Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Was it too Dark/Gross for YA? Another Deleted Scene

 I can’t remember why my editor deleted this scene from my novel about Cleopatra’s (true life) daughter. Perhaps she cut it from Cleopatra’s Moon because Octavian/Augustus was already established as Selene’s nemesis. Or maybe it was just too creepy for YA. 

After all, the scene implies that Rome’s first emperor may have been a pedophile. I got the idea after reading Suetonius’s Life of Augustus, where he claims that Octavian was “fond of deflowering maidens, who were brought together for him from all quarters, even by his own wife.” (71.2) 

Bust of Augustus. Yes, the ancients painted their statues for extra creepiness.
Granted Suetonius was like “TMZ” of the ancient world, making outrageous, eyebrow-raising claims whenever possible. Still.

By the way, Suetonius doesn’t claim that the “maidens” were children, only that they were virgins. But since ancient girls sometimes married at 13 or 14, it was well within the realm of possibility that Octavian sometimes deflowered even younger teens. I imagined Cleopatra Selene learning of his behavior by accident when she sneaks out of her cubiculum late at night for a breath of fresh air:

The early spring air was sweet and warm, scented with early jasmine. The tinkling of the great fountain was almost as soothing as the silent black sky. Until I heard voices. Who else could be out at this time of night?
I scuttled behind the scalloped edges of the fountain, squatting in the darkness. One voice sounded young. Like a girl on the edge of tears. The other was a man’s and seemed vaguely familiar.
“Think what an honor this is!” said the man in a soothing tone.
“But I have changed my mind,” the girl whined, her voice thick.  “I want to go home now!”  
“You are just scared,” a second man said, his guttural accent making me crouch even lower.  “You will see, Caesar will lavish the family with honors thanks to you. Think what this will mean to your father’s career in the senate!”
“Come, let us splash your face and wash away those tears,” the familiar voice said, in the too-calm voice adults sometimes use with children about to erupt.  Once at the fountain, the men lavished the girl with compliments—on the beauty of her skin, her hair, her eyes. I peeked out to see this vision of Helen incarnate and blinked in confusions.  She was pretty and coltish in the way twelve-year olds often are, but she was clearly just a terrified girl.
“All right now?” asked the familiar voice. “That’s a good girl.  Come on, take my arm and let me escort you to him like the princess you are.” 
I knew that voice. 
It was Octavian’s freedman, Thyrsus.  I raised my eyes over the lip of the fountain. Thyrsus held a small bronze oil lamp, which threw little flicks of light against his angular face.
The girl swallowed and took his arm.  I sat, with my knees under my chin, waiting for the second man to follow so I could escape.  But instead, he sat down, belched, and sucked at what I guessed was the tip of a wineskin.
Leave, I ordered him in my mind. Leave now!
“What are you doing out here?” Thyrsus called, returning without the girl, and for a moment I thought he was speaking to me. “You need to be outside the room to intercept your charge if she shies away again.”
“Aghh, she’s not going anywhere for a while.”
“Actually, it could be just a matter of minutes,” Thyrsus said and they both sniggered. “Wake me when it is time to retrieve her,” Octavian’s freedman added.
“You are going to sleep?”
“I have trained myself to sleep whenever I can.  When Caesar can’t sleep and there is no…entertainment…he relies on me to stay up with him and keep him company.”
“Fancy that,” the other man muttered.  “The most powerful man in the world is afraid of the dark.”
But Thyrsus was already snoring.
I curled even further into myself.  They were bringing that girl to Octavian?  For him to…to….  I must have made a sound for the other man hissed, “Who’s there?”
I put my hand over my mouth while I crouched even lower, one hand on the fountain to steady myself.  I held my breath.
”Is somebody there?” he called.
Isis protect me, I prayed.  What would Octavian do if he knew I had discovered his perverted secrets?
“Well, well, what do we have here?” the man said from behind me and I jumped up, almost falling over in surprise.  He stared at me with a leer. “Were you spying?  Oh, what a bad little slave.  I shall have to punish you.”
“Caesar won’t mind,” he continued, grabbing me by the arm.  “So don’t try to complain to him.”  He pulled me closer. He smelled so strongly of sour wine, it was as if he sweated the cheap swill. “You’re a little young, but you’re pretty enough.”  He reached under his tunic as if loosening a belt.
“No!” I yelled.  “Do you know who I am?”
The man slapped me and I stumbled.  “I don’t care whose slave you are.  That’s what you get for being outside by yourself.  Your master should train you better.”
“Thyrsus!” I called.
The freedman jumped up.  “What?  What?”
“Help me!” I cried, still trying to wriggle from the man’s grip on my upper arm.
The man pulled my head back by the hair.  “Silence, girl!”
“You can’t do this to me!  I am the daughter of the Queen of Egypt.”
“Yeah, well, I’m the son of Neptune, now quiet or I will beat you for making too much noise.”
“Thyrsus, please!  Tell him!” 
Octavian’s man stared at me with wide eyes.  “Selene?”
“Yes!” I cried.  “I am the daughter of the great general Marcus Antonius.  Let me go!” 
That stopped the man, though he still held my hair.  “Wait, I thought you just said you were the daughter of that whore-queen…”
“Let her go,” said another voice, familiar only from my nightmares. I groaned. Octavian emerged from the dark, pale and cold as death.
 “Caesar,” the man stammered, releasing my hair.  “I…I found this slave spying …”
“I wasn’t spying and I am not a slave!” I said, rubbing my scalp.  “I came out to the fountain to get some fresh air because I could not sleep.”
Octavian narrowed his eyes at me.  
“Does the girl not please you?” my attacker asked Octavian.  “Where is she?”
“Sobbing on the floor in my room. Go and remove her.  Tell the senator I am no rapist and that he needs to convince his daughter to come to me willingly if he wants my favors.”
“The older daughter, sir, is even more beautiful,” the man said with a tremor in his voice.
“Yes, but is she a virgin?” Octavian asked.
“Ye..yes, I think so.”
The First Man of Rome laughed.  “Well that answers it. Don’t bother. Now retrieve the girl and leave the premises.”
“Yes, sire,” the man said, already racing to collect his charge.  
“Well, well, well, Selene,” Octavian said looking at me up and down.  “You have grown up, haven’t you?”
            I shivered, wishing I had not run out in my short sleeping shift. “I am sorry to cause a commotion,” I said, turning toward the girl’s wing. “I will return to my cubiculum now.”
            “Stop,” he called and I froze. He placed a hand on his chin in an exaggerated gesture of contemplation.  “Hhhhmm.  Perhaps the night is not a total waste.” He circled around me. “You know, your mother was not so tall.  Perhaps you get the long legs from your father.”
            What would happen if I screamed? Would anyone help me?
”Tell me Thyrsus,” Octavian said. “Do you think the queen’s bastard daughter is still a virgin?” He laughed. “No.  My guess is that she’s a whore just like her mother.” 
“Sire,” his freedman said.  “I do not think this is wise…Livia would surely not turn a blind eye to this…”
            Octavian laughed.  “Yes, you are probably right.  Besides, I would not want to catch whatever disease she carries between her legs.”  He spat on the grass at my feet and turned away.
            “Pleasant dreams,” he called over his shoulder, sauntering back to his rooms. I watched him blackness of nigh swallow him up, then raced for the safety of my room.

As always, my editor was right. We really didn’t need this scene. In addition to being overkill (and too long) Cleopatra Selene was merely an observer in this scene, rather than the driver the action. So, out it went.

What are your experiences with deleted scenes? How much distance did you need before you could see the rightness of your editor’s/critique partner’s cuts? 


Amalia Dillin said...

I think also that we saw an element of this earlier in the book, didn't we? After Caesar had first taken Egypt and before the children were sent to Rome, when he seems like he's about to despoil her, but he's stopped by one of his men, and I think that scene had a FAR more sinister feeling to it -- at least it's stayed with me this long! And after reading your book, my feelings toward Augustus went from dislike to pretty extreme hate. ha.

For me, it is always difficult to hear that I need to excise something, and at first I kind of reject it in my mind, and make all the excuses for why it needs to stay, but even while I'm doing that, my brain is coming up with solutions and ways to make it better and get the job done. Sometimes it just takes an hour, sometimes it takes a couple of days, but I usually come around without too much trouble, even early on.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Yah - I missed that scene, but I can see Cheryl's point. e

Unknown said...

Great minds think alike, Vicky. That's all I've got to say ;)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oooh--a chilling scene. But yes, I thought that it wasn't needed to move the story forward. As you said, Selene's an observer...

For me, it's the funny scenes--I LOVE throwing them in and I HATE cutting them--but I've finally come around to that whole "move the story forward" thing.

Still. It's painful to leave them behind.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Amalia--you're right. There was an earlier scene similar to this. That's another reason she likely deleted it!

@Thanks, e. There's so much that I wrote that didn't make it in!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Stephanie--oh man, you're a tease! ;-) I assume you wrote something similar in your series?

@Cathy--you're absolutely right. I struggled more with letting go of the funny stuff. I LIKE to laugh!

Unknown said...

That bit of Suetonius was impossible for me to ignore and fit into the overall pattern that I was drawing, so I went where you went and at least one step beyond. Hence the controversy re: Song of the Nile.

anthony stemke said...

I thoroughly enjoyed "Cleopatra Rules", now want to read "Cleopatra's Moon".
Did not think the above narrative belonged in the book either.

sally apokedak said...

nicely written scene. He says he's not a rapist, but he'd happily take a girl dislikes him but who will not cry because her family needs his help. So...uh, yeah, that would be rape, I think. By both the girl's father and then by Octavian, too. But his perception of himself as a man who doesn't rape is interesting. It makes me wonder why that's important to him. He seems to want to be seen as a decent person.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

@Anthony--thanks for commenting. I hope you enjoy the novel.

@Sally--I'm glad you caught that. That was exactly what I was going for, the strange way people "fool" themselves about their behavior. Also Octavian worked very hard to present an image of a pious, "old-fashioned/conservative" Roman, so it was extremely important that he be seen as a decent person.