The Interview:
Michelle Moran

By Harold Frost, 2008

“Publishing is first and foremost a business. It’s all about the numbers. If you don’t have the numbers you don’t get published again – it’s as simple as that. Some people don’t realize this until too late. They come into the industry and write a book, and it doesn’t do well, and the publishing house doesn’t want a second book, and that person leaves the industry bitter and angry. So what happened here? What went wrong? Well, that person didn’t adequately research the industry.”

Michelle Moran is a historical novelist, author of “Nefertiti: A Novel” (2007) and “The Heretic Queen” (2008). Her website is and her Amazon page is here.


Q. When and how did you become a historical novelist, Ms. Moran?

A. I’ve been writing for many years – I submitted my first stories to publishers when I was 12, and I had my first acceptance of fiction when I was in college, a romance novel called “Jezebel” that was published in Germany but not America. I kept writing and writing, but didn’t get anything published; then I switched agents after my first one retired, and I kept writing; and then “Nefertiti” was accepted a couple of years ago. It’s my 13th book, actually, but only the second that’s been published.

I decided on historical fiction because I love history and it seemed like a genre where I could do a good job. When I was in college I wanted to be an archaeologist. I went on archaeological digs. I discovered a really interesting fact: archaeology is hard, nasty, sweaty work. It’s not finding the Ark of the Covenant, which is what I thought it would be. I thought, “It’s a whole lot funner to dig through history with a pen than with a shovel and a pickaxe.” 

Q. Didn’t your late father, Robert Moran, play a role in fostering your love of history?

A. Definitely! He was a historian. He loved ancient history. He taught at several different levels – college, high school, middle school – he didn’t care where he taught, he just loved teaching. He would take me to classes at museums. He took me to Civil War re-enactments. I can remember the smell of the smoke, and people with re-enacted battle wounds – how real it was, and gritty and fascinating. I felt I was in history. I got the feeling that history could be re-created with an incredible level of detail.

Q. Did you ever think about writing a Civil War novel? 

A. Actually, no. I find the Civil War incredibly depressing. Maybe it’s because, at these re-enactments, there were men who were “dying” in the medical tents and having their wounded limbs “sawed off.” Obviously not really sawed off but there was a vivid sense of realism to it all.

Q. “Nefertiti” has a lovely dedication to your Dad. He died before the book was published?

A. Yes. He passed away right before my wedding as a matter of fact. He was 64. I think about him every day, especially when I’m writing, since he was the one who always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

Q. How did you get interested in ancient Egypt?

A. That started in the late 1990s when I was on an archaeological dig in Israel. We found a beautiful Egyptian scarab of polished lapis. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I thought about the thousands of years it had laid hidden in the sand; who owned it; when was it last worn. Then, on my way home to the U.S., I stopped in Berlin and happened to visit the museum where the famous bust of Nefertiti was housed. It was a tremendous experience – she was the most beautiful queen Egypt ever had, and the bust is incredible – and I learned that nobody had ever written a fictional biography about her. So I set out to do it! I researched ancient Egypt for several years and started writing in 2004. The writing took two years and the book was published in July of 2007. 

The bust of Nefertiti was created 3400 years ago by the sculptor Thutmose. It was dug up in 1912 in the deserted city of Akhetaton by a German archaeologist named Ludwig Borchardt. When he took her out of the country she was covered in mud, very grimy, and the antiquities department waved her through, they didn’t think that she was anything special. Borchardt took the bust back to Germany and cleaned it up and put it on display in 1923. Hitler decided it was his favorite piece of sculpture, he was basically smitten with it, and wanted it to be the centerpiece of the new Berlin museum that he intended to build. Today she’s the focal point of the Egyptian wing of the Altes Museum in Berlin. She’ll move to a new home in Berlin in 2009.

Q. What’s the room like, where she’s displayed? 

A. It’s a huge room. She’s on a gray podium. She’s encased in glass. Hundreds of people go to see her every day. I took a lot of pictures of her, which upset the guards; they didn’t want me anywhere near the glass even though I was being very careful, and she’s far away from the glass – there was no danger whatsoever of, you know, me tipping her over or anything. One thing that’s interesting, that few people realize until they see her – she has an eye missing.

The bust is made of a limestone core covered with gypsum or plaster, according to the latest study. The crown sweeps off her forehead. She has a strong jaw. The whole bust is about 20 inches tall.

The bust of Nefertiti.

She’s like a modern-day Helen of Troy in that she’s the cause of an international dispute. Egypt has wanted her back for years; Germany says no; Egypt threatens to halt all cooperation with German archaeologists and to block all art loans to German museums. Egypt says they just want her as a loan but Germany is afraid they’ll never get her back. It’s politically charged and economically touchy. A lot of Germans visit Egypt for vacations every year. 

Q. What is your opinion on the return of antiquities from museums in Germany, Britain, France, and the U.S. to their source nations, including Egypt, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Peru, and Afghanistan?

A. In the case of Nefertiti I think she should stay where she is. The Egyptian authorities allowed her to leave. She’s safe, she’s well-cared-for, she’s appreciated by half-a-million people every year. And she’s very fragile. 

Q. It’s interesting that some authorities believe enough artifacts have been repatriated in recent years. James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, argues that sending artifacts back limits the number of people who can see and study them, and puts them at risk, in certain countries, for destruction. (See here for a discussion of the issue.)

A. I think his argument is persuasive. 

Q. One of the premises of “Nefertiti” is that she ruled Egypt as pharaoh for a brief period, after her husband died, after her queenship ended. This is a controversial theory, yes? The pharoah was a step above queen.

A. Yes. Egyptologists debate this. There’s a lot that’s debated about ancient Egypt. My job as a historical novelist is to adhere rigorously to what’s know in terms of large events, and when there’s controversy, to decide among different theories. Dr. Joann Fletcher of the University of York believes that one of the mummies found in Armana, in 1898, is Nefertiti. This mummy had been neglected for years, no one thought to connect it to Nefertiti before Fletcher. She’s got some good scholarship backing her up. Her theory got a lot of attention several years ago. If she’s right we’ve got new evidence for the idea that Nefertiti crowned herself pharaoh after her husband died. Fletcher believes she did this. She’s written a book titled “The Search for Nefertiti” that’s fascinating. 

Q. How many books did you use to research ancient Egypt? 

A. Probably 75 to 100. Not just on Nefertiti – also on topics like Egyptian jewelry, Egyptian buildings. A book on wigs. A book that gave me the background to describe the floor tiles in the royal palace. I would highly recommend the books of Joyce Tyldesley, a British archaeologist and writer, for those who are interested in Egypt. And for a more controversial read I would suggest Joann Fletcher’s “The Search for Nefertiti.”

Q. Do you e-mail scholars with questions? 

A. Sometimes, yes. For the book I’m now writing, about ancient Rome, I’ve gotten a lot of help from Duane Roller at Ohio State. He’s author of “The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene.”

Q. When you’re writing do you have night-time dreams about your characters?

A. Not about the characters but about the country where they’re located. I feel I’m there.

Q. Did you travel to research “Nefertiti”?

A. Yes. I visited the barren city of Amarna, also Thebes and the Valley of the Kings.

Q. To switch gears from ancient Thebes to your California home – where do you write? 

A. I work in a study. I look out over a garden with 200 roses in it. The woman we bought the house from had a very green thumb; I have a very black one so I don’t touch the flowers, I have someone come and prune them. Let’s see….on my right is a painting of Nefertiti; it’s the original cover art from the novel, which I purchased from the artist, Doug Fryer. On my left are dozens of books on ancient Rome. I’m writing now about the children that Cleopatra had with Marc Antony, including a daughter. She had three children who survived after her suicide in Alexandria and were taken to imperial Rome and raised there. It’ll be called “Cleopatra’s Daughter.”

Q. What’s your schedule on a working day? 

A. I go into the office at about 8 in the morning five days a week. I spend about two hours doing e-mails, often related to some sort of marketing and publicity. I start writing at 10 and usually finish at 4 or 5 in the afternoon. If I haven’t met my daily quota I’ll sit there for as long as it takes – until 10 p.m. if need be. My quota is five single-spaced pages per day. 

I write a very comprehensive outline. I know what happens in each chapter. I don’t know exactly what my characters will say but I have the basics ready. 

Q. Do you ever get stuck?

A. Never. The trick is to put something down on the page, or the computer screen, even if it’s vile – just keep pushing through and get that first draft done. 

Q. What tone do you go for? 

A. I want my books to be accessible and fun. Beach reads. Chick lit. 

Q. Does your sense of your audience, of what your readers want, shape your writing?

A. Yes. One way this works is, I don’t include lengthy war scenes or long expositions on how some army is organized. My readership is female dominated and I don’t think they’re so interested in that stuff. 

Q. You don’t have any sex scenes in “Nefertiti” or “The Heretic Queen.”

A. Well (laughs), that’s true, and my publisher was really disappointed. What happened was, I was a teacher for part of the time I was writing the book. In fact I was a teacher for six years before I became a full-time writer. I had, in the back of my mind, the fact that here I was, in my early 20s, teaching 18-year-old men, and do I really want them passing around photocopies of some hot and heavy scene that their teacher had written? I mean, I had really good classroom control, but at the same time, I was a young teacher, so I worried a little bit.

 Q. To refer back to your five single-spaced pages – that sounds pretty formidable.

A. It’s a hard schedule, but the thing is, the publishing house wants a book a year. They want to keep you in front of people, that’s the only way they’re going to build recognition for you and sell books. A book-a-year includes research, plus editing your previous book, plus writing the new one, plus any marketing activity that you do, so you’re pretty busy. 

Publishing is first and foremost a business. It’s all about the numbers. If you don’t have the numbers you don’t get published again – it’s as simple as that. Some people don’t realize this until too late. They come into the industry and write a book, and it doesn’t do well, and the publishing house doesn’t want a second book, and that person leaves the industry bitter and angry. So what happened here? What went wrong? Well, that person didn’t adequately research the industry. 

Q. Isn’t it true that some writers in certain genres have changed their names and started over again because they couldn’t get a deal for a second book? They wrote a “first book” again, under their new name?

A. That’s true! Which kind of screws you over if you’ve invested time and money in marketing the first name. 

Q. At what point in your career did you realize that publishing is first and foremost a business?

A. I knew it before I got my first book contract in 2006. I educated myself on the industry, read up on what’s being published, how to conduct myself as an author, how to build my career. The publishing house can do a great deal for you, but obviously they can’t do as much as you can. You can’t leave things up to the publisher. Many authors end up spending $10,000 of their own money on marketing and publicity. So it’s potentially a lot of money and it’s definitely a lot of time. Marketing involves book signings, doing the Website, doing interviews, paying attention every day to e-mails.

Q. In an average month, how much time do you devote to writing, and how much to taking care of business aspects?

A. I would say it’s 50-50.

Q. How did you educate yourself about the industry?

A. Reading, mainly. The Web has good resources. Nathan Bransford, a literary agent in San Francisco, has an amazing blog on the industry. The author M.J. Rose has a great blog. I read Publishers Weekly. I’m a member of – I pay 20 dollars a month and get details about deals that authors have made. It’s important to know if someone else is doing a book on Cleopatra’s daughter – I don’t want to be competing against Colleen McCullough.

Q. Do you know what your sales numbers are for “Nefertiti”?

A. I don’t. The publishing industry is extremely guarded with its numbers. The only way to get the figures is to be a member of Nielsen BookScan and pay big bucks for a year’s worth of access.

Q. When did you realize you could be a full-time writer, that you could make a living at it?

A. In 2007. The key for me was foreign rights. Within the first six months my agent had sold the book to more than 15 countries. Some countries just pay pennies – I think China paid something like 800 bucks – but then there are places like Britain, France, Germany, that pay tens of thousands of dollars.

Q. So – now you’re now writing about ancient Rome.

A. Yes! I’m excited! It will be published in the summer of ’09. All three of Cleopatra’s children with Antony were taken to Rome by Octavian, who later, of course, took the name Augustus. The children were paraded through the streets, then raised by Octavia, whom Antony left for Cleopatra. They would have known all kinds of interesting people, the poet Ovid, Virgil, Augustus himself of course. My husband and I are traveling to Greece and Turkey this summer with the Archeological Institute of America – Cleopatra’s family was Greek – and we’ll be taking a side trip to Rome for more research. They’ve just opened up Augustus’s villa for tourists. 

Augustus ordered and he had one of Marc Antony’s older sons killed too. Augustus will be a significant presence in the new book. But I don’t want him to overshadow the narrator, Cleopatra’s daughter, who was named Cleopatra Selene. She became a queen in her own right, queen of ancient Numidia, also known as Mauretania, in northwest Africa. She re-created Egypt in her new kingdom. 

Q. What did you think of “Rome” on HBO?

A. Ohhhhhhh! Well. It was exceptionally entertaining. They capture the feeling of Rome perfectly, the vibe of the city. But in some major ways it was historically inaccurate. Octavian’s mother in the series – you know, she spends half the time running around buck naked – well, in real life she was very conservative, austere, rigorous. She told Octavian and Octavia to sew their own clothes! There’s incest in one episode between Octavian and Octavia – no way! The whole family was conservative and restrained. I know that Polly Walker’s portrayal was essential to the plot, but really!

Q. At one point one of the characters says of the family, “It’s a nest of snakes,” and another time, Octavian says of the family, “Our corruption stinks in the nostrils of Mother Earth.”

A. Quite the opposite was true. Still, the series has a lot going for it. It perfectly captures the personality of Octavian – cold, calculating, observant, methodical, super-rational. He was a remarkable man. He worked all the time. He didn’t eat much. He would dine on a piece of bread, an olive, a bit of watered wine. If he wanted to say something to you about policy, he would memorize it, rehearse it, come in and say it to you, and, when he was done speaking, walk out of the room. 

Q. In terms of historical accuracy, is it the case that TV can play around with major facts in historical dramas, but historical novelists aren’t supposed to, and get shot down for doing so?

A. Definitely.

Q. Who sets these rules?

A. Readers. They want historical accuracy in their novels. That’s why they choose historical fiction over, say, contemporary romance.

Q. Do you think depictions in TV and movies will inform how you depict Augustus? I’m thinking not only of “Rome” but of Brian Blessed’s wonderful portrayal in “I, Claudius.”

A. No. I make a conscious effort not to watch TV or films set in the era I’m writing about. The HBO series was an exception.

Q. What’s a good book about Augustus and his times?

A. Anthony Everitt’s book is fabulous – “Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor.”

Q. What are three museums with Egyptian collections that you love?

A. The Getty in Los Angeles has an amazing collection. The Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where Nefertiti is. The Louvre. Oh, I’ve got to mention the British Museum, of course. 

Q. What are three historical novels you love? 

A. Oh gosh. “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier. Let’s see….“Katherine” by Anya Seton. 

Q. What will you tackle after ancient Rome?

A. I don’t know yet. I would love to do something about medieval France but a lot of editors don’t think France is a hot topic for historical fiction unless the book is about the revolution. What’s hot right now in historical fiction is anything Tudor. Ancient Rome is always hot. So I’ll have to play it by ear and see what happens. I guess I need to decide pretty soon – a book a year, you know. 

Q. Do you believe in reincarnation or channeling? I ask because, given your interest in ancient Egypt, who knows what mysterious stuff might be immersed in your soul.

A. (Laughs.) Well, I didn’t do any channeling. Reincarnation – I would like to believe in it. (Pause.) I would really like to. I’m skeptical, naturally, since there isn’t any definitive proof out there as of yet. A lot of people believe they were princes or princesses in the past – I think that’s probably a flight of fancy. If we’re reincarnated I think it’s more likely we were average peasants, maybe farming in medieval France. ●