At last - my own pyramid!
Visiting jewelry shop in Egypt
Riding by litter in India
Considering a Pompeii Villa
Morro Bay's Time-Traveling Historical Detective
Local author Vicki León has always had a thing about pyramids, although she admits she was a card-carrying AARP member long before she got to see the real McCoy in Egypt.
"Ever since childhood," she commented in a recent interview, "I've been in love with ancient things—the Sphinx, the murals of Pompeii, the Greek oracle at Delphi. Invariably, I look for the human stories behind such things. As a kid, someone once gave me a replica of an ancient coin. On one side, it showed a crocodile chained to a palm tree. On the other, the words 'captive Egypt.' That small object thrilled me. Knowing it something to do with Cleopatra, it inspired me to read voraciously about her."
Today León looks back on nearly 40 years of research and writing nonfiction, including eight women's history books and four titles on the Mediterranean lands she loves. Her newest from Walker Books is out this month. Called How to Mellify a Corpse (and other human stories of ancient science and superstition), its 88 entries include several that show unusual sides of Cleopatra herself.
An adoptive Californian who loves Morro Bay "because this town allows me to be my beach bum self," Vicki broke into writing via travel writing for the Sacramento Union as well as top-tier publications like Sports Illustrated.
"On my 33rd birthday, I hit the bigtime—or so I thought—when a travel article of mine was chosen as the lead in the New York Times," she recalls. Even in those halcyon days of print, however, freelancing had more valleys than peaks. It took five years of freelancing before León got a contract for her first book, The Moneywise Guide to California (no longer in print).
Authorship 101: lessons learned
"Writing that book taught me so much," León says. "The discipline of delivering 75,000 polished words in eight months. Learning how to do research and then organize it methodically. But the greatest gift came from my UK
editor and publisher Michael Haag. He not only gave me permission to write in an unfettered way—he insisted on it. That freedom gave me my writer's voice."
León went on to author other travel titles, including a local series of pictorial books. "My 11 years at Blake Publishing was another gift. Richard Blake, owner of the Graphic Center and Poor Richard's Press, encouraged me to develop and run a publishing arm for his company. That meant all aspects, from writing, photo editing, and production to marketing and sales. Few writers get a hands-on opportunity to learn the entire book publication cycle. The experience was priceless."
With A Raft of Sea Otters in 1987, the first of 21 books about the natural world, Blake Publishing found another successful niche. Some of her nature titles have found a new generation of readers as an imprint of Londontown Press.
The writer's secret weapon: stick-to-itiveness
These days, sassy books on women's history are commonplace. Not so when León began her decades-long quest to find a literary home for nearly one thousand female achievers she'd unearthed.
"It took persistence," she admits. "I went through three agents, four title changes, and countless 'No way, no thanks' letters from publishers." In 1994, Conari Press bought her first book, Uppity Women of Ancient Times, written in León's trademark outrageous style. Eventually she wrote four books in the series, combining what educator Phyllis Patterson called "a grand sense of history, with a grand sense of humor." The series, with 350,000 copies in print, still has a devoted following.
(Other Uppity Women titles include: Uppity Women of Medieval Times, Uppity Women of the Renaissance, and Uppity Women of the New World.)
"People keep asking when I'm going to add another Uppity Women title," says León. "I will, but my top priority now is to go after our whole human history. The true tales of men and women and how their lives have intertwined through time."
In 2007, Walker Books published Working IX to V, Vicki's lively look at the ancient world through the jobs long-ago men and women did. By slicing history in an unusual way, her book sheds new light on what people of all social classes actually did all day.
With her new title, How to Mellify a Corpse, the author burrows into Greco-Roman cultural beliefs, superstitions, and the beginnings of early science—many of which have surprising relevance for today's readers.
In 2012, Walker Books will publish the last in Vicki's trilogy of offsbeat nonfiction about the ancient world. Already in progress, the book explores ancient biology, sexuality, and weird medicine.
"Even with the internet, even with my years living and working in Mediterranean countries, plenty of juicy topics remain little written-about," says León. "Doing this detective work still astonishes me every day. And that's what I try to convey in my books. In the truest sense, I'm a privileged time traveler."