An interview with Stephanie Dray

Stephanie Dray graduated with a degree in Government from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts. 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. She is the author of Cleopatra’s Daughter, a series of historical fiction novels which began with Lily of the Nile and has continued with Song of the Nile.

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 artefacts.

Stephanie very kindly spoke to Snjezana Bobic in January 2012.

Snjezana Bobic: Do you think your own personal life experiences have lead to your inspiration to portray stronger women for the younger generation of women today?

Stephanie Dray: Like Cleopatra Selene, I come from a long line of strong, powerful women. My great-grandmother was born in the hills of Italy and raised to be a goat-herd girl. Somehow she made it to the United States and lived a life full of adventure, including trips around the world and the running of her own business. I also had the good fortune to attend a women's college where I made lifelong connections and a strong sense that women were not to be viewed as rivals but as allies. The sense of inspiration I've drawn from the wonderful women in my life is one that I'd like to share with others, so that comes out in my books!

Snjezana Bobic: Cleopatra's Daughter Selene is a dominant character in both books, do you think her own mother's courage and inspiration has made Selene who she is in the books?

Stephanie Dray: I think we all struggle with our relationships to our mothers. Even when we admire our mothers, we still have to become our own people. That's a hard transition to make. For Selene, it's even harder, because everyone in Rome reviles her mother. She has to learn to take the good traits she's inherited from her mother and mould them into something new and uniquely HER. So, the short answer is yes. The long answer is a bit more complicated, isn't it?

Snjezana Bobic: Young women today are always looking for someone strong, resilient, tenacious to look up to, who did you look up to growing up?

Stephanie Dray: I had so many good examples, including my hard-working mother, who was always an overachiever in everything she tried. She was a volunteer in the Peace Corp. A biology and chemistry teacher. She earned a masters degree and learned to speak Spanish well into her career. She then went on to have a successful corporate career at Eastman Kodak company and then Johnson and Johnson. She was always tireless--I'm not sure I have the energy to match her, even now.

As far as historical figures I admired, I would have to put Cleopatra at the top of the list, but I also thought Elizabeth I of England was something special.

Snjezana Bobic: You mention you studied history at a small university, do you think that has impacted on your writing style?

Stephanie Dray: Just to clarify, I was a Government major when I attended Smith College, but there is a lot of history that comes up when studying the ways mankind invents to carve a community out of chaos. My understanding of laws and organizations and politics almost always come to bear in my writing. I think that's why there's so much intrigue in Lily of the Nile and even more political dancing in the sequel, Song of the Nile!

Snjezana Bobic: For many readers, Selene is very much like her mother and feels the burden of her mother's death greatly, do you think there is a common connection between that time and our time in regards to how women feel about their "paternal" connections?

Stephanie Dray: It's never easy to lose a parent, and yet, most of us will. I certainly don't look forward to it. It's an anxiety that touches almost every single human experience, so I doubt it was terribly different for Selene than it was for any orphan today. She was left without protection, without the family she's a wound that never healed. Given the scant evidence we have of Selene's life, we can see that she was still trying to memorialize her dead long after she'd become the Queen of Mauretania. I think they haunted her...

Snjezana Bobic: Motherhood changes Selene in the second book, she understands more deeply of why her parents did what they did, would it be plausible to say that a woman's greatest courage comes from needing and wanting to protect the ones she loves the most?

Stephanie Dray: Someone who doesn't love anyone or anything is almost assuredly a villain. They're not like the rest of us. They're what we might call sociopaths.. The rest of us fumble through life trying to balance our own instinct for self-preservation with our deep need to protect those we love. That's not an easy balance and I didn't want to make it easy for Selene. The way I wrote her story, she never wanted this child. She would have been rid of it if she could. But she loved this child in spite of all the pain that it represented to her...and I think that made her courageous and also a person we could admire.

Snjezana Bobic: Selene faces a great deal of challenges in both books, she is an intelligent young woman and finds it difficult to find her ''true self'' in the start, what advice do you have for those who are searching for themselves?

Stephanie Dray: Aren't we all always trying to find ourselves? Even when we think we know who we are, one horrible disaster might strike and we can lose our sense of ourselves. This is when we really find out who we are, I think. When we're lost. How we climb back out of the darkness and re-invent ourselves. This is getting rather deep and sad here, so let me say that my advice is that other people may tell you to do whatever your heart tells you that you want to do. I advise you to listen to what your heart tells you that you want to be. You might -want- to leave your family in the lurch to go off and climb Mt. Everest, but you might want more to be the kind of person who doesn't ever leave anyone in the lurch. Those are important things to know about yourself. So, it's not just about what you want to experience in life, but who you want to be on the journey along the way.

Thanks so much. This was a pleasure and you asked such insightful things that I fear I went a little overboard here ;)

~Stephanie Dray

Author of Historical Fiction & Fantasy

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Our Stephanie Dray reviews

Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra's daughter is the one woman with the power to destroy an 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. The magic of Isis flowing through her veins is what 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?

"Stephanie Dray’s ‘Song of the Nile’ opens immediately where ‘Lily of the Nile’ left us. The wedding of Selene to Juba gives our strong heroine a chance to push at Augustus once more; a chance to remind him again of her mother Cleopatra. A dangerous game to engage in, yet necessary for Selene to advance her position to become a restored queen of Egypt, a reborn vessel of Isis. Augustus both threatens and promises her in a single breath: “Be my Cleopatra and one day your mother’s Egypt may be yours.” It is this tantalising promise to give Selene her desire that allows Augustus to control our heroine and forms the spine of the motive for the entire novel."

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Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Where Egypt fed the world, Rome tamed it. Where Egypt fostered, Rome disciplined. Egypt was as seductive as a temptress, nurturing as a mother, and wise as a crone. To me, Rome’s spirit was all male.” So speaks Selene Ptolemy, daughter of Anthony and Cleopatra, from her gilded cage in the house of Octavia in Rome. So speaks the author as to the essence of her opening novel, of what will become a trilogy, where the fading light of Isis wars with the conquering darkness of Jupiter.

"The novel will be well received by those who like Margaret George or Philippa Gregory. The style is very much focused on relationships within a tight circle of no more than ten. Everything else around pales into a muffled background. Whilst this means the reader comes to intimately sympathize with the fates of the caged children, the context of Rome becomes no more than ventures into popular Hollywood. Images of Elizabeth Burton come unbidden, gladiatorial combat painted in by Russell Crowe or Charlton Heston fill the roaring gaps so desperately needed when the reader needs action rather than conversation to accelerate the pulse."

Read our review