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Words with a Wordsmith: Zenobia Neil
By Rebecca D’Harlingue
February 25, 2022

Zenobia Neil writing about history from under-represented perspectives.

Are there TV shows or films that have influenced your writing? 

My novel The Queen of Warriors: Alexandra of Sparta was definitely inspired by years of watching Xena: Warrior Princess. I always loved watching Xena, and many years later I was inspired to create Alexandra of Sparta. I’ve always enjoyed ancient world historical fiction—both on the screen and in books. At some point I wrote a short story that mixed Xena and Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, which is the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia as told by his eunuch Persian lover Bagoas. I imagined a badass Greek warrior woman in the role of Alexander the Great and a non-eunuch very honorable Persian lover.

Xena: Warrior Princess portrayed a kind of pan-Hellenic/ Greco-Roman world that was of course far from accurate. As a historical fiction writer, I needed to do a lot of research. I loved the idea of a woman warrior in the ancient world who was sexually fluid and had amazing fighting skills. My character, Alexandra of Sparta, is very different from Xena, though she sometimes wears Xena’s leather dress.

Do you tend to write about places you’ve been to, or places you wish you could go to?

I mostly write about places I wish I could go and that don’t exist anymore. Because I write about the ancient world, if the places I write about are still there, the landscape is very different. I’ve been to Greece. I wish I could go to Turkey and what is now Iran—but even without any flight restrictions, I don’t have any plans to go to either country. Sometimes I wish I liked to write about Paris or Scotland because it would be so fun to travel there, but I’m hoping to get a chance to go back to Greece.

If you could create a museum exhibition, what would be the theme?

I’d love to have an exhibit that highlights the cultural diversity that occurred in Asia Minor after Alexander the Great. In the Hellenistic Age, there were so many Greek influences, but Persian, Bactrian and Indian culture influenced Greek culture as well. I’d like to display classical art that shows the different skin tones of people in the Hellenistic age. There’s been a serious whitewashing of the ancient world—some literally, like the idea that Greco-Roman statues were originally white, when we now know that they were painted (often garishly). One of my goals as a writer is to make it clear that the ancient world and the ancient Greeks were not all white and that their idea of sexuality was very different from ours.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I absolutely love visiting places and reading about them. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Rome, we read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, and it was so much fun to see the churches and palazzos in the novel. But I think this is a different question. Have I ever gone to a place specifically because I read about it? I definitely went to Notre Dame after reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I didn’t plan a trip around that. I did go to Crete in 2016 to do research for my novel Ariadne Unraveled. Additionally, I read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die which takes place in Crete. Also seeing so many works of art in the museums in Athens felt like a literary pilgrimage to all the ancient Greek mythology and history that I know and love.

What was the inspiration for your most recent book?

My most recent novel is Ariadne Unraveled. It’s a mythic retelling of the relationship between Ariadne, the famous princess from Crete, and Dionysus, the twice-born god of wine. I was tired of seeing Ariadne portrayed as a helpless princess who runs off with Theseus.

After studying Minoan art and culture, it is so obvious from the frescoes, statuettes and seal rings how powerful the women in ancient Crete were. The myth of Ariadne is always told through an Athenian/ patriarchal lens. We learn Greek myths as if Greece was the unified country it is today, whereas thousands of years ago it was a collection of city states that spoke a common language. I wanted to write a well-known myth though a feminist Minoan point of view.

I was also deeply intrigued by the idea that the Pasiphae myth – that Pasiphae asked the craftsman Dedalus to make a wooden cow so she could have sex with the Minotaur – was simply Athenian slander to make a powerful woman a “Bull f*cker.” I actually see some similarity between Pasiphae and the rumors of Catherine the Great having sex with a horse. It seems like a pretty easy way to defame a capable woman ruler to spread a rumor that she has unnatural (and completely impossible) tendencies.

I’ve always been drawn to the god Dionysus, and I also love that he’s a god of transformation who’s really different from the other Olympians. Writing Ariadne Unraveled was a fun challenge because there are so many contradictory myths about Ariadne and Dionysus. It was fascinating to weave together a novel that supported so many different stories

Zenobia Neil was named after an ancient warrior queen who fought against the Romans. Her debut novel Psyche Unbound won a publishing contract. She writes about history from under-represented perspectives. Some of her characters include a cursed Spartan warrior woman searching for redemption in Alexander the Great’s former empire, a haunted eunuch in the Imperial Ottoman Harem, and Greek gods and goddesses causing mischief. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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