The Stacy Schiff interview

September 23, 2011

My mom gave me today’s interviewee’s book, Cleopatra: A Life, for Christmas and I’m reading it right now. As I read, the book got me thinking so much that I couldn’t help but jot down questions I would ask the author if I spoke with her. Then I just decided to actually ask her. It’s a fascinating book written with dry wit  and an eye for tantalizing detail which is especially admirable when you think about how little concrete information many of us actually have about its subject. Schiff is also the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Institut Français d'Amérique. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. You can learn much more about her here.

When you envisioned Cleopatra, did you tend to mentally insert the face of anyone in particular, famous or otherwise?  
No.  I wasn't overly concerned with the face.  It was the personality for which I was searching. From Plutarch in particular we get the sense of woman who charmed and flattered and (intellectually) seduced, also one with a fierce sense of humor.

The first pages of the book detail a whirlwind of murder. Someone ascends to the throne and immediately get murdered. Were none of the Ptolomies or their family members able to see this coming or prevent it?  
Nope. Really an orgy of backstabbing and murder. And as Plutarch reminds us, this was standard operating procedure in dynasties. Think of the Medicis! It happened, sighs Plutarch, "in the best of families."

Life in Alexandria seemed so chaotic then--was it, to them, or was it just life?   
Doesn't strike me as any more chaotic than say, New York or Mumbai. The city was vibrant and restless, as multiethnic cities in particular tend to be. It was also artistically fertile and as sophisticated as any city of its time.

Are there any certified descendants of Cleopatra or any of the big players from your book around?  
The bloodline ends with Cleopatra's grandson, the King of Juba. He is -- to drive home the point about dynasties -- murdered in Rome by Caligula. Do you know what this means for the biographer? No one to interview!

If you could meet Cleopatra in real life, what’s something you’d love to hear her confirm or deny herself?  
She dressed as a goddess, comported herself as a goddess, passed herself off before her subjects as a goddess. Did she truly think of herself as divine? Of course I'd have a few questions about her relationships with Caesar and Antony as well.

This is sort of a silly question but why was the ancient symbol of royalty a diadem?  It seems like a simple ribbon is something that anybody could acquire. Why not something more rare?
Wonderful question. I don't know the origin of the diadem, but it was a constant among Hellenistic rulers. I bet there weren't  a lot of imitators.

What helped you recreate what the palace looked like? The way you describe it is so enticing and vivid, yet it’s not like we have photos that helped you.  
Indeed there's nothing whatever left of Cleopatra's palace. Josephus's descriptions of Herod's palace are precise, and Cleopatra's could only have been far more opulent. (Her fortune far, far exceeded his, and a Ptolemy made a religion of luxury.)  Athenaeus -- born in Egypt, if later -- is very specific on the fittings. Lucan and Aristeas go on at length, though I took those descriptions with a grain of salt. Among modern reconstructions I leaned on Inge Nielsen, Hellenistic Palaces, and Maria Nowicka, La maison privee dans l'Egypte ptolemaique.  

In that same section, you talk about the meals, flowers, processions, and so on that went on during Cleopatra’s reign: that all sounds great, but who was in charge of executing all that?  
An army of florists and lamplighters and seamstresses and silver-polishers and specialists of all kinds. And above them an administrative staff that knew not only about how to throw a party, but how to make pageantry work to political end.

When I envision researching a book such as this, I imagine the author in the stacks of a dusty, ancient library, poring over materials that haven’t been accessed in hundreds of years. What’s the most interesting place that you did your research? What were the most fascinating sources you found?   
Most interesting spot was probably the eastern desert, near the fortress of Pelusium, where Cleopatra was camped with her mercenary army when Caesar arrived. It looks little different today than it did in her time, save that the fortress is in ruins and the Mediterranean is further away. As for sources, the nuggets came from reading around in the classical authors. Plutarch's sigh about bloodthirsty dynasts above, for example, does not come from his Life of Antony.  

Which parts of the book were most difficult to fill in, in terms of fact (or what we can assume as fact?)   
Why exactly did she Cleopatra to Rome, and for how long? How did she react on hearing of Caesar's murder? How did her people greet her? How did they address her? I could write a book of the unanswered questions.

Of the subjects you’ve written about, who do you think would be the most enjoyable to spend time with (within your best guess?)  
A very close tie between Ben Franklin and Saint-Exupery. If you felt like sharing a bottle of wine, the former. If you felt like drinking a lot of caffeine, the latter.

Whom do you think you’d like to write about in the future?   
My next book is on the Salem witch trials. I like to think that is the answer to your question.

Who’s a subject that you’d love to read a book on but don’t have it in you to actually research and execute?  
I've several times approached and abandoned a subject which would require time in Mexican archives.  

What’s the best or most enjoyable biography you’ve read lately?  
I've just started Robert Massie's new Catherine the Great biography. John Matteson's Margaret Fuller is next. Most delicious recent read, if more the biography of a time: Anka Muhlstein's Balzac's Omelette, published next month.

Have you discovered a theme, after all the books you’ve written, in terms of which part of the process is most difficult for you?  
The beginning, the middle, and the end. Seriously, probably getting started, as it's difficult to know which questions to ask when you're still limited by your own ignorance and entirely prey to misconceptions. Asking a difficult question in an interview does not come easily to me either. Not a problem in writing about Cleopatra, of course.

How does it feel to be the 293rd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?  
You ask truly terrific questions, though I bet you did even of interviewee #1.