A (Second) Conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley

Today marks the official release date of Maria Dahvana Headley's first novel, Queen of Kings, and to celebrate the occasion, I present to you below a conversation Maria and I had via instant message yesterday. This is a Mumpsimus first: a second interview with someone. Though I've done a bit of interviewing here over the years, I have never, until now, returned to an interview subject. Talking with Maria is always a great joy, and there isn't a person I'd rather do my first second interview with.

The first interview, back in 2005, with Maria is here. But now the first in what perhaps will become a series here: the (Second) Conversation With... series. We shall see...

Queen of Kings is a historical fantasy set in 30 B.C., and it stars Cleopatra. But not exactly Cleopatra as we have understood her in most of the history books -- for though this Cleopatra conforms to the known history, certain elements of that history are explained via supernatural phenomena. It's a bloody fascinating adventure, and I mean that in every sense of the phrase "bloody fascinating". I am not, I must admit, generally much interested in history or literature from before about 1580 C.E., but nonetheless, I found Queen of Kings to be a real page-turner; if it can keep somebody like me interested over its entire length, then I expect folks who really love ancient history and myths will be in ecstasies of joy whilst reading.

Also, don't miss Maria's music playlist for the book at Largehearted Boy.

Matthew Cheney: I know you were working on another novel when you found yourself suddenly amidst Queen of Kings. What was it about ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, and magic that took over your imagination?

Maria Dahvana Headley: I think it was the fact that the other novel was about my family history. Anything might have looked desirable in comparison, particularly after 4 years of working on that book. Kidding. Ish. Queen of Kings hit me suddenly one afternoon when I'd been roaming around moaning about how I couldn't seem to finish the other book.

I didn't even know it was about Cleopatra at first -- this book is the first installment of a trilogy, and I had the idea for the second book before I had the idea for this one. I ended up following a character backward into the classical period, 30 BC, which is when Queen of Kings is set. It's not really a spoiler to say that my main character is immortal. There's no time travel, but if you've got an immortal protagonist, you can do a lot of interesting things in terms of setting.

MC: I'm assuming the project you had been working on, the family history one, did not involve immortal creatures, shape-shifting, spells, etc. Was the move from the relative realism of writing about family stuff to writing a fantasy-within-history liberating?

MDH: Actually, I come from a family of immortals. It's one of our little secrets. Well. I revise: We're a bit more X-Men, in the Headley clan, actually.

Yeah, even though Queen of Kings has history at its core -- the fall of Alexandria to the Roman Army, the death of Mark Antony and of Cleopatra, and the rise of the Emperor Augustus -- and therefore required a bunch of research, it was still easier than writing a book which was based in people I actually know. This seems weird, no doubt, because my first book, The Year Of Yes, was a memoir, but in a memoir, the whole story is from your own POV. That's not too hard to deal with. In this novel, the story was from everyone's point of view. That's actually something the Unnamed Former Gigantic Novel shares with Queen of Kings. When I started writing it, I realized that I could get inside the heads of everyone, including the villains, and make some of the the things that happen in the history make sense in a way they've never made sense to me before.

Also, I could invent monsters. Being able to invent monsters is inherently liberating.

MC: Monsters of liberation!

(If I ever wrote a book about China Mieville, that might be a good title...)

MDH: (I wish you would write a book about China Mieville. I love his work. I'm halfway through The Scar right now.)

MC: Speaking of monsters, my giant cat Oliver just jumped up on my lap because he thinks typing is fun to watch.

MDH: I have two cats swanning about my feet. They like typing. They like dinner more.

MC: I forget I'm in the future and you're in the past -- we had dinner here an hour ago!

MDH: It is only 4:30. Their demands are unreasonable.

MC: Were you concerned when creating monsters to create really original ones, or to riff off of previous types, or both, or...?

MDH: In this case, I wanted to make monsters that would make sense in the classical world. That said, I riffed off of mythology from all over the place. There are mythic snakes in almost every culture. One of my creatures, one of Sekhmet's Slaughterers, combines elements of Egyptian mythology, with a tiny thing inspired by the Irish myth of the Boyhood of Finn, a story about the spear Birgha, who, in the Irish stories had a kind of soul and sentience. I've always been a collector of stories, and this book was a great opportunity to crazy quilt a bunch of things into a new mythology.

There's a sea monster in the book, very briefly, who was reeled up from Norse myth, along with a refugee seidkona, a seer. In Roman terms, the world she comes from is Oceanus, but I didn't see why she couldn't have appeared from off the edge of the world. Her world existed in 30BC, just not to the Romans. I was interested in creating a world in which all kinds of creatures could exist simultaneously. That's true even of our own world. Things live in the depths and in the heights, and in the invisible places that are unimaginable, if you don't know about them. I feel that way about monsters in a story too. More things in heaven and earth,as it were.

MC: Biodiversity of monsters!

In creating these monsters and thinking about the monstrous, did you have any thoughts about why we are attracted to such things? They're pretty prevalent throughout most human mythology and storytelling.

MDH: I actually thought a lot about this while I was writing, in part because I was wondering the same thing about myself. What was it that was attracting me to creatures that did things like steal human bodies, or drink blood?

I think there's something wonderful in the element of surprise attached to the notion of a monster. The idea that something could be rising through dark waters, or waiting behind a corner. Even in contemporary non-monster books, we've got characters that take their place. There are entire genres of murder novels, in which the monsters are human, but otherwise very like the classical beasts. They hunger. They desire. They take, without permission. There's a certain appeal in creatures whose needs are so simple and visceral, particularly in a world that is increasingly complex. Mind you, even 2000 years ago, people were complaining about how the world was getting too complicated. We haven't changed a lot since then, not really.

So, for us, who happen to be human, I think it's appealing to create monsters for a very basic reason -- that means WE'RE not monsters. If we put them in their own category, we can purge ourself of monster-y urges. Maybe. I mean, in Queen of Kings, the monster is the protagonist.

So I didn't exactly manage to preserve myself from the monster. I kind of fed myself to the monster while I wrote this book.

MC: There's an interesting overlap between the desire to distance -- "I may be a schmuck, but I am not a monster!" -- and the desire for a sort of power fantasy, or voyeurism -- "Oooh, but what if I were a monster..." Fiction, in many ways, allows us that sort of escape, that sort of play. Which can be unsettling, but also fun.

There's a general assumption that what people want from stories, at least when it comes to popular fiction, are sympathetic point of view characters. But I'm not sure. Maybe what we want are the sorts of characters who are most interesting to see inside.

MDH: I'm with you. A lot of really popular books with supernatural characters are told from the POV of a character who isn't supernatural. I.e. Twilight, and also the True Blood books. (Although in that case, the protagonist has some supernatural lineage.)

It was interesting to look at the literature that actually had monster protagonists. There weren't as many books like that as I would have thought there'd be.

I like Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, for example, told from the point of view of Geryon -- it uses classical mythology and verse fragments to construct a story in which our sympathies are totally with the monster.

What do you like, in this category?

MC: Oh, I love love love Autobiography of Red.

Also, John Gardner's Grendel.

MDH: Yes, I love that too. The good news for me was that I got to do some excellent reading. The monster narratives are sometimes wondrous reads.

MC: And Barton Gellman's Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

MDH: Oh, that cracked me up.

Although that's another thing that's interesting about writing a book based in classics -- some of the texts that survive are ancient world tabloids.

MC: That's a great way to describe them!

MDH: Essentially, they are exactly like the Cheney book. (Or perhaps, they're more like the ancient world's version of Perez Hilton talking about the Cheney book -- there are lots of times when a more gossipy writer will reference other more serious books, which are now lost, and say that they're getting their information from them. That's how we, in the modern world, know about a lot of these books, and even some writers, whose work is now totally gone. There's a lot about lost books in Queen of Kings. The original Library of Alexandria, of course, and also things like Nicolaus the Damascene's 144 Volume History of the Universe, which is mostly lost. 144 volumes! I'm kind of obsessed with the notion of lost knowledge. What are we missing as we reconstruct history? Lots.)

MC: Actually, Gellman's book is an interesting biography, and really helped me understand where this dark lord who shares my name is coming from. He's strangely logical in his monstrousness.

So many politicians are just opportunists, but I think Cheney really has some deep core beliefs from which he operates.

Which is somewhat more frightening.

Not somewhat. Very much.

MDH: Actually, I love that notion. One of the challenges of writing a book about anyone you think is a monster is exactly that -- you have to get into the fact that THEY TOTALLY BELIEVE WHAT THEY ARE SAYING.

No monster, whether political or actual, is thinking to itself, "Yep, I'm an asshole." They are thinking that they're the hero of their own story.

MC: That's something I told a group of students just today -- that very few people think to themselves, "Hey, I think I'll be completely evil today!"

We get that in stories (Shakespeare occasionally offered characters who just loved being evil for its own sake), but in life, not so much.

MDH: Yeah, Iago, for example.

MC: Yes, indeed. And Richard III. Aaron in Titus Andronicus. Etc.

MDH: But a character like that is consistently hard to fathom.

I think we'd rather sympathize with the monster.

MC: Explaining can sometimes diminish, too. I preferred Darth Vader before he was explained.

MDH: I mean, not in some categories. I'm not too interested in sympathizing with serial killers.

But then I think about something like In Cold Blood or Monster.

MC: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is one of my favorite books because we basically can't help sympathizing for this horrible killer by the end. It's really deeply unsettling in a way most other such books are not, for me at least.

MDH: And the thing that makes In Cold Blood great is the sympathy, the way that you fall into the mind of someone who did something incredible awful.

MC: Exactly -- and why even the story of Capote writing the book is compelling, because the sympathy was real. Almost an attraction, in his case.

MDH: Right. It is also, like Red Dragon, what makes the book unsettling. The story of that book is a story of falling for a monster, though also for falling for your own notion of fame, of being a Great Writer, capable of sympathizing with a monster. The whole thing is incredibly complex, both for Capote, and for us as readers.

MC: What's the relationship for you between the monstrous and metaphorical -- when, if ever, is a monster just a monster?

MDH: Hmm. That's an interesting thought.

Maybe never.

I mean, the monsters in Queen of Kings are literal, so there's that. It's a fantasy novel. But at the same time, in my head, I'm running through all the things we're talking about here.

That said, there are gigantic serpents in Queen of Kings. I'd be obliged if they were not taken as phallic. They aren't penises, I promise.

MC: Various people, probably including me at some point, have said that one of the things that distinguishes a genre approach to fantasy from a non-genre approach is that genre writers don't make everything metaphors. But language, or English at least, is so fueled by metaphor and its possibilities that I'm not sure such a line is easy to draw. Certainly not at the level of the important stuff in a story.

MDH: Yeah. Personally, I'm interested in telling a rip-roaring story. I want you to believe in monsters by the end of it. But I'm also way into language. I love the layers of it, the possibilities, the way one phrase can evoke an entire universe.

And by that, I mean an entire literary universe. I don't know if I give a shit about genre or non-genre. I like to mix it up.

I want people who want a monster novel to read this book, and get excited about the monsters. At the same time, if you're into classics, it would rock if you were reading this book and thinking about Ovid and thinking, perhaps about the genealogy of literary monsters. I had so much fun layering things together, that I'd love it if some readers had as much fun unspooling my twisted creations.

MC: If you don't mind telling, what eras will the next two novels enter?

MDH: Well, I can't really go deeply into what the second book is, but I can say that it takes place 1500 years later, and that it deals a great deal with language, and with the moment in which the English language became a player.

And the last book is present day.

MC: And I was just thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if one of the books had something to do with the 16th or 17th centuries!"

Will there be new monsters?

MDH: Oh, there are some monsters. Some Major Monsters.

New and old. I love the idea that all the scholars of the 16th century were actually being raised up on Ovid and Virgil. So all that material fed into the material they were creating...

Ooh, don't even get me started. I have a bad research/writing fever right now, and I love anything that has to do with books.

MC: Oh, we don't need to get you going!

MDH: Please. I'm permanently jumping up and down. This is just the deal. It's been the case since I was born.

MC: Finally, do you have any tips for folks creating costumes of characters in the novel?

MDH: Costumes!

That will be fun. I mean, my protagonist is Cleopatra, for god's sake. She's an instant dress-up party.

MC: Admit it: that was your attraction to her!

MDH: I do have a serious liking for dress up. I write in evening gowns. And you saw the photo I put up yesterday. Tiara, baby. It's the only way to console myself. Being a writer is the whole solitary confinement situation.

But if you'd like to dress as Sekhmet, the Goddess who gets involved here, you'll have even more fun, because you can put a lioness head on top, and have bare breasts.

MC: Actually, I read the book that way and had a great time!

MDH: That is hot. You in the lion head.

MC: My cats like it.

MDH: I bet.

MC: Thanks for your time, Maria, and thanks for writing this book. Congratulations on its first day out in the world!