One wonderful thing about writing this blog is that it gets me out and about in search of inspiring stories and ideas to share. Today, I treated myself to an enjoyable event: Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, was interviewed by another author about her new book, Cleopatra: A Life. Stacy won her Pulitzer for Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), a subject where there was ample material to draw upon. In contrast, Cleopatra is a cipher: no primary records about her reign have survived and her life has been interpreted and conjured up mainly by men, from Plutarch to Shakespeare. So the challenge for Stacy was to get past the fragmented sources and somehow evoke a richer fuller picture of Cleopatra.
The book certainly delivers on that score! I am the proud owner of a signed copy,
inscribed: “This book belongs to Karin. All best, Stacy Schiff.” What a treat to dip into it! Schiff does a masterful job of jettisoning lots of the myths and mistakes about Cleopatra. She wasn’t Egyptian, for example, she was Greek. She didn’t jump out of a rolled-up rug to greet Caesar. She didn’t kill herself with an asp, but with some form of painless poison. You get the idea.
What emerges from Stacy’s artful pen is a bold, powerful woman with a masterful sense of strategy and theatre. Cleopatra was highly educated, spoke eight languages, and was an accomplished speaker and popular ruler. But drawing a full-bodied portrait of the drama queen was immensely challenging. Stacy describes reading a humorous story in Plutarch about Cleopatra and Mark Antony as a tipping point. The two-thousand-year-old dialogue came alive for her: “Suddenly I felt you could set a scene. You actually had a sense of Cleopatra’s coyness and her sauciness and her wit. Even from those very, very few lines, I thought you could begin to glimpse a personality.” In that moment Stacy felt she might be able to bring her subject to life. Bravo!