Stacy Schiff is the award-winning biographer of several books, including A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005) and Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999) for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Here she discusses her fascination with Cleopatra, the subject of her much-praised biography that reportedly will become a film starring Angelina Jolie and directed by James Cameron.
What drew you to write about Cleopatra?
Cleopatra is a woman whose name we all recognize but about whom we know virtually nothing. I was amazed by my own ignorance. She’s arguably the most famous woman to have lived and what remains of her are a puddle of myths and misconceptions. Who remembers that she was Greek rather than Egyptian? Or that she was the wealthiest ruler in the West? She had been on my lists of potential subjects several times over, but it was years before I came around to a level of comfort with the gaps in the story…
It was also years before I began thinking, steadily and more seriously, about the condition of being female. Cleopatra stands, after all, at one of the most dangerous intersections of history—that of women and power. And the real story—released from the disfiguring myths and the dusty solemnities—is actually more thrilling than the Hollywood version.
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, you wrote: “Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.” How did you go about unearthing facts for your biography?
Misinformation has a life of its own, generated as much by protective families and earlier biographers as by subjects themselves. That’s not taking into account the propagandists…Cleopatra was a Greek woman whose story was written by Roman men. So consider the source was the rule here—I spent a lot of time reminding myself who was a librarian and who was a sensationalist, who had actually set eyes on Egypt, and who was writing with the zeal of a Roman convert. Then I spent a lot of time putting Cleopatra in context.
Were you in part driven by the “thirst for exactitudes,” the desire to unearth the “nonfictional Egyptian queen” that you mention in that piece?
On the paucity of material scale, I figured Cleopatra was better than Shakespeare and worse than Jane Austen, about both of whom volumes appear regularly. That said, yes, I missed the voices, the typewriters, the relics, the fairy dust that falls from the subject’s eyeglasses or dry-cleaning receipts. It was lonely out there alone with Appian, Dio and Plutarch.
And, of course, with the first-century B.C. you can take nothing for granted, with the possible exception of the tides and the weather. Not only has the geography of Alexandria itself changed, so has language, culture, religion. Don’t even ask about the calendar or about how to translate prices. I’ve never before squinted across such sparse material at so distant an era. The thrilling part, of course, is that human nature has changed not at all—Cleopatra grasped long before anyone articulated as much that the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
Can you tell me a little about your writing process?
I work inefficiently, in that I tend to do the bulk of my research before I start writing. To do otherwise is to assume you know where you’re going before you’ve mapped out the road. I find not only that my answers change as I research, but that the questions reformulate themselves. I didn’t realize how fierce, how defiant Cleopatra was until I was well into this book. Usually a certain narrative shape begins to assert itself at some point, often late in the game. In this case, a trip to Alexandria impressed on me the difficulty of returning to that city from the eastern desert, if you happened to be a 21-year-old queen, forced into exile and held off at the frontier by your brother’s army. This was not the Cleopatra of legend. This was obviously where the book opened.
Do you still get the “that’s OK, that’s not a real book” reaction from your novelist friends now that you are a Pulitzer-winning biographer?
Mostly from novelist friends I get the “you’re-lucky-you’re-writing-nonfiction-because-fiction-is-impossible-these-days” lament. But you know writers. We embrace our misery and can whine about anything. Eloquently. No novels in the closet, and I’m not brooding over one either. I am brooding over a piece about how a teenaged sprinter might redefine herself as a middle-aged marathoner, but every time I think about what that would actually entail I climb back into bed.
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Little, Brown / November / 9780316001922 / $29.99
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010