Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Interview with Michelle Moran, Author of Cleopatra's Daughter

First off, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your latest novel, Cleopatra's Daughter. Let's start off with a generic question: why did you get into writing?

My first attempt at getting published was in seventh grade, when I was twelve. I had written a full length book that was certainly pathetic but everyone praised it and my father hailed it as the next Great American Novel. My father was very good at ego-boosting. But no one knew how to go about getting published, so I went to my local Barnes and Nobles and asked them how. And instead of laughing, the bookseller took me to the writing section and I purchased the current edition of Writer's Market. From then on, no agent or publishing house was safe. I learned how to write query letters and regaled them all. And some of them sent personal letters back too, probably because I had included my age in the query letter and they either thought a) this kid has potential or b) this is sad and deserves at least a kind note.

Then, after going on an archaeological dig in my second year of college, I changed my genre from literary to historical fiction and found my calling. That summer I wrote a novel called Jezebel, and signed with a prominent agent in NY. His foreign rights department sold it successfully to Bertelsmann in Germany, and I had my first publishing credit with the company that owns Random House. But my agent in NY had a difficult time selling the novel, and when it was clear that he had done what he could for Jezebel and that there would be no sale in the US, I saw the writing on the wall. I would have to write another book.

So I began my research, and over the next few years I came to a slow and eye-opening realization. No matter how many times or how nicely I wrote, my agent never answered my emails. Even after I had finished the book on the subject that he’d suggested, he never took my phone calls. Did this mean I didn’t have an agent? Had I been dumped because Jezebel hadn’t sold? Did agents do that without telling their clients? Apparently, he did, and apparently, some do. So I took the high road and wrote a letter thanking him for what he had done for me (he did get my foot in the door), and I asked to be released from our contract. I sent the letter by certified mail and promptly never heard from him again.

But publishing isn’t personal, and neither is rejection, so I began sending query letters out the next month, mentioning that my agent and I had recently parted ways and that I was searching for new representation. It was a matter of weeks before I had a new agent, the wonderful Anna Ghosh at Scovil Chichak Galen, and she took on the task of submitting the novel that my precious agent had suggested I write. But my heart hadn’t been in the book. It was set in the 20th century, and my specialty – what I studied in college and what I’ve since become an amateur historian on – is ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages. We had quite a few near misses with the novel, where editors wanted to purchase the book but were told no by the acquisitions committee, since all sales have to be approved by a committee. After Anna sent the novel to all the major houses, I began to panic that I’d be dropped as a client for a second time, and that is when I started Nefertiti, a project I was extremely passionate about. Anna waited for two years while I wrote, and eventually she sold the book and its stand-alone sequel for six-figures to Crown. After that, her foreign rights agent Danny Baror (who happened to be the same foreign rights agent who sold Jezebel) sold Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen to more than fifteen countries.

I do believe there is a moral to this story, which is to be persistent and not to be afraid of starting a new project. I have thirteen books that I’ve written, and just because they’re not published doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from them, or that I can’t publish them in the future (although I probably won’t). I think what aspiring writers need to understand is that if something isn’t right for the current market, that doesn’t mean they should simply give up.

Why did you choose to write about the children of Cleopatra?

Actually, it all began with a dive. Not the kind of dive that people take into swimming pools, but the kind where you squeeze yourself into a wetsuit and wonder just how tasty your rump must appear to passing sharks now that it looks exactly like an elephant seal. My husband and I had taken a trip to Egypt, and at the suggestion of a friend, we decided to go to Alexandria and do a dive to see the remains of Cleopatra’s underwater city. Let it be known that I had never done an underwater dive before, so after four days with an instructor (and countless questions like, Will there be sharks? How about jellyfish? If there is an earthquake, what happens underwater?) we were ready for the real thing.

We drove to the Eastern Harbor in Alexandria. Dozens of other divers were already there, waiting to see what sort of magic lay beneath the waves. I wondered if the real thing could possibly live up to all of the guides and brochures selling this underwater city, lost for thousands of years until now. Then we did the dive, and it was every bit as magical as everyone had promised. You can see the rocks which once formed Marc Antony’s summer palace, come face to face with Cleopatra’s towering sphinx, and take your time floating above ten thousand ancient artifacts, including obelisks, statues, and countless amphorae. By the time we had surfaced, I was Cleopatra-obsessed. I wanted to know what had happened to her city once she and Marc Antony had committed suicide. Where did all of its people go? Were they allowed to remain or were they killed by the Romans? What about her four children?

It was this last question which surprised me the most. I had always believed that all of Cleopatra’s children had been murdered. But the Roman conqueror Octavian had actually spared the three she bore to Marc Antony: her six-year-old son, Ptolemy, and her ten-year-old twins, Alexander and Selene. As soon as I learned that Octavian had taken the three of them for his Triumph in Rome, I knew at once I had my next book. This is how all of my novels seem to begin – with a journey, then an adventure, and finally, enormous amounts of research for what I hope is an exciting story.

You've written two other novels centered around young historical figures, so it's safe to assume you like history. Is there any particular reason why?

I've always loved history. My father was an historian, and we spent a great deal of time talking about history. As for the type of history I write about, for every novel 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. 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 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.

Is you could meet any historical figure, who would it be and why?

Hmm... maybe Jefferson? When President Kennedy invited the 1962 winners of the Nobel Prize winners to the White House he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." He was an extraordinary man.

As anyone who's read Cleopatra's Daughter knows, you describe the ancient world vividly. How did you envision a time so long ago without photographs or any other direct resource?

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.

Was it difficult writing about an actual person, as opposed to characters you created?

I think it may be easier writing about actual characters than fictional ones, simply because many of the people I wrote about have left behind either memoirs or a great deal of information which historians have used to piece together who they were.

Did you take any liberties involving the actual events?

Very few. The ones I do take I write about in the Author’s Note at the end.

If you could meet Selene or Alexander, what would you say to them? (Would you give them spoilers...?)

I would definitely give them spoilers! I'd tell Selene that everything would turn out all right for her in the end - that despite the hardships she'd suffered she shouldn't worry. But to her twin, Alexander, I'd warn him to beware!

What's next for you?

My next book is about Madame Tussaud, who joined the gilded but troubled court of Marie Antoinette, and survived the French Revolution only by creating death masks of the beheaded aristocracy. I’m very excited about this novel, since Marie (the first name of Madame Tussaud) met absolutely everyone, from Jefferson to the Empress Josephine.

Sell your book over twitter (140 characters or less!)

"A riveting and untold historical tale set against the backdrop of Egypt's demise. Following Cleopatra and Marc Antony's deaths, their three children - twins named Alexander and Selene plus a younger son named Ptolemy - are exiled from Egypt and sent to Rome in chains to be raised in one of the most fascinating (and dangerous) courts of all time. Cleopatra's Daughter is the remarkable true story of what happens to these three surviving children as seen through the eyes of Selene. Their adaptation to Roman culture, their treatment as both a curiosity and a threat, and Selene's perilous journey to adulthood, are all chronicled in the elegant detail and gripping pace for which Michelle Moran is celebrated."

Okay.. I can't claim credit for that. It came from my publisher's catalog ;]

One book, one movie, one TV show--Go!

White Oleander by Janet Fitch, Gladiator, Rome's HBO Series.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

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).

What are some of your main influences?

Hmm... actually, I'd have to say art. I visit museums constantly, both here in the US and abroad, and if I see something that fits into the period I’m writing about, it often shows up in the novel.

Best things and worse things about writing professionally.

Best thing: rolling out of bed at 10am.
Worst thing: rolling out of bed at 10am to an empty house. Ultimately, writing is a solitary profession, and I'm a very outgoing person.

Michelle Moran was born in the San Fernando Valley, CA. She took an interest in writing from an early age, purchasing Writer's Market and submitting her stories and novellas to publishers from the time she was twelve. When she was accepted into Pomona College she took as many classes as possible in British Literature, particularly Milton, Chaucer, and the Bard. Not surprisingly, she majored in English while she was there. Following a summer in Israel where she worked as a volunteer archaeologist, she earned an MA from the Claremont Graduate University.

Thanks to Michelle for the interview, and her latest novel, Cleopatra's Daughter, is currently in stores, and you can enter here for a chance to win a copy, plus an egyption pen.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interview - I really enjoyed it! (And I REALLY enjoyed _Nefertiti_ - I'll definitely be looking out for her later novels.)

Jenny said...

Wonderful book! I cannot wait to read one of her books and will look for the Madam Tussoud one!

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