I am so excited to have Michelle Moran, author of NEFERTITI and THE HERETIC QUEEN, stopping by today to talk about her new book. I absolutely loved THE HERETIC QUEEN (you can read my review here), and I think the guest post she wrote about "history's surprises" is just fantastic. In addition, Ms. Moran sent me a Q&A that I also found very interesting. Without further ado, I'd like to welcome Michelle Moran to Booking Mama!
First of all, thank you very much for having me here! When you first asked me to write a guest post, I knew immediately what I wanted to talk about. History’s surprises. I don’t mean the small surprises an author uncovers during the lengthy process of researching for an historical novel, such as the fact that the Romans liked to eat a fish sauce called garum which was made from fermented fish. Ugh. No, I mean the large surprises which alter the way we think about an ancient civilization and humanity.
The Heretic Queen is the story of Nefertari and her transformation from an orphaned and unwanted princess to one of the most powerful queens of ancient Egypt. She married Ramesses II and possibly lived through the most famous exodus in history. I assumed that when I began my research I would discover that Ramesses was tall, dark and handsome (not unlike the drool-worthy Yule Brenner in The Ten Commandments). And I imagined that he would have been victorious in every battle, given his long reign of more than thirty years and his triumphant-sounding title, Ramesses the Great. But neither of these assumptions turned out to be true.
My first surprise came when I first visited the Hall of Mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Contrary to every single media portrayal of Ramesses and every movie ever made, it turns out the Pharaoh was not tall, dark and handsome as I had expected, but tall, light and red-headed (which was just as fine, by me)! When his mummy was recovered in 1881, Egyptologists were able to determine that he had once stood five feet seven inches tall, had flaming red hair, and a distinctive nose that his sons would inherit. There were those who contended that his mummy had red hair because of burial dyes or henna, but French scientists laid these theories to rest after a microscopic analysis of the roots conclusively proved he was a red-head like Set, the Egyptian god of chaos. As I peered through the heavy glass which separated myself from the a man commonly referred to as the greatest Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, my pre-conceived notions of Ramesses II fell away. I knew that the oldest mummy ever discovered in Egypt had had red hair, but to see red hair on a mummy in person was something else entirely.
My second surprise came as I was attempting to piece together what kind of man Ramesses II had been. I assumed, given his lengthy reign, that he must have been a great warrior who was level-headed in battle and revered as a soldier. Pharaohs who were inept at waging war didn’t tend to have very lengthy reigns. There were always people on the horizon – Hyksos, Hittites, Mitanni – who wanted Egypt for themselves, not to mention internal enemies who would have loved to usurp the throne. But while researching Ramesses’s foreign policy, a very different man began to emerge. One who was young, rash, and sometimes foolish. His most famous battle—the Battle of Kadesh—ended not in victory, but in a humiliating truce after he charged into combat strategically unprepared and very nearly lost the entire kingdom of Egypt. In images from his temple in Abu Simbel, he can be seen racing into this war on his chariot, his horse’s reins tied around his waist as he smites the Hittites in what he depicted as a glorious triumph. Nefertari is believed to have accompanied him into this famous battle, along with one of his other wives. First, I had to ask myself, what sort of man brings his wives to war? Clearly, one who was completely confident of his own success. Secondly, I had to wonder what this battle said about Ramesses’s character.
Rather than being a methodical planner, Ramesses was clearly the type of Pharaoh who was swayed – at least on the battlefield – by his passions. However, his signing of a truce with the Hittites seemed significant to me for two reasons. One, it showed that he could be humble and accept a stalemate (whereas other Pharaohs might have tried to attack the Hittites the next season until a definitive conqueror was declared). And two, it showed that he could think outside the box. Ramesses’s Treaty of Kadesh is the earliest copy of a treaty that has ever been found. When archaeologists discovered the tablet it was written in both Egyptian and Akkadian. It details the terms of peace, extradition policies and mutual-aid clauses between Ramesses’s kingdom of Egypt and the powerful kingdom of Hatti. Today, the original treaty, written in cuneiform and discovered in Hattusas, is displayed in the United Nations building in New York to serve as a reminder of the rewards of diplomacy. For me, it also serves as a reminder that Ramesses was not just a young, rash warrior, but a shrewd politician.
There were other surprises as well; about the personal history of my narrator Nefertari, the Exodus, and even the Babylonian legends which bear a striking resemblance to Moses’s story in the Bible. Researching history always comes with revelations, and it’s one of the greatest rewards of being an historical fiction author. There’s nothing I like better than being surprised and having my preconceptions crumble, because if I’m surprised, it’s likely that the reader will be surprised as well.
Q&A (awesome questions, but not mine!)
Q: When your debut novel, Nefertiti, was released last year, you spoke about how the inspiration to write it came while you were on an archaeological dig. Was there a different inspiration behind The Heretic Queen, or was it 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. The sequel picks up the plot after the brief interceding reign of Tutankhamun. The narrator is orphaned Nefertari, who suffers terribly because of her relationship to the reviled “Heretic Queen”. Despite the Heretic Queen’s death a generation prior, 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. As a guide told us of the phenomenal price, 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: Did you read a lot of historical fiction set in ancient Egypt before writing Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen?
A: Actually, no. 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 would you like people to take away from your books after reading them?
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 saw on your website that you travel extensively. Do these travels influence your writing?
A: Yes! 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 façade 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: Do you have plans for your next book, and will it be set in ancient Egypt?
A: My third novel will be Cleopatra’s Daughter, which will be released September 15, 2009. The book 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.
Thank you so much for having me here!
I can't express how much I enjoyed THE HERETIC QUEEN! Ms. Moran is definitely on my list of favorite (and must-read) authors now! In keeping with the theme of surprises, I am thrilled to announce that Ms. Moran offered to giveaway two signed copies of THE HERETIC QUEEN! All you have to do is leave a comment (with your e-mail address) saying why you enjoy historical fiction books. If you'd like to double your chances, please blog about this giveaway with a link back to this post. The contest will be open until November 14th at 11:59 p.m. EST. I will announce the two winners on Saturday, November 15th. This contest is open to those of you with United States addresses only. Good luck!