Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of Queen of Kings (Dutton, May, 2011) which is the first volume of a trilogy. Previously, she wrote The Year of Yes: A Memoir, which has been translated into nine languages, and optioned for television and film by, respectively, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. She lives in Seattle, with her husband, playwright and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan.
What inspired you to write Queen of Kings? How did you get the book deal?
Queen of Kings is the first book in a trilogy, and I actually had the idea for the second book first—there was a certain historical character whom I’d suddenly realized might be able have some supernatural components, and it occurred to me that it would be a lot of fun to write a story that incorporated this person. And then it occurred to me that said character might be immortal. I’ve always been interested in the notion of characters who cross centuries—Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, for example, is something that has always inspired me, though this book is very different. I had to go backward in time, and figure where my character had come from. I ended up with Cleopatra. This will all make so much more sense when the second book comes out! I wrote the first draft in a wild 5-month, fairly hallucinatory stretch, and sold it shortly thereafter. Needless to say, there were serious revisions after I sold it!
What was your favorite part of writing it? The greatest challenge?
There are three witches in the book, and I adored writing them. They’re all based in ancient world sources, but I invented like crazy too. One of them is very, very dark, and she does some horror movie things—things that I based in classical texts. Some of Ovid is a lot like a contemporary horror movie.
The greatest challenge was writing a book in which the protagonist is a monster. She does some things I’d never do. It was a little scary to see the world through her eyes for months, and to make a narrative in which the things she does—the things she sometimes can’t help but do—are justified. Reading it, you should be horrified, yes, but you should also feel for her. That was challenging. I think I managed it, but that took more work than anything else in the book.
In what ways was the process similar to/different than writing your memoir?
It was actually much more liberating. With The Year of Yes, I was limited to certain components. Mind you, I didn’t suffer for lack of story there, but in Queen of Kings, I could go anywhere I wanted, incorporate anything. There are minor similarities, in that I in both cases, I had a chronological structure that came from real world events. I actually stuck close to a lot of the known history of Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus (which was part of the fun—filling in the gaps in the history with invention), but my imagination got to run wild here in a way that it obviously couldn’t with a memoir. I loved writing The Year of Yes, but in that book, I was my own protagonist. In this one, the protagonist is an ancient, blood thirsty Egyptian Queen. Much more fun for me to write.
Why historical fantasy? How did you come up with the idea to mix the genres?
I didn’t even know I was doing it at first. It was a process of evolution, weirdly, and I found myself surprised by how many genres I ended up mixing in. There are elements of horror in here as well. However, there’s a definite precedent for this, in ancient world literature. The Iliad & Odyssey, for example, would both easily fall into this category. Ancient world histories almost always contain monsters. I usually refer to Queen of Kings as a monster novel. It’s a novel where the monster is the protagonist, and that was fascinating to write. The genre mixing happened as a result of that, I think. I loved the notion of blending classical history, this story we know really well, with a story that happens beneath the surface. A Secret History, as it were.
Are there any particular tips for those writing a trilogy?
I’ll tell you when I’m done! Ha! Does anyone have any for me? I’m working on the second book right now. I know what all 3 books are, but they are not fully mapped out yet. I know where the larger story needs to go, but there’s lots of room for fun and crazy surprises. I’m inventing some amazing monsters right now. I do think having a pretty good idea of structure is important—otherwise, it’s easy to derail. I wrote the end of Queen of Kings before I had a finished beginning, and the beginning changed over and over. The end did not. Thank God, or I’d have been in trouble.
Advice for memoir writers?
Get clarity on which story, exactly, you’re telling. Every life has millions of stories. If you tell all your stories in one book, you’ll have a seriously hard time crafting a compelling narrative—lives don’t follow narrative structure. So, memoir-writing is about paring things away, really, and keeping the bones of the story, organizing it into a tale. It’s all in the filtering of the events. That’s what’s complicated about it. Just like writing history, the events are shaped by the teller’s understanding and contextualizing of them. There’s no one way to do it, no one truth (I mean, there are truths—don’t make things up!—but as far as how you interpret events in a memoir, you could go in a lot of directions). As the author, you’re the one providing the structure to your story. So, make a plan. I speak from experience. The Year of Yes had a very clear structure. I worked for four years on another book based in family history after it, and I couldn’t pare it down. I will go back to it, but the problem I consistently had was that the story sprawled and that I couldn’t decide which parts of it were irrelevant. It behooves you to be brutal, when it comes to memoir. And to anything, story-wise, really. Clarity is your friend.
Additional advice for writers of historical fiction?
Primary sources. I read a bunch of different translations of Suetonius and Plutarch, of Virgil and Ovid too—I loved reading primary sources that were not just “history” but poetry and prose from the moment as well. Those sources often contain references to the characters, and it gives you a sense of how people felt about them. But just like fantasy, when you’re writing historical fiction, you’re making things up. You weren’t alive in the moment, nor are you in the mind of the character. In my mind, it’s as much fantasy to imagine you are another person as it is to imagine you’re a monster. And that’s liberating. Get deeper into the character’s mind. Your character might shock you.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I actually think I DID know this when I first became a writer, and then it got beaten out of me. Now I’ve found it again. That is that there are no hard and fast rules at all in terms of what you can create. I started out trying to figure the business out, how to make something commercially viable, how to make art at the same time, and honestly, there are always exceptions to everything. My whole career has been a wild out of nowhere thing—and mind you, with a lot of steady work and drive too. For me, the great joys of being a writer have to do with the magical things that happen without warning. I’ve got a tattoo on my thigh that says “Exit Pursued By A Bear.” It’s a Shakespearean stage direction from The Winter’s Tale—and that bear comes out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing at all. Shakespeare was having fun. For me, it’s a reminder to do the same thing, to enjoy myself, to let the bears come into the story, to let the monsters (whatever they are) have their say. The real fun of being a writer lies in those surprises.