portrait Interview with Karen Essex

interviewed by Jen Bergmark

Published in Issue No. 56 ~ January, 2002

Karen Essex is an award-winning journalist, a screenwriter,
and the co-author of a biography about cult icon Bettie Page. Born in New
Orleans, she holds an MFA in Writing from Goddard College in Vermont. Kleopatra
is her first novel; its sequel, Pharoah, will be published August 2002.

Jen Bergmark: I’m interested in the origins of Kleopatra, your
first novel. Writing an epic, historical novel seems like a departure from your
work as a journalist and screenwriter. How were you initially drawn to Kleopatra
as a subject matter?

Karen Essex: Actually, I have always written fiction. I wrote another
novel which did not get published. (I like to think it was years ahead of its
time!) So the journalism was always a means to support my fiction habit. But
it is true that in 1992, I was looking for a new direction in my life. I was
considering a return to graduate studies and toying with the idea of a Ph.D.
in Comparative Literature with an emphasis on Women’s Studies. I do have a nerdy
scholarly side which I have always enjoyed indulging — and thank God, because
if I didn’t I would never have gotten through half the research for Kleopatra.
Anyway, to that end, I was going about studying the ways in which history has
either cut women out of its pages or misrepresented women, and Kleopatra seemed
to me the most egregious example of that. I couldn’t abide that one of the most
powerful women EVER has been reduced to her sexuality. It’s a great way of undercutting
a woman’s power, of discrediting her, and I guess my sense of justice wouldn’t
let that rest. That was the genesis of the idea.

Camille Renshaw: Can you talk more about how Kleopatra has historically
been reduced to her sexuality and how you approached redeeming her from that

KE: There are several reasons why Kleopatra has been reduced to her
sexuality. First and foremost, just read history and ask yourself, “where are
the women?” Historians have traditionally undercut women’s roles and reduced
them to appendages of men. Women’s stories are often told as by-products or
side-stories of the men with whom they were involved. We’re like the subplots
of history, if that. The most complete story of Kleopatra’s life is from Plutarch,
who told her story as part of his Life of Antony. Suetonius, for example,
writes about her when he writes about Julius Caesar. So that is how she is traditionally
viewed — as a lover of great men. She is rarely put at the center of her own
story, so that was a big ambition of mine.

Secondly, Kleopatra’s story has for the most part come down to us through the
pens of her enemies. The Romans, led by Octavian, who later became Augustus,
the first emperor of Rome, conducted an enormous smear campaign against her,
portraying her as some foreign temptress who had bewitched the mighty Antony.
Octavian was in a massive power struggle with Antony, but he couldn’t attack
him directly because Antony was so popular in Rome and throughout the world.
Instead, he attacked Kleopatra, preying upon Rome’s xenophobia and misogyny.

Since history is written by the winners and Octavian won, the story was written,
or rewritten, by his court biographers, court historians, court poets. Thus,
the image.

Most scholars now concur that this image is false and the work of her enemies.
The real Kleopatra raised armies and built navies. She was a brilliant woman
who spoke nine languages, dialogued with philosophers, and ran a kingdom. What
I’ve tried to do is to present her in all her glorious dimension. I haven’t
de-sexualized her by any means, but like any other sexual being, she was much,
much more than that.

CR: Given that “side stories” are the primary way we know about Kleopatra’s
life, naturally every source’s reliability had to be questioned. For instance,
there are multiple opinions regarding how Kleopatra’s life ended. Some scholars
believe suicide; others suspect deception – that she left a dead handmaid in
her costume and went into hiding for the rest of her life. How did you deal
with these contradictory scholarly opinions when writing Kleopatra?

KE: Actually, Camille, your memory is almost correct. I was toying with
the idea of having Kleopatra fake her own death and go into hiding…but it’s
not historical. Almost everyone agrees that she died in the manner that Plutarch
describes, and that is because he had access to the records of Olympus, her
personal physician. So there’s no reason to doubt the snake story, except that
the idea of putting a cobra to one’s neck is pretty outrageous. Some say it
was a symbolic death. The cobra was the symbol of pharaonic power, and whoever
died from its bite was said to ascend immediately to the gods. It has also been
suggested that she was assassinated, which is possible. But working from Plutarch
and taking into consideration her pride, I do think that it is entirely possible
that she committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by Rome.

The process of truth-finding was a lengthy one. The propaganda campaign Octavian
conducted after Kleopatra’s death was extensive and successful. It was all done
to aggrandize his victory over her, and victory is sweetest against a monster.
It was all very difficult to maneuver public opinion against Antony, whose family
had been a prestigious one for many centuries. There was little Roman glee in
his death. Also, there is little evidence to suggest that the Romans really
felt threatened by Kleopatra while she was alive. The senators were, of course,
because she was aligned with the two men who had usurped much of the senate’s
power. But as far as the populace, no, there was no rampant ill-will against
her. However, the stories of her evil that Octavian made popular after her death
essentially became her legacy, replacing the historical truth. Luckily, in recent
years, as scholars have been taking a closer look at women in history, the truth
has gradually surfaced. All evidence points to the fact that Kleopatra was beloved
by her own people, that she was a great queen, that she was a brilliant woman,
and that she was extremely loyal to her children, to her country, to her lovers.
Some scholars say that she was the true spiritual successor to Alexander the
Great; that her vision of a world empire that married eastern and western values
was the fulfillment of Alexander’s dream.

In writing these books, I looked at all the evidence, and whenever possible,
I chose to illuminate her in a favorable light. I wanted to counter all the
negative interpretations that have prevailed lo these many centuries. A nasty
reviewer asked the question, “Could Kleopatra have been this warm and wonderful?”
When I read that I just laughed. Why is it so easy to believe that she was wickedly
ambitious, or that she was a self-serving temptress? Why is that more credible
than that she was a great and formidable woman trying to save her nation from
Roman domination? I think the answer is that women of power are as terrifying
now as they were 2000 years ago. Still, ambition is a virtue in a man and a
vice in a woman. Some people do not want to let go of these ideas.

JB: Along the lines of your comment about “choosing to illuminate Kleopatra
in a favorable light,” I’m interested in hearing you talk a bit about your character
development process. What was it like working with historical figures as fictional
characters? Did the process mimic the creation of fictional characters, or was
it an entirely different experience?

KE: Initially I had much more confidence with fictional characters than
I did with the character of Kleopatra. In the beginning, I couldn’t even type
her name. I kept calling her “the queen, the queen, the queen,” until I realized
that I was being absurd. I was so intimidated by writing from the point of view
of this towering figure. I had a very hard time with it. Then, one day, I sat
at the computer, and about twenty pages came tumbling out. It was an intense
and out-of-control experience, and I was shaking as I wrote. And then, it stopped.
That was it. I was blocked from continuing for months and months. I wrote that
section in 1995, and it eventually became part of Book Two. I wrote Book One
in 1997 – 99, so you can see how long it took me to begin again. And then years
later, in 2000, when starting Book Two, Pharaoh, I finally found a use for that
part. In retrospect, I think it took a long time to separate my psyche from
my research so that I could write a good fictional character. Otherwise, we’d
have this sort of stiff animated history lesson instead of a character who has all the dimension and psychology
of a real human being.

The character who came most easily to me, funnily enough, was Julius Caesar.
I had no intention of writing from his point of view, when one day, he just
started talking to me like a wry old friend. And that was it. He almost took
over the first book and the first half of Pharaoh. I feel so close to him, as
if I know him. My friends tell me that if I ever write a memoir, it will have
to be called, “The Caesar Inside Me.” It’s odd, because he is more intimidating
than Kleopatra, and yet I had no problem writing away in his voice. Go figure.
The writing process is and will always remain a great mystery. If you can’t
accept that, you can’t write, or write well.

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Jen Bergmark is an editor for Pif Magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.