Friday, May 30, 2008

Encore: Michelle Moran - Walk Like an Egyptian

UPDATE: Nefertiti is now available in paperback!

Buy it at for only $10.17! The entire great story at a bargain price.

Michelle Moran had a vision of a Queen of the Nile. No, not the notorius Cleopatra, but the more mysterious Nefertiti. Was she a Pharaoh? What was she like? There’s a lot that the average person doesn’t know about her. Michelle has done all the work for we curious, yet lazy, folk. She has painted a portrait of a lady hidden in the mists of time for the rest of us to enjoy.

Michelle was always a history buff, focusing on the great English writers from Chaucer to Milton. She had a chance to go on an archeological dig and turned into a history maven. From her travels (she’s been everywhere) to her research, she homed in on Nefertiti. She spent four years researching and writing the novel and it just came out on July 10th. It’s already very successful, beyond the wildest dreams of most of us writers.

Since I’ve been a follower of Michelle’s History Buff blog, I’d thought about bothering her for an interview. With the release of NEFERTITI it seemed the perfect time.

Please visit Michelle’s website for a host of background information about the Egypt described in her novel. She has lots of interesting facts, including a really fun interactive family tree.

In addition, Michelle hosts the blogs History Buff and History Buff Interviews.

And, of course, Nefertiti: A Novel is available wherever fine books are sold. Try Amazon if you like to order on-line, but I'm sure the book will also be showing up in your local bookstore.

Now on to the interview.

Marva: Michelle, thanks for taking the time to answer some burning questions about your new novel, “Nefertiti: A Novel.”

I noticed some recent documentaries on Egyptology on the History Channel and on Discovery. Strangely, much of this news circles around Nefertiti and her husband, Akhenaten. Did you have any idea the release of your book would coincide with these new discoveries?

Michelle: The timing was certainly fortuitous, with the identification of Hatshepsut’s mummy taking place just a few days before the release. Another story that has been bubbling away concerns the very bust of Nefertiti that had first sparked my interest in her story. It has been on display in Berlin for decades, but recently there has been pressure from the Egyptian government for its return, creating a diplomatic war of words. So certainly I feel that timing helps. But on the other hand, there remains a great deal left that we are always discovering about Egypt, and so much that is timeless about its appeal. Ultimately, people respond to the story, and to a period in history that enthralls us.

Marva: The bust of Nefertiti is one of the most recognizable artifacts from ancient Egypt. What drew you to write about this famous, yet mysterious, queen of Egypt?

Michelle: My travels to archaeological sites around the world have been enormously influential in my writing career. In fact, my inspiration to write on Nefertiti happened while I was on an archaeological trip. 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 priceless artifacts, which were kept far from the clumsy hands of amateurs!

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 retrospect, I think, Wow, it was 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 what would become Israel.

On my flight back to America I stopped, as I mentioned, in Berlin. With a newfound appreciation for Egyptology, I visited the Altes 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. Those clues formed the structure of Nefertiti: A Novel.

Marva: Research. The biggest part of an historical writer’s time is spent simply researching. Tell us a little about your methods and sources. Then, how do you apply the research to your novel? And a chicken-egg question. What came first? The research or the plot?

Michelle: 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 is coherent with other facts, logic, and human nature, (three fairly constant guiding stars.) If I have doubts 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.

Which means that all of the major events and characters in NEFERTITI are based on fact. Even the description of Nefertiti’s palace and the images she had painted beneath her throne are historically accurate. Archaeologists today are extremely lucky that so much of Nefertiti’s life is well-preserved. But it wasn’t always this way. After Nefertiti’s reign, her enemies tried to destroy her memory by demolishing her city. The historical character of Horemheb, in particular, wanted to be sure that nothing of hers remained, so he broke her images down piece by piece and used them as rubble to fill the columns of his own buildings. Fast forward three thousand years, however, and as Horemheb’s columns began to deteriorate, what was found hidden inside were the perfectly preserved shards of Nefertiti’s image and life story. The irony! I think that this is the core of what we trust in as writers- that the essence of our subjects’ lives will come tumbling out through our stories, if we only chip away at the right spot…

Marva: Nefertiti is your first novel. It’s getting a great reception for a debut novel. What was the process from finished manuscript to publishing?

Michelle: I am represented by the wonderful agent Anna Ghosh at Scovil Chichak Galen, and she took on the task of submitting the novel that a previous 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 turned down by the acquisitions team, (since all sales have to be approved by committee.) After Anna had completed the rounds of all the major publishing houses, I began to panic that I’d been dropped as a client. That is when I started Nefertiti, a project I was extremely passionate about. Anna waited patiently for two years while I worked, and eventually went on to sell the novel and its sequel for six figures to Crown. After that, her foreign-rights colleague Danny Baror 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. Much as Thomas Edison famously found 1,000 ways to not build a light bulb, I have thirteen books that I’ve written thus far- and just because they’re not published doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from them, or that the stories aren’t worth telling. It’s even possible, though unlikely, that with some reworking I may publish one or more in the future. 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. With each book you’ll get better as a writer, and eventually you will strike gold!

Marva: What are the important points of Nefertiti’s life? What made her worthy of historical study, aside from that fabulous face?

Michelle: As a young girl Nefertiti had married a Pharaoh who was determined to erase the entire Egyptian pantheon and replace it with a single 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. Yet far from showing restraint, the royal couple pushed Egypt’s fragile peace to the breaking point, as Nefertiti joined him in building his own capital of Amarna from where they ruled as god and goddess. The powerful Nefertiti did have a sister who tried to keep her grounded, and in an image of her found in Amarna, the sister is depicted standing off to one side, her arms downcast while everyone else enthusiastically praises the royal couple. That image served as the kernel for the novel’s narrative. The story, (as told by this skeptical yet kind sister Mutny) is about not only the historic clashes that swirl around the kingdom, but also Mutny’s own struggles for normality and love in the shadow of a demanding Queen’s constant crises.

Marva: I’d like to know something obscure that you discovered in your research about her. What about Nefertiti excites your imagination the most?

Michelle: Perhaps Nefertiti’s style, the individualism that still set her apart even millennia later. This ranged from her radical approach to politics and religion, down even to the seemingly trivial fact that she had double ear-piercings at a time when no-one else apparently though to do the same. Then, as now, this “uniqueness” soon had its imitators! Nefertiti’s daughter, for instance, developed her own perfume line. It probably would have been similar to the fragrance found in King Tut’s tomb, which was made with:

One quarter cup coconut oil
6 drops of essential oil of spikenard
6 drops of essential oil of frankincense

So look for those ingredients in the spikenard aisle of your local grocery store!

Marva: I always like to end an interview with an open invitation for the interviewee to fill us in on anything she’d like. Go for it.

Michelle: Well, I have an open question of my own. I’d love to see her story adapted to the big screen, but who (amongst actors you’ve heard of!) would blog readers like to see playing the role of Nefertiti and the other leads?

Marva: Good question for my readers. I'll chime in with Angelina Jolie for Nefertiti. She's exotic enough for the role. As for the other leads? Catherine Zeta Jones for Mutny. With these women, who cares who plays the men?

Thanks, Michelle, for giving us the low-down on Nefertiti. I look forward to reading it and writing a review when my copy arrives.


  1. Halle Barry!

    Great interview, both of yas.

  2. Good choice, Kimber. She'd be terrific.

  3. As I mentioned at the end of the interview, I think Angelina Jolie would be good and Catherine Zeta Jones for Mutny.

  4. Oh, Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie... both GREAT choices! In fact, Halle Berry had seen a script a few years back for a Nefertiti movie and signed on to play her but it fell through, as so many films do.

  5. My kids did a project on Egypt. Fascinating thing to help them with. I particularly enjoyed the part about mummies and what pots went into the tombs with them. Now, I've forgotten all the names (too much other info in my head that has ousted those) but I do remember it being cool learning.


  6. Great interview, Marva.

    Michelle, I admire your dedication to historical authenticity.

  7. Thank you tomcat (great name btw!). And for readers who have finished the book and are looking to see exactly how much history figures into the story, you can find the answers on the Q&A page of my website!

  8. Either Halle Berry or Catherine Zeta Jones. Angelina Jolie's features aren't ascetic enough. Everybody is assuming that Nefertiti had black hair, which she probably did. I have this mental picture of a young Grace Kelly with her hair dyed black - perfect.

  9. nice website
    very informative


  10. Thank you, Michelle. I checked that Q&A page and was most impressed that you really know your subject. Because I am as passionate about politics as you are about history, I frequently find myself studying history as well.

  11. Good interview, Marva. Nice blog too. I'll add you to my list of contacts and drop by from time to time.

    It's good to see your publications on the rise as well...


  12. Thanks, Bryan. Nice of you to drop by.

    Jack: We'll argue about this later.

  13. Great interview Marva, I really did enjoy it. Well - I shall now also add you to my list on contacts, and I'll see what other great articles you come up with!

    all the best


  14. Thanks, JE. Nice of you to stop by.

  15. This is a great interview Marva. I hadn't heard of the book, but now I need to put it on my list.

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  17. Well, when that big director comes a-calling I'll just tell him (or her!) that I envision an actress with Grace Kelly's face, Angelina Jolie's fame, Catherine Zeta Jones' hair, and Halle Berry's figure. How's that?!

  18. Very funny, Michelle. Actually, I proved to my husband (JackD) that Angelina Jolie was perfect. I showed a picture of AJ and Nefertiti side by side. The resemblance is really amazing. The lips and jawline in particular matched perfectly.

    By the way, my copy of Nefertiti just arrived. Couldn't you have written a short book? Just kidding. I love a good price by the pound for books. ;-)

  19. Actually, the publishing house trimmed the book by 100 pages ;] It could be worse!

  20. Another Mitchner, huh? ;-)