Today I'm so excited to have Stephanie Dray, author of the amazing new historical fiction book Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter in for an interview at A Myriad of Books. Welcome, Stephanie, and thanks so much for stopping by!
Normal: Stephanie Dray)
--Could you please tell us a little about your novel, Lily of the Nile?
Lily of the Nile is based on the true life story of Cleopatra's daughter, who was orphaned at the age of ten when her famous parents committed suicide, captured by the Romans, and marched through the streets in chains. But Rome's first emperor spared her life, and forced her to live as a hostage in the midst of his dysfunctional family. It was in the midst of this dangerous court of intrigue that Cleopatra Selene so impressed the emperor that he would go on to make her the most powerful queen in his empire.
-- You've written paranormal romances as Stephanie Draven in the past-- what made you decide to write historical fiction? And why Cleopatra Selene?
I've always loved history but I was inspired to write about Selene for three reasons. The first is that her contributions to the Pax Romana and religious history are overlooked by historians. The second reason is that, like me, Selene comes from a long line of strong-willed women. And the third reason is that she moved me. This is a little girl who lost both her parents and all her family; she was the last Princess of Egypt, the last Ptolemaic Queen. To curry favor with the emperor, she had to hide her feelings for much of her life, but she seems never to have forgotten Egypt or those she loved. The relics recovered from her reign show that she was a woman struggling to preserve her illustrious dynasty, all while forging a life in a new nation. She forgot nothing, and I don't want us to forget her.
-- In Lily of the Nile, magic comes to Selene as a powerful and mystic force, as well as messages from Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess. What made you decide to have magic as a very real part of your novel? Did your experience writing the paranormal help inspire you to make your historical debut a fantasy as well?
For ancient peoples, magic was real. It was a part of their every day life, and explained what the scholars could not. The Egyptians embraced magic, but the Romans feared it; they were forever banishing fortune tellers and witches from the forum. It was this clash of cultures that helped me frame the ongoing conversation in the book between Cleopatra and Rome, between East and West.
--Do you think you've found a new home in historical fic for the future, or will you continue to write in different genres wherever inspiration strikes?
I would like to continue writing historical fiction, if possible. I still have the third book about Cleopatra Selene's life to complete, and then I'm considering a novel about Dido of the Carthaginians or Olympias of Macedonia. There are so many ancient women whose lives I'd love to tackle!
-- How long did it take you to write Lily of the Nile? What would you say your greatest challenge was in writing it?
It took me at least three years to complete it and that's before all the years of editing, polishing and submitting. The biggest challenge is that most of the evidence of Selene's reign has been lost, or is in foreign languages.
-- Have you ever visited Egypt or Rome?
I visited Rome when I was eleven years old--the same age that Selene was when she first arrived there--and I have very vivid memories of the olive trees and the old stonework and iron gates. It's a beautiful, special place. The center of Western Civilization. I've wanted to visit Egypt for a very long time, and perhaps in the next year I'll have the opportunity!
-- Do ever you indulge in other books, TV series, movies, etc about Ancient Rome, Egypt, and the Age of Augustus? (Me, I love the HBO series Rome and Michelle Moran's Egyptian books.)
Are you kidding? All the time! HBO's Rome was one of my all-time favorites, in spite of what they did with Cleopatra. I just finished watching the movie Agora, which was excellent. And I recently finished reading Michelle Moran's Nefertiti, which I adored. I'm a sponge for all things ancient. If it has a gladius in it, I'm likely to watch it!
-- Fact and fiction are a long way from being the same thing. How were you able to use 'gray areas' in what we know about this time in history to make the story exciting and give the characters unique personalities?
One of the most significant mysteries about Selene's life is why the emperor placed so much trust in her and why she was able to get away with a number of provocative acts as Queen of Mauretania--things that would have resulted in severe consequences for other monarchs. She minted coins on her own as an effective co-regent with her husband, Juba. And some of her coins implied that her mother had been a goddess, that Egypt was or should be unchained, and that Isis should be celebrated--all things that Augustus disapproved of. That she seems never to have suffered the slightest censure for this suggests that Selene had an extraordinary relationship with Augustus. The question is, what kind of relationship? That's the area in which a historian must tread very lightly but a historical fiction writer can really flourish.
Once I embraced the idea of an emperor who transferred his obsession with the woman who was his enemy onto her young daughter, a number of ancient mysteries seemed to solve themselves quite neatly, so I went with it!
-- One of my favorite characters, besides our narrator Selene, was her twin brother Alexander Helios. I'd never read much about him before in history, and loved how he came to life in Lily of the Nile as a fiery, indomitable character reminiscent of his namesake, a sun god. Which of the characters was your favorite to write and which one would you say was the most difficult to write?
I'm so excited that you liked Alexander Helios. I wanted him to be an effective counter-balance to Selene--and also, to show a little of the brilliance and good-nature of his father, Mark Antony, which is often ignored. I fell in love with Helios, in spite of the fact that he was such a troublemaker, and I hope readers will too. But when it came to my favorite character to write, that would have to have been Augustus. He was a ruthless but complicated man, and imagining all those virtues and depravity all wrapped up in the same man led me to delight in every scene in which he was the delicious villain. The most difficult character to write was Philadelphus, Selene's youngest brother, because a character who has glimpses of the future is ultimately so otherworldly that I felt myself shying away.
-- Selene's story is one of a young woman who gains power in a time where women had little power. What else do you most want readers to 'come away with', having read your book?
I want people to realize that in some respects, ancient women had advanced further than women today. The progress of women's equality isn't a straight line. There have been setbacks in the past, and there may be again in the future. Just a few days ago, legislators in my own state went on record to say that women with children shouldn't be in the workplace...it was as if they were channelling Augustus, two-thousand years later. So, we need to remain vigilant and determined to honor the legacy of Cleopatra and her daughter.
-- Can you reveal a little about Song of the Nile-- the sequel? Is there an official 2011 release date yet? (I can't wait!)
I don't have an official release date beyond Autumn 2011, but I would love to tell you a little bit about it. Whereas Selene was a young and helpless girl in Lily of the Nile, she's now come into her own. Song of the Nile covers the mysterious years of Selene's life between the time she is believed to have married King Juba II of Numidia and when she was officially recognized as a co-ruler and Queen of Mauretania on the coinage of the realm. This was a crucial time of transition both for Selene as the young bride of a man who intended to rule in her name and for Rome as it endured the last dying gasps of the Republic.
As a nominal member of the imperial family, it's possible that Selene spent all those years in Rome, in the home of Octavia--certainly, she would have visited, if only to appease Augustus. But given the way that the new capital of Mauretania was transformed into a miniature version of Alexandria, I suspect that she was there--in her new kingdom--helping Juba to make peace with the tribesmen and build a new nation state. It can't have been easy for her to assert power as a young woman, but she seems to have made her influence felt, and some argue that during her lifetime, she overshadowed Juba entirely.
The single most interesting thing we know about Selene is that she would go on to have a son named Ptolemy. Now, in the ancient world, you would never name your child after the mother's side of the family in this manner, which leaves many questions open. Song of the Nile attempts to address them.
I thought I'd share a little snippet:
(from Song of the Nile)
My wedding day dawned rosy as the blush on a maiden’s cheek. I watched the sun peek between pink clouds, and knew that I must also shine for Rome. It was early yet in the emperor’s household; only the slaves were awake, bustling about the courtyard, trimming shrubbery and hanging lanterns for the evening festivities to come, too busy—or to wary of me—to acknowledge my presence where I stood beneath the overripe fig tree. Pulling myself up into the seat of its branches, I leaned back so that the cool bark was against my neck, then peered over the wall to survey Rome’s seven hills. All the vainglorious villas and middling monuments stretched to the Tiber River beyond, the pink diamonds of dawn sparkling on its surface. And as morning broke over the sprawling city of terra cotta tiled roofs, I tried to see this day with my mother’s eyes.
She was Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt, a woman of limitless aspiration. And I was her only daughter. She had wanted a royal marriage for me. She may have even hoped my wedding would be celebrated here in Rome. But could she have conceived that this wedding would come to me through her bitterest enemy? In her wildest dreams, could she have imagined that the same man who drove her to suicide—the same man who took me and my brothers prisoner and dragged us behind his Triumpher’s chariot just four years ago—would now make me a queen?
Yes, I thought. She could have imagined it. Perhaps she had even planned it.
Around my neck I wore a jade frog amulet, a gift from my mother, inscribed with the words I am the Resurrection. On my finger, I wore her notorious amethyst ring, with which she was said to have ensorcelled my father, Mark Antony. It was now my betrothal ring, and I hoped it would strengthen my resolve. I didn’t have my mother’s audacity nor the brazen courage that allowed her to so famously deliver herself to Julius Caesar wrapped in bed linens. I didn’t inherit her knowledge of heka, of magic. Neither did I have her wardrobe, her gilded barges, nor the wealth and might of Egypt. Not yet. But I had her charm and wits, the Romans often said. And the day she died, she gave me the spirit of her Egyptian soul.
Today, I would need it.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Stephanie!