Monday, September 15, 2008

Michelle Moran Week: The Interview

Q: Last year when you guest blogged on my blog you mentioned where you got the inspiration for Nefertiti. Was there any different inspiration behind this novel, or was it just a natural progression from where the first book left off?

A: In many ways, The Heretic Queen is a natural progression from my debut novel Nefertiti. It tells the story of Nefertari, who suffers terribly because of her relationship to the reviled “Heretic Queen”. Despite the Heretic Queen’s death many years past, Nefertari is still tainted by her relationship to her aunt, Queen Nefertiti, and when young Ramesses falls in love and wishes to marry her, it is a struggle not just against an angry court, but against the wishes of a rebellious people.

But perhaps I would never have chosen to write on Nefertari at all if I hadn’t taken a trip to Egypt and seen her magnificent tomb. At one time, visiting her tomb was practically free, but today, a trip underground to see one of the most magnificent places on earth can cost upwards of five thousand dollars (yes, you read that right). If you want to share the cost and go with a group, the cost lowers to the bargain-basement price of about three thousand. I looked at my husband, and he looked at me. We had flown more than seven thousand miles, suffered the indignities of having to wear the same clothes for three days because of lost luggage… and really, what were the possibilities of our ever returning to Egypt again? There was only one choice. We paid the outrageous price, and I have never forgotten the experience.

While breathing in some of the most expensive air in the world (I figured it was about $20 a gulp), I saw a tomb that wasn’t just fit for a queen, but a goddess. In fact, Nefertari was only one of two (possibly three) queens ever deified in her lifetime, and as I gazed at the vibrant images on her tomb – jackals and bulls, cobras and gods - I knew that this wasn’t just any woman, but a woman who had been loved fiercely when she was alive. Because I am a sucker for romances, particularly if those romances actually happened, I immediately wanted to know more about Nefertari and Ramesses the Great. So my next stop was the Hall of Mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There, resting beneath a heavy arc of glass, was the great Pharaoh himself. For a ninety-something year old man, he didn’t look too bad. His short red hair was combed back neatly and his face seemed strangely peaceful in its three thousand year repose. I tried to imagine him as he’d been when he was young – strong, athletic, frighteningly rash and incredibly romantic. Buildings and poetry remain today as testaments to Ramesses’s softer side, and in one of Ramesses’s more famous poems he calls Nefertari “the one for whom the sun shines.” His poetry to her can be found from Luxor to Abu Simbel, and it was my visit to Abu Simbel (where Ramesses built a temple for Nefertari) where I finally decided that I had to tell their story.

Q: And, now that you are about to become a two-time published author, how do you feel? Is it just as exciting as it was the first time around or is it a totally different experience? Would you change any of it?

A: There really is nothing like publishing for the first time. The expectation, the excitement of the unknown, and the wild drive that pushes an author to do anything and everything they can for their very first book doesn’t compare with the experience of publishing successive novels. Since Nefertiti was my first novel, I had no idea what to expect. What would happen on the first day of publication? Or if I made a bestsellers list? Or if I didn’t make one? Should I do signings? What about drive-by signings? Do bookmarks really work? Of course, all of these questions were answered in due time. And now, for The Heretic Queen, I know that bookmarks are useful, that if I make the bestsellers list my editor will call at an ungodly hour on her – gasp – personal phone to congratulate me, and that drive-by signings can be just as effective as signing events. There is an inner peace – at least for me – in publishing the second novel that wasn’t there for the first book when everything was uncertain and new. The nervousness is still there – will people like it? will I let down my publishing house? – but this time I know what to expect.

Q: On the subject of potential changes, I read somewhere where you said that you never read Egyptian historical fiction. Why is that? Did you find it hard to write a certain type of book without knowing what the ‘typical’ way of handling things were, or was it more freeing?

A: I never read Egyptian fiction before publishing Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen partly because it didn’t appeal to me (ironic, I know). A great deal of fiction set in ancient Egypt feels “heavy”. The dialogue seems stilted because the author is attempting to make it sound old (which seems silly, since the dialogue isn’t going to be accurate anyway. Firstly, we don’t know what rhythm or cadence the ancient Egyptians used, and secondly, they didn’t speak English!). Also, a lot of fiction set in places like Rome and Egypt focuses on the lives of men. The books are filled with war or male-dominated politics, and that’s simply not what I’m interested in.

I want to know about women’s lives. That’s not to say there aren’t any politics in my novel. Harem politics could be just as heated and dangerous as politics in the Audience Chamber. And that’s also not to say that there aren’t any battles. After all, Ramesses took his principal wives with him to war. But I want to hear about the experience of everyday life and war from the women. What was it like for them? What did they see, and hear, and do? So that’s one reason I didn’t read Egyptian fiction before writing my own. However, my primary reason had to do with my own writing and research. I didn’t want to be influenced by another author’s take on events or their approach to the ancient world.

But now that I’m finished writing on ancient Egypt and my next book will explore Imperial Rome, I’m eager to start looking for Egyptian fiction with strong female leads. Any suggestions are welcome!

Q: What is one thing that you wish people would take away from reading your books?

A: I’d like readers to feel that if a time machine were to suddenly appear and whisk them away to ancient Egypt, they wouldn’t be totally lost. They would recognize the traditions, the gods and goddesses, and know what to expect in Pharaoh Ramesses’s court. I have tried my best to make the writing accessible to a modern audience. That means not dating the dialogue, or using too many long and unwieldy Egyptian names, or overdoing it with ancient Egyptian terms. Hopefully, by doing this, readers will come away with the sense of not only having been there for a little while, but of relating to the Egyptians. Because for all of the technological, medical and philosophical changes the world has undergone in the past three thousand years, people have remained the same. They had the same desires and fears in ancient Egypt that we have today, and I hope that readers can come away with an understanding of that.

Q: I feel I cannot be a blogger without asking one question. Without causing a rather large argument, how do you feel blogging has changed being an author and selling books? I received your first book as an ARC to blog about, so you obviously were aware of the blogging idea. Do you think part of your success is due to being blogged about, or do you think you would’ve been just as successful if blogging and bloggers was not an option?

A: I know with absolute certainty that Nefertiti would not have enjoyed the success it did without the blogosphere. And this is in no way pandering to your question. It’s simply the truth. I think that debut authors who aren’t on the web are really missing out and potentially hurting their own careers. Of course, once in a while a debut book comes along which has such a huge marketing and publicity budget behind it that it does phenomenally well even without the blogosphere. But those books are becoming increasingly rare. Authors are expected to do a great deal of their own marketing and publicity. The most effective way of doing both, in my opinion, is to approach bloggers. I know that most of my book purchases come from books which I’ve seen bloggers review highly. If that’s the case for me, how many other people is it the case for?

Q: Do you find that the traveling that you do influences your writing?

A: Traveling has a huge impact on my writing. I’m currently writing an article for Solander Magazine which addresses the issue of whether or not travel is essential for the historical fiction author. While I don’t think it’s essential, I do think it’s incredibly helpful. Here’s an excerpt from the article, which will come out in November.

“Before I began writing my second novel The Heretic Queen, I took a trip to Egypt to see for myself the magnificent temple of Abu Simbel. One of the many building projects undertaken during the reign of Ramesses the Great, the temple fa├žade is carved with statues of both Ramesses II and his beloved Nefertari. Twice a year a thin beam of sunlight crosses the temple to illuminate three of four statues sitting in a darkened sanctuary. The only statue the sun doesn’t strike is that of Ptah, the god of darkness. I had timed my trip in order to see this bi-annual spectacle, and with hundreds of other visitors I watched as the sun struck the statues of Amun-Re, Ramesses II and Ra-Harakhty in turn. It was an almost mystical moment, made even more poignant by the fact that the narrator of the novel I was preparing to write would have witnessed the same event more than two thousand years ago. When I returned to America, I immediately began work on my second book, outlining the scene where Ramesses II takes Nefertari to his newly built temple in order to watch this special event. Did any of the wonderment I felt standing in Abu Simbel translate to the pages of my book? I hope so.”

Q: Lastly, what’s next? Do we have another book to look forward to next year? Do you have plans for future adventures? And, are you going to stay in Egypt or venture out to other places?

A: My third novel will be Cleopatra’s Daughter, and I’m really looking forward to the publication of this book! Cleopatra's Daughter will follow the incredible life of Cleopatra's surviving children with Marc Antony -- twins, named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a younger son named Ptolemy. All three were taken to Rome and paraded through the streets, then sent off to be raised by Octavia (the wife whom Marc Antony left for Cleopatra). Raised in one of the most fascinating courts of all time, Cleopatra's children would have met Ovid, Seneca, Vitruvius (who inspired the Vitruvian man), Agrippa (who built the Pantheon), Herod, his sister Salome, the poets Virgil, Horace, Maecenas and so many others!

Thanks very much Michelle for taking the time to answer my questions! If anyone has any that have not been asked, feel free to put them in the comments and I am sure Michelle will answer them! She also might answer a couple questions later in the week if I can finish The Heretic Queen fast enough!


  1. I've been reading about Michelle's novels for several months now, and this morning after reading this interview, I'm finally ready to leave my comfort zone of English historical fiction and venture into Egyptian HF. Tho't Michelle's comment re. blogs was very interesting -- like Michelle, most of my book choices of recent months are a result of reading reviews on blogs. Both Nefertiti and Heretic Queen are now on my Wish List.

  2. Wow! I love the description of Michelle's travels.
    Great interview!

  3. I loved this interview! I loved reading about her travels since I will be visiting Egypt later this year and am excited to read her books and then see the sites. Thanks!

  4. I have been interested in reading Michelle's books, but haven't yet. After reading this interview I will definitely be tracking them down! I like what she said about her books being about women, and also that they wouldn't be weighted down with long names or ancient Egyptian terms. The books sound very interesting and accessible to the average reader.

  5. What a great interview. I've been craving some historical fiction lately, and I think these books would be perfect.

  6. Great interview - liked the questions and the author's responses. I've never had any desire to visit Egypt or the tombs, but Nefertiti's sounds fantastic. Sounds like Moran does a great deal of research.

  7. Wonderful interview! It's rare for me to read Egyptian historical fiction for the exact same reason it is for Michelle: it often feels too laborious to me. I loved how Nefertiti was so accessible to so many different kinds of readers. I have friends who hate historical fiction but loved Nefertiti because they feel they can relate to the characters.

    Also, I discovered Michelle's work because of bloggers I followed before I started blogging myself. I'm so grateful to those folks for introducing me to her work.

  8. What an interesting interview! I have become more and more interested in egyptian history because my daughter is so intrigued with it. She started from a very young age loving egyptian fairy tales and it's carried on. I'm delighted to hear that the next book will be about Cleopatra. I'm sure it's going to be a fascinating read.

  9. What a fabulous interview! Now I haven't a clue what I'm going to ask for later in my own interview with Michelle. I just received my copy of The Heretic's Daughter this morning (Monday) and I'm already loving it! I cannot wait to get through it all and find out what happens. I already love Nefertari more than I did Mutny.

  10. I am so happy that people enjoyed the interview! I wanted to ask 'different' questions because I knew she was being interviewed several places both before and after appearing here. If you haven't read her, I strongly recommend both books. I am just finishing up book two right now, just have a few more pages left. :)

  11. Thank you to everyone who has commented! I wrote a long reply thanking everyone individually, then promptly pushed "publish" and saw it disappear into the ether. Sigh...

    So here it is again in a nutshell! Kailana, I really enjoyed answering your Q&A, and your question about bloggers really got me thinking. I am a blogger myself, and one of the most time consuming aspects of interviewing authors is finding their photos, obtaining links to their books, and getting pictures of their covers. Before the month is out, I think I'm going to create a page on my website just for bloggers where bloggers can find all of that information in one place.

    As Ruth's comment illustrated, the importance of the blogsphere cannot be underestimated, and I'm grateful to everyone- especially Kailana and Historical Tapestry - for having me this week!!!!!

  12. What a great interview! I cannot believe how much it cost for Michelle to go see the tomb. I would have fainted :)

    I'm glad to hear her that after Heretic Queen she still has another book set in Egypt. Wonderful!

  13. I would have fainted at the thought of paying that much as well, but it is likely a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially to be there at exactly the right time like that! Amazing.

  14. It was great having you here, Michelle! I have to say, on the subject of having a place where bloggers can get all the stuff they need... You need more pictures! There is not much variety around the blogosphere.

    And, as to the price of the visit to the tomb... I can totally see myself doing that somewhere in the future when I can afford to travel... soo...

  15. Hi Kailana,

    Good idea! I had figured that if people wanted more photos they could go to my Gallery page where there are hundreds of them. Perhaps I need to make that clearer!!!

    Thank you!

  16. I missed this gallery. I will have to go check it out.

  17. This was a wonderful interview. I have to admit I haven't read much about Egypt, ancient or otherwise but it sounds fascinating.
    And I agree with Michelle about getting book recommendations from bloggers. It's been all the terrific reviews of her books on blogs I read that has me really wanting to read them.

  18. I agree, no book is exciting without a woman being in the plot. "Bedlam South," by David Donaldson and Mark Grisham- not scheduled to come out until October 7th (I got my greedy little hands on it before its October 7th release date), is a book that I was hesitant to read at first due to the fact that I pictured it as being mainly about the historical events of the Civil War. I was pleasantly surprised that not only did this book have great historical facts, but also contained a great romance plot.

  19. Really interesting interview. I think it's fascinating, Michelle, that you didn't read historical fiction set in Egypt before you invested years of your life writing one! That's a great little anecdotal tidbit.

    And your description of watching the sun hit the three statues in turn was breathtaking. Reminded me of that great moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy watches the sun drift across the "map" of Tanis.