As with her previous novels, Mary McCoy’s latest features young women grappling with wide-ranging issues like friendship, privilege, and a lack of meaningful adult influence. A self-professed “history nerd,” McCoy found additional inspiration for this particular young adult book in a rather unlikely place, however: Robert Graves’ 1934 classic, I, Claudius.
Set between the assassinations of Julius Caesar and Caligula, I, Claudius explores the tumultuous early decades of the Roman Empire. The narrator, Claudius, details a time of intrigue and back-stabbing (literally), corruption, and the ruthless accumulation of power. “I don't know how I realized it,” McCoy begins, “that the Julio-Claudian Empire mapped onto an American high school so well, but it really works.”
I, Claudia is set at a top-tier high school in Los Angeles, a place where the political, economic, and social elite send their children. But for the most ambitious, the real learning experience takes place outside the classroom. True authority lies less with the principal or the student senate than it does with the secretive Honor Council, which wields the power to dole out suspensions and expulsions as they see fit. With a stammer and a limp, Claudia’s first instinct is to keep her head down and steer clear of the cut-throat brand of politics her new school traffics in. But with a little prodding, she discovers that she’s not only effective in a position of power, but that she enjoys it.
“It was a matter of taking the character of Claudius and bringing her into the 21st century,” McCoy says. “It was about figuring out how a character who came from a lot of privilege but who, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t feel like she fits into that world would navigate this setting.”
For a novel so rooted in history, told through the perspective of a young woman obsessed with preserving the “facts” for posterity, it’s fitting that contemporary events found their way into McCoy’s narrative. She entered the final stages of editing the book in October 2016, and the two candidates vying for the top political job in the United States had an unanticipated effect on the development of her characters.
“I couldn’t help it, but Donald Trump just kept finding his way into the character who's based on Caligula [Cal],” she explains. “And even though Livia (based on Augustus’ wife, Livia) is in many ways unsympathetic, Hillary Clinton helped me deepen her and make her a more complicated character. She’s a young woman who has a lot of political ambition, and thinking about Hillary, and the things she was subjected to, it helped me understand Livia's arc.”
A gripping, multifaceted character, Claudia’s unique voice is one of the most memorable and enjoyable aspects of the novel—especially in the insight Claudia offers into her unexpected journey to power. And it was that theme of power, in its many forms, that dominated much of McCoy’s thinking as the story she was telling unfolded.
“People like Richard Nixon and Trump, and the people who work for them, they didn’t just wake up one day and decide to defraud the American people,” McCoy says. “They practiced, and they probably practiced in places no one was really paying attention, like high schools and colleges. There's a certain type of person who seeks out that type of recognition and ambition,” she muses, “and I think if you decide that you want to go into politics because you want to make the world a better place, you have to become that kind of person. I think I came to the conclusion that good people have to be willing to sacrifice themselves to the machine.”
James Feder is a writer based in Tel Aviv.