Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Interview With Stephanie Dray

I am so excited to welcome Debut Author, Stephanie Dray, author of the historical fiction Lily of the Nile! This is a stop on her blog tour, you can see her complete schedule here. And now, Stephanie Dray:

GC: Selene is such a strong woman, but she also has her faults, we will get to that in a moment, but I want to know if Selene was a muse for your writing competition, or if this is a dream being realized long before the mystery and intrigue of Egypt’s lost Queen captured you?

SD: Selene was definitely an inspiration behind my writing contest for young women.

Now, I've been surrounded by strong, smart women all my life--my sister, my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmother. As a graduate of an all-women's college, I realized just how deep a sisterhood can go. But it wasn't until researching Selene's life that I realized that the progression of women's equality hasn't been a straight line. There have been setbacks in the past and there may be again in the future.

I want to do my part to help hold onto the gains that women have made. History deprived Cleopatra Selene of a voice... so I want to help the young women of today to find their own voices by offering young women writers encouragement and support (not just great prizes, although the prizes are pretty great).

GC: So why Selene? So much is unknown about her time in history, what made you want to tell her story when Cleopatra, the ill-fated, and highly famed mother was at your disposal?

SD: Cleopatra is the most famous feminist icon in the world. What she did while she was alive was important, but I wanted to explore her legacy as carried out in the person of her daughter, Selene.

What's more, Selene's story really touched me. This girl who was a survivor--some say the last survivor of her dynasty--struggling not just to live, but to live up to her mother's legacy.

That she managed to stay in the good graces of Augustus--to actually become one of his favorites--all while holding onto the memories of those she lost...that impressed me. I got a little weepy at one of the relics recovered from her reign; it was a statue of Petubastes, who seems to have been Selene's cousin. That she would hang on to, or commission, the statue of a young man of no special historical importance who had died so many years ago tells us so much about Selene.

She never forgot. She never forgot anything. I want to make sure that we never forget her.

GC: Did you always know that if you wrote, your book would be a Historical Fiction? Do you think you will ever branch out from this genre, or do you plan to continue solely in this field, like author Carolyn Meyer?

SD: Like most authors, I think of myself as a writer first and a genre writer second. But the truth is, I have always loved historical fiction and been drawn to it over other kinds of books. I sometimes fantasize about writing a historical mystery series--maybe one like John Maddox Roberts' SPQR. Sometimes I think about writing historical romance and fantasy. But for now, I'm all about this.

GC: Do you feel it necessary for an author to stick to the facts 100% while writing Historical Fiction, or is it important for authors to make decisions that veer a bit off the course? When and Why should those decisions be made?

SD: I think an author needs to 100% know the facts but real life facts seldom fall into the neat narrative arc of a good fiction novel. Real life has boring parts. There are coincidences in real life that mean nothing; threads that go no where. In real life, lives get broken without any uplifting theme or message. These things don't often make for a good novel.

Here, I want to mention The White Queen by Philippa Gregory. Now, I love everything that woman writes; she is an auto-buy for me. I devoured The White Queen, but I felt that it was compromised in many ways by the fact that the heroine was locked up, hearing about battles only second hand, unable to be an active protagonist in her own life. Gregory managed this with as much skill as can be brought to bear, but it was a lesson to me as a writer.

I remind myself that I'm a novelist, not a biographer. My first duty is to the story, to the reader. I respect the historical record and I always confess my sins in the Author's Note, but if I have to tweak the historical timeline to make the story work, I think it’s the right thing to do.

GC: What other heroines and hero's of history call to you? Do you have a passion for only figures with untold stories?

SD: I love the bad girls of the ancient world. I'm drawn to women who didn't quite fit into society, women who lived by their own rules and changed the world. Olympias of Macedonia, the mother of Alexander the Great, is someone I'd love to write about. Or Queen Dido of Carthage! But all of this is going to have to wait until I finish telling Selene’s story.

GC: One of the many reasons I was able to be so fully captivated by Selene’s story in Lily of the Nile is because I had never read much about this time in history and was even surprised a few times! Why do you think this era and place in history is so neglected in the literary world? Why do you believe so little is known about Cleopatra’s descendant, though her contributions in regaining Egypt’s strength were so many?

SD: This is an era that has been neglected insofar as almost everything written in it is designed to appeal primarily to men and classics majors. Now, it’s true that the late Republic is a time of war strategy and siege engines and complicated politics; it conjures up horrible memories for people of Latin class and being forced to conjugate verbs and translate Caesar's battle memoirs.

But we shouldn’t forget the beauty, the culture, the romance of the era. Our modern notions of spirituality and government were forged in this time period. This was a brief period in history where women were frequently power players and relationships, marriages, and even love played a huge part in shaping the world. In short, I think people overlook all the things about this time period that appeal to women readers--and I blame Augustus for that!

GC: You studied Middle-Eastern history, religion and politics in college (but regrettably never mastered Latin) how did your learning's then inspire you in the present?

SD: My primary course of studies was Government, but I did spend quite a lot of time on Middle-Eastern religion and politics. I suppose my studies made me appreciate the ideological development of western culture--especially where it rubbed up against the East and was changed by it!

GC: Do you think because of your background Selene’s story was easier to accomplish, or did you still have to delve deeper and deeper to see the possibilities of Selene’s story?

SD: There were no short cuts. I had to dig deep to learn about Selene and I'm still digging!

GC: How long did it take you to write Lily of the Nile and what was one of your most memorable scenes to write?

SD: It took me about three years to write and revise Lily of the Nile. Another year and a half more years were spent submitting it to the wrong publishers. (I didn’t realize it was historical fiction--I thought it was fantasy.) It would take another three years of revisions and additional research before it came to print. It's been almost an eight year journey.

The most memorable scene for me was probably the very moment that Selene realizes just how obsessed the emperor is with her dead mother. The moment that she realizes how it gives her power over him. When Selene fastens upon a way to manipulate the most powerful man in the world...it gave me shivers.

GC:Have you ever visited Egypt? If you have, were you able to visit the possible tombs of any of your characters?

SD: I haven't visited Egypt, but I plan to make the trip in the next year or two! My brother-in-law tells me that he found a temple in which Selene and Juba may have stopped on their way to Mauretania. (If true, this would add something significant to the scholarship about Selene as it was formerly believed that she went directly to her new nation from Rome.)

GC: What is next for you as a writer? (If you can divulge any tidbits about the sequel to Lily this would be a good place to fit this in!)

SD: Song of the Nile is scheduled to release at the end of this year and I’m excited about it because it really raises the stakes. Whereas Lily of the Nile follows Selene’s early life as a child, the sequel imagines her life as a young queen, struggling in her marriage, fighting to maintain power of her new kingdom, striving to reclaim Egypt and still engaged in a psychological battle of will with the emperor across the sea.

Because we know very little about this time in Selene’s life, I have a bigger canvass to paint on and I’ve taken full advantage of it. The years between 25-19BC were momentous ones for the new Roman empire under Augustus and though we have no documentation of Selene’s whereabouts, I make what I think to be some reasonable guesses about how and where she may have inserted herself as a power player in the imperial family.

Ultimately, Song of the Nile will be a more luxurious book, filled with sumptuous details. It will be more adult and sensual, and will court a little controversy. (Maybe a lot of controversy.)

Thanks so much for having me!

GC: Thank you for being here, Stephanie! 

==Favorite Quote from Lily of the Nile==

SD: I have so many favorite quotes, but this one always got me: 

"Oh no, Selene. The stage has been set and now we're both trapped upon it. Your fortune and mine are entwined. So you may go to the temple. Bleed. Cavort with crocodiles. Weave your Ptolemy spell over the masses. Play at divinity. The more potent a symbol you are, the more powerful tool you make for me. So make them bow, make them weep. Let them think you're their savior, for I am yours."

With her parents dead, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony is left at the mercy of her Roman captors. Heir to one empire and prisoner of another, it falls to Princess Selene to save her brothers and reclaim what is rightfully hers…

In the aftermath of Alexandria’s tragic fall, Princess Selene is taken from Egypt, the only home she’s ever known. Along with her two surviving brothers, she’s put on display as a war trophy in Rome. Selene’s captors mock her royalty and drag her through the streets in chains, but on the brink of death, the children are spared as a favor to the emperor’s sister, who takes them to live as hostages in the so-called lamentable embassy of royal orphans…

Now trapped in a Roman court of intrigue that reviles her heritage and suspects her faith, Selene can’t hide the hieroglyphics that carve themselves into her flesh. Nor can she stop the emperor from using her for his own political ends. But faced with a new and ruthless Caesar who is obsessed with having a Cleopatra of his very own, Selene is determined honor her mother’s lost legacy. The magic of Egypt and Isis remain within her. But can she succeed where her mother failed? And what will it cost her in a political game where the only rule is win or die?

Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. 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.
She is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.

1 comment:

Stephanie Dray said...

Thanks for having me! ;)