Friday, October 7, 2011

Interview with Stephanie Dray

I’d like to welcome our guest today, Stephanie Dray. It’s a pleasure having you come visit us at Much Cheaper Than Therapy, where chocolate is plentiful and advice is free. So grab some chocolate and a lounge chair. Your therapy session has begun.

And boy, do I need it.

I understand you have a new release out called Song of the Nile. Can you tell us a little bit about your fabulous new book?

Song of the Nile is about Cleopatra’s daughter, who was taken prisoner at the age of nine when her parents committed suicide, then dragged through the streets of Rome in chains. Somehow, she managed to persuade Rome’s first emperor that he should spare her life and make her a queen--which he did. This novel imagines and dramatizes the extraordinary relationship between this teenaged queen and the man who held her life in his hands.

Song of the Nile is a very interesting title. How did you arrive at that name?

Originally, we wanted to call it Sorceress of the Nile, but that sounded a bit too much like fantasy. And while there is magical realism in this novel, it’s firmly grounded in historical fact. Ultimately, I chose Song of the Nile because Selene wants to go home to her mother’s Egypt. It’s always calling her, luring her away from making a happy life for herself.

What made you decide to write in this genre?

Selene made me want to write her story! The moment I learned about her history and the tragedy and the triumphs, I thought, “Why isn’t this woman famous?” I wanted to bring her world to life and honor her in a way she hadn’t been honored before.

Where did you get your idea for this particular book?

Several authors have tackled Selene’s early childhood--her years as a captive of Rome. I wanted to move beyond that to imagine her life as a young Queen of Mauretania. It was, for her, a new and untamed land, an outpost of the empire and she’d been sent there to help shape it up. She’d also been sent into a kind of exile where she couldn’t cause political mischief. Or so the emperor probably believed...

What are your favorite historical research books and why?

Naturally, I’m in love with Duane Roller’s “The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene” because it helped me enormously with my fiction. At the moment, I’m reading Cato the Elder’s treatise on Agriculture and it’s amusing me to no end. He’s so cranky!

Which character did you like writing about the most, and why?

As much as I loved writing about Selene, there were two secondary characters that I really enjoyed writing. The first was the emperor’s daughter, Julia, who was a vibrant and colorful character in real life, whose story ended in tragedy. The second character was the emperor himself whom I both admire and loathe. In the end, his own misogyny would be the undoing to his best laid plans. I enjoyed writing him as complex, sometimes evil, sometimes compassionate, both repulsed and obsessed with Cleopatra and covetous of her daughter.

Tell us about how you develop your characters. Do you create character sheets, do interviews, that sort of thing? How does your research affect your character development?

With Cleopatra Selene, the research suggested that she was a woman who forgot nothing. She memorialized her dead and seems to always have believed that she was the rightful Queen of Egypt. I let her personality flow from those facts. However, in constructing the personalities of the characters around her, I both considered history and how Selene would see them, since it was from her POV. For example, the emperor’s wife, Livia, was probably a much nicer woman than the history books give her credit for, but for story reasons, I made her utterly wicked. In the third and final book of the trilogy, I hope to offer her character a little bit of rounding.

What are some common speech terms, dress modes, transportation or housing facts that you found interesting for your time period?

I was surprised to learn that Rome’s first emperor was such a meddler that he had to institute a dress code that required Roman men to appear in public in a traditional toga--which is a damnably uncomfortable garment.

Do you have any authors that inspired you?

So very many! I’m always inspired by the prose and daring of Philippa Gregory. By the wise soul of Margaret George. By the effortless storytelling of Michelle Moran, by the sense of fun that Kate Quinn brings to ancient history and the deep thoughts that Jo Graham injects into her stories. I could go on all day.

What do you feel is the most effective promotion you have done for your book?

Probably getting my books into the hands of readers. Goodreads is a great place to give away books and talk to readers and get reviews. It’s a great little community!

What do we have to look forward next?

I’m now working on the third and final novel of the Nile trilogy--and it’s gonna be a doozy. I have a lot of loose ends to tie up and there’s so many characters that I love and don’t want to say goodbye to!

Thanks, Stephanie!

To celebrate her book release, Stephanie Dray is offering a free copy of Song of the Nile to one lucky commenter on today's blog. (please check the blog Monday night to see if you won. Chances of winning determined by the number of entries. Print giveaway copy available only to residents in US & Canada.)


Stephanie graduated from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.

Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.


Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra’s daughter has become the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice and the one woman who can destroy his empire…

Having survived her perilous childhood as a royal captive of Rome, Selene pledged her loyalty to Augustus and swore she would become his very own Cleopatra. Now the young queen faces an uncertain destiny in a foreign land.

Forced to marry a man of the emperor’s choosing, Selene will not allow her new husband to rule in her name. She quickly establishes herself as a capable leader in her own right and as a religious icon. Beginning the hard work of building a new nation, she wins the love of her new subjects and makes herself vital to Rome by bringing forth bountiful harvests.

But it’s the magic of Isis flowing through her veins that makes her indispensable to the emperor. Against a backdrop of imperial politics and religious persecution, Cleopatra’s daughter beguiles her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright, but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?

Berkley Trade October 2011 (Trade Paperback)
# ISBN-10: 0425243044
# ISBN-13: 9780425243046

Purchase Info

Constellation Books


Anonymous said...

Good morning Stephanie. Thanks for joining us again today. What's your favorite chocolate pleasure this morning? I was up late last night, so I'm running a bit slow. Please prod if you need anything else. Song of the Nile sounds like another interesting book. Cleopatra was such an interesting person, so her daughter must have been, too. I love reading about history through books--always so much more interesting. How hard was it to research someone so far back in the past? Enjoy your day with us and thanks again for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Great post !!!

catslady said...

I've always enjoyed reading about Egypt. Such a fascinating time. And I like the idea that it's based on someone that was real.I think it always show when an author enjoys the research. Such a wonderful way to learn and enjoy a wonderful story at the same time. Are the books stand alone or should they be read in order?

Na said...

I really like the sound of this book. Selene is really making her own name rather than being Cleopatra's daughter. Ancient Egypt is a setting I don't read a lot from and I really need to change that. The setting is exotic to me but also has so much history. Thank you for a great interview.

Caris said...

Hi, Stephanie!
I'm so glad you're on this blog today...yay!

Okay, so now I absolutely have to read your book. It sounds WONDERFUL, but what are you going to do when you finish the third installment? You'll be grieving for weeks...years? All these characters must be like family by now!

So...cats and artifacts. Okay, are the cats real, or are they all just wonderful Egyptian antiques...I understand the Egyptians were brilliantly devoted to cats.

Anyway, glad you were on the blog. I think your ongoing promotion requesting reviews is BRILLIANT. Well done!

An abundance of blessings!

Stephanie Dray said...

Kim: Oh wow. How did I get here so late to the party? For my favorite chocolate, I love pots de creme ;P

It was very difficult to research Selene because most of the material is in Latin or French and I don't know either language, so I had to rely on translations!

Stephanie Dray said...

Catslady, all the books of the series will stand alone, so you can jump in at any point. However, some readers prefer to read them all in order. And I'm so glad to meet another Egypt lover!

Stephanie Dray said...

Na, in fairness, most of the book takes place in Rome, Greece and North Africa, so the setting might be very unexpected!

Stephanie Dray said...


Thanks so much! The truth is that I'm definitely going to grieve after the last book. On the one hand, I've lived with Selene now for almost a decade and I'm eager to move on. But on the other hand, she's become a part of me. I'm so reluctant to let go!