Meaghan Wilson Anastasios holds a PhD in art history and cultural economics and has been a lecturer at the University of Melbourne.
Meaghan is a scriptwriter and reseracher for film and TV, and an accredited member of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television. She has written and researched several series for Australian television, including the upcoming Foxtel series, Uncharted with Sam Neill and also keeps herself busy as a researcher on other major film and television productions including The Water Diviner.
Meaghan now answers the Booktopia Guru’s Ten Terrifying Questions.
I was born, raised and schooled in the leafy inner suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and it was never a very comfy fit for me. Early escape from convention came to me through the pages of the books in my parents’ library, where I discovered worlds that were far more interesting than the one I was occupying. It was most likely when I was buried between the pages of one of the Time-Life Great Ages of Man books, or the Peebles Art Library, that I reached the conclusion that I’d do just about anything to escape the future that was being mapped out for me. You could say The Honourable Thief is the end product of many years of determined escapism.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Once you meet my hero, Benedict Hitchens, it won’t come as any surprise to learn that at twelve, I was determined to be Indiana Jones or Han Solo. It never occurred to me that there were a few things standing in my way. For one, I wasn’t a man. For another, I wasn’t Harrison Ford. Not to mention, both characters were fictional and occupied made-up worlds; that universe in galaxy far, far, away was exactly that. Far, far away. But they ticked all the boxes in my twelve-year-old brain: both were unconventional characters, both were embarking on adventures to unknown worlds, and both were having a hell of a great time doing it.
By eighteen, I’d set about injecting a little practicality into my career aspirations. Tertiary courses for intergalactic pilots and smugglers were, sadly, few and far between. So archaeology it was, and off I headed to the Arts Faculty at the University of Melbourne where I embarked on an intoxicating adventure through the history of the ancient world led by inspirational and brilliant teachers. I lapped it up. The other half of my combined degree in Melbourne’s Law School… less so. Any interest I may have harboured in the legal world was fatally squished by torts and contracts. I lasted a year. But my passion for archaeology and the classics blossomed, only to lead to that moment of existential crisis faced by so many Arts students at graduation: study law, become a lawyer; study medicine, become a doctor; study arts, become… unemployed? With the wisdom of hindsight, and after the professional adventures I’ve had over the years, not a day goes by when I don’t give thanks for having embraced the unknown. But it did take a certain amount of blind faith. Or self-delusion, if you’d asked my father’s opinion at the time.
Once I got to thirty, it had occurred to me that the thing I loved doing more than anything else was writing. With the prospect of producing some offspring at some point, I’d put my days of excavating in Greece and Turkey to one side, and pursued a more sedentary and family-friendly career in the commercial art world, a path that would lead me into art auctions and a return to academia, where I wrote my doctoral thesis. Academic writing, with its relentlessly dispassionate tone, just about kills me. But the fact that I’d nonetheless managed to churn out 100,000 odd words was a pleasant surprise. Although I’d always harboured a secret ambition to be a novelist, the thought of such a huge undertaking had been daunting. Yet, there I was with what amounted to a book sitting on my thesis supervisor’s desk. That was it for me. Whatever else happened, and even if I never managed to find anyone interested in reading my work, I would write novels.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That history would win and the proliferation of information and communication available via new technology would mean that humankind would begin to learn from past mistakes and forge a brighter future.
I don’t believe that any more. The capacity of our collective memory seems to be about as persistent as that of a goldfish.
This is one of the most difficult questions to answer because I have an abiding passion for countless creative works. But the following are certainly things that have been with me for all of my adult life, and have inspired me as a writer.
Every couple of years I re-visit Albert Camus’ The Outsider. I first read it at the age of twelve, and it gave me a new lens through which to view the world. Each time I read it, my perspective and understanding of the human condition has evolved, so it’s like encountering it for the very first time.
The words of Homer captured in Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad have always moved me deeply, which is why I have made it so central to the story I tell in The Honourable Thief. Written almost three thousand years ago, but just as likely based on oral traditions many thousands of years older, the raw emotions of its characters are palpable and relatable. Even Homer’s gods are ribald, fickle and vindictive. It’s the same thing that drew me to archaeology – it proves to me that, notwithstanding the trappings of modern life, human beings haven’t changed much at all.
Finally, Colleen McCulloch’s First Man In Rome, which I first read at a very young age, showed me what I already suspected –history is anything but a fusty, musty subject. She offers us an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of gripping and exciting tales populated by extraordinary characters. First Man in Rome reminds me that I can put my knowledge of history to good use as the backbone of stories that I hope people will enjoy reading while also learning a little along the way. Think of it as education by stealth.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I’ve stretched my scribing skills across many, many different writing formats: art auction catalogue entries; newspaper opinion pieces; travel guides; academic articles; advertising copy; TV scripts; blogs. It’s been a bit like paint sampling – test out as many as possible before settling on the one you like the best. The closest I came to channelling my writing skills in a different direction in recent years was as an academic. But what I enjoy more than anything else is making up stories and writing things that move readers and transport them to other worlds – which is the antithesis of academic writing. So, it had to be novels, with scriptwriting as my day job. So I get to make things up all day. I guess you could say I’ve become a professional liar.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel
We meet archaeologist Benedict Hitchens in Istanbul in 1955. He’s lost everything: his job, his reputation, and the love of his life. A chance encounter with a woman on a train three years ago set in motion a chain of events that left his life and career in ruins. Hounded by the police who suspect him of antiquities smuggling and shunned by his peers, he comes to the realisation that he has been an unwitting pawn in a high-stakes game of lies and deception.
Forced to confront spectres from his past, he embarks on a perilous chase that leads him from the ancient city of Istanbul to London’s art world and the sun-drenched Greek Islands. What begins as a quest to clear his name becomes a race to find out what happened to Eris Patras, the woman he loved, and uncover an ancient prize that will change history.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Not for a minute do I underestimate or undervalue what a commitment it is to choose a book. The thought that readers will elect to spend days… or weeks… in the company of my story and characters is deeply humbling. So the thing I hope more than anything is that their vote of confidence pays off and that they enjoy the experience. But I also hope my words will transport them to places I know and love – not only Turkey and Greece, but also the curious pastime of digging around in the soil to find old stuff, and that they’ll have fun on the ride. My enduring wish is that the characters will stay with them and that readers will want to revisit their world to share more of their adventures.
Again, this is a very difficult question to answer because there’s an endless list of candidates and I have an annoyingly diverse range of tastes – high-brow and low-brow. Is there such a thing as middle-brow?
When I open the pages of a book by Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk or Umberto Eco, I relish diving into their torrent of words because I know if I surrender to their literary ministration, they’ll carry me on a wondrous voyage. For gripping page-turners, give me Stephen King, John Le Carré or Liane Moriarty. For epic sagas I never want to end: Lawrence Durrell, Tom Wolfe, Gabriel García Márquez, James Michener, Naghib Mahfouz and Leon Uris. I look to Jackie Collins, George R.R. Martin, Michael Crichton and Dan Brown for fun and engrossing holiday reading. For compelling social satire and absurdism, serve me up some Jonathan Franzen or Paul Auster.
I enjoy seeing Australia through the eyes of Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Jane Harper and Patrick White. John Julius Norwich, Giles Milton, Colleen McCulloch and Louis de Bernières bring history to life for me. And Edward Said, Naomi Klein, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Keneally, Robert Hughes and Albert Camus make me think.
See what I mean? And that’s not even scratching the surface.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I don’t know if my ambitions as a writer are overly ambitious. I want to be able to continue writing as long as I have the physical and mental capacity to do so, and hope that I continue to find readers who enjoy my work. Writing is a compulsion for me, and even if I hadn’t found a publisher, I’d still be writing. But it is much more fulfilling, for me anyway, to know that the words I put down on paper may, one day, be read by someone.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Take heed of the billboards from that glorified sneaker company, and just do it. Keep moving forward, even if you have to go back and work over it again – don’t allow yourself to become crippled by a quest for perfection or the sense that what you’ve embarked on is insurmountable. Moving forward is far preferable to standing still. Set reasonable short-term targets for yourself and strive to meet them, and have your work read by people you respect and you know will give you useful feedback. But also accept that personal taste has plenty to do with whether or not someone responds positively to your work. You can never please everybody all of the time.
Most of all, write a lot, write often, and write what you know.
Thank you for playing.
The Honourable Thief
Istanbul, Turkey 1955
Benedict Hitchens, once a world-renowned archaeologist, is now a discredited - but still rather charming - shell of his former self.
Once full of optimism and adventure, his determination to prove that Achilles was a real historical figure led him to his greatest love, Karina, on the island of Crete and to his greatest downfall, following the disappearance of an enigmatic stranger, Eris.
He has one last chance to restore his reputation, solve the mystery of Eris and prove his Achilles theory. But it is full of risk, and possibly fatal consequences...
In her breakout novel, Meaghan Wilson Anastasios weaves an action-packed tale of honour, passion, heroes and thieves across an epic backdrop of history.