Stacy Schiff is the author of Cleopatra: A Life.
From her Q & A with Nora Dunne at the Christian Science Monitor:
You’ve done biographies on Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov (wife of “Lolita” author), Benjamin Franklin, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (of “The Little Prince”), and now Cleopatra. How do you pick your subjects?--Marshal Zeringue
It’s more accurate to say that they pick me. This was an idea I had a long time ago, in 1999. The idea kept reappearing on my list of potential subjects. This one was irresistible because of its all-star cast. You really can’t do better than Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra.
And I’m always fascinated by a world in transition. Here you have a very textured, very restive moment in which everything is about to change. It’s 30 years before the birth of Christ when Cleopatra dies. It’s the end of a dynasty, the end of Egyptian autonomy, the end of the Roman Republic, the end of the Hellenistic age. It’s a real turning point.
It’s also a look at a very powerful woman, of which there are not that many. Also the misconceptions really thrilled me. Say the name Cleopatra and we all think of Elizabeth Taylor. There was so much to clear away in terms of myth.
Much of what we know about Cleopatra comes from incomplete records and “tendentious historians” who never even met her. How was it possible then, to create a comprehensive and accurate book about the famed ruler?
In some cases you do have multiple sources who say the same thing. And there are things you can take with a degree of certainty, or with all certainty. For example, everyone is clear about the fact that Cleopatra was no great beauty, but irresistible in her charm.
I had to...[read on]