Monday, October 31, 2011

Twitter Chat on 11/14 and Q&A Now with Vicky Alvear Shecter

Reader, I want you to pretend it is the end of last July. The weather is hot; the drinks are cool; the movies are highly enjoyable (if you're not sobbing your eyes out); President Obama and the House Republicans are trading jabs about the debt ceiling; and I'm about to do a Q&A with Vicky Alvear Shecter regarding her wonderful novel Cleopatra's Moon, which will be published August 1. . . . Plus we're doing a great Twitter chat in a couple of weeks. Welcome, Vicky!

How has the experience of writing a novel differed from that of writing nonfiction? 

First, let me say thank you for having me here. To answer your question, what surprised me the most about writing fiction was how vulnerable and exposed I felt. With nonfiction, the facts don’t change, so the only part of “you” that shows up is how you communicate those facts. But with fiction, I poured a lot of my emotional self into it. The emotional distance that I could (sort of) maintain with nonfiction was blown to smithereens.

When I started writing Cleopatra’s Moon, I attended a talk by author Deborah Wiles, who recommended digging deep into the emotional truths of your story. I was really moved and inspired by her vision and how she works, so I began to look at every scene with an eye toward not just what happens, but what emotions were engaged. I think (hope!) this helped move the story from one where events are recorded (like nonfiction) to where they are experienced.

Where did this book start for you?

After working on a biography on Cleopatra for middle-graders, I just couldn’t get over the fact that out of Cleopatra’s four children, only her daughter survived. Yet most people had never heard of her. How could that be?

And then when I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have Cleopatra as a mother, the story just wouldn’t let go. I imagined that Cleopatra Selene identified very closely with her mother when she was younger (as most girls do). But then when her world imploded and she no longer had her, she still had to work out who she was as her own person and emerge from underneath her mother’s considerable shadow. It just seemed too rich!

If you could travel back in time to any culture and time in history, when and where would you go? If you had the same gender and family income at that time that you do now, what would your social position be? 

Tackling the second question first, I imagine that in ancient Egypt, my family may have been part of an educated class—perhaps of scribes.

But that’s the thing—even though I’d love to go back to Rome or Egypt, I would never go back as a girl or woman. The truth is, it was a hard life for women, especially in Greece and Rome, where women were virtually sequestered away. At least in Egypt, women had a few more rights, but still. I would only go back in time if I could go as a wealthy, male citizen!

You said once that seeing classical Greek statues inspired your love of the ancient world. What about them spoke to you? Did you study those cultures in school?

I don’t know how to describe my reaction to those statues except to say that it was like some sort of awakening—I hadn’t been aware or conscious before that people could create such beauty. The elegance, grace, and sensual lines of the work just blew me away. 

I didn’t have a lot of exposure to ancient history in school. I think I had AP World History in the tenth grade, but that was about it. Fortunately, I’d found author Mary Renault, so I just immersed myself in her novels as a way to feel as if I was really there.

What is your writing routine like? Your process?

I don’t really have a routine; I just fit writing around my work as a docent at the Carlos Museum and my kids’ school hours. Though it still feels partly pretentious to say that I have a “process”(!), I’ve learned that I need to know the opening and the ending before I can begin writing a word.

Also, I’m not one of those writers who starts typing in order to find out “what happens next” (much to my chagrin because that seems totally awesome).  I have to see a scene unfold in my head like a movie. And then I write it down. But I could never just stare at a blank screen and start writing. I have to get up and pace or walk to see the scene and then I can go from there.

What is the biggest change you feel in the book as a result of the revision/editorial process? Or what about the editorial process most surprised you?

In the beginning, the biggest challenge for me was understanding what you meant when you insisted that my main character have some “agency.” At first I just didn’t get it. You explained that it was too easy to fall into the trap of allowing a main character to observe the action around her rather than leading it.

But, I countered, the people Selene was observing—particularly Cleopatra and Mark Antony—were so dang fascinating! Why wasn’t it enough to have her observe their antics?

But you kept insisting (nicely, of course) that I find something over which Cleopatra Selene had some mastery or control. At one point you threw out a suggestion—perhaps it was dancing in the Temple of Isis—which helped me understand that it didn’t have to be a huge thing. Still, I remember even then having the sense of “knowing” Cleopatra Selene well enough to understand that there was no way dancing was going to be it.

I experimented with her learning some nifty science tricks from her mother’s lead astronomer at the Great Library of Alexandria, but even there, she was still following, not leading. After some trial and error, I finally ended up having her express agency through a Roman ball game her father taught her, as well as through her deep faith in Isis and her ability to call upon Anubis during a crisis.

Arthur, Vicky, and I walk like Egyptians.

What is your favorite passage in the final book?

It’s always hard to look back on my own writing because inevitably I want to continue editing! However, some of my favorite passages have to do with Cleopatra Selene’s deep attachment to and love for her home in Egypt’s Alexandria-by-the-Sea:
My mother’s lady and I moved into one of the side gardens ideal for private conversations. Date palms ruffled in the breeze, gray and mysterious in the dark. Occasional gusts of wind, rich with the smells of the sea, teased the scents out of sleeping lotus, jasmine, rose and honeysuckle blooms. I never again smelled a combination so achingly beautiful—the cool salt of the sea intermingling with the heady perfume of Egyptian blossoms.
And in this scene, after the Roman occupation, Selene and her brothers have been allowed to climb their beloved Lighthouse of Alexandria:
     My brothers and I sprinted up the first tier of the Great Lighthouse. I had forgotten how hot the airless stairwells grew in the summer. We crashed out into the open terraces, sighing as the sea breezes cooled the sweat on our faces. I put my arms out. The crackling flames above us pulsed like a heartbeat. How I had missed Pharos!
    …It had been so long! I ran to the edge and looked out over the glittering bay, drinking in the invigorating smell of saltwater and sea life. Birds squawked and flew around our heads. Ptolly laughed and chased them.
    “The birds are hungry,” said a food stall owner from behind us.  “Few visit Pharos now that the Romans have come…”
Those were two of the scenes I loved too -- they really got across your What are you reading now? Working on next?

I am reading a lot of research books right now on Roman women and religion. I’m working on another historical fiction novel set in ancient Rome during the period right before Cleopatra Selene is sent away. She’s not the main character in this story, though I’ll likely have the two meet at some point.


Now, reader, it is unfortunately November again. But the happy news now is that Vicky and I will be having a Twitter chat on Monday, November 14 to discuss Cleopatra's Moon, how we connected and I acquired the book, Vicky's three favorite crazy facts about the Egyptians (and trust me, she knows WAY more than three!), and sundry other topics. The details:

Who:   Vicky, moi, anyone who's read the book or is interested in doing so, and anyone who just wants to hang out
What:   Twitter chat
When:   Monday, November 14 at 12:30 EST
Why:     To discuss Cleopatra's Moon

Our Twitter feeds are at @valvearshecter and @chavelaque. If you'd like to follow the conversation easily, look for the hashtag #CMchat in or the Twitter client of your choice; if you'd like to skip it entirely, block us for the day on A transcript will be posted on one of our blogs afterward. Thank you for tuning in!


  1. Great interview. I love the question about what station in life you would have been in, Vicky, if you went back in time, and I loved the answer, too. Well...didn't love it, because it's sad that women have been so oppressed and abused, but I appreciated it.

    I also appreciated the bit about the character needing to have agency. I thought Cleopatra Selene really had agency when she started plotting an escape. But that's because I'm spoiled by reading too much commercial fiction, I suppose. She was no couch potato even when she was young, but it was her voice that kept me reading there, and not her actions.

    But the best part of the book, I thought, was her emotional response to her suffering, so it makes sense for me to read that you dug down deep to produce that. The things she suffered and her reactions were so believable.

    And I loved Ptolly...and the way Cleopatra Selene loved him.

  2. Thanks, Sally! It's always so interesting to hear the reader's "take"on things. How gratifying to hear that you cared about the characters!