Before you start in with today’s SAT, be sure to pop over to the blog of RC Lewis, my longtime crit partner and all around friend. Her entry MG/YA entry made the cut for the Baker’s Dozen contest on Miss Snark’s First Victim. Stop by and wish her luck!
I’ve got a different brand of SAT for you today, with Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of CLEOPATRA’S MOON, which I reviewed here. Typically my SAT’s revolve around the author’s writing journey to success, and their writing process. In talking with a historical fiction author, I found some salient points that I wanted to bring to the table for readers and writers alike.
BBC: CLEOPATRA’S MOON is historical fiction featuring Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the well-known Cleopatra VII and Roman general Marc Antony. How long did you research and what kind of sources did you delve into?
VAS: First of all, thanks for having me. I love this site! To answer your question, I spent about a year researching Cleopatra’s story for my mid-grade biography, CLEOPATRA RULES! I was so fascinated to learn that of the queen’s four children, only her daughter survived to adulthood.
Sadly, I discovered that there was very little written about Cleopatra Selene’s life. The only way to tell her story was to delve into fiction. Most of the ancient sources were Roman, by the way, and they had an axe to grind with Cleopatra, whom they blamed for the war between Octavian and Antony. Roman men weren’t that interested in the lives of girls and women so Selene barely got a mention. But I felt her story needed to be told. It took me another two years to finish researching and writing the book.
VAS: The nature of her relationships with people was fictionalized because all I had to go on were the barest outlines of her life—when she was born, who her parents were, when she was taken to Rome, when she was married off, when she died. So as long as I worked within the facts of period, I was free to create her inner world.
BBC: You did a fantastic job of portraying both cultures – Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome – while explaining the politics of the time in terms YA readers would be able to relate to. Was it difficult to translate all the plot complexities (cultural, political) for modern readers?
VAS: Thanks! Any success in making this story “relatable” to modern readers comes from my conviction that we humans never change. It seemed to me that there were plenty of parallels to modern politics. For example:
Octavianus “took down” a powerful woman (Cleo) by calling her sexually demeaning names and spreading wild rumors and negative propaganda about her. Still happening? Oh yeah. Just ask any high-school girl how often that happens to strong girls. Or watch TMZ.
In Rome, citizens exhausted by war and a teetering economy looked the other way as civil liberties were slowly stripped in the name of keeping the state “safe.” Happening today? Just look at TSA and Guantanamo.
A teen girl stunned to learn her freedoms are curtailed in another culture. Happening today? Of course. Just imagine any American girl having to live in, for example, an extreme culture where she can’t drive, go to school or dress the way she wants. It wouldn’t be pretty!
I could go on, but the larger point for me is that there’s nothing new under the sun. History gives us a fascinating and entertaining way to look at our own lives. And choices.
BBC: One of Cleopatra Selene’s most endearing qualities is her fierce loyalty to her own religion and patron goddess, Isis, even under threat of death. How realistic are the rituals and scenes portraying Cleopatra’s religion?
VAS: We actually don’t know exactly how the rites of the Mysteries of Isis went because no one ever wrote them down. As with so many “Mystery cults” of the ancient world, the rites were secret. And people kept them secret! (Kind of remarkable, when you think about it.)
However, most scholars believe that the rites include some form of dying to your old self and being “reborn.” I went with that idea and expanded it.
BBC: Some of the more disturbing aspects of ancient life are mentioned the book. For example, even noblewomen were married off very young for political gain, slaves could murdered at their master’s will, and the Ptolemies (Cleopatra’s Egyptian line) had a long history of marrying brothers and sisters. As a historical writer, what aspects were important to keep in the narrative for accuracy, and how did you weigh what to include for your young audience?
VAS: It was important to be true to the history. We do teens a disservice when we try to sugarcoat reality.
Plus, there’s the issue of being historically accurate! For example, one reviewer wondered why I didn’t have Cleopatra Selene question the practice of slavery.
My editor and I had actually discussed this because we knew slavery is a cultural hot point. But the truth is, NO ONE in the ancient world questioned the morality of slavery. The closest we get is the Roman writer Seneca cautioning slave owners not to abuse their slaves because that would be wrong ethically. That’s it.
The awareness of slavery as morally wrong didn’t actually take hold until the 16th century and beyond. So, if I’d made Cleopatra Selene suddenly question the practice, it would have been anachronistic.
I did, however, have her be disgusted when someone jokes about beating a slave. But doing anything else would’ve been historically false.
BBC: Cleopatra Selene was fortunate to be born into a culture that valued women. Do you think writing historical fiction portraying strong female characters is important to the modern YA reader? What do you think they can learn from it?
VAS: Portraying strong female characters is very important, especially in YA. Girls and boys need to see strong women taking action in their lives rather than being acted upon.
Here’s a perfect example of the importance of seeing/reading about strong women. When my son was very young, we had a female mayor in Atlanta (Shirley Franklin) and I’d bought a picture book biography of her to read with him. Years later, when another mayor was selected—this time a man—my son’s reaction was this: “A man mayor? That’s funny!”
When I explained that it was pretty common, he added, “Oh. I thought all mayors were women!”
I was stunned. But there it was—the power of seeing strong women in the world! Sadly, I have to add, there hasn’t been a female mayor in Atlanta since.
With Cleopatra Selene, I hope readers see that even as power was stripped from her externally, she ultimately maintained/discovered the power within herself.
Thanks for having me, Mindy!