We're wrapping up our Q & A with Michelle Moran, author of The Heretic Queen and Nefertiti.
Do you have a favorite character from your stories?
Oh gosh, I’m not sure! I feel close to all of my characters, but if I absolutely had to pick one… I’d probably choose Selene, Cleopatra’s daughter who narrates my third book.
The settings of both your novels are in the ancient world. How did you re-create that past for your readers? And how do you develop your plots and characters?
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.
Which means that all of the major events and characters in both Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen 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 to fill the columns of his own buildings. Fast forward three thousand years, however, and as Horemheb’s columns began to deteriorate, all that was left were the perfectly preserved (although broken) images of Nefertiti and her life. The irony!
The same goes for the lives of Nefertari and Ramesses. In comparison to other kings and queens of the ancient world, their lives are extremely well documented.
Please share your first reaction when you walked into bookstores and saw your works on the shelves.
I know it’s supposed to be a pivotal moment in every author’s career, so I feel like a total jerk saying I don’t remember it! I do, however, remember rushing around from bookstore to bookstore trying to sign the stock. And that was a great deal of fun – seeing the book in different stores. It’s a thrill that never wears off.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
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!
A common complaint among aspiring writers is about the struggle to find an agent. What challenges did you find in pursuing an agent? What lessons have you learned?
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 Galen Ghosh, 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.
How do you balance your writing and research with family and other pursuits?
I try to make sure I only write during “business” hours, from 8am to 6pm, Monday through Fridays. The rest of the time is for my husband. We travel extensively, so sometimes this schedule changes, but I do try to stick to it as much as possible. I don’t have children or pets, so I don’t have to worry as much as some authors might about making time for a family that needs me.
Have you realized any particular plans or dreams with the publication of your novels?
I think the publication of a novel is itself a realized dream. I have been submitting to publishers from the time I was twelve, and to see years and years of work finally pay off is extremely satisfying.
What are your future writing plans?
My third novel will be Cleopatra’s Daughter, which will be released September 15, 2009. The book 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.
Are there any upcoming appearances or book signing at which you will appear?
Actually, not at this moment, since I’m in the middle of edits for Cleopatra’s Daughter. I hope to attend the Historical Novel Society’s Conference in June this year, and possibly RWA as well!
Please provide your website and blogs where readers can learn more about you.
I have a blog I call History Buff where I post excerpts to archaeological discoveries making the news today. Beneath those short excerpts I post links where readers can view the rest of the story. I’m a history nut. I love knowing what’s being unearthed and discovered around the world while I’m sitting at my desk typing away. Whether it’s in the field of anthropology or paleontology, I want to know about it!
As for my author interviews, that’s something I do to help promote other writers and the genre of historical fiction. There are so many wonderful authors out there, and so many types of historical fiction (romantic, suspense, literary…). I do one short interview a month (unfortunately, that’s all my schedule allows for), and I try to interview a wide range of authors, from NYT bestsellers to self-published writers. It doesn’t matter to me how an author’s been published; small press, large press, on the internet... If it’s good, and it’s something my History Buff readers might be interested in, I want to know about it!
My website is: michellemoran.com
My blogs are: michellemoran.blogspot.com
Any closing thoughts you would like to share.
Just a huge thank-you for having me here, and for taking the time to ask such great questions!
*** Tomorrow's your chance to win a copy of Michelle's books, The Heretic Queen and Nefertiti. ***