I'm thrilled to welcome Michelle Moran, author of the bestselling novels Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, and the newly released Cleopatra's Daughter, in my first author interview.
Hazra: All three of your novels are connected to Egypt. How did your interest in ancient Egypt begin?
Michelle: 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 newfound 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.
So given how far I’ve come since that day our team first found an Egyptian scarab in the dirt, I would say that my time in Israel has had the biggest impact on my writing. If not for that experience, it may have taken me years to discover that what I wanted to write was historical fiction.
Hazra: Your novels are usually told from the viewpoint of a young girl. Is there a reason behind this?
Michelle: I feel that it’s always easier to relate as a woman to the struggles that women have gone through. Also, given how perceptive women are with emotions, relationships, and details, they also make for much better narrators!
Hazra: How did you undertake your research for Cleopatra’s Daughter?
Michelle: I do a great deal of traveling both for research and for fun, and most of my destinations are archaeological sites. On a trip to Alexandria in Egypt, I was afforded the amazing opportunity of participating in a dive to see the submerged remains of Cleopatra’s ancient city. More than ten thousand artifacts remain completely preserved underwater: sphinxes, amphorae, even the stones of the ancient palace. Although I'm not a fan of diving, it was an incredible experience, and it changed the way I looked at Cleopatra. I immediately wanted to know more about her life, and it was mere coincidence that my next trip took me to Italy, where her ten year-old children were brought to live after her suicide. While in Rome, I was able to retrace her daughter's steps, and upon seeing where her daughter had lived on the Palatine, I knew I had my next novel.
Hazra: You have written about the slavery system in ancient Rome. Can you tell us something about it? How does it affect the lives of Selene and Alexander?
Michelle: Yes, a slave’s life in Rome was a daunting prospect. In the case of Cleopatra Selene and Alexander, their Roman blood ensured much better treatment, and perhaps so too did the status of Egypt in the Roman worldview. But for conquered Barbarian tribes such as the Gauls, the treatment of captives was far more severe. Ironically enough, for Selene and Alexander, who themselves wanted freedom from Rome, their opulent lifestyle in Octavia’s palace was underwritten by the labor of thousands of slaves. Without giving too much away, the theme of slavery plays a bigger role in the novel than I initially intended, perhaps because it looms so large in our modern consciousness.
Hazra: If Cleopatra’s Daughter were to be made into a movie, who would your ideal star cast be?
Michelle: I try not to tempt fate by speculating! But…… Selene is the sort of role that a director would choose a promising young unknown for.
I liked James Purefoy from HBO’s Rome as Marc Antony, though! Catherine Zeta Jones as Cleopatra?
Hazra: Catherine Zeta Jones is indeed a great choice! I understand that you’ve traveled to India as well. Which places have you visited? What is your impression of India and its history?
Michelle: I visited India as a teenager, at the invitation of a close friend. I really got to spend time in a traditional household for several weeks, and got a sense of the rhythms of village life, in addition to the standard tourist destinations. Being able to do that, and have that balance was a tremendous experience, and taught me a traveler’s most important lesson: that I knew nothing, that I had barely scratched the surface, and that to a place as ancient and overwhelming as India, I would have to return many times.
Hazra: You started publishing your stories at a very young age. What was the first story you published?
Michelle: I have a rather hazy recollection, but most of my early childhood stories seem to have been biographies that starred my cats!
Hazra: Tell us something about your next project. When can readers expect it?
Michelle: Yes. I am hard at work on Madame Tussaud, and it will be released in March, 2010. As someone afflicted with almost Jeffersonian levels of francophilia, the chance to write a novel set against the backdrop of the Bourbon court was too much to pass up! Tussaud’s story fascinated me, as much for what she saw and did before the revolution as for her famous death-masks. Something about her brazen self-promotion was charming, as was her tremendous impulse to survive during very dangerous times. And she saw everything and met everyone- from Voltaire to Franklin, from Napoleon to Marie Antoinette. The story of her life is the story of two ages- before and after the fall. I’ve had a fabulous time travelling for, researching and writing this one!
Hazra: That sounds exciting. Lastly, if you could organize a dinner with five of your favorite fictional characters, who would they be?
Michelle: In gratitude to my characters, I would have to invite Cleopatra (who knew a thing or two about fine dining), Nefertari (for her spirit), Selene (for her kind companionship), Marcellus (for his stories), and Nefertiti (who would be insufferable if I left her out!)
Cleopatra's Daughter is Michelle Moran's new historical fiction novel. It's the story of young twins Selene and Alexander, taken in chains to Rome by Antony's rival Octavian, after their parents Marc Antony and Cleopatra choose to die by their own hands. As they come of age, they are buffeted by the personal ambitions of Octavian’s family and court, by the ever-present threat of slave rebellion, and by the longings and desires deep within their own hearts.