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Interview: September 18, 2009

September 18, 2009

Michelle Moran is the bestselling author of three works of historical fiction --- NEFERTITI, THE HERETIC'S QUEEN and the newly released CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER --- each of which is centered on legendary princesses of ancient Egypt. In this interview with's Melanie Smith, Moran recalls the college experience that sparked her interest in this particular time and setting, and recounts the moments of inspiration that prompted her to write each of her books. She also provides some background information on her characters, shares what she hopes readers will take away from her work, and reveals which historical era she will focus on in her next novel. CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER reveals the young lives of Cleopatra's children in an incredible, epic story. Can you explain why the story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony has become so famous while the tale of their children has remained obscure?
Michelle Moran: Actually, I am very surprised that no one has written a recent historical novel about Cleopatra’s children. Their lives, after they were taken to Rome, were unbelievable. They met everyone who was anyone at that time, attended grand parties and were even allowed to be educated alongside the Emperor’s heirs. Of course, there was also grave danger. As the children of Antony and Cleopatra, there was the constant threat that they would be killed either by the Emperor (who might view them as rivals as they got older) or by an enemy of their parents’.
BRC: What is most fascinating about ancient Egypt for you personally? Does your interest mainly stem from Egyptian relics and art? How did you get interested in it?

MM: For every novel I have written, I can look back and say that there has been a very specific moment of inspiration --- usually in some exotic locale or inside a museum --- where I’ve said, “Aha! That’s going to be the subject of my next novel.” I never began my writing career with the intention to write books about three different princesses in Egypt. In fact, I had no intention of writing about ancient Egypt at all until I participated in my first archaeological dig.
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 on 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 3,000 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.
Each novel I’ve written has had a similar moment of inspiration for me. In many ways, my second book, THE HERETIC QUEEN, is a natural progression from NEFERTITI. 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 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 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 $5,000 (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 3,000. As a guide told us of the phenomenal price, I looked at my husband, and he looked at me. We had flown more than 7,000 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 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 90-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 3,000-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.
It’s the moments like this that an historical fiction author lives for. And it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that my decision to write CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER came on an underwater dive to see the submerged city of ancient Alexandria. Traveling has been enormously important in my career. My adventures end up inspiring not only what I’m currently writing, but what I’m going to write about in the future.
BRC: CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER is not just the story of a nation and an era, it's also a great love story. And it's magnificently told, poignant and triumphant. You must have had to write carefully to achieve that effect. How did you plan the ideas of the love stories you wrote about?

MM: Thank you! Before I begin a book, I know what each chapter will be about and how the novel will end. Of course, this is after many months of research, so the outline I write from is very detailed. I also do a character sketch of everyone who appears in the book, however minor. I like knowing even the smallest details about my characters, such as what type of foods they liked to eat and what color they preferred to wear. I try my best to base these details on facts I discover while reading and researching, and if I can’t find the answer, I’ll make my best guess based on what I know about the character already.

BRC: After reading NEFERTITI and THE HERETIC QUEEN, I was very excited to get an advance copy of CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER. You have made Egyptian (and now Roman) history remarkable for a countless number of readers. Was that one of your goals when you began to write?
MM: Wow. I think every historical author would love to believe that they have taken a particular period in history and made it not only accessible to readers, but exciting and fun. If just one of my books has done this, I will feel I have succeeded!
TRC: How much research went into writing CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER? How did you conduct your research?

MM: I did most of my research on-site (in Rome, Alexandria) and in libraries. In order to describe the Palatine, I went there (not that this was necessary… but it was certainly fun!). To get a feel for life on Capri, my husband and I booked a week there and took several trips into the Blue Grotto (where you can no longer swim). I also used dozens of books and contacted scholars such as Duane W. Roller, whose work on the life of Kleopatra Selene was invaluable to me. 
BRC: You write people exceptionally well. All of your significant characters are deeply explored, and each and every person has some mixture of dignity and cruelty to their persona. Victims and heroes are certainly more noble and charming than villains, but they too have their moments of narcissism and selfishness. Especially significant, however, are the villains, who are sometimes surprising in their decency. What motivated you to write these historical figures as you have rather than portraying the more typical dichotomy of good and evil?

MM: I don’t think anyone views themselves as evil, and I think that even “evil” people have moments (even if they are fleeting) of humanity. In the novel, Octavian kills those who stand in his way. Yet he saves Cleopatra’s youngest children (for a while).
BRC: In the epilogue, you note that the crucifixion of Christ is thought to have occurred during Tiberius' reign. This is significant to the story because Tiberius was one of the young people Selene spent time with in Rome. He was portrayed as distant and not so likable. What motivated you to keep him more unnoticed in the story than say Marcellus or Octavian?
MM: Historically, Tiberius was known to be a grouchy, sarcastic, temperamental loner. He preferred to fade into the background rather than stand out and be noticed. In fact, when he became Emperor, he secluded himself on an island away from the city of Rome and its politics. This, of course, is not what an Emperor was supposed to do. This is also why he plays only a minor part in the book compared to someone like Marcellus, who was far more outgoing and charming. 
BRC: Egyptian children were exceptionally well educated. The number of languages that Selene and Alexander could speak fluently was startling. How did Egypt, as a nation, come to value education so highly? What practical purpose did it serve them at the time, and did any of that change when Rome took over?

MM: When the Greek rulers, beginning with Ptolemy (someone Cleopatra was related to), came to power in Egypt, they brought with them a vast system of education as well as an interest in building and libraries. Even before the Greeks came along, Egypt had long been a country concerned with education. Scribes held important positions in Egyptian society, and Greek rule simply continued the tradition of providing wealthy citizens with education.
BRC: There is one particularly entertaining passage in the novel called "Disappointment" --- it is satirical poetry during a theater performance in Rome that tells comically of one man's failings when making love. After reading it, I chuckled for quite a while! Do you have a passion for satirical poetry?

Yes! I think Ovid’s writing is exceptionally funny. Romans as a people were very sarcastic. They had a wry sense of humor that I talk about in my Author’s Note at the end of the book.
BRC: Selene was quite devoted to her Gods, particularly Isis. During her time as a prisoner in Rome, she never faltered in her beliefs but was forbidden to openly practice them. After Selene finally left Rome, did she ever have the freedom to openly worship by her standards? And would she have had any real way of knowing what was happening to Egypt?

MM: Once Selene left Rome, there is ample evidence that she not only continued to worship Isis, but actually encouraged the practice in her new land. I can’t say for sure whether she would have known what was happening in Alexandria, but I have to assume she would have. 
BRC: Cleopatra's suicide was assumed to have been trickery by Octavian, or an act of pride, as he would have killed her or held her captive had she opted otherwise. But can you tell us why Cleopatra would have chosen to use an asp to end her life rather than some other means? Was it was some particular belief about the snake, a more painless way to go, or something significant about the minor marks a snake would leave on her body?     
MM: No one really knows how Cleopatra committed suicide. The notion that she committed suicide with a snake could simply have been a legend that sprung up because asps were important Egyptian symbols. On the other hand, prisoners who were given the death sentence in Egypt were allowed to take their own lives with the bite of a snake, so it could very well be that this widely known method of execution is how Cleopatra chose to end her life.  
BRC: How did Rome remember Octavian (later Augustus)? Would he later be viewed by his people as a just ruler?

MM: Romans remembered Octavian as the father of the Empire. He was the first Roman Emperor and very highly regarded for turning Rome from a “city of clay into a city of marble.”
BRC: Above all, your books are about those who dare to hope, even through the worst of circumstances. This makes them greatly appealing not only to adults, but to young adults. What do you want young readers to gain from your books?
MM: I hope that readers will come away having felt as if they’ve spent time in ancient Rome. Selene was the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, two of the world’s most famous rulers. Selene lived during a time of great uncertainty and danger, and I believe that her story is one of the most fascinating ever to have come out of ancient Rome.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
MM: For my fourth novel, I will be departing from the ancient world to write about the French Revolution. The book will be out in March 2011 and will explore the life of Madame Tussaud, who joined the court of Marie Antoinette, and survived the French Revolution by creating death masks of the beheaded aristocracy.

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