Questions & Answers
What do you think of the recent slew of Roman movies like Centurion and television programs such as HBO’s Rome? Are they accurate?
I love almost any book, movie or television program set in antiquity. Some of them are more accurate than others. Some of them are more entertaining than others. I will confess to groaning aloud at egregious historical errors if there is no narrative reason for them, but ultimately, my love of the time period prevails. I celebrate any exploration of the ancient world because every attempt is bound to tell us as much about ourselves as it does about the ancients. (This does not mean, however, that I won’t throw popcorn at the television when someone tells me that the last survivor of Carthage is fighting in the arena against Spartacus! I’m looking at you, Starz TV.)
Your novel is a particularly unsympathetic portrayal of Late Republic Rome. What do you have against the Romans?
Lily of the Nile is told from the perspective of Cleopatra’s daughter, and as a prisoner of war, she’ll never be able to view the Romans with any objectivity. However, I personally have quite a soft spot for them. Oh, they were corrupt, brutal, xenophobic, misogynistic and everything else that contemporaries accused them of. But they were also a patriotic people who aspired to be a nation of laws that afforded opportunity to people regardless of ethnicity. That the Romans so often fell short of their ideals is not surprising, or unique; that they contributed so much to the ultimate betterment of mankind is unique and makes them worthy of admiration.
What about Augustus and his wife Livia? You don’t seem to like them very much.
My feelings about the characters in my novels don’t necessarily reflect my feelings about the historical figures they resemble. Augustus and Livia may have been nobler figures in reality than they are in my books. Because I’m telling Cleopatra Selene’s story, I gleefully embraced all the scurrilous rumors surrounding Rome’s first emperor and his wife. Augustus was a strange and ruthless leader, but he was also a political genius. I could just as easily have written a book about him where he appears as the hero, but other authors have done that. Besides, Augustus got to to rule the world and shape propaganda to his liking, so I don’t feel particularly guilty about using the criticism of him that managed to survive. Livia, however, has been much maligned throughout history, and probably because of her gender. I do feel guilty in feeding that stereotype of her, but the caricature was too delicious not to embrace.
Why do books about teenaged vampires sell so much better than historical fiction novels?
I think it’s because historical fiction novelists often fail to make their work sufficiently accessible to a wide audience. Authors often worry more about the esteem of their colleagues than they do about the enjoyment and educational opportunities they can provide to their readers, and I think that’s a shame. See my essay, Historical Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Good for You.
History is exciting. It’s vibrant. It’s an alien landscape just as complicated as any supernatural world ever envisioned. When writers treat it that way, I think readers respond.
Did you really major in Middle Eastern Studies? Can you Speak Arabic?
No and no. I have a juris doctorate from Northwestern School of Law. From Smith College, I earned a bachelor of arts in Government with an English writing minor. However, in college, I also had the opportunity to take a cluster of classes in Middle Eastern studies, including history and religion. As it happens, I can’t read Latin or Arabic. My high school Spanish teacher was never very impressed with me either. I’m apparently an atrocious linguist, which is one of the many differences between me and Cleopatra VII.