Thursday, October 01, 2009

Three Princesses: A Guest Post by Michelle Moran

Please welcome author Michelle Moran to Musings of a Bookish Kitty! Michelle Moran is one of my favorite authors, and so I was thrilled when she agreed to appear as a guest on my blog today. She is the author of Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen and Cleopatra's Daughter (my reviews of the latter two are pending).

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. 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.

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, as you can imagine, has been enormously important in my writing career. My adventures end up inspiring not only what I’m currently writing, but what I’m going to write about in the future.

The death of Cleopatra was only the beginning...

Check out Michelle's blog at


  1. Hi Wendy! Thanks for featuring Michelle here. That's a great post.

    Hi Michelle! So far I have no luck with the book giveaway, but will try to get a copy of the book if it comes to the bookstores here. I love all the book reviews that been around.

  2. What an amazing post. I always feel equal parts awe and envy when I read something by her - but the admiration wins out in the end - she rocks my socks.

    I had the opportunity earlier this year to visit Egypt, and then read the Heretic Queen (I read Nefertiti about this time last year). My book review on the Heretic Queen, if anyone is interested, is located on my blog, you just have to go there and click on the book review which is sitting in my 'books read in 2009 list' in the right-hand column:

    Even though I didn't have the pleasure of paying thousands of dollars to see Nefertiti's place of rest (ha) I was lucky enough to travel to Abu Simbel on the brightest of days. It was incredibly romantic, my heart was in my throat the whole time.

    Given that her two books have been fantastic, and I have no doubt Cleopatra's daughter will be just as good when I read it, I can't WAIT for the Marie Antoinette book I hear she's writing. OMG, so excited.

    Thanks Wendy - this post was an absolute joy to read from start to finish.

    And if Michelle is out there - thank you Michelle, keep doing what you do, you glamour!

    - Aimee

  3. Great to read Michelle's post here. I was lucky enough to read Nefertiti when I was in Berlin last year so it was a thrill to see the bust and be reading the story. It just made the reading all the more memorable to me.

    I definitely have the other books on my radar. Can't wait to go back to Egypt :)

  4. Wonderful post. I just love historical fiction. I'm putting Cleopatra's Daughter on my list1 Thanks :)

  5. I've got all of Moran's book and simply have to read one soon!

  6. Oh no - good luck, Alice!

    And Aimee, you must have had an amazing (and far less expensive ;) time. The day I went to Abu Simbel it was incredibly dusty. Going on a clear day must have been fantastic! And thank you for the kind words about the books!

  7. My copy of this arrived yesterday. Looking forward to reading it!

  8. I enjoyed this guest post. Having just recently finished Cleopatra's Daughter, I am looking forward to reading Michelle's earlier books. I can't imagine how thrilling it must be to visit the places she has. Just imagine diving to see Alexandria?

  9. Loved reading about real achaeological digs, not just the Indiana Jones kind.

  10. please stop by I have an award for you

  11. Thank you all for dropping by. I was so thrilled when I read Michelle's post. Even here she makes me want to step into the past and visit the world of her characters.

  12. I love getting a glimpse into why authors choose to write about what they do, thanks Michelle!


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