An Interview with Kristiana Gregory about Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti: In the Historical Note at the end of the diary it says that little is know about the early years of Cleopatra and that the information that has survived is often contradictory and confusing. Given this, how did you decide what to put in Cleopatra's diary? As a researcher, how did you decide what was truth?
Kristiana Gregory: Digging into history of 2000 years was a great challenge, and a frustrating one. Because some well-respected scholars disagree on what is true — from important events to dates to spellings of names — I was glad Cleopatra was to be fiction, not biography. The story was to be set during her early teens, so I relied on commonly held beliefs to frame an outline, such as Cleopatra's lineage, the political climate in Rome and Alexandria, and social customs of the day. Some experts said King Ptolemy sailed to Rome during this time, and may have taken young Cleopatra with him. I chose to run with that because it made a more interesting story than if she'd just hung around Egypt the whole time. Also, I thought readers might enjoy peeking back into ancient Rome as well.
RFA & LMP: Is it true that much of what we know about Cleopatra was written by her enemies and is, therefore, slanted toward depicting her negatively?
KG: It is true that most, if not all, of what was written about her was done so by men, many of them Romans. Since she defied the Roman Empire it's possible some writers slandered her to make themselves look good, and to stay on the good side of the emperor. Whether they were actually her enemies or just writing through the cultural and political biases of the day, I don't know.
RFA & LMP: What surprised you most in your research on the life of Cleopatra?
KG: She was apparently quite smart and curious. Plutarch reports she was fluent in several languages and perhaps not physically attractive. I guess my image of Cleopatra was based on the film starring Elizabeth Taylor who, of course, was a beautiful, sultry movie star.
RFA & LMP: Throughout the diary Cleopatra always seems to be thinking about when and how she will become Queen of Egypt. She seems very calculating. What one word would you use to describe her? Why?
KG: Focused. Cleopatra understood her destiny, that she or one of her siblings would inherit the throne of Egypt. Another slant on the word "calculating" is that she knew there were consequences for behavior, good or bad. Although Cleopatra had strong emotions she disciplined herself to think and reason carefully before she acted.
RFA & LMP: You dedicate this book to your father. How did he inspire you?
KG: My parents were vigorous readers. While I was growing up our living room had bookshelves along one wall with a fireplace in the center. There were books stacked on tables and bedsides, books spilling out of cupboards, and plenty of cozy chairs. My father especially loved writers from antiquity and often read aloud from Plato and Aristotle. So when I began research for Cleopatra many years later, it felt as if I were visiting old friends as I read those guys for myself. Nearly every day that I worked on the manuscript I would think, "I'm learning so much, I can't wait for Dad to read this." After finishing, I sent him the dedication page. He was overjoyed and so honored. I'm sad to say that a few weeks later he died unexpectedly. His death was a terrible shock. But I'm happy that even though he didn't read the book itself, he did know it was for him and because of him. Most of all, I'm glad I didn't wait one day longer to let my father know how much he meant to me.
RFA & LMP: You've written three books in the Dear America series, but this is the first book you've written in the Royal Diaries series. Did the process of writing a Royal Diaries book differ in any way from what you did in creating your Dear America books?
KG: Yes. Fictional characters narrate the Dear America books, so you can just make stuff up about their personalities, what they did etc. But because real people tell the Royal Diaries, the challenge lies in being as accurate as possible, but not too rigid because, after all, the story is fiction. For instance, it would have been fun to have twelve-year-old Cleopatra meet the great Julius Caesar, but historically it's unlikely this happened. A fictional narrative could have, though.
RFA & LMP: What can the readers of Cleopatra, Daughter of the Nile learn from Cleopatra's life or the lives of other ancient rulers? Is there any connection to their own lives?
KG: The lives of children are valuable whether they are born into royalty or poverty. Cleopatra's most beloved friends were Puzo, a former slave, and Neva, a commoner.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.