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All about Hand of Isis

A reader says, "The first book I read by you was Hand of Isis. Ancient Egypt has always fascinated me, and in particular I read as much material as I can get my hands on that involves Cleopatra and her reign. I was honestly very pleasantly surprised at how well-researched the book was - it really brought her reign to life for me! The copy I have now is very well-thumbed (as is my copy of Black Ships) - I've just read it again for the twelfth or so time. My question is, what first interested you in Egypt, and what in particular prompted you to write a book about her from the viewpoint of one of her confidantes? Which character, or characters, have the most resonance with you personally? Were there any characters that were especially hard to write (for either historical or personal reasons)?"

I'm absolutely delighted you enjoyed Hand of Isis so much! Thank you!

Now to your questions. My fascination with the story that would become Hand of Isis began one night in the spring of 1973, when I was not quite five years old. My parents had a movie they wanted to see on tv, and if you remember in those days you had to watch things when they were broadcast, not when it was convenient! So they were in a hurry to put me and my little sister to bed before it started. My sister dropped off like a lightbulb in her crib, but I wasn't ready to sleep. After being sung to and told to count some sheep and be quiet, I lay there in the dark while they went downstairs. I could hear the tv playing commercials, and I wondered to myself what could be so nifty, so utterly cool, that I absolutely had to be in bed at ten of eight? What could they be watching that was so special?

I decided to go see. I slipped out of my bed without waking the baby and tiptoed halfway downstairs. The stairs had a banister rail for about the last five steps, and if a small person was quiet as a mouse, she could sit on the steps and look into the living room and see the tv. The grownups couldn't see you unless they turned around, and they were settling down in the big chairs to watch, complete with a bowl of ice cream for my mother and cigarettes for my father. So if I was quiet, I had it made!

I was quiet. I could be very quiet when highly motivated. And sure enough, there was the story starting. There was a voice over telling a story and what looked like drawn on pictures of old things, very dramatic pictures, a story about Romans and things that happened a long time ago.

And then the pictures changed. The drawn on galley under full sail became a real galley, a photograph. The sketched sail moved, filling with wind. The air was full of gulls, and the sea heaved. The picture came to life. "And Caesar came to Alexandria," the voice over said. It said other things, but I don't remember them. What I remember is the city, the sails, the shape of the ship and the bend of the harbor, the brilliance of it all. It came to life. It stopped being a picture and became real as my dreams never do when I awaken.

The past lived.

The movie, of course, was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's Cleopatra. I stayed absolutely quiet for better than an hour, all the way up to Caesar's murder. I suppose I must have made some noise then, some intake of breath, some sound of dismay, some cry, because the parents heard me. They popped out of their chairs with loud exclamations of how it was way past bedtime and what was I doing there and how long had I been watching this thing which was not for kids and and and and. I got bundled back to bed so fast. I went to sleep dreaming of Alexandria.

Not too much later, perhaps it was even the next morning, I woke up ahead of everyone else. I padded downstairs in my nightgown and got one of my father's big books off the shelves. I wasn't supposed to touch the grownup books because I might tear them or slime them with sticky fingers, but I knew this one had pictures like the movie, so I got it. I remember spreading it out on the carpet, carefully examining the color plates of Luxor and the bust of Nefertiti, of photographs of statues and pyramids. I could read some of it, but not the big words. Not the long words with too many vowels that were real names, not the words like "archaeology" and "stratigraphy." And not the words that were pictures of animals, though they were no more strange than the others. I would learn the words, all the words, and then I would know the story.

Then I would make the past live. Then I would be able to do that magic.

That was the beginning of Hand of Isis. I played at being the handmaiden. I'd draw a bath pretending it was for Cleopatra. And as I got older I learned everything I could about the time and place, with Charmian always in the back of my head -- a real character whose thoughts and feelings were easy to find.

Twenty years later, in 1993, I began writing the book that would be The General's Mistress. One of the first scenes I wrote was the dinner scene with Elza and Michel, the first time they've had a long conversation. It was clear to me then that this was the echo of another scene, a scene intruding beneath the surface that they were only partially aware of, a scene between Charmian and someone named Marcus who was a Roman noble. So I wrote the scene with Elza and Michel half aware of the other scene as they are -- more aware, perhaps than Elza, though Michel remembers more than she does. I found Charmian and Marcus' farewell through Elza and Michel's hello.

Other scenes followed. The dress Elza wears at Moreau's party when she meets Michel is an echo of Charmian's. The play Elza is doing in Milan is Antony and Cleopatra. And then some of the scenes which are not in The General's Mistress but in the later and still upcoming The Marshal's Lover were such clear echoes as well -- the ballroom scene in Warsaw when Elza meets Cleopatra's new incarnation. I realized that one of the major motivations that Elza and Michel share is this: not another end game like that. Not another Caesarion killed, another Actium where Michel kills his friends, not another story that ends, "Was this well done of your lady?" That is the thing they fear most of all, and it's the driving passion behind their decisions in The Marshal's Lover and beyond. Only by confronting that past can they choose differently. Only by understanding that life can they avert tragedy again.

So I had to write it next, didn't I? The General's Mistress was the book I finished next after Black Ships, though it was published later. But it was time to write Hand of Isis. I needed to know what happened. I needed to tell that story next. It was time.

Does that answer your question?


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 26th, 2014 05:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for explaining! And yes, it does.

I actually have a library copy of The General's Mistress on my "library table" as we call it here at home - I haven't started it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I've almost made a game of trying to guess which characters are which across the books - especially Charmian and Dion.

Jun. 26th, 2014 07:26 pm (UTC)
I'm excited you love Hand of Isis so much! That makes my day.

I hope you enjoy The General's Mistress. It's the first book of several in that period with the same main characters, followed by The Emperor's Agent, which is already out. The third one, The Marshal's Lover, I hope will be out by the end of the year. Elza is very much Charmian and Lydias, almost sees them as a dichotomy within herself, naming them Ida and Charles. It's a derangement that helps her survive. I would really, really love to hear what you think!

(Also, Malkavian? I used to LARP Tremere a long time ago!)
Jun. 26th, 2014 11:37 pm (UTC)
I will definitely remark with my impressions when I'm done reading it. I love the synopsis, if that means anything! I hadn't known about Emperor's Agent or Marshal's Lover, and I shall be sure to check those out as well.

And yay Malkavians! I'm a longtime tabletop RPGer, and spent many happy evenings throughout my first years of college playing Vampire: the Masquerade. The Malkavians were always my favorite clan (I saw a bit too much of myself in them), and the clan ideology and history became philosophically important enough to me that I have the Malkavian clan symbol tattooed on my inner left forearm. It was actually VTM that inspired me to write my first horror novel many years later, so needless to say it remains near and dear to my heart.

Jun. 28th, 2014 04:39 pm (UTC)
You know how at the end of Hand of Isis she tells Marcus, "Don't do it again?" In a sense, the Elza books are the story of how he tries not to do it again -- how they all do, how they all seek a better ending to the story. Emrys turns up in the second book, The Emperor's Agent, as does Sigismund. (This is the little preview of her first meeting with Sigismund.) But in order to not do it again, they'd have to believe, wouldn't they? And believing is the hardest thing in the modern world.

Oh that's really cool! I played The Masquerade some, mostly as a LARP. I usually played Tremere, though I also played Ventrue some. Also nerd! :D
Jun. 28th, 2014 04:49 pm (UTC)
I do remember. And that's awesome. I'm looking forward to the unfolding!

I loved Sigismund so much. He was an amazing character, and I honestly was hoping I'd see more of him in succeeding books (so thank you!).

I never played a Tremere, although I did play one Ventrue, and one Gangrel that was so well-behaved that people mistook her for Ventrue (on the back of my character sheet, I'd printed in block letters "I AM A GANGREL WITH MANNERS!"). Once she popped the Protean claws, though, the game was up. :p
Jun. 29th, 2014 12:57 pm (UTC)
I love Sigismund too. And besides Dion, he's the only one who lives through all this. It was so nice to come back to him in The Emperor's Agent as Gervais Subervie. He and Elza will be good friends, an excellent thing for her at that point in her life, to be friends with someone who is absolutely not romantically interested.

A Gangrel with manners! :D
Jun. 29th, 2014 05:19 pm (UTC)
That's another thing I liked about Hand of Isis - that Charmian and Sigismund were friends without being romantically involved. It's a rare thing to see that in literature (and something I frequently complain about).

It's hard to write those friendships too, I think, because we're so socially engineered towards the idea of opposite-sex relationships being romantic or sexual almost without exception. It's important to communicate that idea especially to young people, so they realize that friendship is a valuable thing that they can offer to someone else, and accept in turn. I think we don't necessarily think of friendship as being as valuable as sex or marriage as a society, so the more that idea is communicated, especially in art or literature, the better.

I'm getting all philosophical here!

But yeah, a Gangrel with manners - I've always been drawn to playing characters that didn't fit the norm, probably because I'm such a weirdo in real life. That particular Gangrel was a veterinarian, and had studied at Oxford, so she was very literate and cultured, a thing that made her much maligned among other Gangrel!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )