the draft of what would be her first novel, The Art of Disappearing. After moving back to Brooklyn, she continued working on the manuscript, taking a job as a squash coach that allowed her to fit in writing when she could.
“It was a lot of freedom to work on a book without the pressure,” says Pochoda.
Published in 2009, The Art of Disappearing did “terribly,” she says. “It took forever to sell it and finally my agent said I didn’t have to publish it. But I was determined to publish no matter what.”
Finally, the “39th publisher” accepted the novel, she says. “It was wild and undisciplined, yet also quite imaginative,” she says about The Art of Disappearing. “It was reflective of my thoughts and obsessions at that point in my life. Any thought I had at age 26 went into that book. It was a weird book, but I loved it.”
That first novel also became a life lesson. “I learned so much about the publishing industry. The roaring failure of [the first novel] gave me the sense that all this is fleeting. You have to advocate for yourself. In a way, I am glad to have had the experience of a book not doing well, because you can never take your success [as an author] for granted,” says Pochoda.
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