Interview with Vicki Leon

July 5, 2010

"To limn a culture, history should attempt to capture the human stories, to squeeze the meaning from cascades of events instead of one thing in isolation."

-Vicki León. Introduction to How To Mellify A Corpse.

Reading the wonderful introduction to Mellify, I was instantly drawn in by the passionate and engaging style of Vicki León. As the pages flew by, I soon realised what a truly special writer she is. Like any great work, it can be appreciated by different audiences. However, what Vicki has which many non-fiction writers would envy is the ability to entertain with her writing. She is simply fun to read!

Mellify is versatile in its style and organisation -  it works as a reference you can dip in and out of, as well as being a book you can read from start to finish.

Having recently tracked down Vicki, aka the Historical Detective at her new blog, I was delighted when she agreed to participate in a Q&A. If you'd like to learn more about Vicki and her work, visit her homepage or review her bibliography.  Let's get started!

3PP: Your organisation of History is very organic and extremely readable. Whilst we are informed of time periods of certain events, subject matter is grouped according to common themes and subjects. Is this a reflection of how you organise and view History personally, or is it a device created for the purpose of the books?

VL:  When I find a topic that absorbs me, I study it, trying to see if it could be a book. If it is, I start assembling its skeleton. I let the material dictate—and that takes time. Don’t know how other non-fiction writers handle this, but the other part of  my organizing principle is: to find the most lucid path for the reader.

 The Historical Detective is on the case: Vicki in Pompeii

3PP: There are hundreds of facts crammed into your books, but there is always a unifying central theme. In How to Mellify a Corpse the overall theme is Science and Superstition.  What gave you the inspiration to organise your knowledge and experience into an entity for publication?

VL:  A non-fiction book should be a body of knowledge, put together in a way that illuminates its parts in new ways. Facts on their own are just raw material. How they fit into the context of their time and place is what makes them meaningful.

3PP: Your introduction describes History as a cascade of events. This dynamic statement reminded me of Marcus Aurelius' famous line of Time as a river of passing events. Do you feel it is important for readers to be able view History as something active and changing, and not just something that happened long ago?

VL:  Absolutely! As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”   Even crabby old Heraclitus (of “Everything flows, nothing abides” fame) would agree.

 Johannes Moreelse's depiction of Heraclitus as 'The Weeping Philosopher'

3PP: Interest in Antiquity is kept alive by popular culture, as opposed to schools. Movies like Gladiator or the HBO Series 'Rome' switched on a whole new generation to the spectacle and grandeur of Rome. What do you think Schools could do to make Antiquity relevant and interesting to younger people?

VL:  (sly grin) Schools could start by using more of my history books! And more books by other non-fiction (and fiction) authors who work extra hard to make antiquity come alive. For example, those who write for younger readers, including Caroline Lawrence and Vicky Alvear Shecter. I find Adrienne Mayor’s non-fiction invaluable—and I’m also fond of Philip Matyszak’s mock travel guides to ancient Rome and Greece.

 In addition, teachers could use films such as Gladiator and HBO Rome to teach, challenging students to find their historical errors. And later, to help them understand how something on film can capture what feels “authentic” without being historically “accurate.” At times, that can be equally valid. To me, anyway.

3PP: I can safely say I have learnt  most about Women in History from reading your books. Popular culture often likes to focus on Women of Antiquity as seductive temptresses, such as Helen of Troy or Cleopatra. Why do you think this is the case?

VL: First of all, I applaud your taste in women’s history books! Sex, of course, is of perennial interest. But labelling powerful women in history as temptresses is a more pernicious agenda. It’s a clever way of whittling them down to size. Cleopatra VII, for instance. Besides being a linguist, a philosophy fan, and a mother, she was one tough cookie. Politically astute in her alliances---although Julius Caesar and Marc Antony may have thought they were doing all the manoeuvring!  

3PP: The Renaissance gets its name from the concept of the Rebirth of Classical ideals and knowledge. However, the scientific works of Pliny, Dioscorides and Theophrastus (etc) were continuously copied and circulated all throughout the so called 'Dark Ages'. Have Historians been unkind to the Middle Ages with this moniker?

VL: To my mind, tags such as “Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” are lazy labels. In the early centuries of Christianity (as the Roman Empire waned), a real loathing for pagan literature seems to have developed—and was targeted for destruction. Some writings (Dioscorides for instance) stayed in circulation because they’d been translated into Arabic. Others that we might call the “bestsellers” of ancient times also got copied and circulated often, as you mention. But when I dip into the encyclopaedic ancient works of Pliny or Athenaeus or Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers (all of whom cite hundreds if not thousands of other writers), I am appalled at how many works by other writers did not survive. A great pity.

A Latin copy of the Sixth Book of Diogenes Laërtius, published in Venice by Nicholas Jenson in 1476

3PP: The Romans seemed interested in Science chiefly from a practical perspective. The Greeks seemed to have a desire for studying and understanding the universe, does this view of Science epitomise the key difference between the Greeks and Romans?

VL: You’re right. While doing the Mellify book, I was fascinated to learn that Lucretius (Roman science geek and poet-philosopher of the first century BC) had to invent a Latin vocabulary in order to describe Greek fields of study like physics.

Lucretius'  De Rerum Natura(The Nature of Things), from the 9th century fragmentum Gottorpiense

3PP: You describe yourself as becoming 'besotted' with Antiquity whilst traveling the Mediterranean. Was there any particular experience or location that caused this?

VL: From childhood on, I had an intense curiosity about ancient Mediterranean cultures. As an adult, many of my defining moments came while I was living and working in Greece in the 1970s. I used to take my souvlaki lunch to the Kerameikos Cemetery and sit by the Tower of the Winds, the extraordinary timepiece and weather station created about 50 BCE by Andronikos of Cyrrhus--- little knowing that I would someday write about him and his invention in my Working IX to V book.

video courtesy Enarro Guides and youtube user ikesagie

VL: On summer nights, I’d climb with friends up near the Parthenon to sit on the ancient honey-colored stones, rubbed silky smooth by 2500 years of Greek bottoms. We’d watch the Son et Lumière show play on the venerable columns of the Parthenon and it never lost its indelible magic. 

This lovely photo reminds Vicki of those magical nights gazing at the Parthenon

3PP: Sites such as The Pyramids of Giza, The Acropolis, The Roman Colosseum and Pompeii  commonly create a passion to learn about Antiquity. Can you recommend a less well known site that has an equally magical effect on the soul?

VL: Certain locales do cling to their genius loci, their spirit of place, more than others. One of my favourites: the beautiful arcades of the Roman aqueduct at Segovia, Spain. Below it, huddled like small children, are shops and eateries redolent with the smell of roast suckling pig. Their presence emphasizes the size of the aqueduct and what its engineers had to accomplish. Turkey is a wonderland of sites that speak to me: Perge, Aspendos, Ephesus…rich with eloquent details about long-ago human life.

The Theater/Arena at Aspendos (in modern Turkey) was built in 155CE during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It was varyingly used for theatrical productions, gladiatorial contests and public executions well into the Byzantine era. It is still used to this day during the Annual Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival.

A carved relief of Gladiators in combat, found on a column in Aspendos

Thank you youtube user stuartmoss  for this wonderful rare look at Aspendos, near Antalya in Turkey

VL: Ostia near Rome is another. While Pompeii is jam-packed with tour groups and much of it is (wisely) off-limits, Ostia still feels like a living town. In its pine forest setting, the wanderer is free to ramble through bake shops, sit in the theatre, explore the underground chambers of the Mithraeum sites, and admire the black-and-white mosaics that boast of the city’s ships and longshoremen. Soulful, indeed!

Pithoi (giant storage jars) at an Ostian Warehouse. Image Courtesy of Vicki León

 The Longshoremen Mosaic at Ostia

VL: I love the pyramids and the Sphinx but Egypt’s true wonder to me is the tomb of Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II.  Although much restored, when I entered the intimate chamber, I burst into tears. It’s a monument to love: not so much of a pharoah for his lady, but the love of Isis for her followers.

 The breathtaking Tomb of Queen Nefertari, located in The Valley of The Queens

3PP: Many of us are attached to Historical figures because their words or deeds  mirror our own outlook on History, Politics or Culture. For example, like many others, I am quite fond of Cicero. Is there any one person from Antiquity that has  a special place in your heart and why?

 An absolutely gorgeous 15th Century Italian manuscript of Cicero's De Oratore

VL: Just as you’re fond of Cicero, I feel a kinship for Tiro, his hard working scribal slave, who (along with others) is credited with inventing a species of shorthand. (And, after Cicero’s death, writing a tell-all about his former master---a book I would dearly love to read!) I admire Cicero for his writing skill---and his prodigious output, much of which is extant. Besides his ‘big’ topics, his work gives us priceless glimpses of daily life.  

3PP: The 21st Century is a different place for writers and artists alike. Your books in particular, humourously related and crammed full of facts would make an excellent transition to audio book and searchable electronic formats. Are there any plans to do this?

VL: Working IX to V is already available on Kindle. With the new iPad, owners now have access to Kindle titles. About audio, I’m not so sanguine. The Uppity titles got optioned several times but nothing came of it. I do think my books lend themselves to audio format, since each entry is a stand-alone piece.

3PP: Finally, threepipeproblem is chiefly concerned with artworks and the formative effects of History on them.  Is there any one particular surviving work, from any era that captures the beauty of Antiquity for you?

One of the stunning memorial portraits found painted on wooden boards across the Fayum Basin in Egypt

VL: Too many to name just one favorite, I’m afraid! The Fayum portraits found in Egypt really speak to me. To me, they mirror our common humanity-- make me see how alike we still are, after all these centuries.

The Artemision Bronze, varyingly identified as Poseidon or Zeus

VL: Two bronzes in the Athens Archaeological Museum became old friends when I lived there. One was the heroic bronze of Poseidon, throwing his trident like a spear. The other? A small boy jockey, riding his heart out, looking over his shoulder to see who is gaining. To me, both figures looked more vividly present than many of the visitors to the museum. I felt like a privileged time traveller, with feet in both eras. And I still do, with the books I am honoured to write for Walker Books.

 The Horse and Jockey of Artemision (2nd Century BCE). Image from ckgoplaces

Thank you very much for your precious time Vicki!

Note: Thank you to Vicki León/Walker Books for providing a review copy of How To Mellify A Corpse

Edit:  To hear Vicki talk about Mellify in person, listen to this great interview, broadcast on US National Public Radio(NPR) on Sunday August 8th 2010. It can be streamed  from the NPR Site, or downloaded in .mp3 format.


Alberti's Window said...

I love the Fayum portraits, too. Those portraits seem so alive, and the people seem so real. When looking at those portraits, I feel like the gap between me and those individuals (which spans thousands and thousands of years) is very small.

How interesting that Lucretius had to develop his own Latin vocabulary to describe Greek terms! This book sounds very interesting. I look forward to reading it.

Unknown said...

It's a wonderful book M! It would be great if itone day made it into an audio format. The way Vicki writes is really suited to being read aloud.

historical author said...

Wow what a wonderful interview. Her style of writing seems excellent. I really would love to read one of her books now. I used to love writing short stories in high school, but i haven't done much with it now days. I'm currently going to college and I've been thinking about taking some writing courses. We'll see what happens.

Unknown said...

Hello 'historical author' - You should think about starting a blog!

It's a great way to regularly practise and share your writing, on topics of interest to you, and working to your own deadline!

I highly recommend it!

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