Archive for October, 2011

Walking Like an Egyptian with Vicky Alvear Shecter

October 5th, 2011 by Terra | 1 Comment | Filed in Talking with Other Authors

In sixth grade, I was on the brink of becoming a little too old to trick-or-treat. Having younger sisters helped my cause (I’m the chaperone!), but I knew I was going to start getting some “Aren’t you a little tall for this?” looks. So, for my penultimate trick-or-treat (my final one will be mentioned later this month), I went for the Queen of all Costumes: Cleopatra.

Clearly, I did not know very much about this famous queen, nor did I have much in the Dress Up box of Egyptian authenticity. It wasn’t until many years later, when I got to read Vicky Alvear Shecter‘s fabulous historical fiction novel, Cleopatra’s Moon, did I realize how precisely far off I was. For example, I didn’t even KNOW Cleopatra had a daughter, who is she’s the main focus of this stunning book.

Here’s the description from our friends at Scholastic:

“The Luxe” meets the ancient world in the extraordinary story of Cleopatra’s daughter.

Selene has grown up in a palace on the Nile with her parents, Cleopatra & Mark Antony – the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But the jealous Roman Emperor Octavianus wants Egypt for himself, & when war finally comes, Selene faces the loss of all she’s ever loved. Forced to build a new life in Octavianus’s household in Rome, she finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies – until she reaches out to claim her own.

This stunning novel brings to life the personalities & passions of one of the greatest dramas in history, & offers a wonderful new heroine in Selene.?

Lucky for me, not only did I get to immediately devour this fascinating, gripping novel, (which the LA Times calls “Magical . . . Impressive”), but I also got to talk to Vicky a bit about her process, the importance of this sweeping story and, of course, Florida State football.

TEM:  The research and realistic detail in the settings and characters of this book are absolutely mind-blowing. How did you manage to incorporate so much, and in such a lively way?

VAS: I just tried to focus on what my character experienced using her five senses. This allowed me to get a lot of interesting detail about what things looked like, smelled like, sounded like, etc. However, I should point out that my brilliant editor was merciless in taking out unnecessary descriptions, so she deserves the credit!

TEM:  I know that the road to finished copies of Cleopatra’s Moon was a long and sometimes challenging one. What important lessons did you take away from the whole experience?

VAS: The biggest one? Probably that patience is a survival skill in this industry. There were so many times during the long periods of waiting that I thought, “Who was I to write her story?” or “Why am I doing this–nobody will ever want it,” etc. But I had good friends who encouraged me to just stick with it so I guess the other lesson is, “Listen to your buds!”

TEM:  The story of Cleopatra’s Moon spans quite a big chunk of Cleopatra Selene’s life. What were the challenges of narrating in this way?

VAS:  I think staying true to what a 16-year old girl—one who was told from birth that she would rule as queen—would feel when it was all ripped away from her was the biggest challenge. For example, a fellow historian read a chapter and pointed out that according to the history books, “Cleopatra Selene was technically not a slave of Rome.”

I explained that, “She’s lost her home, her parents, her country, her autonomy, and her future. Plus, have you ever talked to a 16 year old girl who is frustrated by what she can’t control? She may not technically be a slave but she sure FEELS like one and that’s what I need to convey.” Once he understood that it was her EMOTIONAL truth that I was after, he agreed that it made perfect sense.

Another example: One early reader commented, “I still don’t understand how Antony was defeated—I thought he was a brilliant general!” From our point of view, Antony was deeply flawed and made some serious mistakes, but from the point of view of his daughter who adored him? He was as brilliant as Alexander the Great, which makes his downfall even harder for her to take.

Again, I needed to stay true to HER perceptions and filter everything that happened through her eyes. That’s part of growing up too—learning that the parents you thought were invincible were just human after all.

TEM:  You have a very full life outside of your life as an author. (At the Carlos Museum, as Camp Director for Camp Half Blood at Little Shop of Stories, with your research and blog, your family . . .) Any tricks you use to balance the energy you need for all these things?

VAS: I wish I did! Although writing does give me a good alibi for when I flub up in general. I’m a terrible cook (always have been) and when the family is trying to choke down what I made, I can always blame the hours I spent writing. But the truth is, even if I hadn’t been writing, my cooking woulda still sucked!

TEM:  You and I share an important school in common: Florida State University. How are you feeling about their football performance this year so far?

VAS: Wait, Florida State has a football team? (Ducking). Just kidding. I don’t really follow football, let alone college ball. The irony of this, of course, is that it was the wonderful writing professor, Dr. Jerome Stern at FSU, who got me started on my writing career. He took me aside one day and suggested I write for the school newspaper. I ended up starting out as a sports reporter (!) the year Bowden took the ‘Noles to their first undefeated season.

TEM:  I think Dr. Stern got a LOT of people on their writing careers! But back to seriousness: Mark Antony and Cleopatra are iconic figures in film, history, and global legend. I feel like you did such a great job of capturing all of that in Cleopatra’s Moon. But how did you also manage to make them come across as such good, realistic parents?

VAS:  Again, I just tried to stick with Cleopatra Selene’s emotional experience of them. She loves her parents and so we see them through her eyes. Also, I was very intrigued by the fact that Cleopatra was like a lionness when it came to her kids. Hollywood wants us to imagine her as a sexy bombshell, but she was actually a very devoted mother.

For example, Hollywood movies always make it look like Cleopatra committed suicide right after Antony died (i.e., she did it for love). But she didn’t. She lived for weeks after Antony killed himself.  And what was she doing during those weeks? Negotiating for the lives of her children. Plutarch even says her enemy attacked her as with “seige engines in battle” with threats to her kids, showing us that this was her Achilles’ heel. So I just went from there.

TEM: There are two love interests for Cleopatra Selene during the course of this story. What are the challenges of realistically portraying a girl’s internal struggle in such a scenario, without giving away how things end up?

VAS: Well, I think in this story, the two love interests represent different kinds of love—one is more physical, a lusting kind of love, while the other is deeper and more mature. Also, for Selene, being the daughter of a woman branded as an “evil seductress” adds another layer of complication to her relationships with men.

TEM:  Why is it important to continue to tell these ancient stories, both of the Egyptians and of the Romans? Why do you think they still have so much appeal?

VAS: I think the ancient world is fascinating because it has a sense “otherness” about it. Especially Egypt. It’s like peering into the lives of aliens. Yet, their essential humanity makes us feel connected to them.

I think history can hold up a mirror to the things we struggle with today so that we can look at them more clearly. For example, I’m fascinated by how the Romans sullied Cleopatra’s reputation (by all accounts she had been extraordinarily loyal to Rome) and used sexually threatening labels and imagery as a means to take her down.

The distance makes it easier to discuss with teens I think, the fact that we are still doing this today. Ask teens what they call a girl that they don’t like or that threatens them in some way.  With little or no hesitation, they’ll pull out the same labels the Romans used on Cleopatra.  The historical distance allows us to examine this behavior in a neutral and interesting way.

TEM:  Lastly, there’s so much in this book. What are three things you most hope a reader takes away from Cleopatra’s Moon?

VAS:  That history is 1) fascinating, 2) fun and 3) entertaining!

TEM:  Thank you Vicky, for this interview, and your fantastic talent!!


Songs in My Head Upon Waking This Week:
“Is That Love,” by Squeeze; “Starry-Eyed Surprise,” by Paul Oakenfield; “Am I the Same Girl?” by Swing Out Sister; “Independent Love Song,” by Scarlet; “Melancholy Hill,” by the Gorillaz; “Valley Winter Song,” by Fountains of Wayne; “Whiskey and Rags,” by Emily Wells