18 May 2008

Guest Blogger: Michelle Moran

This week we welcome historical fiction writer Michelle Moran, whose debut novel Nefertiti was release in hardcover last year from Crown. It will be released as a trade paperback on May 27.

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Beautiful Nefertiti and her sister, Mutnodjmet, have been raised far from the court of their aunt, the Queen of Egypt. But when the Pharaoh of Egypt dies, their father's power play makes Nefertiti wife to the new and impetuous king. It is hoped she will temper King Amunhotep's desire to overturn Egypt's religion, but the ambitious Nefertiti encourages Amunhotep's outrageous plans instead, winning the adoration of the people while making powerful enemies at court. Younger yet more prudent, Mutnodjmet is her sister's sole confidant, and only she knows to what lengths Nefertiti will go for a child to replace the son of Amunhotep's first wife.

As King Amunhotep's commands become more extravagant, he and Nefertiti ostracize the army, clergy, and Egypt's most powerful allies. Then, when Mutnodjmet begins a dangerous affair with a general, she sees how tenuous her situation is at her own sister’s court.
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Perhaps we can begin with where your inspiration came from to write about ancient Egypt.

My inspiration to write on the Egyptian queen Nefertiti happened while I was on an archaeological dig in Israel. During my sophomore year in college, I found myself sitting in Anthropology 101, and when the professor mentioned that she was looking for volunteers who would like to join a dig in Israel, I was one of the first students to sign up. When I got to Israel, however, all of my archaeological dreams were dashed (probably because they centered around Indiana Jones). There were no fedora wearing men, no cities carved into rock, and certainly no Ark of the Covenant. I was very disappointed. Not only would a fedora have seemed out of place, but I couldn't even use the tiny brushes I had packed.

Apparently, archaeology is more about digging big ditches with pickaxes rather than dusting off artifacts. And it had never occurred to me until then that in order to get to those artifacts, one had to dig deep into the earth. Volunteering on an archaeological dig was hot, it was sweaty, it was incredibly dirty, and when I look back on the experience through the rose-tinged glasses of time, I think, Wow, was it fantastic! Especially when our team discovered an Egyptian scarab that proved the ancient Israelites had once traded with the Egyptians. Looking at that scarab in the dirt, I began to wonder who had owned it, and what had possessed them to undertake the long journey from their homeland to the fledgling country of Israel.

On my flight back to America I stopped in Berlin, and with a new found appreciation for Egyptology, I visited the museum where Nefertiti's limestone bust was being housed. The graceful curve of Nefertiti's neck, her arched brows, and the faintest hint of a smile were captivating to me. Who was this woman with her self-possessed gaze and stunning features? I wanted to know more about Nefertiti's story, but when I began the research into her life, it proved incredibly difficult. She'd been a woman who'd inspired powerful emotions when she lived over three thousand years ago, and those who had despised her had attempted to erase her name from history. Yet even in the face of such ancient vengeance, some clues remained.

As a young girl Nefertiti had married a Pharaoh who was determined to erase the gods of Egypt and replace them with a sun-god he called Aten. It seemed that Nefertiti's family allowed her to marry this impetuous king in the hopes that she would tame his wild ambitions. What happened instead, however, was that Nefertiti joined him in building his own capital of Amarna where they ruled together as god and goddess. But the alluring Nefertiti had a sister who seemed to keep her grounded, and in an image of her found in Amarna, the sister is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically praising the royal couple. From this image, and a wealth of other evidence, I tried to recreate the epic life of an Egyptian queen whose husband was to become known as the Heretic King.

NEFERTITI was released in July, and the paperback version will be coming out May 28th, to be followed just a month later by Nefertiti's sequel THE HERETIC QUEEN. Please tell our readers about Nefertiti and her sister, Mutnodjmet, and perhaps give us some insight into their story.

NEFERTITI is a novel of Egypt's most notorious queen. She had beauty and wealth to outmatch Cleopatra, and her enemies were so infuriated by her power that they tried to erase her from history, demolishing her temples and destroying her images. When I discovered her story in Berlin, I wanted to know how Nefertiti became a queen that inspired such vengeance. What had she done to make her husband want to leave his former queen and anoint her Pharaoh?

I decided to tell the novel from perspective of Nefertiti's younger sister, Mutny, because Nefertiti would not have been a trustworthy narrator. Nefertiti was incredibly ambitious, and probably would not have had trouble lying or flattering her way to power. The historical Mutny, by contrast, didn't seem to possess Nefertiti's ambition, and so I felt that she made a much more credible narrator. With two such startlingly different sisters, however, there was bound to be conflict, and from that conflict comes what I hope is an epic Egyptian tale.

What is the creative process for you behind writing an historical novel?

I begin by purchasing what feels like every book ever written on the subject I'm interested in. Sometimes that means our mail carrier will be delivering sixty books to my house in one week. It takes me several months to go through them, and when I feel like I have a pretty strong outline of my subject's life, I make a storyboard and begin to look for holes. Whatever holes I find, I try to patch with an event that wouldn't seem too far-fetched. If I run into trouble with a setting or a scene, I have friends in the archaeological world who can advise me on whether or not something I want to include is realistic.

Which means that all of the major events and characters in NEFERTITI are based on fact. Even the description of Nefertiti's palace and the images she had painted beneath her throne are historically accurate. Archaeologists today are extremely lucky that so much of Nefertiti's life is well preserved. But it wasn't always this way. After Nefertiti's reign, her enemies tried to destroy her memory by demolishing her city. The historical character of Horemheb, in particular, wanted to be sure that nothing of hers remained, so he broke her images down piece by piece and used them to fill the columns of his own buildings. Fast forward three thousand years, however, and as Horemheb's columns began to deteriorate, all that was left were the perfectly preserved (although broken) images of Nefertiti and her life. The irony!

But although most of this novel is based in fact, some liberties were taken with personalities, names and minor historical events. For instance, no one can be certain how Mutnodjmet felt about her sister's vision of an Egypt without the Amun Priests, but in an image of her found in Amarna she is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically embracing the new god Aten. In a period where art attempted to portray reality for the first time, I found this significant. And while Nefertiti did have six daughters with Akhenaten, she never, so far as we know, produced twins.

Is there a particular person or era you've always wanted to write about, but for some reason you just haven't yet?

Yes! I've always had a fascination with France in 1300s. I have no idea why. I recently read The Last Duel by Eric Jager. It's a nonfiction book and when I was finished with it my desire to write on fourteenth century France was stronger than ever. But France doesn't fit into my current theme of ancient civilizations. Maybe in a few years, when I've worked my way down history's timeline!

What era in history intrigues you most?

The Italian Renaissance and medieval England. The writing that came out of both of those periods is so rich that it's a joy to research.

With your foray into historical novels, have you ever considered writing a contemporary? How about a paranormal?

Actually, no. When I discovered historical fiction as a genre, I knew that it was my calling. The closest I've ever come to a contemporary novel was a book I wrote about Mata Hari. It was never published, and truthfully, my real interests are further back in history.

Which authors have inspired you in your own writing?

Some of the books that I can return to again and again are Barbara Michael's Wings of the Falcon, Margaret Mitchell's phenomenal Gone With the Wind and Alexandra Ripley's sequel to that, Scarlett.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Learn as much as you can about the business of writing. Because we writers feel an emotional connection to our stories, we tend to feel that publishing is also emotional. If I'm nice, they'll publish me. If I send them chocolate with my query letter, they'll see what a good person I am. But publishing isn't personal and most of the time it's not emotional either. It's about numbers and sales and--at the end of the day--money. So learn everything there is to know about the business before you send off your material, especially once your material is accepted for publication. That's when business savvy matters most, and knowing important publishing terms like galleys, remainders and co-op is extremely important when trying to figure out how you can best help your book along in the publication process. Learn everything, but above all, keep writing!

What would you say is the most rewarding thing about writing?

Seeing the book in stores! That's a thrill that never wears off.

You have traveled the world extensively. Please tell about some of your favorite places. Is there anywhere you would still like see?

My favorite places in the world are all in France. Italy comes a close second, followed by the north of England and southern Africa. I would still like to see the Galapagos Islands. I've never been there, and I'm rather fond of tortoises.

The sequel to NEFERTITI is THE HERETIC QUEEN. Can you give us a sneak peek at this book?

Yes! It will be in bookstores July 2008 and will probably be titled THE HERETIC QUEEN, as you mentioned. It follows the destiny of Mutny's daughter, Nefertari, and traces her transformation from a wild palace child to the strikingly beautiful and intelligent queen of Ramesses II.

Is there anything more you would like to share with us?

If readers have questions about the history behind the book, they can go here. I add new questions as they come in, so readers can feel free to email me anytime! And thank you, Carrie, for having me here.

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Leave a comment or question for Michelle and be entered into a drawing for a copy of NEFERTITI. It's an excellent book, everyone, so make sure enter for your chance! We'll draw a winner one week from today. Thanks again for being with us, Michelle!

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