The Big Idea: Maria Dahvana Headley
Author Maria Dahvana Headley, in her new novel Queen of Kings, essays one of the most famous women of all time: Cleopatra. But how does one approach writing about someone who has already been immortalized in words so many times? As you’ll discover, for Headley, it’s not about choosing just one way to come at the subject — or her story.
MARIA DAHVANA HEADLEY:
There are about five Big Ideas behind Queen of Kings. That’s one of the reasons it’s both oddly hard to market, and easy to talk about. It’s a mixture of history and dark fantasy, a dash of horror (perhaps more than a dash), monsters, classics, and Cleopatra. And there’s a vampire. Don’t stop reading. We’re not talking glitter, or luscious hotness. We’re talking hunger and blood, vengeance and battles. The vampirism and shapeshifting are justified in this story (and in ancient Egyptian myth), I promise.
The central Big Idea is easy: What if Cleopatra didn’t die? She lived in a magical culture, after all. She herself was a living god. What would the ramifications on the Roman world be, in a story in which the Queen of Egypt became, through magic, something else? We know so little about her, truly, that there’d be lots of room for invention, to braid the facts together with possibilities.
As I began to work, though, I realized that there was one gigantic moment of What If that drove the book, and the more I got into it, the more I realized that it was somehow the same thing that’d been driving me all these years. What If I combined EVERYTHING I loved into one story? What kind of story would that make?
I grew up in a 500 person town in Idaho, making periodic pilgrimages to the Boise Library, an hour away. My dad raised sled dogs in the desert, and we were far from civilization, but my mom knew that without books, I’d become even worse to deal with than I already was. (Pretty early on, I convinced everyone at my tiny school that I was a witch, and I got bitier from there, until there was a general assumption that I should go to both Special Ed and Gifted. Which I did, for a while.) When I got into the stacks, I’d skitter from shelf to shelf, plucking books at random from all the adult sections, History, Folklore, Romance, Literature, Irish legend, Egyptian Gods…
The books I got teleported me into a life I had no actual experience of, into cities filled with people who thought for a living, into myth and memory, into magic, and all of that taught me how to be a writer.
This isn’t a new story, I know. It’s the story of small town readers everywhere. My first loves were gods and monsters, sirens and Scylla. It was entirely disappointing to hit college, switch to the more boundaried Literary Fiction shelves, and realize that the stories meant for adults in our own time were devoid of such inventions. Instead of monsters, we had marriages. Instead of Gods, entire pantheons in all their spangled, irrational glory, we had only the one guy, unknowable and hungry for hymns. It made me feel as though I’d lost a great deal of magic in my reading life.
Eventually, something became clear to me. I was going to write the magic back. This book just started to come out of my brain, and it became quickly obvious that it wasn’t going to be the kind of thing I’d written before. It was going to be a combination of all of my childhood loves, turned into one big, crazy adult novel.
I wanted to write a bloody, epic, secret history full of magic and witches and gods. An old-fashioned story – very old fashioned – like something Homer might have written, but with modern language and post-Freudian access to the hearts and minds of the characters. I know. Don’t think I’m crazy. I’m not saying I’m the writer Homer was. I’m just saying that those classical epics are amazing. They’re surprising. Things happen in them that are utterly modern – and when you’re reading them, you realize that we haven’t changed much. Now, we substitute computers for Cereberus, and hospitals for Hades. The Superbowl for gladiatorial combat.
Still, there’s room for improvement. None of the original monster epics have female protagonists. None of them have monsters as heroes, either, for that matter. But I loved the idea of mixing things up. At one point, there was nothing off limits about this kind of thing. Now we look at our history as sacred truth, containing only earthly forces, but two thousand years ago, people didn’t see things that way. Histories were regularly rewritten, revised, lost and reconstructed. Wolves raised the founders of Rome, and arrows tipped with the Hydra’s venom won the Trojan War. Reality mixed with poetry, and there were gaps left in the historic narratives of Suetonius and Plutarch, places where I could see the potential for invention.
As I wrote, I mixed Greek and Roman myth with the Egyptian Book of The Dead, Norse folktales, Herodotus, Ovid, the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles, ancient world propaganda, which refer to Cleopatra as “despoina” or Mistress of the End of the World, and Virgil’s Aeneid with its geography of Hades. There were many more parallels between all of these things than you might imagine there would be. All this got tied together with the history of Antony and Cleopatra and the fall of Egypt to Rome, and the rise of Augustus.
Even in the historic versions of that story, the ones that outline the battle strategies, Dionysus marches invisibly through the streets of Alexandria the night before Egypt falls, trumpeting and singing, abandoning Antony for a new position beside Octavian, the man who would soon be emperor. That happens here too. Here, though, a Goddess comes into Alexandria and starts negotiating with the Queen for a precious item.
It’s a thing that is valued in all the abovenoted cultures, in all the aforementioned folklore, a thing without which you cannot make your way into the underworld and join your beloved dead.
The gods, of course, want her soul.