An Interview with Adrienne Mayor (Regular Contributor)
Wonders & Marvels: Can you remember one of the first historical figures that captured your imagination?
Adrienne Mayor: As a girl in South Dakota I was enchanted by a book with a zebra stripe cover called “I Married Adventure” by Osa Johnson, published in 1940. Originally from Kansas, Osa and her husband Martin were adventurers, naturalists, and documentary film pioneers who explored exotic, faraway Africa, the South Pacific, and Borneo in 1917-37. They flew amphibious biplanes; lived in tents; befriended head hunters, cannibals, and pygmies; and encountered dangerous wild animals–with their primitive Eastman-Kodak movie cameras whirring all the while. They produced the first aerial films and talkies ever made in Africa. I read Osa’s memoirs countless times, day dreaming and poring over the sepia photos.
The first historical figure from classical antiquity to capture my attention was also a historian. My favorite ancient writer is still Herodotus, the insatiably curious Greek from Persian Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey) who traveled to exotic lands, interviewing “barbarians” about their history and customs, and captivated the Athenians of the fifth century BC with his stories.
W&M: When did you decide to become a historian? When did you begin to feel like a historian?
Adrienne Mayor: It was my obsession with the fabulous gold-guarding Griffin of Greek lore that turned me into a historian. As I tracked this unknown creature, untangling threads and recovering and analyzing evidence long buried in ancient Greek and Roman art and literature and Scythian artifacts and traditions and integrating all this with modern paleontological discoveries of dinosaur skeletons in Central Asia, I really became a historian of human curiosity.
W&M: Can you describe the process of finding and researching your first book topic? How did that compare to doing The Amazons?
I began gathering material for my first book, “The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times” (2000) on my first trip to Greece in 1978 and began the organized research in 1990s, while I was working as a freelance copyeditor. This was long before email and the Internet, Google Scholar searches, and JSTOR had not yet been invented. And I lived in Montana then, far from university libraries. So I haunted museums and library stacks in every city I visited, made myriad interlibrary loan requests, and mailed typewritten letters to paleontologists and other scholars, waiting months for their replies to my queries. Needless to say, researching and writing The Amazons was a totally different experience, with so much far-ranging, international art and written sources available online.
W&M: What is the best or worst advice you’ve ever gotten as a writer?
Adrienne Mayor: One piece of advice was something I resisted at first: Make an outline. I considered outlines boring but once I learned that they can be continually revised I was sold. The old cliché is the advice to “write what you know.” Instead I would say: first chose a topic that you yourself want to learn more about, delve deeply into that subject, and then write what you know. That way your passion to discover and convey something new will shine through.
Adrienne Mayor is the author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014). Her biography of Mithradates VI of Pontus, The Poison King (2009) was a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award. Her other books are The First Fossil Hunters, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, and Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.