Catherine Schaff-Stump runs Kirkwood Community College’s English Language Acquisition program, which gives her a special affinity for the cultural clashes that often happen with those who feel like a fish out of water.
Cedar rapids writer Catherine Schaff-Stump, a professor of English at Kirkwood Community College, has written her first novel for juvenile readers, Hulk Hercules, Professional Wrestler. The book adapts Greek mythology to a modern-day audience, using the tale-within-a-tale approach familiar to fans of The Princess Bride—the grandparent from the old country tells a story, with the modern kid interrupting to comment or clarify.
An avid fan of speculative fiction, Catherine has read a lot of comic books, studied the classic fantasists (Tolkien, Lewis, and Peake), and looked extensively at fan pop culture (Japanese anime, comic conventions and cos-play), as well as studied folklore, legend, and myth. She has led an international studies expedition to Japan, and traveled to Russia, England, and her mother’s native Scotland.
LaDawn Edwards: Why are the ancient Greek myths still so popular today?
Catherine Schaff-Stump: People identify with the Greek gods. They’re like us, only more so. They have the same passions, the same courage, and the same moods. While they can be petty and brutal, they can also love to a great emotional depth. They’re like human beings, only on steroids.
How do you make stories that are traditionally filled with lust, revenge, and violence appropriate to 6th to 8th graders?
I focused on the heroic aspects of Hercules. He’s a hero that kids can identify with. He’s strong, he wants to help others, and he does a lot of good. I also mention that Hercules regrets some of the things he’s done in the past, and he’s trying to make up for them now. But, I don’t sidestep the less savory issues. Hera still wants revenge on Hercules. Zeus is still interested in women. Kids are familiar with these issues.
How do you get inside the head of a personality as nefarious as Hera, Queen of the Gods?
Everything that I’ve read about Hera has told me two things: she loves Zeus, and she blames every affair Zeus ever has on the women he has seduced.
That’s very messed up, but from her perspective, what she’s doing seems just. By punishing the women Zeus has seen and the children Zeus has had out of marriage, she thinks she’s punishing Zeus. She’s also defending the sacred institution of marriage.
No Greek myth would be complete without some sort of love triangle. What inspired this one?
I don’t want to spoil the story for readers, but I always thought that there was a bit of unfinished business in the labor involving the Amazons, so I wanted to see how that played out. As for Diana, well, Hercules and Diana have a lot in common—they both like animals, and they’re both great athletes. It makes sense that they might be drawn to one another.
How did you come up with the “Where Are They Now” reports for the gods and goddesses?
There’s a real Internet site that is the God of the Month Club. Each month, they highlight a different mythological god, and then they archive the god profiles.
What was it like to research the culture of professional wrestling?
It was awesome. There’s a regional wrestling association in Chicago—Windy City Pro Wrestling. I called Sam DeCera, their manager, and he set me up. I went out and saw their matches, interviewed one of the wrestling good guys, one of the bad guys, and DeCera himself about his career. The wrestlers are very much showmen and acrobats. I came away with a great deal of respect for them. They were friendly, accessible, and I learned that wrestling is a very family-friendly sport.
An example of that? While I was there, one of the audience members said a cuss word. There was a party of boys there—about the age of my character Tony and his friends—and DeCera reminded the gentleman that the show was family friendly, and he would be escorted off the premises if he had trouble with that.
What other research was necessary to give this book an authentic feel?
I was lucky to have a friend who is a native of Chicago, and happy to set me up with a base for research. I looked around the neighborhood of Little Italy and the downtown area. I read up on zoos and zookeeping. And, of course, I had to hang out with kids and remember what recess was like.
The sibling relationship between your young protagonists Tony and Bianca seems quite believable. Is it based on your own family experience?
I did have two brothers, and Tony is a little bit like my younger brother Ken. I used to teach junior high, and I can tell you that both Tony and Bianca have been in my classrooms at one time or another.
With the release of the movie Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, there seems to be an upsurge of interest in making the ancient myths relevant to modern audiences. How did this affect your writing process?
Actually, this book is in the hands of four movie studios right now, and I probably have Percy Jackson to thank for that. My goal was to retell this story in a way to make it interesting to modern kids, but I stayed pretty faithful to the twelve labors. Readers discover the mythology as the kids in the book do.
Why did you separate the kids from their parents for the time period of this adventure?
I wanted their grandmother Nonna to be in the book, and I wanted the kids to be close to Uncle Leo. Nonna is a great storyteller, and she knows everything about mythology. It was a lot easier for the kids to get into the adventure without their parents looking over their shoulders.
Tell me about your updated Twelve Labors of Hercules. A hamburger eating contest? Really?
The Cattle of Geryon story would be weird in a modern context. What is a guy in Chicago going to do with a herd of sacred cattle? On the other hand, hamburgers? There’s this awesome burger place outside of Milwaukee that inspired Leo’s favorite restaurant, and I have to tell you, their hamburgers really come from sacred cattle.
Do you have any writing rituals that help you meet your deadlines?
I think that the best thing a writer can do is to try to make a daily quota. That can be hard sometimes, especially if you’re busy, or you’re having a creative lull. I try to block out my writing time and keep to it faithfully. The other thing that helps me is to have readers who can tell me if I’m on the right track.