A few months ago, my local bookstore, Little Shop of Stories, hosted a book launch party for local author Vicky Alvear Shecter. I had not read her previous two books, but after reading the title, Cleopatra’s Moon, I decided that I very much needed this book. I have always had a fascination with Ancient Egypt, so this book was right up my alley. Throw in the fact that there was a man dressed as a centurion at the book signing and I was sold.
Vicky has been wonderful enough to be our FIRST author interview here at Rampant Reads and takes some time to talk to us about her book and humor me with some of my more random questions. Please note THERE ARE SOME MINOR SPOILERS BELOW.
Now, without further ado…
1. Let me start by saying that I really loved the book. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read every book I could find about Egypt and your book really sparked that interest in me again. Was the book as enjoyable to write or was it more of a challenge?
Thanks, Erin! I also loved ancient Egypt as a kid and I’m glad the novel reminded you of that spark of fascination. I guess the truth is, I never outgrew it! In terms of writing the book–it was both enjoyable and challenging, depending on the section. Or the chapter. Or the sentence. Or the word–well, you get the idea.
2. With any historical fiction novel there is so much research that has to happen. As far as I can tell, there is very limited information about the actual Cleopatra Selene. What kind of challenges did this present? How did you do most of your research?
I did a tremendous amount of research for the biography, Cleopatra Rules! —which gave me a lot of insight into Selene’s times and family life. That was the launch point. Since there was hardly anything on Selene herself, I had to research the period after Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s deaths. Every scene I wrote needed to have been possible at the time, which meant I also researched the period of Octavianus‘s ascent/takeover of Rome. I also read works about Livia and Julia to get a sense of what life in her new home was like. I read Roman poetry and as much as I could about the cult of Isis in Rome as well.
3. Were there any really fun and interesting things that you learned while doing your research that did not make it into the book? What is the weirdest thing you found in your studies?
Oh, what a great question! I don’t really know how to answer it because there is A LOT that didn’t make it into the book. I had to cut a lot of the detail on mummification, for example, because even though I found it fascinating, it didn’t move the story forward. I tried to slip in certain facts that my intrepid editor always caught–for example, in the scene where Selene and her brothers dock in the Roman port city of Ostia, she is sickened by the smell of rotting fish intestines and innards in the giant vats the Romans used to make a sauce called garumm. I had Selene wonder–in a flash moment as she pictures the fish intestines–if her mother’s body would have been emptied in a similar way. But my editor thought it was just too gross and unlikely that she would think that. She was probably right. If people want to know the finer points of mummification, there are plenty of books on that!
In terms of weird things I discovered, I actually don’t even know where to begin. Mark Antony, for example, had a pet human dwarf that partied with him. Cleopatra did indeed sign her documents with the royal decree, “Genestho” (Make it happen). One of the coolest details I came across was that the Egyptians believed that you could invoke Anubis to curse your enemy with the blood of a black dog. Thankfully, I was able to work that detail into the story.
4. You’ve written two other books, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen and Alexander the Great Rocks the World, both non-fiction. What was it like shifting gears to write a YA fiction book? Does your writing process change?
It was a big change to jump from nonfiction to fiction. With nonfiction, I was constantly stopping to check my sources and facts. With fiction, the focus was on the emotions of the characters, rather than just on what they did or what happened, so I had to look it everything differently. I guess the best way to describe it is that with fiction, I needed to be sure everything “felt” right, whereas with nonfiction, I needed to be sure everything was right (in terms of the facts or most accepted interpretations of the facts).
5. It’s no secret that Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony die, but there was still this part of me that, while I was reading the book, really wanted them to make it this time. Is there a part of you that wanted to give them that second chance, just to see what could have been? Do you think they could have held off Rome? Are there other historical elements in the story that you would change if you could?
Oh, I love that you felt that way! And yes, I would have loved to have given them a second chance to see how it might have turned out. But here’s the thing–I have WAY more faith in Cleopatra as a ruler than Antony. So, even if she had succeeded, she would have been seriously hampered by the misogyny of the times. Antony was probably too much of a partier to imagine that he could have stabilized things as well as Octavianus had. So, in terms of stopping the endless civil wars and stabilizing the west, it appears the right man won.
6. Because there is so little known about Cleopatra Selene, you had the opportunity to fill in the blanks of her life. What element of her life, that you made up, would you most like to be true?
I can’t say without giving away the ending! 😉
7. What is it like having to kill one of your characters? I get very attached to various characters in books I read and I get upset when they die & sometimes think I would have saved them if I was the writer. When you are working with historical figures you only have so much say in who lives and dies and that has to be difficult as a writer. I mean come on… you couldn’t have wanted to kill little Ptolemy. I loved him! How do you go about writing death and grief then?
I know! I didn’t want any of the characters to die! BUT, most scholars believe that Selene’s brothers did die young because they are never heard from again in history. Even if–as one historian wonders–the brothers went with Selene to North Africa, somebody would have mentioned it! Also, I don’t think for a second that Octavian would have allowed the sons of Mark Antony to grow into adulthood and possibly challenge him. That said, I struggled mightily with writing the scene. I went months trying to avoid it. I guess I must have grumbled about it a lot because at dinner one night, I sighed and said something about poor Ptolly and my whole family turned to me and–as one–said, “Oh would you KILL him already?!”
But that’s the thing–grief is universal and timeless.
8. There are a lot of characters in the book and you (thankfully!) include a character list at the beginning to help out us poor readers. I know that there were many historical figures (like some of Antony’s sons) that were there and existed, but didn’t make it onto the page. How did you decide who to keep and who to leave out of the story?
I had originally written Antony’s eldest son–Antyllus, who was Caesarion’s age–into the story. But he was murdered too–he was 17 when he was beheaded as he begged for his life at the temple of Julius Caesar in Alexandria. So poor Cleopatra Selene grieved for even more people than we knew. Plus there was another son of Antony that was being brought up in the same compound. But as it was, there were so many characters, I had to sacrifice them because they didn’t really add much to the story and would have only overwhelmed the reader with yet even more children to keep track of.
In another example, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios also had many tutors but again, it was simpler to just mention one–Euphronius. The actual history is pretty complex so whenever I had the opportunity to simplify things, I took it!
9. I’m really interested in the Priestesses of Isis in the book (partially because my cat is named Isis). How much is actually known about Egyptian rituals? How much of it did you make up?
We know relatively little about Isis rituals. The only sources we have for them during this period come from Romans. One writer in particular–Apeulius–wrote a famous novel that had a character “saved” by Isis. He doesn’t give us the details of his initiation rites because they were sacred and secret. However, most of the sources I read indicated that it probably had some element of being reborn again so I just went with that.
10. Did Cleopatra Selene ever get to see Egypt again? Everything that happened to her in the story was so tragic, that I hold out hope that once she was a ruler in her own right that she was able to see her home at least one more time.
Sadly, we don’t know! However, my guess would be that Octavian never let her go anywhere near Egypt in case–just by her mere presence–the people revolted in favor of her. Octavian actually turned Egypt into his personal property and he treated it as such. No Roman could enter Egypt without his personal approval and permission. He knew (better than most!) that whomever controlled Egypt controlled Rome, so my guess is that he kept her away.
11. Couldn’t you have just let Cleopatra Selene kill Octavianus?! I wanted to stab him with a fork. Speaking of Octavianus… Why do you think he felt so threatened by Cleopatra VII that he needed to continue his smear campaign about her even after she had been dead for years? Was he so cowardly or was she that amazing? Why were Romans so quick to believe all of the awful things said about Cleopatra VII?
Such great questions! First of all, I couldn’t have Cleopatra Selene kill Octavian because history shows us that he lived a long, long life. And despite being a cold-hearted snake, he was a brilliant ruler and did much good for Rome in terms of stabilizing it. In regard to his actions with the queen–I don’t think he was personally threatened by Cleopatra. I think he just hit upon the most convenient way to weaken Mark Antony’s reputation and position–by blaming everything on the woman. He merely took advantage of an already deep and entrenched misogyny, which is why Romans were so quick to believe whatever he said about her.
12. Are there other projects you are currently working on?
I am working on another historical fiction novel set in ancient Rome. Right now, I have it set in the same period. As a result, I might have the new main character “bump” into Cleopatra Selene at some point.
13. Tell us a little about Drag Queen Cleo. I know she goes to book signings with you. Is she a good luck charm? Does she think that Romans were as gross as I do?
Drag Queen Cleo (DQC) is actually an action hero/Cleopatra doll that my editor–the fabulous Cheryl Klein–sent to me. I only began calling her DQC when I noticed that they plunked a GI Joe face on a girl-doll body. Also, she had serious man-hands! Once I saw it, I couldn’t UNSEE it! So I decided to embrace her fabulousness and have fun with her. Which reminds me that I haven’t featured her on my blog (http://historywithatwist.blogspot.com) recently. I’m going to have to fix that. And, yes, absolutely, she looks down on the Romans as the great uncouth, unwashed. It’s her favorite pastime!
Thanks so much for having me here Erin! I loved all your questions!
A big THANK YOU to Vicky for her time and thoughtful answers. Now I can’t stop imagining Mark Antony partying with a dwarf and Cleopatra being a feminine version of Tim Gunn (with his “Make it Work!” catchphrase) telling everyone to “Make it Happen.”
I look forward to your next book! And everyone be sure to check out some of Vicky’s articles on Huffington Post!