Emily Holleman’s second novel, The Drowning Kings, continues her pursuit of Cleopatra, her family and her times that she began in her debut novel, Cleopatra’s Shadows. A graduate of Yale University, Holleman worked for several years as an editor at Salon.com before transporting herself back 2,000 years to the days of ancient Egypt.
Stay Thirsty Magazine caught up with Emily Holleman at her home in Brooklyn for these five questions.
STAY THIRSTY: In your new book, The Drowning King, you live in a time and place more than 2,000 years ago. How did you manage working so deeply in the past while still living in the present? Which era would you rather be alive in?
EMILY HOLLEMAN: There were definitely times that I didn’t feel like I was living in the present. When I first started researching Cleopatra and her dynasty, I had just left a job at Salon.com, where I had to be pretty on top of what was happening around the Internet everyday, and I was so burnt out on the Internet that I basically didn’t go online for the next six months. I remember being at a party where someone made a bath salt/cannibalism joke (there was a pretty horrifying video of a Florida man attacking a homeless person going around), and I had no idea what they were talking about. My closest reference for bath salts at that point would have Hippocrates. For a long stretch, I didn’t read much of anything that was written before about 300 AD.
But social media indifference or no, I’d rather be alive now. Definitely now. While Cleopatra and Arsinoe exercised a fair amount of power, the ancient world wasn’t a particularly great place to be a woman. (And even the Ptolemy ladies all met pretty violent ends.)
STAY THIRSTY: Your book is the sequel to your debut work, Cleopatra’s Shadows. In The Drowning King you revisit Cleopatra’s life during a well-documented time. How did you weave historical fact with fiction to produce a story that has been called “A high-stakes family drama”…“Full of tenacity, adventure, and scandal”?
EMILY HOLLEMAN: It helps when the historical facts are already full of high-stakes and scandal! Cleopatra came from a dynasty rife with intrigue, incest and internecine rivalries, and the famous queen herself was at least indirectly responsible for killing three of her siblings. That said, the Ptolemies are especially fun to write about because how much we know about any particular historical moment varies dramatically. Basically all surviving records derive from Roman sources, and so when the Romans are on the scene, we have a very good sense of what’s going on in Alexandria. When the Romans are absent—well, it leaves a lot of room for imagination.
STAY THIRSTY: Your sequel has an epigraph that quotes from Sophocles’ Odepius at Colonus and states in its concluding lines, “For some of us soon, for others later, joy turns to hate and back again to love.” How did Sophocles influence your thinking when you were writing this story?
EMILY HOLLEMAN: While researching, I spent a lot of time curled up with Sophocles, Homer and Euripides. Cleopatra, Arsinoe, et al. would have been intimately familiar with the classical Greek dramas and epics, so reading them myself helped me envision how my characters might have perceived and interpreted their world. (Not surprisingly, I’m a big believer that we are—in no small part—shaped by the stories we tell and are told.) In particular, Sophocles gave me a better understanding of the importance of fate and dreams in the ancient world. And, besides, the Ptolemies, especially the late Ptolemies, are an inherently a tragic family: one fated to tear itself a part and ultimately fall before Rome.
STAY THIRSTY: As you look back to the social and economic period of Cleopatra’s time, how much did outside events contribute to the fate of the royals vs. the personalities of the royals themselves?
EMILY HOLLEMAN: On a macro scale, I’m not sure there’s anything any of the Egyptian royals could have done to stave off a Roman takeover. By the mid-first century BC, nearly every other independent or semi-independent state in that part of the world had already become a Roman province, and Egypt was already under pretty significant Roman sway. (The Ptolemies had been regularly asking the Senate for help settling their dynastic disputes for almost a century before Cleopatra and Arsinoe were even born.) That said, the details of Egypt’s decline and fall—the toxic and intoxicating relationship between Egypt and Rome, the effect of Cleopatra’s romances on the popular imagination. Well, I’ve got to hand that to Cleopatra.
STAY THIRSTY: If you had a chance to chat with Cleopatra and Arsinoe today, what would you ask them and what do you think they would ask you?
EMILY HOLLEMAN: I’d actually want to ask something along the lines of your previous question: Do either of them believe that there was another strategy that would have allowed their dynasty to survive? If so, what would they have done differently? Do they have any regrets? I’d also like to ask how they felt about each other. In my novels, I assume that they did at one point share a sisterly bond (the fact that the historical Arsinoe did flee with Cleopatra to Syria supports that idea), but I’d be curious as to what each of them had to say.
I have no idea what they’d ask me. Maybe why I didn’t just change history and give everyone a happy ending.