Michelle Moran's debut novel, Nefertiti (Crown, July 2007) was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a favorite of readers and critics alike. Michelle's second book, The Heretic Queen, goes on sale tomorrow and is sure to be an even greater success than the first. It tells the story of Nefertari, the only surviving member of reviled Queen Nefertiti's royal line. When Ramesses, the Pharaoh's son, falls in love with Nefertari and announces they will marry, his outraged people rise up against her rule. The couple's reign is filled with conquest and strife, yet great achievement--and even greater love. Michelle graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss The Heretic Queen with me.
1) How did you decide on the title The Heretic Queen? I find it ironic that the story is about Nefertari's struggle to break free of the legacy of her heretical ancestors, yet the novel carries the moniker that designated her aunt. Why did you not choose something that was wholly Nefertari's, like The Warrior Queen? Was it so as not to destroy the suspense of whether or not Nefertari would manage to escape her family's reputation?
What a wonderful question, and I suspect I’m going to get it quite a bit. A more appropriate title for the book would certainly have been The Warrior Queen, but that sounded too much like a fantasy novel, and with the ambiguous cover, I didn’t want to risk that. Even Nefertari would have been appropriate, but that sounded too much like Nefertiti. So ultimately, I chose The Heretic Queen for exactly the reason you mentioned. I wanted the book to focus on how the sins of the older generation can be visited upon the young, and the question of whether Nefertari would ever be able to overcome that.
2) You wrote both Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen in the first person from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl. Was it difficult to create two different voices? Did you ever consider writing the second book from the third person? What motivated your choice?
I adore first person fiction. I do like third person POV as well, but I find that I’m better at writing through the voice of someone else rather than the all-seeing narrator. I have no doubt there will come a time when my readers will have had enough of first person fiction from me and a change will need to be made, but I’m hoping that change isn’t for another few books! I try very hard to distinguish the voices of my narrators from one another. People’s approaches to life and their attitudes are shaped (in part) by the people they’re surrounded by, and since no one in The Heretic Queen is quite the diva that Nefertiti was, Nefertari’s voice is (I hope) far different from Mutny’s (who narrated the first book and had to put up with her sister’s attitude).
3) I was fascinated by the presence of the Habiru in the novel and the fact that you purposely choose not to introduce material found only in the Hebrew Scriptures. Could you talk a bit about the position of conquered peoples within Egyptian society? The Scriptures portray the Hebrews as being slaves, whereas in your novel the Habiru are incorporated into the Egyptian army and Ashai and Ahmoses seem to move about freely. Also, is the detail of Ahmoses teaching Akhenaten about monotheism entirely of your making, or is there evidence of Jewish influence on Akhenaten's faith?
Oh wow, what a big question! Like many societies in the ancient world, slavery was both common and accepted in Egypt. Conquered peoples were taken to Egypt and their fate depended heavily on luck. Some would be sent to the quarries (and an early death), others would be sold in the marketplace to the highest bidder, and still others would be saved for Pharaoh’s palace. Of course, none of these fates were very lucky, but in terms of life and death, those who were sent to the auction block or the palace fared much better than those who were forced into manual labor in the mines.
Slavery in Egypt was not quite the same as slavery in other countries. In ancient Rome, for instance, slaves were not allowed to marry or have any official say whatsoever in their fate. In Egypt, however, slaves could marry and have children. In Rome it is estimated that one out of every three people were slaves (a dangerous number, as Spartacus proved), whereas the slave trade in Egypt was quite small. In many ways, the slaves of Egypt were more like indentured servants who could work toward their own freedom if they were wise and capable and served with distinction (not that this makes their slavery any more acceptable, just slightly less harsh).
And the historical Habiru were indeed part of Pharaoh’s army. However, there is no evidence that Akhenaten’s belief in monotheism was based on Habiru teachings. Does the possibility exist? Certainly. But is there evidence for it? No.
4) Tell us more about the role of priestesses. Were the appointments as high priestess honorary ones? Why would the sisters of the Pharaoh become priestesses instead of being married off to Egypt's allies, the way European princesses were? Were temples used in the same way as convents, as a place to educate the daughters of nobility or to dispose of superfluous female offspring?
That’s an interesting question! Appointments to the priesthood seemed to have been both honorary and merit-based, depending on where the temple was located. In the Theban temples positions like high priest or priestess were taken by the sons and daughters of Pharaoh. Queen Kiya’s son Khaemwese, for example, was the High Priest of Ptah. And the High Priest Sheshonk was a son of Pharaoh Osorkon I. Unlike other kingdoms, Egypt didn’t marry her princesses off to foreign princes, which was a huge boon for the young ladies of the royal family. The ancient Egyptians were too proud of their country to even consider sending their princesses to far-away realms where they would suffer the indignities of having to live beneath Egyptian standards. So the royal daughters often found themselves in charge of religious ceremonies.
And in some ways, yes, the temples were used as ancient-day convents where women could be educated and brought up. But in many other ways, the idea of a convent would have been incredibly foreign to Egyptians. Priestesses were not expected to be celibate and could even adopt children if they wanted. The goddesses the women worshiped were images of fertility, so it would have been incredibly counter intuitive to ask that their worshipers abstain from reproduction and sex. The High Priestess of Amun (frequently called God’s Wife) was often a position held by Pharaoh’s wife or daughter. Even the priestesses who ranked below God’s Wife - the Divine Adoratrices - were not celibate. Some of the women who held this position were Huy (the mother of Queen Meritre Hatshepsut) and Seniseneb, the wife of the High Priest Puyemre. In the 19th dynasty, things began to change for the Divine Adoratrices when Ramses VI gave the position to his daughter Aset and required of her both abstinence from sex and the promise never to marry. However, this was unusual.
5) In addition to the first and second wives, the Pharaoh seemed to have an entire harem of women (the harem of Mi-wer) at his disposal. What advantage was there for a woman to be part of the Mi-wer, since most of them could only have spent time with the Pharaoh rarely? How was a woman chosen to become part of the Mi-wer, and was she cared for until her death? In regards to the position of First Wife: could a woman lose that position if she displeased the Pharaoh, or was it hers for life?
I cannot imagine why any woman in Egypt would have ever wanted to be part of the harem of Mi-wer. This harem was so far removed from court that Pharaoh almost never visited there and the women inside were doomed to live loveless, childless, family-less lives. There were several reasons a woman would have been sent to Mi-Wer. Perhaps the current Pharaoh had inherited her from his father, or she was old and in some way displeasing to him. A woman sent to Mi-Wer could expect a life not of luxury, but of hard work in order to maintain her place in the palace. The women sewed garments, grew plants, and all of them were expected to contribute in some significant way. Being sent to Mi-Wer was a social death sentence, since you would never see your parents again, never live a real life in Egyptian society, and never experience physical love (unless it was with a woman).
As for the position of First or Chief Wife, a woman could certainly lose it, especially if she was discovered to be part of a conspiracy in the harem. Just such a plot was uncovered during the reign of Ramesses III. It was led by Queen Tiy who wanted to assassinate Ramesses and place her son on the throne. Although nothing is known of her fate after the trial, we can imagine that she didn’t remain queen for very long.
6) The Heretic Queen is your second book. How is writing a second novel different from writing the first? Did you learn anything from writing your first book that helped you the second time around?
There really is nothing like publishing for the first time. The expectation, the excitement of the unknown, and the wild drive that pushes an author to do anything and everything they can for their very first book doesn’t compare with the experience of publishing successive novels. Since Nefertiti was my first novel, I had no idea what to expect. What would happen on the first day of publication? Or if I made a bestsellers list? Or if I didn’t make one? Should I do signings? What about drive-by signings? Do bookmarks really work? Of course, all of these questions were answered in due time. And now, for The Heretic Queen, I know that bookmarks are useful, that if I make the bestsellers list my editor will call at an ungodly hour on her – gasp – personal phone to congratulate me, and that drive-by signings can be just as effective as signing events. There is an inner peace – at least for me – in publishing the second novel that wasn’t there for the first book when everything was uncertain and new. The nervousness is still there – will people like it? will I let down my publishing house? – but this time I know what to expect.
7) What do you want readers of The Heretic Queen to come away with?
I’d like readers to feel that if a time machine were to suddenly appear and whisk them away to ancient Egypt, they wouldn’t be totally lost. They would recognize the traditions, the gods and goddesses, and know what to expect in Pharaoh Ramesses’s court. I have tried my best to make the writing accessible to a modern audience. That means not dating the dialogue, or using too many long and unwieldy Egyptian names, or overdoing it with ancient Egyptian terms. Hopefully, by doing this, readers will come away with the sense of not only having been there for a little while, but of relating to the Egyptians. Because for all of the technological, medical and philosophical changes the world has undergone in the past three thousand years, people have remained the same. They had the same desires and fears in ancient Egypt that we have today, and I hope that readers can come away with an understanding of that.
8) Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Cleopatra's Daughter?
Cleopatra's Daughter will follow the incredible life of Cleopatra's surviving children with Marc Antony -- twins, named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a younger son named Ptolemy. All three were taken to Rome and paraded through the streets, then sent off to be raised by Octavia (the wife whom Marc Antony left for Cleopatra). Raised in one of the most fascinating courts of all time, Cleopatra's children would have met Ovid, Seneca, Vitruvius (who inspired the Vitruvian man), Agrippa (who built the Pantheon), Herod, his sister Salome, the poets Virgil, Horace, Maecenas and so many others!
9) Do you think you will always write about the ancient world? What other possible settings interest you?
Oh, I seriously hope not!! My academic specialties are ancient Rome and the Middle Ages (seemingly very different, I know… but there are similarities!). Once I finish writing on ancient Rome, I fully intend to skip forward and explore more “recent” history. Recent, of course, meaning men on horses wearing suits of armor versus men riding chariots!
10) What advice do you have for aspiring authors of historical fiction?
Learn as much as you can about the business of writing. Because we writers feel an emotional connection to our stories, we tend to feel that publishing is also emotional. If I’m nice, they’ll publish me. If I send them chocolate with my query letter, they’ll see what a good person I am. But publishing isn’t personal and most of the time it’s not emotional either. It’s about numbers and sales and - at the end of the day - money. So learn everything there is to know about the business before you send off your material, especially once your material is accepted for publication. That’s when business savvy matters most, and knowing important publishing terms like galleys, remainders and co-op is extremely important when trying to figure out how you can best help your book along in the publication process. Learn everything, but above all, keep writing!
Thank you, Michelle, for your detailed answers and for the chance to take part in The Heretic Queen's launch. I wish you all the best with this novel and your writing career and look forward to reading many more books by you in the future.