Kendra Preston Leonard’s creative works run the gamut. From opera libretti to poetry to lyrics, the musicologist skillfully combines her background in music theory and her research into women and music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her latest work, a novella in verse entitled Protectress, reimagines the classical tale of Medusa and her Gorgon sisters in a modern world where Medusa is now a humanities professor and guardian of women, and Athena is a “slut-shaming bitch.” Leonard uses their story to explore rape culture and the concept of the “heroic.” A starred Kirkus review says, “This book urges women to care for one another and reconsider the ways their perceptions of female identity are shaped.” Leonard answered our questions by email; the exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Several of your works have been inspired by, or are retellings of, classic stories. In addition to Protectress, there’s the poem “Re-Writing King Lear in a time of Pandemic” and the song “Gilgamesh Weeps,” just to name a few. What first drew you to the classics and inspired you to bring these works into the present day?

When I was little, I had a children’s encyclopedia, and I loved the Myths and Legends volume. Now I realize how incomplete it was, but the stories and characters stuck with me—I was Medusa for Halloween when I was 6. It was the same with Shakespeare and other writers. My dad gave me Macbeth to read when I was about 8, telling me, “You’ll like it: It’s got witches in it.” My family was what my mom called “omnivorous, indiscriminate readers.”

What is it about Medusa’s story and her sisterhood that continues to resonate with readers today?

Medusa is a priestess of Athena when she is raped by a god, and Athena, instead of defending or healing her or helping her find justice, blames Medusa for her rape, curses her, and sends Perseus to kill her. This is the same victim-blaming and victim-shaming that occur in today’s rape culture. It’s hard to fight alone, which is why the Gorgons gather their allies—sisters literal and metaphorical—together to address it.

Protectress is about relationships between women, so it was important for Stheno and Euryale [Medusa’s sisters] to be complete and distinct characters from the beginning. I push back against society’s desire for women to be rivals and jealous of one another. The relationships in Protectress show what’s possible when we’re guided by compassion and sympathy and raising each other up.

Do you go into writing with a concrete plan on how to get from point A to B, or do you start with a vague concept you flesh out and discover as you go?

I begin with research and then I start to put ideas together, often letting my subconscious work on things in the background. As I write, I’m often thinking of a specific motif or idea, and I love finding just the right words as I go. Often poems and lyrics just come out, whole and complete.

You’re in the process of adapting Protectress into a full opera. Please tell us more.

Adapting itinto an opera libretto means saying goodbye to some of my favorite lines in the book, but that’s OK, because what I change and add has its own beauty and power. Excerpts from the first act have already been performed in New York, and composer Jessica Rudman and I are looking for an opera company interested in producing the premiere.

How did the collaboration with Rudman begin? What about her style or experience makes her the best partner for this piece?

Jessica and I have worked together a lot, and she was interested in adapting Protectress as an opera before the book was even finished. She and I work together really well, in part because we have a large body of shared knowledge and interests. Jessica sets my words with care and panache and crafts music that perfectly expresses what’s happening in each scene.

What can you tell us about the benefits and challenges you’ve found in indie publishing?

Protectress is published by Unsolicited Press, which is a nonprofit, volunteer-run press based in Portland, Oregon. Protectress is unusual in that it’s a novella in verse and can be classified as several different genres, so I sought out potential publishers who were willing to take risks and published nontraditional writing. Unsolicited’s editors and production staff have been great.

McKenzi Thi Murphy is an editorial intern