Extras from ‘Alcestis’

This page contains extra bits of prose produced while I was writing Alcestis. (Just think of them as special features.)

If you have questions about anything related to the book, please feel free to come post them at the Goodreads Q&A forum for Alcestis.


Dramatis personae

Alcestis and her family

Father: Pelias
Mother: Anaxibia

Siblings, in birth order:

  1. Acastus
  2. Pisidice
  3. Pelopia
  4. Hippothoe

Stepmother: Phylomache
Phylomache’s daughters: Asteropia, Antinoe

Admetus, king of Pherae (son of city’s founder)
Admetus’ father: Pheres
Admetus’ mother: Melanira (not named in sources)


Humans who appear in the underworld:
Tyro, grandmother of Alcestis, wife of Cretheus
Tiresias, the seer


The guard and his daughter

A snippet of description from the first draft of the early chapters of the book, which were originally written in limited third omniscient. This paragraph is about one of the guards who stands by Hippothoe’s grave all night after she is buried:

[The guards] would stay awake through the night, except for one whose wife had borne a child only days earlier. The others teased him for being sleepy and for having had the ill fortune to father a girl; then, remembering their present duty, they cast nervous looks toward the fresh grave and muttered apologies to the princess and the gods. The new father lay down to sleep with his cloak rolled up beneath his head and woke cheerier than any of the other guards. At dawn, they let him pound the stone pillar into the earth to mark the grave. They began to stagger off toward their homes, some in the palace, some outside the walls. The new father lived in a hut outside the town. It took him half an hour to walk back to his home and when he opened the door, he saw his wife sitting bleary-eyed by the bed, nursing the girl child. She had lived five days, then, and seemed to be thriving. He leaned down, put a hand on the baby’s warm fragile skull, and told his wife the name he’d chosen for their daughter.


Alcestis and her father

Cut scene from an early draft of Chapter 3, in third-person: Alcestis and Pelias talking.

“You’re too old for this, girl.”

She stifled a shriek, turning to see her father sitting on his throne. “Father,” she said, still breathing fast, “I thought you were asleep.”

“So I see.” Pelias wore his tunic, but his feet were bare like her own. She wondered if he’d also left his bedchamber to have a few moments away from his new queen and his new child, and felt a rare twinge of sympathy. Grey had crept into his beard since he’d married Phylomache, first near the temples and now slowly along the edge of his jaw, age taking him over where other invaders had failed. He put a hand there now, stroking his beard idly as he thought. She waited for him to speak again.

“Asteropia’s still sleeping, then.”

She nodded.

“You shouldn’t leave her.”

“There are nine servants in the chamber next to ours,” she said. “If she wakes, they’ll hear her.”

There was a long pause, made heavy by his sigh. “Phylomache relies on you too heavily,” he said. “When the new child comes, she will move into the women’s quarters.”

“Into my chamber, you mean,” Alcestis said, heart sinking. “Father, it will be crowded there with a new baby.”

“You’ll not be there long.”

Her head snapped up at that. He was smiling, and she could see that her surprise pleased him.

“I’ve had proposals,” he said. “From Thebes and Crete, and from farmers in our lands as well. I won’t give you to a farmer, of course, unless he owns more sheep than the gods. But they are beginning to come, Alcestis. You must prepare yourself.”

“What else must I do?” She forced herself to speak louder than a whisper. “I run the house now. I will marry as you wish.”

“You will marry as I wish and look happy about it, child,” Pelias said. “I expect the man who wins you to be beholden to me. Thankful. I won’t burden any man with a sulky wife.”

“Perhaps you should’ve kept Pisidice then,” Alcestis muttered, then flinched. But Pelias only laughed, a full deep sound that startled her with its warmth. Surely Phylomache had not mellowed him so completely.

“She’ll behave herself well enough as long as Timios allows her the running of the house.”

Alcestis smiled at the floor. Pisidice had gone away with hardly a backwards look, head held high beneath her veil, but she had not been especially warm to her husband before the wedding day. Timios was a prince, not yet a king, and his father showed no signs of illness or frailty. Pisidice would have her household, for the old queen had died when Timios was Alcestis’ age, but she was not happy to be wed as a princess rather than a queen. The wedding itself had gone well enough, from what she’d overheard the messenger telling her father, but they’d all been worried for a few months. As soon as Pisidice had a child, her place would be secure. Timios didn’t look the sort to kill a wife or cast her out.

“You won’t give me that sort of trouble,” Pelias said. “You’re a good girl, for all you do look like your mother.”

“I won’t give you trouble,” she said, but spoiled it with a yawn. The half-smile on her father’s face disappeared.

“Back to your quarters, girl.” He looked away, out toward the gates and the outside world. “You cannot be seen so unclothed.”

“Yes, Father.” She ducked her head and walked back toward the kitchen. Several of the slaves had awakened and were moving slowly about the hearth, readying it for the day. They looked down as she passed and her cheeks went hot. She took the stairs at a run, her feet slapping on the steps. Pelias was right; she was too old to be wandering the palace in her shift like a child, too old to think that the men of the palace did not see her as a grown woman, ready for marriage, ready for bed.


Alcestis as a character

Questionnaire from the creative writing class in which I workshopped the first three chapters of the novel.

What is she afraid of?

Being left alone. Not getting a husband. Not keeping a husband. Her husband being overthrown or killed, leaving her at the mercy of a rival king. Being upstaged by a concubine or a boy. Being a bad wife. Not producing sons. Being terribly, terribly bored for the rest of her life. Being like Pisidice or Phylomache; bitter or pliant. She is afraid of being taken by a god, afraid that a god could make her want him even if she didn’t. (Doesn’t occur to her to be afraid of a goddess.) When she’s young, she’s afraid of Hippothoe dying. Later this translates to a fear of anyone she knows dying in the middle of the night. Before her marriage, she is afraid of the touch of men, because she’s been taught to keep her body to herself – inviolate, like a statue or a goddess. She can abandon this easily only when she has no real body.

She is afraid of drowning. She doesn’t know how to swim.

She is very afraid of her father’s anger and disapproval.

She is not afraid of dying, of seeing gods, or of quiet.

Is she passive or aggressive?

She is trained to be passive; she is more aggressive than she should be, but by modern standards, still very passive. In the underworld this changes. The things that make her passive are societal strictures – they are hard to unlearn, but she can. Shame is what makes these habits difficult to break, and there’s no shame in the underworld.

What would cause her to lose her temper?

She would lose her temper with her sisters, with Phylomache’s children, or with slaves or servants, not with men. Maybe with Pelopia, but carefully. Frustration would make her angry, frustration and impatience. She doesn’t have time for Phylomache’s simpering and she gets tired of chasing the children around. She snaps at Pisidice because Pisidice snaps at her, and because she would rather have Pisidice close, but Pisidice will never allow it.

What is her dark side?

She loves death. She is not close to people; this hurts her sometimes, and she wants connection, but she’s never given it – she’s kept from it, and eventually she isolates herself, too.

What is her soft side?

She sometimes feels tender toward the people who irritate her most: Phylomache, Pisidice, Admetus. In moments, she thinks of the slaves as people, sees their individual natures. She has more sympathy for animals than most of her people. She is sensual, touch-hungry. She loves Hippothoe very much. She forgives Admetus.

Does she have any physical tics, verbal tics, any words she repeats; gestures she repeats?

She doesn’t regularly swear by the gods’ names, for they are her grandparents and great-aunts and –uncles and all that. She doesn’t have much chance to talk in public. In private she’s sometimes too crisp with women; to a modern reader she’ll seem too deferential to men. She likes to slip into rougher speech to shock Pisidice and Phylomache. The only way she can shock is with her tongue, because any shock based on action would have terrible consequences.

What is in her pocket or purse?

She doesn’t have pockets or a purse. She doesn’t carry things, because she has slaves to do it for her. The exception to this is her spindle and distaff set. She carries the children. She tucks a rag into her skirt waist to wipe their noses and clean their faces. Later she carries tiny bundles of herbs or little figures.

Make a list of the 12 most significant events in her life starting with birth and ending at the present moment [which, in this case, was the moment Alcestis entered the underworld].

  1. Birth
  2. Mother’s death
  3. Hippothoe’s death
  4. Father’s marriage
  5. Pelopia’s accident
  6. Pisidice’s departure
  7. Menarche
  8. Births of Phylomache’s children
  9. Admetus’ arrival
  10. Admetus’ return
  11. Marriage
  12. Death


Books that inspired Alcestis (directly or indirectly)

Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
Euripides, Alcestis
Kenneth Rexroth, transl. of Narihira
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Alkestis,” transl. Stephen Mitchell
Sheri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country
Connie Willis, Passage and Doomsday Book
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead


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