Michelle Moran: mo-RAN
This page includes two interviews with author Michelle Moran; in the first, she discusses the real Madame Tussaud, and in the second she explains the inspiration for her first novel, Neferititi, and the historical details on which it's based.
Michelle Moran on the Real Madame Tussaud
What drew you to the story of Marie Tussaud?
My interest in Marie Tussaud began on my very first trip to London. Like thousands of tourists before me, I had decided that I wanted to visit the famous wax museum, Madame Tussauds. At the time, I knew almost nothing about the woman behind the name, but as I passed through the exhibition, I began to piece together what would ultimately prove to be a fascinating story. In the first wax tableau I came across, Marie Tussaud had modeled Queen Marie Antoinette with her husband and children. They looked young and happy, dressed in lavish court gowns and silk culottes. In another tableau, the mistress of King Louis XV lay sprawled on a couch, her blonde hair tumbling down her shoulders. Clearly, Marie Tussaud had been interested in modeling the celebrities of her day. Some she would have sculpted from memory, while many she would have met and modeled in person. Marie's art had obviously gained her access to some of the highest circles in French society.
But in a third tableau, a different part of Marie Tussaud's life emerged. Dressed in a black gown and dirtied apron, a young Marie could be seen holding up a lantern in the Madeleine Cemetery. The Revolution had begun, and she was searching through a pile of severed heads - all victims of Madame Guillotine. Immediately, I wanted to know what was she doing in that cemetery. Whose heads were they, and did she know those people? When I learned what Marie Tussaud went through during the French Revolution - who she'd met, where she'd gone, and what she'd seen - I knew I would someday tell her story.
Why does history tend to remember the French Revolution as being successful?
Probably because it did exactly what its leaders intended, which was to deal a devastating blow to the aristocracy. But very soon after the overthrow of the monarchy, France's new government became obsessed with idea of rooting out Royalists. A fever like that of the Salem Witch Trials gripped France, and neighbor began turning on neighbor, accusing each other of being royalists. And it didn't take much to be sentenced to the guillotine. By 1793, all a person had to do was whistle the wrong tune or disrespect a liberty tree (saplings planted in the name of "liberty") to be accused of endangering the nation. By the end of the French Revolution, more than five hundred thousand French citizens had been killed, most of them commoners.
How did you go about researching Madame Tussaud?
I began with a trip to France, where nearly all of the novel takes place. Once there, I tried to visit the locations Madame Tussaud herself would have seen. Some - such as the Bastille - no longer exist, but there are others - Versailles being the sublime example - where a great deal of 18th century life has been preserved. After my trip, I did as much research as I could in libraries. Finally, anything I couldn't find in books I tried to discover through email conversations with some very generous French historians.
What is the most interesting fact you learned while researching Madame Tussaud?
That in 18th century France, most people went to street dentists when they had a toothache. These dentists would sit at a table laid out with various tools, and their unfortunate patients would have their teeth extracted right there, in the dirty street. After the extraction, the patient could sell his tooth (or teeth, if he was unlucky) to the dentist, who would then sell it to people like Marie Tussaud for her wax models. I know... creepy and disturbing!
In your research about Marie Antoinette, did you come away feeling sorry for Queen Marie Antoinette?
Yes. I think the queen was as much a victim of circumstance as she was her own naiveté. While it's true that she held lavish balls in Versailles and spent a fortune on gowns, this really wasn't anything new for the monarchy. The difference was that it was Marie Antoinette, and not the king, who was doing the spending. The resentment and jealousy which built up around the queen having access to her husband's money earned her some powerful enemies at court. Meanwhile, the commoners were growing resentful as well. Yet the entire royal family's expenditures were actually a small fraction of the nation's budget, and whenever Marie Antoinette tried to economize, the courtiers who counted on her favors would raise a hue and cry. Various nobles had grown accustomed to the extra money they could earn from selling the dresses she had already worn or the accessories which had been ordered for her (often far more than she actually needed or used). These privileges were jealously guarded in Versailles, and this meant that the queen was "damned if she did, and damned if she didn't."
Why are we still interested in Madame Tussaud 250 years after her birth?
I think the fascination with Madame Tussaud comes from the fact that the life she created was as intricate and mystifying as her artistry itself. Here was a woman who was asked to tutor the king's sister, yet she managed to keep her head during the Reign of Terror when women were being imprisoned for nothing more than wearing the wrong color. She navigated two very different worlds - the court of Versailles and the streets of Paris - and against all odds, lived to tell the tale. And through it all, it was her artistry that saved her. Today, with digital cameras available to capture everything around us, you would think it would be difficult to become enthusiastic about seeing a person's likeness reproduced in wax. But there is something compelling about waxworks, particularly those done at the various Madame Tussauds around the world. Perhaps it's the thrill of pretending to photograph yourself next to a celebrity, or getting to pose with Henry VIII "in the flesh," that keep customers coming back. Or maybe it's the eerie and arresting vision of a lifeless object that so closely mimics someone's humanity that people relate to. Whatever it is, I think Madame Tussauds will be a major draw even in another two hundred and fifty years.
If Madame Tussaud were alive today, would she be happy to see that her wax museums have expanded not only throughout Europe, but now the world?
I think Marie Tussaud would be ecstatic. Having grown up on the Boulevard du Temple surrounded by actresses and showmen, Marie was taught from a very young age that publicity was the difference between staying in business and having to sell your teeth in order to buy bread. Today, the Madame Tussauds wax museums do a wonderful job of finding new subjects to model, and the public unveilings of their new wax figures would have absolutely delighted Marie. A part of me wants to say, "If only Marie could see her museum now," but something tells me she wouldn't be surprised at all by how popular her exhibition has become.
Michelle Moran discusses her first novel, Nefertiti
What inspired you to write about a queen who's been dead for over three thousand years?
My love-affair with Egyptology began in the summer of 1998 on an archaeological dig in Israel. While our team was working to unearth an ancient trading post, we came across a scarab, proof that the Egyptians had traveled north, perhaps selling cloth, incense, or Nubian gold. Looking at the mysterious lapis stone in the dirt, untouched for who knew how many years, I was hooked. It wasn't long before I found myself wandering through Egyptian exhibits in Los Angeles, London and finally Berlin, where the stunning bust of Nefertiti rests behind a case of polished glass. Even three thousand years later it fills the viewer with the same awe that citizens of Amarna must have felt when they saw her. I wondered who she was, what her story must have been, and as I began researching into Nefertiti's life I was surprised to discover how many books and internet sites were devoted to her, yet there were no fictionalized accounts exclusively about her reign, one of the most enigmatic of any Egyptian Pharaoh-Queen. Spurred on by Nefertiti's untold story, I visited Egypt on an historical tour two years later, gathering books and writing down impressions of what had once been the most powerful kingdom in the East. When I returned to America, I began researching into Nefertiti's Egypt, scouring libraries and initiating dialogues with the contacts I made in the archaeology world.
Did Mutnodjmet really exist?
Yes, Mutnodjmet really existed, as did Nefertiti, Queen Tiye, Akhenaten, Vizier Ay, Lady Kiya, General Horemheb, General Nakhtmin... Suffice it to say that almost every character in the book was based on an historical personage.
So how much of the story is true?
While the main historical events are accurate, such as Ay's rise to power, Akhenaten's obsession with Aten, the dream of Amarna, and Nefertiti's unparalleled influence at court, liberties were taken with personalities, names and minor historical events. For instance, no one can be certain how Mutnodjmet felt about her sister's vision of an Egypt without the Amun Priests, but in an image of her found in Amarna she is standing off to one side, her arms down while everyone else is enthusiastically embracing Aten. In a period where art attempted to portray reality for the first time, I found this significant. And while Nefertiti did have six daughters with Akhenaten, she never, so far as we know, produced twins the way she did in the novel. Historical uncertainties revolve as well around the questions of whether Amunhotep the Younger ever had a co-regency with his father, or whether Nefertiti ever did rule on her own. These are questions that can only be answered by conjecture, and I went with what seemed most plausible given the historical evidence.
Today, some of these questions could be answered by a firm identification of the Amarna mummies. Although much of Kiya's funerary equipment was found in her son Tutankhamun's tomb, little to nothing remains that was Akhenaten's or Nefertiti's. How old was Nefertiti when she died? What killed Tiye? Dr. Joann Fletcher contends that a cache of mummies found in tomb KV55 are the bodies of Nefertiti and the Dowager Queen. If so, they were stunning beauties even in death.
Isn't there evidence that Nefertiti was banished to a Northern Palace towards the end of her husband's reign?
No. This belief was predicated upon an inscription on the Northern Palace which archaeologists believed read "Nefertiti." The name had been removed from the palace while Nefertiti was still alive and replaced with the name of Princess Meritaten. If Princess Meritaten had truly removed her mother's name from the palace, it would indeed seem to indicate a daughter taking the place of her mother. However, the inscription was later discovered to actually read "Kiya." After Kiya's death Nefertiti and her daughter set out to erase the existence of Nefertiti's only real rival. Unfortunately, many internet sites haven't bothered to update their information, so the erroneous theory of Nefertiti having been banished persists.
Is it true that Akhenaten had Marfan Syndrome?
There is absolutely no anthropological or DNA evidence to suggest this was the case. Those who believe that Akhenaten had Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by unusually long limbs and curvature of the spine, do so simply because some of his statues show a man with long arms and an elongated head. It is essential to remember, however, that Akhenaten purposefully changed the artistic style which all of his predecessors had used, creating a new style known today as Amarna Art. For as many images as there are of Akhenaten with a long, leonine face and feminine hips, there are just as many images from when he was a child displaying none of these startling features. During the Amarna period, all of Akhenaten's family begins to appear with long arms, elongated heads and large hips, even Nefertiti. It is highly unlikely that the entire royal family had this connective tissue disorder, particularly in light of Nefertiti's bust which resides in Berlin and shows none of the characteristics that those with Marfan Syndrome typically display.
What evidence is there to prove that Nefertiti ever ruled as Pharaoh on her own?
This depends on which Egyptologist you ask and what camp they fall into. Amunhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, and when Nefertiti became co-regent with her husband she changed her name to Ankhkheperura-Neferneferuaten. It is not beyond the limits of plausibility, then, to imagine that Nefertiti later became Pharaoh Ankhkheperura-Smenkhkara, who ruled briefly after Akhenaten's death. A beautiful gold figurine in Tutankhamun's tomb depicts a female Pharaoh (not a queen) walking atop an ebony leopard. Egyptologists have dated the figure back to Akhenaten's reign, which means there is only one possibility of who this feminine ruler of Egypt could be: Nefertiti. There is also evidence of foreign correspondence during Pharaoh Ankhkheperura-Smenkhkara's time that points to Egypt's Pharaoh being Nefertiti. If you want more information about this, I suggest checking out the work of Dr. Joann Fletcher, who wrote The Search for Nefertiti: The True Story of an Amazing Discovery and whose work was featured on the Discovery Channel. Dr. Fletcher stirred up quite the controversy with this book and her announcement that she discovered the body of Nefertiti.
In the novel you write about the ancient Egyptians using toilet seats and copper razors. Is this accurate?
Yes, it is accurate. Dating as far back as 1500 BCE, palaces were more comfortable than you or I might imagine given that it was 3,500 years ago. The wealthy shaved with copper razors and bathrooms were discovered in Amarna equipped with toilet seats that matched the limestone sink bowls. Royal women regularly applied face cream, eye shadow and lipstick. Women had elaborate containers for their makeup, and very wealthy women carried handheld mirrors made of polished brass the way women carry purses today.
If Nefertiti ruled on her own, then who would have been her queen?
Just as Hatshepsut made herself Pharaoh and her daughter queen, Nefertiti would have named her eldest daughter Meritaten as her consort. Surprising though this may seem, rulers of Egypt searched for balance, the feminine with the masculine, and in religious ceremonies it was necessary to have a female part which Pharaoh, as a "man," couldn't play.
How long did it take you to write Nefertiti: A Novel?
Over two years, then another year to edit it, and a fourth to publish. A common misconception amongst non-writers seems to be that as soon as an author signs a contract the book comes out just a few months later. Would that were so! Instead, the process seems to take forever. Up to a year and a half after the contract is signed the book might hit stores, or nine months if an author is really lucky.
How are the characters' names pronounced?
One of the most difficult aspects of translating hieroglyphics is the fact that the ancient Egyptians did not record vowels. So Amun might really be Amon or Amen, and Tutankhamun might equally be Tutankhamen. Some of the names in the book are quite hard to pronounce, and I think most readers can figure out why I chose to shorten Mutnodjmet to Mutny. Here's a few of the more difficult ones.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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