Interview with Michelle Moran
INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE MORAN
I am delighted to have a special guest for this blog–Michelle Moran, the best-selling author of Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen, and her latest, Cleopatra’s Daughter. Michelle’s background as almost as interesting as her novels. She has a BA in English, followed by an MA, and has spent six years in the trenches as a high school English teacher. She is almost as well traveled as Marco Polo, often venturing off the beaten path. She is definitely a child of the Computer Age, with one of the most impressive websites I’ve seen, and she is very generous in encouraging and promoting the works of other writers. Oh, yes, and she also writes wonderful novels.
Welcome, Michelle. I appreciate your taking the time to visit with us, for I am sure your publisher is keeping you very busy now that the Pub. Date for Cleopatra’s Daughter is approaching—September 15th. It is off to a very good start, too; I saw that you got a starred review in Library Journal and it is already selling briskly on Amazon. Let’s begin with Selene, a girl with bedazzling bloodlines, daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. I found her to be very sympathetic, a child forced to grow up almost overnight.
1) What drew you to her? She is certainly not as well known as her famous mother; what made you want to tell her story?
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.
2) Selene is surrounded by a colorful cast, including Julius Caesar’s bloodless, brilliant nephew, Octavian, Marc Antony’s long-suffering Roman wife, Octavia, who agrees to raise her husband’s children by his Egyptian “concubine,” Octavian’s wife, Livia, whose name will send chills up the spine of anyone who saw I, Claudius, and her disgruntled, dangerous son, Tiberius. And then there is Juba, son of the King of Numidia, which encompassed present-day Algeria, I believe? After his father’s defeat, he was brought to Rome as a prize of war, but was then educated as a Roman, even being granted Roman citizenship. How unusual was that? I knew nothing about Juba before reading Cleopatra’s Daughter, but he sounds like a remarkable man. Did Selene lead you to his story or vice versa?
I discovered Juba’s story only after beginning my research into Selene. It wasn’t unheard of for Romans to take the children of conquered kings, bring them to Rome, and raise them as Roman citizens. It had happened before, and it happened again when Octavian brought Selene and her twin brother to Rome. However, this only occurred in the case of respected enemies. If Selene and her brother had been the children of a “barbaric” Gaul, they would have been either killed or enslaved.
3) Your first two novels were set in Egypt. Was it easier to research Cleopatra’s Daughter in light of the wealth of information that has survived about the Roman Empire? Or was it more challenging to strike out into new and uncharted territory after spending so many years in the shadows of the pyramids?
Actually, it was far less intimidating to write about ancient Rome than it was to write about Egypt. There is such a wealth of information about Rome, not to mention the fact that the language remains intact. Also, I feel as though a part of me has always been in Rome. My father’s degree was in ancient Roman history. That’s what he taught, what he read about, and what we grew up learning about as children.
4) I am often asked about the role of women in the MA. I think we are equally fascinated by the lives of women in Rome and Egypt. Can you tell us what you found most surprising about the differences between those two cultures in their treatment of women?
To me, the greatest difference between women’s lives in ancient Egypt and ancient Rome had to do with marriage. In Egypt, a marriage wasn’t easily dissolved (although both men and women could demand a divorce). Amongst the Roman ruling classes, however, it was both easy and common for a patriarch to have his daughter’s or sister’s marriage annulled, even (or especially) if she had children by her husband. Male relatives might do this for several reasons, the most common being when they wished to marry off their sister or daughter to someone else for a more advantageous alliance. And this could happen two, even three times in a woman’s life.
5) It is obvious that you do extensive research. Do you have difficulty finding translations of the works you need?
Actually, no! And luckily for me, the preeminent scholar on Kleopatra Selene wrote his work in English and was kind enough to answer any questions I had.
6) One of the things I really enjoy about your novels are the comprehensive Author’s Notes, in which you conscientiously inform the readers about those occasions when you are forced to “fill in the blanks,” explaining when you took dramatic license and why. For example, you tell us that you made some minor name changes to avoid too many Claudias and Antonias; as someone who has to deal with the frustrating medieval habit of recycling the same family names over and over, I could definitely empathize with this. As much as I liked the ANs for your two earlier novels, I think you outdid yourself with this one, for you include a fascinating discussion of ancient Rome and why we are still so enthralled so many centuries later. And it was an inspired idea to provide quotes from prominent Romans to show how little human nature has changed; Marc Antony’s snarky, r-rated letter to Octavian is both hilarious and amazingly contemporary. Is it difficult to decide what to include in an AN? Do you feel that authors of historical fiction need to include ANs? Do you feel cheated as a reader when you finish a book and find there is no AN? Or is that too leading a question, one that would have a defense attorney crying “Objection”?
Thank you so much! I have to admit, the Author’s Note is one of my favorite sections of a book to write. Whenever I finish reading an historical fiction novel, I do expect there to be an author’s note explaining what was fact and what was fiction. I think it’s only fair to the reader. Also, it saves the author many, many emails down the road from readers who want to know if such-and-such really happened and whether so-and-so actually existed. But isn’t that R-Rated letter just great?!
7) You are doing something very clever with Cleopatra’s Daughter, holding a Treasure Hunt that is launched on the September 15th publication date. Can you tell us how it works and what gave you the idea?
Absolutely! On September 15th, literary clues (quotations from famous books) will be posted on MichelleMoran.com/treasurehunt.htm, leading to one of 60 independent bookstores scattered across 27 states. All readers need to do is figure out where the quotation comes from (each quotation is paired up with a different bookstore). This quotation will lead them to a particular book, and in this book they will find a red and gold “Literary Archaeologist” ribbon hidden inside. The ribbon will instruct them to go to the counter to claim their prize, which includes a signed copy of “Cleopatra’s Daughter,” Cleopatra earrings and an authentic Roman artifact!
8) I was not surprised by the Treasure Hunt, for anyone browsing your website can see at once that you are computer-savvy and very knowledgeable about book promotion. Did you learn these skills by trial and error or did you just have an instinctive feel for the brave new world of cyberspace publicity? Can you tell our readers a little about what book promotion nowadays entails? For example, you provide questions for book clubs on your website, another great idea. Do you feel, though, that writers can be swallowed up in these on-line activities to the detriment of the writing itself? How do you manage to strike a balance?
I grew up on computers, so using the internet as a promotional tool is really second nature to me. I think that for most authors who wish to participate in their own marketing and publicity, it’s vital to understand and make use of the internet. One of the most important things an author can do, in my opinion, is provide a place on their website where Bloggers and Book Clubs can go. There is always the possibility, however, of adding so many features to your website or blog that the website starts running you. I’m not sure how I strike a balance, or even whether I do. I can tell you that at least thirty percent of my day is spent doing marketing or publicity.
9) I was very excited to find out that your next novel will be set during the French Revolution. Why did you select this time period? Can you tell us about the story line? Are you at all apprehensive about making such a vast leap through time, no fears of suffering from cultural shock? Do you speak French? Since you didn’t speak the language of Nefertiti, obviously that is not a prerequisite for writing a highly successful and accurate novel; I am just curious! Aside from the pleasure of making extended trips to France that are also tax-deductible, what made you decide to write of the French Revolution? Do you have a working title?
Ha-ha! Yes, the tax-deductible trips are a big incentive ;] But truthfully, I chose to write on Tussaud because I found her life utterly compelling. She joined the gilded but troubled court of Marie Antoinette, then survived the French Revolution only by creating death masks of the beheaded aristocracy. And Marie (the first name of Madame Tussaud) met absolutely everyone, from Franklin and Jefferson to Empress Josephine and Voltaire.
When looking for a subject to write on, I search for someone whose story is simply unbelievable. Someone who has lived through events that will have the reader saying, “Now there’s no way that could have happened!” Right now, the book is entitled Madame Tussaud: A Novel (straight, and to the point!).
As for language skills, while my French isn’t good enough to hold a conversation about Impressionist Art, I can certainly get by, and my husband (and his family) can speak fluently. But I don’t feel that knowing a country’s language is a prerequisite for writing historical fiction set in that country. As you pointed out, one knows what Nefertiti’s language sounded like, especially as the ancient Egyptians recorded no vowels! What I do think is a prerequisite is good, solid research. As we discussed concerning the AN, there are times when names or situations will have to be changed for the sake of storytelling, but the mise-en-scène should always be correct (or as close as an author 2000 years later can come).
10) Lastly and most importantly, when can we buy Cleopatra’s Daughter?
Cleopatra’s Daughter will be in bookstores all across the U.S. from September 15th! And thank you, Sharon, for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to have me appear on your blog.
September 14, 2009