After being enchanted by Jo Graham’s debut novel Black Ships and her new novel Hand of Isis, I had some questions for Jo Graham:
Kelly: One of the ways I can tell I’ve been truly captivated by a work of historical fiction is that I get the mad urge to go out and learn the real history behind the story! So, of course, I’ve been looking up Charmian, with extremely limited success. How much is actually known about her?
Jo Graham: There isn’t much — just her name, really. Plutarch describes her as “Cleopatra’s hairdresser,” one of the “cabal of serving girls and eunuchs” who run Egypt, a state led by a woman and hence led into ruin. Plutarch is also the one who gives us the scene of Cleopatra’s death, and Charmian’s last line in Hand of Isis. To quote a translation of Plutarch, “Iras, one of her women, lay dying at Cleopatra’s feet, and Charmian, just ready to fall, scarce able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s diadem. One that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmian?” “Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.”
That’s pretty much it! I had a lot of room to work with in constructing her life.
You’ve done a great deal of work in politics. How did your political experience influence your choice of Charmian as narrator, and the way she’s written?
The idea of doing a novel with the narrator as the personal assistant to a female head of state — it’s a fascinating premise, and I drew heavily on my own experiences, particularly working for the campaigns of female Members of Congress. And certainly Charmian’s work as an event planner is heavily influenced by the work I’ve done putting on large events because I can see the things that must have gone into some of the spectacles that the historians credit to Cleopatra.
Several of the major characters in Hand of Isis are the reincarnations of characters from Black Ships, and your next novel, Stealing Fire, will feature these same “souls” as well. How did this core of characters first come into your mind? What faces were they wearing at the time?
I’ve had this core of characters with me for a long time, more than twenty years since I first put any of it on paper. It’s interesting, because Black Ships is the first book published, and Hand of Isis the second, but actually Black Ships was my fourth book and Hand of Isis my sixth. The faces they were wearing in the earliest parts, the ones first written, were their 18th/early 19th century selves, books that I hope will be published in the future. So in a way I’m writing backwards — I know where they’ll go, and I’m writing how they got there.
Because of that, the cast isn’t always exactly the same from book to book — different ones of the “core” characters are featured each time. For example, Ashterah had a relatively minor role in Black Ships, but Dion is a major character in Hand of Isis. Xandros/Emrys has been a major character in both Black Ships and Hand of Isis, but plays a much more supporting role in Stealing Fire. In some ways I think of it like an ensemble TV show, where different episodes showcase different characters, giving first one development and then another, moving one plotline forward and then another.
My narrator, my viewpoint character, Gull/Charmian, stays the same however. This is her story, the story of her soul’s adventures. One of the things I think you’ll find interesting in Stealing Fire is seeing her incarnated as a man. Lydias has very different experiences from Gull and Charmian because he is born male, and it’s fascinating to write.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, working on the research for what I hope will be the fourth published Numinous World book. J.M Cook’s The Persian Empire, Vesta Sarkhosh’s Persian Myth, Kaveh Farrokh’s Shadows in the Desert, Maria Brosius’ Women in Ancient Persia. From which you may surmise I’m probably doing Persia next! *g*
In terms of fiction, I recently devoured Elizabeth Peters’ Laughter of Dead Kings, the new Vicky Bliss mystery. I’ve been a Peters fan for a long time.
Is there one question you always wish someone would ask you, but no one ever does? If so, what is it? And what’s the answer?
If you could write professionally in anyone else’s world, what would you write? I would write the script for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie! That’s a job I could really get into!
Read my reviews of Black Ships and Hand of Isis here.
Nice interview! I loved these books, too.