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Neil Foster Macphail

The mighty bear-like monster-slayer Beowulf, and Jason, captain of The Argo, a strange ship crewed by heroes with god-like powers; this book contains punchy, blood-drenched tales of both, as well as some additional odd tales about princesses, buckets, giant carnivorous books and the nefarious queens who feed them.

Neil Foster MacPhail, famous modernizer of ancient epic tales, has done it again. Thrill to adventures featuring bronze giants, dragons breathing fire, foul monsters lodged in watery lairs deep under the sea, seductive witches transforming men into pigs, and feces-flinging, foul-mouthed harpies. It’s all here.

Listen to the Beowulf audiobook for free here!


Transcript of Valley Talk Interview on YourTV Pembroke

Trent Roberts: Good morning and welcome to Valley Talk. Today, we have a very special guest with us, local author Neil Foster Macphail. Neil, thank you for getting up so early and joining us in the studio today!

Neil Foster Macphail: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here in Pembroke!

Trent Roberts: Let me start by saying that I really enjoy your work. I picked up a couple of copies for my own kids. They’re 13 and 15 years old. They talk about the characters and stories in your books all the time.

Neil Foster Macphail: Well, thank you! Glad to hear it.

Trent Roberts: For listeners who aren’t familiar with your work, could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into writing? You’re a local guy, right?

Neil Foster Macphail: That’s right! I grew up in the 1960s in Osgoode, Ontario, which is a small community with a rich history. I was always drawn to storytelling from a young age, whether it was reading books or creating my own adventures in my mind. I read all of the Roger Lancelyn Green mythology books, and even my parents’ Compton’s Encyclopedias, for anything about myths, folklore and fables.You know? Icelandic sagas. That kind of thing.

Trent Roberts: Wow! Reading encyclopedias!

Neil Foster Macphail: Yup! I was cool like that. I’d do that on my summer holidays. (laughs) As I grew older, my love for folklore and legend deepened, and I realized that I wanted to share these stories with others.

Trent Roberts: That's wonderful. What inspired you to write books specifically targeted at teens and young adults?

Neil Foster Macphail: Well, I believe that young readers are a really exciting audience to reach.  They’re not exactly blank slates, but so many things are just plain new to them. And they're growing up so detached from their own culture. I had kids of my own, and I realized that if I didn’t do something, their whole frame of reference was going to be, no offense, stuff being systematically bought up by the Walt Disney Corporation. I wanted to create stories that would ignite their imaginations and transport them to different worlds. I remember being a teenager myself and how certain books influenced and shaped me. Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and even the novelizations of Star Trek and Star Wars by James Blish and Alan Dean Foster.  The Target Doctor Who books as well, actually. The Conan and Tarzan books, with those great painted covers by Neal Adams. And I wanted to see if I could give that same experience to adolescents today.

Trent Roberts: Fantastic.

Neil Foster Macphail: And part of what I realized is that attention spans aren’t what they used to be. So, one thing I knew might work, was kind of writing scene by scene, with the reading experience broken up into bite-sized chunks. Not needing to read fifteen or twenty pages before there was some kind of payoff, before something happened. Modern kids complain when stories don’t have what they call “action.”

Trent Roberts: And by action, they usually mean…

Neil Foster Macphail: Killing. If you want a modern, video-game playing, Disney+ watching teen to feel that the story you’ve given them fits with what they think of as a story, you can’t keep them waiting too long before there’s blood.  And many of these ancient stories? Wall to wall blood and gore. But if a teen has to wade through 25 or 30 pages before any of that happens, especially with adolescent reading speeds being what they often are, how much harder they have to work to take in what we would have read much more casually at their age, they're just never going to make it to the "good parts."

Trent Roberts: Wow. I see. So, you’re talking about your book adaptations of Jason and the Argonauts and Beowulf?  Maybe you could share what motivated you to tackle these classic tales?

Neil Foster Macphail: Absolutely. The classics have always fascinated me, and I wanted to make them easier to get at for modern young readers. Often, these stories can be quite dense and challenging for young readers to engage with fully. The language can be a bit off-putting. Many words have actually changed in their meaning and connotation since many of these translations or adaptations were made. So, I decided to adapt them my own way and see what happened.

Trent Roberts: Looks like that worked out pretty well!

Neil Foster Macphail: I like to think so.

[commercial for Joe’s Family Pizza in Pembroke]

Trent Roberts: So, what drew you specifically to the stories you’ve tackled so far? The Greek and Anglosaxon mythology.

Neil Foster Macphail: Well, "Jason and the Argonauts" is a timeless story of heroism and adventure at sea, filled with demigods, mythical creatures and epic quests. By streamlining the narrative, dividing into bite-sized scenes with a clear goal being pursued in each, I aimed to capture the excitement and essence of the original story while making it easier for readers to stick with for longer. Nothing against the Percy Jackson books, but I’ve never wanted to rip the cool, ancient stuff right out of where it naturally lives, and try to transplant it into modern day America or anything like that. Beowulf in 2022 in the suburbs? Hercules does the laundry? Odysseus goes to high school and tries to meet girls? No thank you!

Trent Roberts: I see!

Neil Foster Macphail: I mean, that’s fine if you’re into that, but for me, old stories are a chance for me to travel in my imagination to way back then, not to pull that try to drag that old stuff kicking and screaming into our, frankly often pretty tedious and artificial, modern world.
Like the Greek tales, "Beowulf" is an epic poem, this time an Anglo Saxon one, that tells the tale of a legendary hero. Monsters in the night. Swords that mysteriously don’t work. Throwing one’s self into the mucky swamp, getting dragged down and trusting that one can emerge from that victorious. I wanted to take this ancient work, a story we’re lucky we even still have, after it sat unknown for centuries, and burn it into the memories of young people. I didn’t want to turn that into a small town kid angering his high school bully’s mother or something like that.

Trent Roberts: Ha ha! I think it’s great what you’re doing, Neil. Can you talk about the process of adapting these stories? How do you strike a balance between preserving the original essence and making it click with a modern audience?

Neil Foster Macphail: Adapting classic tales can be a delicate task. The key is to distill the essence of the original story while streamlining the narrative to make it follow more of the rules of modern story structure. So I focus on maintaining the core themes and characters while simplifying the language and structure.
The original stories do, maybe, 98% of the work for me? Then I repackage them up for modern consumption. While the language might be updated and the narrative slightly simplified, I ensure that the heart of the story remains intact. It's important to honor the source material. Without doing that, what’s the point? Write your own new stories, if you’re going to change important stuff, I think.

Trent Roberts: That sounds like a thoughtful approach. How have your adaptations been received by your target audience so far?

Neil Foster Macphail: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m really very lucky. I've received feedback from teenagers, classroom teachers and parents alike, expressing gratitude for making these classic tales accessible and enjoyable. Some kids are even reading them for class. It's rewarding to know that my adaptations have sparked an interest in these stories among young readers who may not have otherwise engaged with them.

Trent Roberts: That's fantastic to hear. Finally, what can we expect from you in the future?

Neil Foster Macphail: Well, as you know, I was born in a different century entirely, and I’m trying to learn to navigate my way around social media and podcast and so on. I’m tackling this relatively late in life, and I have a lot to learn!

Trent Roberts: I’m right with you there. Are you on TicTok yet?

Neil Foster Macphail: Not TicTok. I have started an Instagram account and my media manager has started a Facebook group for people reading my stuff and wanting to talk about it. Right now I’m working with a local guy who’s going to make an audiobook of the Jason and Beowulf stuff to put on Spotify and wherever else all of that stuff lives!

Trent Roberts: Exciting stuff. Looking forward to seeing that. Well, thank you so much for getting up so early and coming on our show!

Neil Foster Macphail: My pleasure.