AN AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER ABOUT HER WRITING AND CURSES AND SMOKE: A NOVEL OF POMPEII
By Claire Catacouzinos
I had the pleasure to interview Vicky Alvear Shecter, a YA historical fiction, and middle grade mythology and biography writer who I admire in publishing her ancient history YA historical novels – Cleopatra’s Moon published by Arthur A. Levine Books in 2013 and Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii published by Arthur A. Levine Books in 2014. She answered 20 Questions I had about her writing, her book about Pompeii, her characters, and about YA historical novels and the publishing market.
A note to readers: please be aware of spoilers in this interview about the plot of the book.
This interview was conducted by email in early May 2015.
About the Book
When your world blows apart, what will you hold onto?
TAG is a medical slave, doomed to spend his life healing his master’s injured gladiators. But his warrior’s heart yearns to fight in the gladiator ring himself and earn enough money to win his freedom.
LUCIA is the daughter of Tag’s owner, doomed by her father’s greed to marry a much older Roman man. But she loves studying the natural world around her home in Pompeii, and lately she’s been noticing some odd occurrences in the landscape: small lakes disappearing; a sulfurous smell in the air. . . .
When the two childhood friends reconnect, each with their own longings, they fall passionately in love. But as they plot their escape from the city, a patrician fighter reveals his own plans for them – to Lucia’s father, who imprisons Tag as punishment. Then an earthquake shakes Pompeii, in the first sign of the chaos to come. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?
CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: What inspired you to become a historical fiction writer, particularly on ancient history?
VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER: I was a huge ancient history buff when I was a kid but long forgot about it when I became a professional marketing writer. It paid the bills but wasn’t very inspiring. In the early 2000s my brother—who is also a writer—got a writing project to write about Alexander the Great in conjunction with Oliver Stone’s movie, Alexander (which I hated, don’t get me started!). There was just one problem: my brother didn’t know who he was! So I became a sort of research partner. I had so much fun telling my kids the stories of his outrageous battle tricks and hysterical temper tantrums I thought they might make a good kids’ book. In 2006, Alexander the Great Rocks the World was published. I was hooked from that point. My next book was a biography of Cleopatra called, Cleopatra Rules! Finding out about Cleopatra’s real-life daughter inspired me to try my hand at historical fiction, which is a fairly new endeavour for me.
CLAIRE: That’s fantastic to hear you were your brother’s research partner and how things unfolded on your writing journey. What would you say then, is your ultimate favourite ancient history myth and personality, like Romulus and Remus, the Twelve Labours of Herakles, Theseus and the Minotaur, Caesar, Cleopatra, or Hatshepsut?
VICKY: Wow, I don’t know that I can answer that! I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. In terms of myths, I love the Orpheus myth. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by Boudica, the queen of a Celtic tribe that demolished a couple of legions in 61 ACE.
CLAIRE: I love her name. I remember during my senior years at school that somebody did a presentation about her, and I just loved the sound of her name, ‘Bou-di-ca’. What then is your favourite historical setting/period to write about, and why?
VICKY: I love Ancient Rome as well as Ancient Egypt. I can’t really say why I love these periods except that I never seem to lose my fascination with them.
CLAIRE: I’m also like that when it comes to Ancient Greece and Egypt. What then inspired you to write about Lucia and Tag?
VICKY: So much of Roman history is told through the eyes of wealthy, powerful men—the victors in war. But how did the rest of Rome live? What was it like for slaves and for young women? Those questions led to the characters.
CLAIRE: I understand what you mean, it’s about social history. And that’s what I also write about in my short stories, to give voices to people who were subjugated in their time. And in your book, you juxtaposed the two protagonists, Lucia and Tag, really well. Did you have any other plot lines for them regarding character development?
VICKY: Not really. I tried very hard to stay true to the realities of what their worlds were like—and as a slave and an unmarried girl, they had virtually no rights and freedoms. So everything they did had to be constrained by that reality.
CLAIRE: Yes, I completely understand that. Did you then always have the characters’ death planned out with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, or had you written an alternate ending during your writing process?
VICKY: No! I really agonized over this! Some days I thought about having them both die. Other days I played with the idea of having them both live. One of the things I wanted to explore was how deeply Ancient Romans believed in curses, specifically curse tablets. What, I wondered, would it be like to deeply believe that this stuff was real. Would they unconsciously create a self-fulfilling prophecy? Thinking that through led to the ending that I used.
CLAIRE: Yes, I’ve studied a lot about curse tablets, magic and the goddess Hekate in ancient history. It’s really fascinating to think about their ways of thinking and superstitions – and we can also link that to our own religious beliefs and superstitions today. There are some similarities and differences in all societies throughout time. But it all comes down to a deep-rooted connection we have about our own beliefs and upbringing – and also the human capacity of hope. Who then is your favourite character and why?
VICKY: I’m pretty fond of all the main characters but I have to say that I fell in love with Castor. He was originally not in any plot line but ran into a scene and seemed so real to me that I kept him and grew to love him. You often hear of writers that talk about characters that just “show up” in their stories and take on a life of their own. I’d never experienced that before, but I did with him. And he became an integral part in Tag’s character development.
CLAIRE: I know what you mean. I’ve had that experience myself with my own writing. It takes you by surprise to then incorporate these characters into the story, and then it just seamlessly works – with some changes here and there. To advance this train of thought, were there any minor characters in your book who you wished to explore further?
VICKY: I would’ve loved to explore Cornelia more because she was based on a real person found in Pompeii. The heavily pregnant woman and her family, it is believed, likely didn’t run because of her advanced state. I simplified her though because in real life, the pregnancy was with her second child. Her three year old died in the room with her and the family.
CLAIRE: It’s really upsetting when you hear that some characters are based off real people, but then again, it creates empathetic understanding for our readers, and for them to pursue reading about ancient history and loving it. We want them to care for our characters and embrace emotional connections with them. How long then did it take you to write your book? Did you have writer’s block at any stage, and was there any “aha” moments throughout your writing process?
VICKY: It took about a year-and-a-half to write the book. I didn’t experience writer’s block too much, except for trying to figure out the ending, as I said above. I didn’t have any “aha” moments per se, it was more of finding out little things that I wove in. For example, I love that there was an ancient goddess of toxic vapors that pre-dated the Romans. I had to work that in!
CLAIRE: Yes, any new discoveries to your work and research are always fantastic to implement! And you get excited when this happens which pushes you to keep writing. What was your favourite scene then to write about?
VICKY: The mountain exploding!
CLAIRE: Of course! The big moment! And what then helps you to keep on writing and stay motivated, like storyboards, scrapbooks, or your notes? You’ve already mentioned finding little things that you can weave into the story.
VICKY: Mostly notes. I also have a general outline in my head, though I don’t actually write one down.
CLAIRE: What about archaeological sites? Did you visit the archaeological site of Pompeii in Italy for inspiration, and if so, what was the major part of the visit that inspired you? Or if you haven’t been, are you planning to visit sometime soon?
VICKY: I did visit Pompeii about a year before the book came out. I’d already written quite a bit of the book; still, it really enhanced my experience. A local archaeologist gave me a personal tour of the city and a house in which he was digging, which was just fantastic. I loved being in front of buildings and artefacts that I’d only ever read about. I wish I could go back!
CLAIRE: Wow, a personal tour! I would have been so humbled and excited to be there. And I know what you mean. I went to Greece in 2013 for research for my writing and the island that my grandparents are from and you come across so many wonderful artefacts and archaeological sites that are amazing to see in their original environment. And still talking about inspiration, have there been any YA historical novels that have inspired you to write in this genre?
VICKY: YA historical fiction isn’t a big genre right now so I end up reading a lot of adult historical fiction. I wish there was more of a market for YA historical fiction, especially as it relates to the ancient world.
CLAIRE: Yes, I agree. And I also believe that children have a natural curiosity about the past, especially ancient societies. So why do you think then that there is a lack in the book market for YA historical novels?
VICKY: I wish I knew! I don’t know if it’s because the publishers don’t push it or if they don’t push it because there is little interest (chicken or the egg question).
CLAIRE: Yes, the good old causality dilemma, it’s the best and only way to describe it. Do you prefer to write then from the perspective of a character in history (one that you create or a famous personality) or a character from ancient mythology? And why?
VICKY: I tend to like to write about real people in history because I can relate to them more. Mythological characters are fascinating but don’t necessarily reflect what life was like for the ordinary person. I like to examine both how much we are different from our ancient selves—and how much we are very much the same!
CLAIRE: Yes, this is what I do as well – we focus on human experiences and the state of humanity and its continuing development. Have you then published any historical fiction short stories? Are you aware of any journals that accept historical fiction short stories, and can you recommend any to aspiring historical fiction writers?
VICKY: I have not published any historical fiction short stories and honestly don’t even know where one could. Sorry! I would say that there are a fair number of historical fiction writers who self-publish short stories and novellas but I don’t really read those, mainly because unless I’m familiar with the author, I’ve seen too often where authors just haven’t bothered to do the research and that bothers me. I feel like with traditional publishing (right now, anyway), there is a greater sense of quality control in this area.
CLAIRE: Yes, I agree. How can you write history without understanding it and editing your work to improve your writing? There needs to be a balance. But then there’s also the problem of good writers finding it challenging to get their work published because of the influx of the publishing market – and then it’s an ongoing cycle back to the chicken or the egg dilemma that you mentioned before. How does your historical fiction writing then get exposed to YA readers who love ancient history, and how do you locate that audience?
VICKY: The publisher markets these books to school libraries but the rest is up to me. I tend to reach out to Latin teachers because they like to (hopefully) supplement their lessons about Roman life with historical fiction they can trust.
CLAIRE: That’s wonderful and a great tip! It’s what I’ve also been doing with my Ancient Greece short stories, locating wonderful archaeologists who are excavating archaeological sites about the location I’m writing about. And it’s also for an educational purpose for people to relate to the past. Was it a struggle then to find your literary agent? Do you have any bad or good stories about your journey to publication?
VICKY: I started out writing nonfiction and didn’t have an agent for that work because very few agents want to represent children’s nonfiction as there is no money in it. For novel writing, however, I knew I needed an agent. You really can’t get published without one these days. I used agentyquery.com to identify agents that represented both young adult and historical fiction and began querying (this step is important because it saves you time from pitching agents that aren’t interested in this market/genre). I also asked friends if they felt comfortable sharing their agent information with me and queried those. I ended up going with an agent I found through the recommendation of a friend. However, I got several seriously interested agent nibbles from the cold-calling, so both work.
CLAIRE: That’s great, especially when you have social network connections to help you along the way. I’m also going through this challenging process at the moment. What then is the ultimate goal that you aspire for with your writing, the message you want to deliver to YA readers?
VICKY: Oh, good question! Mainly, I want to give the reader the experience that they’ve actually “been there”—that reading my work gives them an authentic experience of what life was like in the ancient world for kids their age. I’m also fascinated by the strangeness of their world—their deep superstitions and fears—and how the remnants of that type of thinking still linger with us today. I love to explore how the basic human wants—to be liked, loved, connected, respected, and understood—haven’t really changed. I also like the idea that looking at the past allows us to look at aspects of ourselves that we might otherwise feel defensive about. In other words, the historical “space” gives us breathing room to explore issues in ways that doesn’t feel like we’re “attacking” a person’s current beliefs.
CLAIRE: Yes – it is by our novels and writing that we can create ways to explore these human concepts, issues and ideas about our world and our humanity. You’ve hit the nail on the head with that one! And to finish off, are there any new projects that you’re working on, can you tell us anything about the historical setting, or hint about it in anyway?
VICKY: I am working on a new novel that did not get picked up. That was heartbreaking but it goes to show that even once you are published, you still face rejection! The novel is about a Vestal Virgin in Rome who is falsely accused of having sex for political purposes and her fight to stay alive (the punishment for a Vestal having sex was death by being buried alive). This kind of thinking is SO outrageous to us at first blush, but then not really once you think about it. There are religious and political leaders today who try to blame (for example) hurricanes or earthquakes on certain people having sex. That is an ancient holdover that absolutely needs to be explored.
I’m also fascinated by the idea that even today, once a girl or woman is accused of having sex, the truth ceases to matter! Teen girls are terrified of being labelled as “sluts” and often face “slut shaming” of the most terrible kind—again, an ancient holdover. By exploring the ways in which controlling female sexuality was a potent political tool, I’m hoping we can discuss the ways in which that kind of thinking continues to hurt us all today.
As I said before, I do not have a publisher for this one yet but I’m writing it anyway in the hopes that another publisher will want to publish it.
Thanks for all the great questions and good luck with your own work!
CLAIRE: Thanks, Vicky! It’s been wonderful to talk to you about your historical fiction writing and your book. And your new novel sounds like a breathtaking new way to tackle and explore those contemporary issues you talked about in historical fiction. A book I would definitely buy! And all the best for your writing career!
For more information about Vicky Alvear Shecter, visit her author website.
You can follow Vicky as a fan on her Author Facebook Like Page.
And you can follow her on Twitter.