Michelle Moran's name on the cover of a novel is a promise of an exceptional read - her stories will echo in your mind days after you finish the last page. Queen of Happy Endings, Empress of Good & Evil and I have been massive fans since reading Nefertiti last year. You can read our reviews of Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen by clicking here.
Q & A with Michelle Moran
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. Some authors come to writing by chance, some after graduating college or working for a while. For me there was never any doubt about what I would do as a career. I think my teachers felt the same way. I can remember being in third grade with the toughest teacher in the world and hearing her voice echo in my mind like a scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. "Michelle... Michelle.... Michelle?" Only I wasn't physically absent like Bueller. Just mentally! When I write, the scene unfolds in my mind like a movie, only I'm the director. I can listen to characters' dialogue, then tell them to stop, do it over, say the words differently, or strike a different pose. In an academic setting this can be a problem, because instead of learning Algebra I'm watching a movie, only it's a movie with endless possibilities because I create the scenes.
How long did it take you to get published?
My first attempt at getting published was in seventh grade, when I was twelve. So I guess I can say it took me fifteen years. I had written a full length book that was certainly pathetic but everyone praised it and my father hailed it as the Next Great American Novel. My father was very good at ego-boosting. But no one knew how to go about getting published, so I went to my local Barnes and Nobles and asked them how. And instead of laughing, the bookseller took me to the writing section and I purchased the current edition of Writer's Market. From then on, no agent or publishing house was safe. I learned how to write query letters and regaled them all. And by the time I was fifteen some agents sent personal letters back, probably because I had included my age in the query letter and they either thought a) this kid has potential or b) this is sad and deserves at least a kind note. I went on to write eleven more books before writing Nefertiti, which would eventually sell to Random House.
Any advice to aspiring writers?
Keep writing. If at any point along the way I had stopped writing and said to myself, you know, I think book number eleven will be my last, I wouldn't be published. Writers don't like to hear this, though. I know when I was looking at writing advice and I would see this posted somewhere I would think, well that's helpful. I wouldn't have thought of that. But the truth is there's no good-ol-boys-club and there's no backdoor into the publishing industry (unless you're already a star). Good work sells, and if it doesn't, write another one, then maybe once you're a success they'll haul out all of your old books that weren't worth publishing the first time around, spruce them up a little, and voila, all of your previous efforts won't have been wasted. Or maybe you'll look back on those books and think, wow, they knew something I didn't. My work has gotten better. And then you'll hide those first eleven books in a closet somewhere (or a craftily labeled folder in My Documents so that no one ever finds them).
ON HER LATEST NOVEL - CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER
What prompted you to write a novel about Cleopatra’s daughter?
I do a great deal of traveling both for research and for fun, and most of my destinations are archaeological sites. On a trip to Alexandria in Egypt, I was afforded the amazing opportunity of participating in a dive to see the submerged remains of Cleopatra’s ancient city. More than ten thousand artifacts remain completely preserved underwater: sphinxes, amphorae, even the stones of the ancient palace. Although I'm not a fan of diving, it was an incredible experience, and it changed the way I looked at Cleopatra. I immediately wanted to know more about her life, and it was mere coincidence that my next trip took me to Italy, where her ten year-old children were brought to live after her suicide. While in Rome, I was able to retrace her daughter's steps, and upon seeing where her daughter had lived on the Palatine, I knew I had my next novel.
What was it like to walk where Selene walked? In particular, what was it like to visit Octavian’s villa?
Unbelievable. For two thousand years, Octavian’s villa has sprawled across the top of the Palatine Hill, slowly deteriorating. At one time, its vibrantly painted dining room had hosted magnificent feasts, one of which would have been the celebration of the emperor’s triumph over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. As the heir to Caesar, Octavian was determined to rule the western world without interference. He changed his name to Augustus, and with the help of his general Agrippa and his architect Vitruvius, he turned a city of clay into a city of marble.
I had known all of this on that day in March when the villa was opened for the first time in more than a century. What I hadn’t known, however, was just how unbelievable that trip back into the world of ancient Rome would be. After three million dollars in restoration, Italian archaeologists have been able to recreate not just the intimate library and studies Augustus used, but the mosaic floors he once walked on and the vividly painted ceilings he once walked beneath with Ovid, Seneca, Cicero, Horace, and even Julius Caesar himself. As we were quickly escorted through the frescoed rooms, we stopped in the triclinium – the dining room which had once seen so many famous faces smiling, laughing, even crying for mercy. With a little imagination, it was easy to see the tables and couches that had once adorned the chamber, and there was the undeniable feeling of standing in the presence of the ancients. It was the kind of feeling you only get in Grecian temples or Egyptian tombs.
In all three of your novels, your narrators have been teenage girls. Is there are reason for this?
Actually, yes. I like to begin my novels during the time of greatest transition in a person’s life. And in the ancient world, the greatest transition in a woman’s life was often the time when she was married. Because women married at much younger ages two thousand years ago (twelve years old was not uncommon), my narrators have all been very young girls. In fact, Random House will be making a concerted effort to market Cleopatra's Daughter to young adults as well as adults. However, as my novels progress through time (my next book, for example, will be about Madame Tussaud), my narrators will be older.
Is the Red Eagle based on an historical person?
Yes. The Red Eagle is actually based on several men who led slave rebellions (unsuccessfully, I might add) against Rome. Spartacus led the most famous revolt, but there were other men too, such as Salvius, who waged war with his army of slaves in ancient Sicily.
You write in your acknowledgements page that the character of the Red Eagle is an homage to the works of several authors. What made you decide to do this?
Creative as well as personal reasons. First, I wanted to create a character that fans of swashbuckling adventures might love, and it wasn’t at all difficult to find historical personalities on which to base such a hero. Men like Spartacus and Salvius were heroes in the truest sense of the word. But I didn’t want there to be too much action, and certainly not so much that it would detract from the real story – that of Selene and her twin brother Alexander growing up in a foreign court. I could certainly have chosen not to include anything as obviously fictitious as the Red Eagle. But I wanted to illustrate just how threatening slave rebellions were at that time, and how ever-present the danger of becoming a slave would have been, even to captured royalty. And the creation of the Red Eagle wasn’t a huge stretch. Many rebels who came before – and after – the Red Eagle employed similar tactics: rousing the plebs, arming the slaves, and encouraging those in servitude to passive resistance.
On a more personal note, however, I wanted to include the Red Eagle because I knew it would be a character my father would have loved. He devoured anything having to do with ancient Rome, and I deeply regret not having written this while he was still alive.
Was a third of Rome’s population really enslaved?
Sadly, yes. And you didn’t have to be born a slave to become one. You could be kidnapped and sold into slavery, your city could be overrun and you could be turned into a slave, or you might be sold into servitude by your own parents. Slavery meant an absolute loss of every human right we now take for granted, and as a slave, your body was no longer your own. Many slaves were physically and sexually abused, regardless of age or gender.
Where did these slaves come from?
Many were Gallics and Greeks. The Gallics were from Gaul, a region which now encompasses France, Belgium, parts of Switzerland, and Germany.
When did slavery end?
It hasn't. In the Western World, it was slowly - very slowly - phased out with the coming of Christianity (which was one of the reasons Christianity flourished… it appealed to the disenfranchised and enslaved, making everyone equal if not on earth than in the next life). But slavery certainly hasn't ended for everyone. There are women and children who are enslaved today, even in America and Europe. Of course, this isn't legal. Many of these victims of modern-day human trafficking have been brought over from places like Albania or Algeria and have no resources to escape. That's why organizations such as STOP International exist. You can visit them here.
Why did you change Cleopatra Selene’s name to Selene in the novel?
I thought it would be nice (and easier for the reader) to differentiate Selene from her mother by calling her by her second name. Selene means moon, while her brother – Alexander Helios – was named after the sun. Very pretty, I think!
Is it still possible to visit the places Selene visited when she was in Rome?
Yes. In 2008, I went on a photographic safari in search of the places Selene would have gone during the brief years she was in Rome. Many of the photos are included here!
In the novel, Cleopatra leaves her children with Octavian before she commits suicide. Why would she have done this?
Cleopatra knew that her children would stand a better chance of survival if they were given to Octavian directly. He had already slaughtered her eldest son Caesarion, but the twins were so young that to kill them would have seemed merciless, and she knew that the Romans would have derided him for a child-killer. Historically, they probably stood their only chance of survival with him. Remember the old saying, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? In the novel Cleopatra correctly assumes that so long as Octavian can watch over her children they'll be safe. If they are outside of Octavian's control, however, he will hunt them down for fear that they may be used as rallying points for rebellion.
ON HER NEXT BOOK - MASKS OF THE REVOLUTION
You mentioned that your next book - Masks of the Revolution - will be about Madame Tussard - Can you reveal why you've decided to depart from writing about Ancient History?
This was solely a case of inspiration. I don't think this is a permanent move away from the ancient world, but when I learned about the life that Madame Tussaud led, it was a story I simply couldn't pass up. Marie (the first name of Madame Tussaud) joined the gilded but troubled court of Marie Antoinette, and only survived the French Revolution only by creating death masks of the beheaded aristocracy. I’m very excited about this novel, since Marie met absolutely everyone, from Thomas Jefferson to Robespierre and the Empress Josephine.
JUST FOR FUN - THE ROYAL QUESTION
If you could be any Royal figure, who would it be and why?
Wow. That's a really difficult one. I'm wracking my brain trying to think of someone royal who actually had a happy life! Perhaps Katherine Swynford, who eventually married her true love John of Gaunt. But then he died only a few years later. This is the problem with living in the past - short lifespans!
Visit Michelle Moran @ her Official Website or @ her blog History Buff
Order your copy of Cleopatra's Daughter from Amazon or Book Depository (free postage worldwide).
Visit Annie @ her blog Reading, Writing & Ranting