The Girl Who Became King: Q&A in Ancient Egypt

Lavender Ironside is the author of The Sekhmet Bed, an Egyptian historical novel set during the 18th Dynasty, or about 1500 BCE.  It is the first installment in a planned trilogy about the life of Hatshepsut – the first known woman to rule Egypt as Pharaoh – and her family.

Q:  This is a period in Egyptian history that isn’t often covered in fiction.  Why did you choose the 18th Dynasty as a setting for your book?

A:  It’s true that most authors writing Egyptian fiction tend to go for dynasties that had a little more pomp and circumstance, such as the reigns of Nefertiti and Akhenaten, Rameses II, or Cleopatra.  The 18th Dynasty was a time of social recovery for Egypt.  In the previous reign, an invading culture called the Hyksos had just been evicted from Egyptian soil, and the people were getting back onto their feet and recovering some of their identity as a nation.  Later during the 18th Dynasty, Egypt had recovered itself enough that it underwent a massive expansion of its borders and became quite powerful politically.

But my novel is set during a more subdued period of the 18th, and I chose that setting because that’s when Hatshepsut lived.  Many fans of historical fiction know Hatshepsut’s name – she was the first woman to rule Egypt as king, not as queen.  She’s always fascinated me, and I originally set out to write one novel about her life.  But while I was doing research I became so interested in Hatshepsut’s family that I decided to start with a novel about her mother, Queen Ahmose.

Q:  Was there anything specific in your research that sparked the idea of focusing on Ahmose?

A:  Hatshepsut built a gorgeous mortuary temple for herself.  It still stands to this day and it’s one of the main features of the Valley of the Kings.  Mortuary temples and elaborate tombs were used to record the life stories of the people who were laid to rest in them, and Hatshepsut really went all-out with hers.  Since she was a woman ruling in a place that was traditionally a man’s, she had to garner a lot more political support for her decision to take the throne, or she could have been ousted.  One of the ways she did this was to get on the good side of the powerful Cult of Amun.

In order to make the Amun Priests throw in with her cause, she included in her mortuary temple an incredible, huge mural that tells the story of how she came to be – allegedly.  The mural claims that Hatshepsut was conceived when the god Amun seduced Queen Ahmose, disguised as the Queen’s husband, Pharaoh Thutmose I.  The mural then goes on to show Ahmose witnessing her unborn child’s ka – spirit – being formed by the gods.  The ka depicted is clearly male.  The mural made the claim that Hatshepsut was not only male on the inside, but was the son of Amun, and therefore not somebody the Cult of Amun ought to turn their backs on.

This was undoubtedly just political propaganda.  I doubt Hatshepsut or anybody else really believed that these claims were true.  I mean, I tend to believe that ancient people thought just as critically and skeptically as we do today.  But the Egyptians seemed to place a deep significance on written history – including artistic renderings like murals – so there may have been some superstitious hesitation to doubt or speak up against what was written on the wall of an important place like a mortuary temple.  Brilliant move on Hatshepsut’s part, if you ask me.

I really fell in love with this piece of propaganda.  I adored the idea of a god taking a human disguise to conceive a very special child.  And I wondered what it might be like if, even though nobody really believed this story all that much, one person did believe it, and was certain it had actually happened.  And what if that one person was Hatshepsut’s mother…?

The scene depicted on the mural does appear in The Sekhmet Bed, and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the book.

Q:  How long did you spend writing and researching The Sekhmet Bed?

A:  I did about two years of research on Hatshepsut and her family, back when I was still focused on making her the main character of the book.  Once I finally decided to shift the focus to Ahmose, I wrote the first draft in a little less than three months.  I did about six months of revising, all told…so just under three years all together.

Q:  How did you decide to self-publish your book?

A:  Self-publishing wasn’t my first choice.

I obtained an agent at a reputable agency and worked with her for a little over a year to sell it to traditional publishers.  Unfortunately, although editors seemed to really like the book, it did not sell.  We submitted it to quite a few editors, and the reasons we got for rejection fell pretty equally into two camps.  Camp One felt that the book was between genres.  Because Ahmose is a young teen girl at the beginning of the book but the subject matter appeals more to adult readers, the novel would be too hard a sell unless I rewrote it as a YA book or made Ahmose older.  Camp Two didn’t mind Ahmose’s age, but felt that the 18th Dynasty was too unfamiliar a setting to appeal to a broad audience, and the book would not be as successful as Egyptian historicals set during the more familiar reigns.

I then worked with another agent, and together we discussed the pros and cons of rewriting the book to be more firmly on the YA side of the spectrum.  But ultimately, I felt that would change the book TOO much.  I think it’s important for authors to be willing to revise and change if it will help them write a better book – and usually it will – but I also think it’s important for authors to know what they’re not willing to compromise.  In the end, I felt turning it into a YA novel would mean it was no longer my book.

Ultimately, I decided that self-publishing would get the story out there into the hands of readers who really love Egyptian fiction, no matter when it’s set, and it might find a few more adventuresome readers, too, who just love a good historical yarn.  I figured the editors were probably right: This is not the easiest-to-market historical novel on Earth.  It’s what the publishing industry calls a hard sell.  But it’s still a story readers will enjoy, and I wanted it to be read!  Readers seem to be getting a kick out of the book so far, and I’m glad I chose to self-publish this one rather than trunk.

Q:  Do you have any other books planned for the future?

A:  Yes! If The Sekhmet Bed proves successful enough I will publish two more novels in the same milieu.  The next one follows the early life and reign of Hatshepsut as she matures into a woman and takes the throne from her unpleasant husband/brother.  The final book details her relationship with her daughter Neferure.

I also continue to write novels that I hope will be published traditionally, but I’m doing that work under a different pen name, and they’re contemporary novels with a literary bent, not good old-fashioned historicals.

Q:  Where can readers find your book?

A:  Ebooks in all formats are available here.  The trade paperback is in the final stages of development and should be available the first week of December on Amazon.  Reviews and ratings can be seen at the book’s Goodreads page.  Readers can follow my blog as well, where I post updates about the book and share the occasional tidbit about life in ancient Egypt.

Thank you, Stephanie, for having me as a guest on your blog!  It was a real pleasure.