Today, my special guest is Stephanie Dray. Her novel, Lily of the Nile, is right up my alley–a historical fantasy that takes place in ancient times. I’ve already started digging into an electronic copy that Stephanie sent me, and it is absorbing from page one. Here is an interview that I’ve conducted with her by email since Thanksgiving.
Can you give us a little story-behind-the-story: a tidbit about about how LILY OF THE NILE came to be?
I’d always been interested in Cleopatra VII of Egypt and I wanted to write an alternative history in which Caesarion was not killed. Of course, such a thing had already been written by Gillian Bradshaw, but I didn’t know that at the time. As I did the research for the book, however, Caesarion became far less interesting to me than Cleopatra’s daughter, Selene, who was the very last Ptolemaic Queen. She was such a survivor that I was captivated by her story and eager to tell it.
I checked out your bio and noticed that you’re a game designer. My dream job! Can you tell us about it?
Oh, don’t get too excited! My husband and I designed and ran a text-based internet game for more than a decade. Others run it for us now, but I honed my storytelling craft there and I also made some lifelong friends along the way. There’s real power in collective storytelling and I will always credit my game experience with helping to develop my writing skills.
A MUD? I used to love MUDs! I don’t mind sending business your way–how do we find it?
It’s called FiranMUX and it’s based on an original Greco-Roman fantasy world that my husband and I created together. I never get a chance to play anymore, but I miss it!
I was amused to discover you have a page devoted to any bloopers that appear in your work. What a cute idea. Find any yet?
I approach my work with a sense of humility, so I expect that there will be some errors, but the idea of keeping a blooper’s section is actually something I should credit to Sharon Kay Penman. As far as mistakes, I haven’t noticed any yet, but I think I mention Selene and others eating with forks. The Romans certainly had forks–you can find some of them in museums. However, most Roman food was finger food so the fork wouldn’t have been used quite as often or casually as I might have otherwise indicated.
LILY OF THE NILE is rooted in the worship of Isis. Some of us vaguely know of her as an Egyptian goddess, but most of us only know of her through the old TV series, The Secrets of Isis. (Yes, I have dated myself.) Please educate us! And please elaborate on the decline of female-oriented religions, which is mentioned in your bio.
Though Isis started out as an Egyptian mother goddess, her worship eventually spread throughout the Mediterranean. Her rising popularity was taken advantage of by Cleopatra VII of Egypt, who called herself the “New Isis” but she was certainly not the first of her line to do so. This had a very long tradition in Egypt, but Cleopatra did a spectacular job using religious propaganda to prop up her cause.
This may account for Augustus’ unusual hostility towards the cult of Isis. After he defeated Cleopatra, he made repeated efforts in Rome to suppress the worship of Isis. This can’t have been comfortable for Cleopatra’s daughter. Here she was, a hostage and ward of the emperor, her mother dead and her goddess forbidden. That’s the kind of emotional trauma that drew me to write about her, but I was astonished to learn that after Selene became a queen in her own right, she created a safe haven for Isis worship in Mauretania. Perhaps due to this and her influence over her half-sisters and the women of Augustus’ household, Isis worship survived Augustus’ enmity and went on to be the predominant religion of the empire for quite some time.
Of course, with the rising influence of Judaism and Christianity–both monotheistic male-centric religions–female oriented religions in general, and Isiacism in specific, lost ground and all but died out. However, it is worth mentioning that the Isiac temple at Philae remained open until the sixth century AD and Isiacism is a living faith today.
I stumbled across some blog entries about your short fiction, but I don’t see an official page about it. Could you point us to where we might find some of your short fiction online?
I haven’t provided a page with my short fiction simply because it’s so different from the historical novels that I’m writing now. However, there is a free story for your adult readers to upload to their e-readers available here. I warn against strong language, but it is a story about a modern day young woman who faces down the darkest decisions of her life with the help of the goddess Tanit.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the story, itself. Are there any favorite parts of LILY OF THE NILE that we can look out for as we read? Were there any scenes that gave you trouble?
Like a proud mother of many little darlings, I’m not sure I can pick out just one favorite part. However, the scene that I wrote over and over again to make sure it packed a wallop is the one in which Selene realizes that the emperor is so obsessed with her dead mother that she finally has something to exploit. Some control over her own fate. That by imitating her mother, she can manipulate the emperor.
Do you have any recommendations for further reading in the time period, either fiction or nonfiction?
I have an extensive bibliography listed on my website that I hope readers will check out! As for my personal recommendations, I can’t recommend Margaret George’s Memoirs of Cleopatra more highly. I’ve read that book so many times that it’s dog-eared and worn. This is a little before Selene’s time, but I’m also a big fan of John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series. I’ve read all of Colleen McCullough’s Rome series and Judith Tarr’s Throne of Isis. Huge fan of I, Claudius. I’d better stop now or I’ll never stop!
Please share the story of how LILY OF THE NILE came to be published.
Oh gosh, that’s such a long story. When my agent first started shopping it around, there was a frenzy of interest but everything fell apart when we learned that best-selling author Michelle Moran was coming out with Cleopatra’s Daughter.
It was sort of silly, really. There are ten thousand books about Anne Boleyn and each of them feeds interest in the other, but it’s a skittish time in the industry. In truth, my book is very different than Michelle’s, though we do cover the same subject matter and do reach some similar leaps of imagination. For example, while Michelle Moran doesn’t portray Augustus as being obsessed with Cleopatra, she does imagine that he fashions his tomb on the dead queen’s example and so did I.
On the other hand, Lily of the Nile’s magic realism certainly sets it apart from every other book that’s been written about Selene. In the end, I’m lucky that things shook out the way they did because I now have the chance to work with Berkley’s Cindy Hwang, who is a brilliant editor and a fellow Smithie!
Did you originally set out to make LILY OF THE NILE a historical fantasy, or did the fantasy elements come out you wrote?
It was a little bit fantasy right from the start. Magic was real for the Egyptians and Romans, so I think it makes an important statement about the culture!
Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie! Lily of the Nile releases in January, but is available for pre-order now.