a writer's research process, authenticity in historical fiction, favourite historical fiction authors, historical fiction, historical fiction survey, Michelle Moran, The Second Empress, writing historical fiction
Today I welcome Michelle Moran, one of the top 20 favourite authors identified in the historical fiction survey. I am doubly pleased to publish her interview on the same day as the launch of Michelle’s latest book, THE SECOND EMPRESS.
Why do you write historical fiction? 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 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.
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 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 took a few moments to think about this. I 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 was the possibility of my returning to Egypt again? There was only one choice. I 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 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.
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.
You are clearly good at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? Thank you! I hope it’s the historical accuracy, and the ability to be transported back in time.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Because the publishing industry likes their authors to be on a book a year schedule, I divide my time evenly. Six months for research, six months for writing.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? 12 years ago, I had the fortune to be wandering through the Borders bookstore in Claremont CA and see Robin Maxwell touring for her latest historical fiction, which at the time I believe was Virgin. So I summoned up the chutzpah to go over and tell her I was an historical fiction author too — at the ripe old age of 21! Hey, so what that I had only sold a book in German and my current agent wasn’t returning my emails? I was still an author, right? And, again, instead of laughing (or worse), she gave me her number and told me to call her with questions at anytime. We talked every five or six months or so after that, and she was a great inspiration to me. Since then I’ve been to her ranch. She lives in a beautiful expanse of desert with her husband, who’s a yoga instructor.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? Oh wow. I really couldn’t say. As a reader, I look for historical accuracy, plus a place in time I know little about. I like to learn while I read, but I also want to be entertained. I feel that good historical fiction can deliver both.
You seem to be creating books focused on famous women of history. How do you balance an interest in ancient times such as the Egyptian empire with Napoleonic times? Actually, my interests are pretty wide-ranging, so it hasn’t been difficult at all. History in general is what fascinates me, from the ancient world to the modern. I guess what compels me to reach back in time to search for untold stories is how similar we are to people who lived a thousand, even two thousand, years ago. People in ancient Egypt had the same hopes, dreams, fears, and desires as we do today. Human emotions haven’t changed.
What advantages do you think come from writing more than one book set in a given period? Any disadvantages? I can’t see any disadvantages to writing a few books set in the same time period, but I can see disadvantages for a writer who writes more than two or three. Not because their readers will get bored, but because they might! Of course, this doesn’t apply to all writers, and those who write series—I really take my hat off to them! For me, one of the best parts about writing historical fiction is the research, and I like to keep it new and fresh!
What brand are you trying to create for yourself? I’d like readers to think of me as a writer of famous women whose names have been obscured by history. Women who have been talented—not just beautiful, or married to the right man.
What do you do to connect with readers? I have a very strong online presence. From my FB page for readers, to Goodreads, to my website, www.michellemoran.com, I try to make myself as accessible as possible, particularly those with questions about the history behind the books.
What do you know about your readers? What I know often comes in the form of emails and FB postings. I have a very active FB page for readers, and I’m on there several times a day, as well as on Goodreads. I adore online communication, and I can’t get enough of it!
What data do you collect about your readers? None. But I do try to read both positive and negative reviews to see if I can learn something from them.
What strategies guide your writing career? Honestly, I just wrote what I enjoy reading. I ask myself if it’s a scene I’d enjoy in someone else’s book, and if it isn’t, I simply don’t write it!
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Hmm… that’s tough. Because both my mistakes and my good decisions led me to where I am today. I’ve had tremendous good fortune in my career, and I have so many people to thank for that. I guess if I had to do something different it would be to market and publicize my second book better. I was so exhausted from the first book’s campaign that I didn’t really give THE HERETIC QUEEN enough time to shine.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Keep writing. If at any point along the way I had stopped writing and said to myself, you know, I think book number eleven will be my last, I wouldn’t be published. Writers don’t like to hear this, though. I know when I was looking at writing advice and I would see this posted somewhere I would think, well that’s helpful. I wouldn’t have thought of that. But the truth is there’s no good-ol-boys-club and there’s no backdoor into the publishing industry (unless you’re already a star). Good work sells, and if it doesn’t, write another one, then maybe once you’re a success they’ll haul out all of your old books that weren’t worth publishing the first time around, spruce them up a little, and voila, all of your previous efforts won’t have been wasted. Or maybe you’ll look back on those books and think, wow, they knew something I didn’t. My work has gotten better. And then you’ll hide those first eleven books in a closet somewhere (or a craftily labeled folder in My Documents so that no one ever finds them).
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? No! You’ve pretty much covered everything, and it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me!
Michelle, your passion for the subjects you choose and the research involved is so very clear. You’ve certainly inspired me to keep on writing although, having recently spent four months editing a manuscript, I can’t imagine completing a book a year! The Second Empress sounds like a wonderful read – I wish you great success with it.
THE SECOND EMPRESS: Last spring, bestselling author Michelle Moran revived the tumultuous years of the French Revolution in her novel Madame Tussaud. Channeling the voice of the very real wax sculptor, Marie Tussaud, readers witnessed the fall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Reign of Terror, and the rise of a general named Napoleon Bonaparte. In her new novel, THE SECOND EMPRESS: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court (August 14, 2012; Crown Publishers), Moran reveals the next chapter in French history, taking readers inside the court of Emperor Napoleon. Through the voice of three people who knew him best—Pauline Bonaparte, his infamous sister; Marie-Louise, his second wife of royal Austrian blood; and Paul, a Haitian chamberlain who caters to Pauline and advises the emperor—Moran offers a glimpse at the individuals behind the scenes who helped influence an empire.