September 23, 2011
Interview: Stephanie Dray author of SONG OF THE NILE
Hi Stephanie thank you for taking the time to chat with us today.
Thank you so much. I’m honored to be here!
How did you come up with the concept for this book?
I’ve always been fascinated with the life of Cleopatra because she is, in many ways, the most enduring feminist icon in history. When I realized that she had a daughter who went on to become a powerful queen in her own right, I knew I had to write about her!
Now, the subject of Cleopatra Selene’s childhood has been popular in the last year or so. First we had Michelle Moran’s CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER, then we had my LILY OF THE NILE and now Vicky Schecter’s CLEOPATRA’S MOON. With this book, however, I wanted to go beyond what we know of Cleopatra Selene’s tragic youth, and explore what her life may have been like as a young queen in a new and foreign land.
From all the women in history, why Cleopatra’s daughter?
Cleopatra Selene was born into a dangerous political world but, much like her mother, managed to play on the world’s stage with very powerful men. I might argue that she did so more successfully, and with less bloodshed, than her mother. But what moved me about Selene is how carefully she had to guard her true feelings in order to survive. She couldn’t voice her grief over her mother and father and what happened to Egypt without endangering her own life, but later, when she was more secure, she found ways to honor her legacy. That I could, in some small way, give her the voice she was deprived of in history, is a great honor.
How much research went into this book?
I’ve been researching Selene’s life for eight years. Now, admittedly, I took some time off for other projects in between, but I’ve read everything I could get my hands on, I’ve consulted with the experts, and I’ve tried to make sense of the fragmentary evidence that we have of Selene’s life. The only thing I haven’t done is visit Selene’s kingdom of Mauretania, which is modern day Algeria and Morocco. But I would love to do that one day.
Who are your favorite characters in this book?
Obviously, I have a soft-spot for our heroine, Selene, who managed to triumph over adversity. Her unwavering faith in Isis may well have helped the religion to survive during a time when it was forbidden in Rome. But I’m also very fond of the emperor’s daughter, Julia, who was a bright and vibrant woman who was used as a marriage trophy for Augustus to bestow on whatever man he chose. Julia’s story has always been tragic to me. I also love Octavia, of course, because it has to take a lot of strength of character, as a woman, to take in the bastard children of your dead husband and raise them as if they were your own. (On the other hand, some might argue that it was politically shrewd.)
Speaking of politically shrewd, how do you feel about the villain of your novel, Augustus?
Oh, isn’t he a delightful baddy? Augustus was a complex man who seems to have genuinely wanted the best for Rome--as long as he was in charge. He was a man with a relatively amoral personal sex life who preached about getting back to “family values.” (Kind of like some politicians today.) I think my feelings about him are reflected in Selene’s emotions. She hates the emperor; sometimes she wants him dead. After all, he has destroyed her family and threatens everything that she loves. But she also admires him. She knows that he’s cunning and powerful. And she also suspects that, deep down, there’s good in him. It’s part of her struggle to see if she can bring that good to the surface.
Do you read a lot of ancient stories about strong bad women?
They say that well-behaved women seldom make history and in the ancient world, that’s unfortunately true. It gives me great joy and inspiration to read about strong women in history who lived by their own rules and changed the world as a result. I love the bad girls of history!
What other infamous women do you talk about in your talks?
I like to talk about Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who we suspect may have been a descendant of Cleopatra Selene, and therefore a descendant of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Certainly, she claimed that Egypt was her ancestral home when she conquered it. She forged quite an empire as a warrior queen and seems to have escaped her run-in with Rome, so I like to think she had a little bit of Selene’s pragmatism in her.
Tell us about the Cover of Song of the Nile.
There were a few things I hoped for with this cover. Selene has come into her power as a woman now, and I wanted that power reflected in the imagery. Though the cover of Lily of the Nile was beautiful, it gave many people the impression that it was a quiet little story. Given the big flash of lightning over Selene’s shoulder in the sequel, I don’t think anyone will make that mistake. I also wanted the cover to be more cinematic, which it is. Of course, it’s also highly symbolic. I was delighted that the cover artist dressed Selene in purple, because that color was extremely important to her reign, as readers are about to find out.
What is your next project? And when is it due out?
I just accepted an offer for the third book in the trilogy, which we’re tentatively calling DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE which will follow Selene to the end of her life, and explore the life of her daughter as well as her friend Julia and some of the other women who struggled to make a mark in the Augustan Age. We don’t have a release date yet but I’ve already started writing.
Thank you so much for your time and letting us know you a little better.
Thank you so much. This was so much fun.
Stephanie graduated from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.
Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.
Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra’s daughter has become the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice and the one woman who can destroy his empire…
Having survived her perilous childhood as a royal captive of Rome, Selene pledged her loyalty to Augustus and swore she would become his very own Cleopatra. Now the young queen faces an uncertain destiny in a foreign land.
Forced to marry a man of the emperor’s choosing, Selene will not allow her new husband to rule in her name. She quickly establishes herself as a capable leader in her own right and as a religious icon. Beginning the hard work of building a new nation, she wins the love of her new subjects and makes herself vital to Rome by bringing forth bountiful harvests.
But it’s the magic of Isis flowing through her veins that makes her indispensable to the emperor. Against a backdrop of imperial politics and religious persecution, Cleopatra’s daughter beguiles her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright, but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?
Berkley Trade October 2011 (Trade Paperback)
# ISBN-10: 0425243044
# ISBN-13: 9780425243046