TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I was a lawyer who decided that if I was going to tell lies for money I might as well write fiction.
Now I use the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history. My books have been translated into a six languages and won a few fancy awards, but I love best when I receive letters from inspired readers. I’m fascinated by female-centric religions, all things Roman or Egyptian, and have–to the consternation of my devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and faux ancient artifacts.
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH:
Drawing upon the magic of Isis, can Cleopatra’s daughter shield her loved ones from the emperor’s wrath or will she be the last of her line?
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
I’ve always been fascinated by the bad girls of history, particularly Cleopatra VII, who was both the most powerful woman in the history of the western world, and the most iconic one.
Imagine my surprise to learn that she was not, in fact, the last of her dynasty. Cleopatra had a daughter–Selene–who was hailed as a messiah nearly forty years before the birth of Christ. Selene was also, at the age of nine, captured by the Romans and dragged through the streets in chains, but survived to become the most powerful client queen in the early Roman empire.
I wanted to know how that happened. How could the daughter of the reviled “Egyptian Whore” have risen to such prominence after her parents’ defeat and suicide? I wanted to write the story in a way that both honored this woman’s survival, her religion, and the ancient beliefs in magic.
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
I come from a long line of impressive women and have often struggled with the feeling of not quite measuring up. I think that is what draws me to stories about people who walk in very big shadows. Cleopatra Selene struggled all her life with her mother’s larger-than-life reputation and still managed to carve out her own legacy against enormous odds. That really resonated with me and I hope I wrote it in a way that will resonate with readers.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE?
The biggest challenge of this book was dealing authentically with historical beliefs that are so alien to the modern reader. For example, by the time my heroine was born, her family had been practicing brother-sister marriage for more than two hundred years and it was not, as some have suggested, only symbolic in nature. (We have the family tree–and there are very few branches!)
It was tricky to write a sympathetic portrayal of a heroine who would have not only believed that incest was a perfectly appropriate practice for royal dynasties, but who also may have believed she was an earthly incarnation of a goddess.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE?
I learned that Isis worship was the great forerunner of Christianity and that the religion is still a living faith to this day thanks to the help of Cleopatra Selene, who built a sanctuary for Isis when the religion was banned by the emperor in Rome.
Also, early on in my research I discovered that a mysterious figure on the emperor Augustus’ most famous monument has been identified by several scholars as the son of Cleopatra Selene. If true, it indicates a much closer relationship between Cleopatra’s daughter and the imperial family than previously suspected. It led me to take a peek at the oft-debated Tellus panel on the Ara Pacis, in which a handsome goddess being attended by winds, bears a striking resemblance to portraits of my heroine. That made me start wondering what kind of relationship Augustus and the daughter of Cleopatra might have had…
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE?
It made me cry while I wrote it.
It also makes readers cry. Or so they tell me.
This book is a sweeping story about a woman who suffers enormous losses and enjoy bone-shaking triumphs. It’s the most emotional book I’ve ever written. And I love it because readers tell me that they cry because they’re angry, then sad, then, ultimately, happy with a cathartic ending. I love books that move me, that destroy me a little…so reader tears, for me, taste like sweet ambrosia.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
First, I won’t ever agree to a book deadline near Christmas again. I was such a Grinch!
Second, because I saw this story as epic fantasy, a trilogy seemed like a perfectly rational idea–especially because the story spans several decades. What I didn’t know was how unusual historical fiction trilogies are, and so I had to work very hard to make each book its very own stand-alone novel. A reader can pick up any of the Nile books and follow the story without difficulty, but blood, sweat and tears went into making that so.
Finally, next time, I will choose a smaller cast of characters. It was hard to restrict myself because the Julio-Claudians were so fascinating and dysfunctional that I could write a book about each and every one of them. Readers will know these characters from classics like I, Claudius, but I had the chance to write about them from the perspective of a young foreign captive girl who was taken into the bosom of their family. However, Romans were very unimaginative when it came to names–so I would like to avoid, in future, books with three characters named Antonia…
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY:
He doesn’t know me. He only knows my shadow self. My khaibit. The part of me that is dangerous and destructive. The part of me I’ve fought down. I’ve lied before. I’ve kept secrets, betrayed vows, and broken faith even with the goddess whose words sometimes carve themselves in my flesh. I’ve driven men to acts of madness and murder, to reclaim what should have been mine. And in the confines of the emperor’s household, where my heritage was reviled and my faith suspect, I learned that to survive was to deceive. Indeed, my enemies say that by sparing my life, Augustus allowed a viper into the very heart of Rome. What they don’t know is that it was the emperor himself who molded me into the kind of venomous creature that strikes when provoked. He created my dark soul as a reflection of his own, so I shouldn’t be surprised that when he looks at me, it is all he sees.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
In the coming year I have an exciting new project co-authored with my good friend, historian Laura Kamoie (aka NYT Bestselling author Laura Kaye). Together we’re writing a biopic of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph whose loving but deeply dysfunctional relationship with her father, the third president of the United States, defined not only her life, but his legacy…and thus, our own.