Cleo is a fast-paced re-imagining of Cleopatra’s life before she became the Pharaoh of legends. Check here for my review.
So, without further ado, here’s what Lucy had to say when I interviewed her about about Cleo…
Hi Lucy, it’s great to have you here on my blog today. Your new book for young adults, Cleo tells the unknown story of Cleopatra, before she became the legendary figure that she is today. I’m going to kick off by asking you what made you want to tell that part of Cleopatra’s story?
About three years ago, I was reading a book about Cleopatra, and it occured to me that we know almost nothing about her life until she walks into recorded historical events as pharaoh. Basically, her early years are a great big hole in history – and there’s no greater gift to a writer than that.
Once I’d done a bit of digging, I found out Cleopatra had described herself as a living incarnation of the goddess Isis. Being a total mythology fanatic, that was the fact which lit a spark in my brain and made it start ticking away.
Writers always ask that ‘what if’ question – so I asked myself ‘what if Cleopatra really was helped to the throne by a goddess?’ Then I wondered how it would work to mix real history with a sprinkling of paranormal to explain how she became this amazing woman that we’re still talking about over two thousand years later? Her strong character must have been formed in that early part of her life – and immediately I had that thought, I was totally driven to tell that part of her story. The beginnings of Cleo were born in that moment.
How much of Cleo’s story is research based and how much was added in there by you?
That hole in history I just mentioned is pretty wide and deep. We don’t know exactly what year Cleo was born (maybe 60BC). We don’t even know for sure who her mother was either (possibly a concubine, a member of the pharaoh’s court – or maybe her own sister!). What IS certain is that her father was the pharaoh Ptolemy Auletes (the Flute Player), who got chucked out of Alexandria and exiled to Rome for spending too much money – and that she had three sisters (two of whom became pharaohs in place of their father), and two brothers.
So, to answer your question, there was a historical framework within which she existed – but no actual information about her. That gave a huge amount of leeway for me to imagine events in her life as I wanted them to happen. As long as I stuck to the known facts (and I researched her family and what they were up to at the time pretty intensively) then I was free to do more or less what I wanted to in terms of the story itself.
How did you find the voice for Cleo? It’s quite a bold step to give her such a modern-sounding voice – did you specifically want it that way or is that just how she came to you?
Thank goodness you asked – as I know a lot of people may be a bit puzzled by the way Cleo sounds. The thing is, we have no idea how the Ancient Egyptians would have talked, and I wasn’t ever going to write the book in formal court language!
When I started out, I was writing in third person. I got to twenty thousand words, and it was obvious to me that the voice wasn’t working at all. So I junked the whole thing and started again in first person. I could hear Cleo’s voice in my head right away – she just started talking to me like that, so I went with it.
As I was writing for teenagers, and Cleo is that age herself, I very much wanted her character to be accessible, to have the same sort of internal worries and fears about love and appearance and friendships that a modern teenager would have – except tuned to an Ancient Egyptian setting, obviously. I don’t think those very human concerns are things that change very much over the centuries.
You’re right, it was a bold step to give her a modern-sounding voice, and I know that may not be how everyone thinks Cleopatra would sound – but I really hope readers can get past that and understand that there IS no one definitive version of her. This is only my interpretation, and I stand by it proudly.
The setting for Cleo is obviously in Ancient Egypt – have you ever been to Egypt yourself? How much research did you have to do to recreate the places Cleo visits?
I have been to Egypt, but only to the Red Sea part, not the part where the book is set. I very much wanted to go back and sail down the Nile to get a proper feel for it, but sadly world events got in the way, and I was told it was too dangerous to do the kind of trip I was planning.
I’ve spent a LOT of time on research, though – I’m pretty obsessive about it, if truth be told, and have piles of books and a massive cache of weblinks to obscure writings on Ancient Egyptian life. Let’s not even get started about the time I’ve spent poring over maps of Alexandria, the Royal palace, the Nile and Google Earth-mapping the general topography of Egypt.
I wanted to make the settings as authentic as possible, so I went back to original sources where I could. Sometimes I had to stop myself, though. Researching is a bit like following a treasure trail – there’s always a new Fact of Great Usefulness to stumble across. I often have to give myself a shake and tell myself to get on with writing the damn book!
The gods and goddesses feature heavily in Cleo – did you always plan to make them a main part of your story?
Yes – myth geek that I am, that was always an essential element. The gods and goddesses got into every part of the Ancient Egyptians’ lives (and most certainly into their deaths, given the amazing household goods found in their graves, which they believed would go with them into the afterlife). I’ve just made them visible – to Cleo, at least – and able to act through their human intermediaries.
But I don’t believe in too much deus ex machina, so Cleo has to work things out on her own. She can’t rely on her patron goddess to fix things for her. It was important (and I hope character-building) for her to struggle to achieve what she needs to – and also that there be penalties for her straying off the path that has been set out for her. Power doesn’t come without price!
Cleo ends on one hefty cliffhanger – what made you decide to end her story there (for now)?
I know…I know☺. The answer is, Cleo had done what she needed to do for that particular bit of the story, and it just seemed the right place to stop. I’m mean like that <evil grin>. I’ve read so many books where I’m turning pages and shouting ‘Noooo! You CAN’T finish THERE!” at the writer – and for once I wanted the reader to shout at ME! Sorry (#notsorry).
What can we expect from the next installment in Cleo’s story? And when is it coming out?!
Well…it’s going to be called Chosen, and it’s coming in March 2016 (so not even a year to wait). I can’t tell you much, because *spoilers* but there’s going to be a lot of tension between Cleo and Khai (hot Librarian spy boy and the current love of her life, for those of you who’d like to know), an unexpected love story for Charm (Cleo’s best friend and body servant), and a meeting with someone who will feature largely in Cleo’s later life.
The setting moves away from Alexandria, and takes in the desert, the Great Green Sea (what the Ancient Egyptians called the Mediterranean) and Rome. Of course, there’s plenty of immortal action too. I’m just putting the final touches to the manuscript now, and I have to say, even I am very excited about it – and that’s having lived with it in my head for what seems like forever.
The cover for Cleo is really quite something (and actually one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place). Did you have much say on how that turned out? Is it how you imagined it would be or did you imagine something different?
A good cover is a treasure – and I’m so glad you like it. When I first saw it, my jaw literally dropped and I cried at its beauty (in a good way). The Orchard designer who worked on the book, Thy Bue, has done a stellar job, and I am so grateful to her. All I did was send my editor the Pinterest page I made for the book (you can see it here), and veto any pictures of pyramids – other than that, no input at all! I absolutely wasn’t expecting how it turned out – but I love it more than I can even tell you. Luckily, everyone I’ve spoken to seems to feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t like it.
A lot of your other stories are picture books/for younger readers – what made you want to try writing for an older audience?
I write for pretty much all ages – last year I had a picture book out, this year it’s four books in my new middle-grade Beasts of Olympus series, an early reader and Cleo. I guess that’s a bit unusual, but it all helps keep my writing brain active.
I’ve written one novel before, for the 9-12 age-group, but when the idea for Cleo came along I knew at once it was for an older audience. As I read a lot of YA (especially UKYA), it seemed like the right place for my writing to go, and I felt very comfortable doing it. 85,000 words is definitely a major commitment, though, and I do need much more thinking and planning time than for the younger books!
And here are my quick fire questions to round off with:
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading the proof of Stone Rider, a debut UKYA dystopian from David Hofmeyr which is coming in June. Absolutely loving it so far. It’s kind of Hunger Games meets Star Wars podracing meets The Road!
Favourite book as a child?
Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes (Greek myths, of course!) and also The Secret Garden. i identified with that one because I was a quite lonely only child who spent a lot of time mooching around gardens.
Favourite writing drink and snack?
Either Earl Grey tea (no sugar and must be Williamson’s – I’m fussy about tea), or a pint glass of water with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Snacks are strawberry shortcake or chocolate (Maranon from Peru when I can get it – but any if not. Chocolate is a writing necessity).
5 desert island books?
J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the RIngs; Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea quintet; Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter; Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths; Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller series. Oops. That’s six *slaps own wrist*. You may have noticed I’m also a fantasy geek.
Favourite place to read?
In bed, snuggled under the duvet with a hot water bottle and a dog for company.
Any hidden talents?
I can roll my eyes in different directions (I don’t do it often because it’s been known to make people feel a bit sick).
What fictional world would you love to live in?
Ooh! What a great question. This is something I think about a lot, and I can never decide. Probably somewhere like Robin McKinley’s Damar, or Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci or Dark Lord of Derkholm worlds (I mean – griffin brothers and sisters. How cool is that?). I like the idea of a magical and quasi-historical ‘world next door but one’, which is what I have on my Twitter profile as the place I live. (I’d have to be one of the magic users, though – that kind of goes without saying). I also have my very own like-to-live-in world in my head, with bits stolen from all the books I love best. If only…
Massive thanks to Lucy for taking part today.
And now for something even more exciting (if you think you can handle more excitement!)
Lucy is very kindly giving away a copy of Cleo and an awesome Cleo mug to one lucky entrant of this giveaway. You can enter below via some of the usual means, plus a few Egyptian themed questions to spice things up a bit.