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Fiction Profile

Margaret George:

Remembering Cleopatra

Interview by Linda Richards

Photographs by David Middleton


Margaret George sits regally in a high-backed chair while I interview her. We're in the dining room of one of the better Vancouver hotels near the end of a tour promoting her new book. Her back is straight, her hands composed neatly in front of her while we chat. Something about her manner and look suggests that she has granted me an audience as much as agreed to be interviewed.

It's not a coldness that I sense, because Margaret George the author is friendly and easy to talk to. The reason for the regal note in her demeanor becomes apparent before much time has passed, though. "I lived with Cleopatra for a long time," says George, traces of her Tennessee origins just softening the edge of her voice.

The shards of living with Cleopatra -- the infamous queen of the Nile whose life has been celebrated by writers from Plutarch to Shakespeare -- on a daily basis for several years linger on. George admits that towards the end of the project she found herself becoming more extravagant: more Cleopatra-like. She shows me a pen that Margaret-writing-as-Cleopatra purchased. A Mont Blanc, black and silver, with a serpent twining its way down the nib. "I just had to have it when I saw it!" says George. "I was at the end of my Cleopatra phase."

The Memoirs of Cleopatra, published by St. Martin's Press, defines epic. 476,000 words make this first hard cover edition a historical novel to rival -- at least physically -- the best of Michener and Clavell. The kind of book that could do serious damage if dropped on your foot.

Cleopatra is the third of George's novels. And all of them have been larger than life. Her first, The Autobiography of Henry VIII was published in 1986 and is very close in size and scope to Cleopatra. Her second book, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles and published in 1992 was even larger. All three of these works have required demanding research, as well as huge chunks of time to actually plot them and then put the words on the page.

I ask her what sends her on these huge, epic journeys. "I want to live an operatic life!" she jests. Adding, with only slightly more seriousness and by way of explanation, that she was born on Edgar Allan Poe's birthday. "I know it sounds funny, but I'm just drawn to melancholy topics."

She wears one of the coins Caesar had minted while Cleopatra was queen of Egypt. George has had it set in gold to be wearable, but the setting is secondary to the coin itself. The queen in profile on one side, Caesar on the other: it's hard to imagine the time that has passed since the making of this coin. 2000 years of history between the famous Egyptian queen and the diminutive writer who has written about her life. "I bought the coin and had it set, because I thought it would be fun to have her with me."

Living with Cleopatra meant learning about her. Something that was, George says, exhausting in itself. George made four trips to Egypt to research the book, trips that included the obligatory pyramids of Giza and a special day in Alexandria to help her imagine what Cleopatra's palace and the famous Alexandria lighthouse must have looked like. And imagination was required, since the 2000 intervening years have erased all but traces of both.

In addition to the Egyptian trips, George traveled to Rome, Israel and Jordan as well as "haunting the British Museum on a regular basis" to research Cleopatra.

"It has to be organic," George says of her intensive research and the conviction she has for the stories that result. "I think going to the place makes you feel like you own it, too." One of the Rome trips underlines this. "Like looking for Caesar's villa, and trying to find the place where it was and getting lost lots of times. Finally finding it: it all makes you feel like you've sort of suffered with your characters. Been there with them. It made Cleopatra's arrival in Rome seem natural to me, because I knew what it felt like when I got up there."

The Autobiography of Henry the VIII, George's first published novel, was so successful that the writer felt somewhat typecast as an author of epic historical fiction. "I write biographies of famous people," says George. "It just happened. But they're fun to do, because it allows me to do three things I like. I like the scholarly stuff: I like finding all the books and going to libraries and doing all of that. Two: it lets me travel to really neat places and three it lets me sit in a room and make up stories. So I kind of think it's good to stay doing this because in straight writing I would never get to do the first two things."

George's story of Cleopatra was born long before the research trips. Born, in fact, even before her writing career was hinted at. When George was a small child, her father was stationed overseas while working for the State Department. Between the ages of seven and nine, George lived in Israel where, "The past was so real." To the little American with few friends her own age, there weren't enough books to read. "I started writing books there, because there weren't very many in English and I wanted more than what I had to read." One of the stories evolved into a school project about Cleopatra: that was in 1956.

The combination of imagination and isolation were what, says George, gave birth to the writer in her. "I think imagination has to simmer." George herself majored in biology and English literature before working as a science writer for the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C. "But none of that accounts for the writing, really. Those are just the mechanics."

George's take on Cleopatra is different from that of Shakespeare and other writers and historians of earlier times. Part of this, George says, is because of how women are viewed now. For instance, we no longer think that a strong, aggressive woman is necessarily evil. Also, George's research led her to look at all sides of the story: not just the Roman side, which George feels was largely political propaganda that cast Cleopatra in a nasty light.

While some of the story is quite fictionalized, a great deal is known about Cleopatra and those times. "My plot is given to me in a lot of ways." Many of the places Cleopatra went are well documented. "But sometimes you have to fill in what she did there."

It seems likely that the ABC television miniseries planned for airing in the spring of 1998 will be even more filled in than George's written work. The miniseries rights have been sold to Robert Halmi/Hallmark Entertainment who have produced Gulliver's Travels, the Odyssey and Lonesome Dove, and George expects good things. "Technically I'm a consultant, but they haven't consulted with me about anything so far."

George cheerfully admits that Hollywood is likely to mess her story up. "The screenwriter told me they don't want to do any childhood stuff." This, ostensibly, because whatever name actress they sign to play Cleopatra won't want to lose any screen time to the young actor that would portray her as a child. "And they're not going to show much of the battle stuff because it's too expensive."

Despite some trepidation, George is looking forward to seeing her story onscreen. "I think you have to have a kind of sense of humor about it. It'll be fun. After all, they're putting out 20 or 30 million dollars on it, and it's their money. So I can't really insist they have a battle scene."

George draws a blank when asked who she would cast as Cleopatra. "Maybe I'm just not thinking of the obvious one, but... I can think of people who would be okay but I can't think of anyone who would embody it."

With three epics finished and a book tour behind her, George is anxious to get back to the Madison, Wisconsin home she shares with her husband and get to work: once she settles on a project. "I'm thinking of doing Nero." Which would seem to be a good choice because the Roman emperor was a great-grandson of Marc Antony. "I'd like to stay in the same area for a while. I mean, you do so much research and you learn so much and you can only use 1/10th of it."


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.