Secrets of the Crypt - Arthur Phillips talks about how he came to write The
Write what you know!
Hemingways tyrannical proverb haunts
writing classes and roils the sleep of the lonely would-be novelist, who in
relentless dreams and depressing reality alike feels himself drowning in Uncle
Ernests quasi-papal bull. "Write what I know? What I know
But what," the
author frets, "if I dont know anything?"
In that case, not to worry, for there is always the British Museum.
If you should decide to write a novel about a topic you know almost nothing
about, a scholarly discipline requiring years to master, if you feel compelled
to set the story in a land youve scarcely visited, during an era you can only
dimly conjure from childhood reading and yellowed clippings, if you have
followed your hyperactive and petulant imagination down a rabbit hole and there
gazed at glowing, magical projections of inverted pyramids and pith-helmeted
lunatics and pharaohs with unconventional appetites, but found little by way of
actual knowledge, rest easy, because at the British Museum you will make a new
friend: an expert who not only knows everything, but who is required--yes, required--to
answer all your e-questions, no matter how many, how foolish, how wrong-headed,
fantastic, or just downright dirty.
I had an idea for a story. Foolishly, I thought I would need just one or two
questions cleared up. Wandering the moors of the Web, I unearthed the Museums
site. "How," I asked the curator on e-duty, "do I write to be sexually
aroused in hieroglyphics?"
"Well," came the quick reply from the cyberstacks, the raising of an eyebrow
almost audible in the e-mail, "first: hieroglyphic is the adjective. The hieroglyphs,
however, you will find in the attachment." And in the attachment: authentic
hand-drawn hieroglyphs displaying the ancient alphabets quite logical
solution to my question, once you think about it. Yes, if I (or a
twelve-year-old boy) had to draw a picture to express this idea, this would be
I was giddy, in a twelve-year-old-boy sort of way. I also was very slowly
realizing the vast depths of my ignorance. I didnt know anything about this
topic. I had committed myself to fabricating an expertise, but this was going to
be tricky. "If only," I mused, "if only there were some magic jinn who would
appear and be required to answer my questions for me
" (No need to thank
me, Mr. Phillips. Answering the publics questions is part of our mandate.)
And with that I had my tonic jinn.
I needed a time period sufficiently shrouded in chaos that I could hide an
apocryphal king (the XIIIth Dynasty, Mr. Phillips). I needed a location
just out of view, but near Carters site (Deir el Bahari, Mr. Phillips).
I needed a, uh, a, a whatchamajiggy (cartouche, Mr. Phillips). How long
would it take on donkeyback to (about an hour), and can you see that from
there (no), and was that how we spelled it in 1922 (some did), and
what happens to the canopic organs in the afterlife (they are replanted in
the resurrected body, Mr. Phillips)?
Over several months, my novels giddy plot persisted in yanking me into the
dark and dusty chambers of the unknown-dank basements where I had no context for
my characters, no understanding of their daily habits or the world they
inhabited, none of the necessary foundations of a story. But in that darkness,
without fail, every single time, I was met by my loyal British Museum staffer,
flashlight in hand, ready and willing (if not precisely delighted) to wrangle me
and my proliferating characters spanning 3500 years back to the well-lit halls
Day after day, this same man (invisible, electronic) was there to answer my next
question as I sought clarification of yesterdays clarification. Bit by bit,
my characters had ground to walk on, history to respond to, and daily practice
to occupy them. The more I could describe what was real in A.D.. 1922 and 1650
B.C., the more clearly I could see the small spaces where my outlandish story
might have occurred. What did we know of the XIIIth Dynasty as of 1922? Are
there many more clefts like Hat-shep-suts unused tomb? And is there a name
for that final hieroglyph you sent me (Dear Mr. Phillips, it is a grammatical
determinative called the issuing penis)?
I have never been to the British Museum, so for me its leather chairs still
creak under harrumphing old colonels with handlebar moustaches, wheezing
tubercular poets in frayed brown sweaters, and Karl Marx. And, now, joining them
in the corner, one calm Egyptologist, shaking his head as the peculiar
novelists name appears in his e-mail inbox again. And again.
The imagination is a mad and unrestrainable archaeologist; for me, the writing
of novels is starting to resemble nothing so much as a tomb excavation begun
with high hopes and limited information. A chamber is cleared; I am thrilled
with it: it is precisely the chamber that I set off expecting, but wait
whats down this hall? Another chamber, altogether grander (requiring just a
luminous fact or two for clarity), and what I originally set off to find turns
out to be nothing but a paltry antechamber, a lobby for a labyrinth I had never
dreamt of, an underground palace I would never have found if I insisted on
exploring only the well-lit regions of what I know.
More Questions and Answers
(This interview was conducted by the author's publisher, Random House, and is
reproduced with their permission)
Arthur! So now let us discuss this Egyptologist of yours, eh?
Lets start by separating fact and fiction.
I dont really want to. Thats no fun. I went to a lot of trouble
to blur them. Isnt the fun of fiction--especially fiction that is laid over
historical fact--having a seamless finished product?
You are no less pretentious than in our last talk, Novelist. Now
tell me about the god Atum.
Atum was absolutely a god in the Egyptian pantheon. And while
depictions of him varied, and there are different myths, the most common version
of Egyptian Creation has Atum as the first god. He is alone. And he creates more
gods by masturbating onto fertile soil, from which they then sprout. He is known
as "the accomplished one," which I think shows that the ancient Egyptians had a
nice sense of priorities.
Now people will think you are pulling on their legs. But this is
a true fact?
Absolutely, as are some of the most remarkable drawings of Atums
limber self-amusements. In Lise Manniches Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt,
there are some reproductions of ancient art, and in one, Atum shows that he
really merits the epithet "accomplished one."
And the king who takes this gods name, Atum-hadu or Atum-Is-Aroused?
Is he historical?
There has been no evidence yet for him.
The three fragments of his Admontions [see Glossary]?
They have not yet been discovered, but I am hopeful. But it was not
uncommon for kings to have a gods name as part of their own, since the kings
were on their way to becoming gods. Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Djedefra-these mean "Beneficial
to Aten" and "The Living Image of Amun" and "Ra Is His Strength". So it is not
unreasonable to think of a king with Atum-hadus history choosing to name
himself, essentially, after the act of Creation.
We know, of course, that Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon were
Yes. They forged one of the great partnerships in the history of the
field, and their most thrilling accomplishment--the discovery of Tutankhamuns
tomb--really required both of them: a tireless, intelligent, intuitive explorer
in Carter; and a patient, interested, rich backer. Still it took six years to
find Tuts tomb, and Carter was on the verge of giving up when they found that
first stair. That story and Carters life are inspirational, even if you
dont have much interest in Egyptology.
You spoke of Lise Manniche. Did you do other research for the
Absolutely. A shelf full of Egyptology books. Correspondences with
patient professionals at the British Museum, at the Theban Mapping Project, at
the Griffith Institute at Oxford (which has Carters journals), and on and on.
Experts in World War I, in shipping, in postal history, in tiger taming. I
harassed a lot of people. That said, it didnt feel like research. I did it as
the need arose. The novel would have a blank space, labeled "insert research
here" and then Id go looking for my answer. Thats much more fun than doing
a lot of research and then trying to write a story around it.
Lets settle something. How long have you spent in Egypt?
Four days. In 1991.
To the best of my recollection, never.
The Egyptologist is a very different novel than Prague.
Why not? This is the idea that caught my attention, and thats the
main thing. I fear boredom. Thats why Ive finagled a job where I get to
sit around all day making things up. If I can keep myself entertained by a story
for two or three years, then a reader has a fair chance of being entertained by
it for a couple of weeks.
Do you have debts of influence in this book you will acknowledge?
Which writers and which books were on your mind as you worked?
I do have several such debts, and I do acknowledge them, but I have
hidden my gratitude in the book itself, in various ways that amuse me. Much more
fun that way.
Much more pretentious, you mean to say. Lets try this: tell us
about the XIIIth Dynasty.
The 3000 and some years of Egyptian history have been divided into
dynasties, more or less logical groupings of rulers. Some of those dynasties
were periods of growth and strength, others were times of collapse. The XIIIth
was a period of collapse, and because of that, our knowledge of the time is very
uncertain. We arent sure about the names of the kings, or their order. We
know that someone seems to have invaded and conquered Egypt, but were not
sure of the precise date, or how much resistance there was, or who was allied
with these invaders. Historical clarity returns only at the end of the XVIIth
Dynasty, which is the time of restoration of the legitimate kingship. But the
XIIIth appealed to me artistically, as the setting for part of the story, and as
a likely place for us to find the history of Atum-hadu.
And the theme of immortality? Do you think this means anything to
Of course. Its most obvious in religion, naturally, but that
desire is everywhere, in the blood of atheists, too, in our approach to work, to
building, to our children. Once you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere:
people unconsciously and consciously strive for an immortality they know they
cannot have, and make themselves feel they will have it if their work or lives
are remembered, if their money carries on their name, if their beloved
institutions live on.
And novelists are the worst of this sort.
A Conversation With Arthur Phillips about
Did you live in Budapest yourself? What did you do over there?
I lived in Budapest for two years, and I tried my hand at a slew of things,
all of which I did badly, but I appreciated the Hungarians' willingness to keep
trying me out. After working for an American businessman, I fumbled in and
quickly out of advertising, bumbled some real-estate development, failed to
liquidate vast quantities of coffee and condoms, was very briefly a repo man,
and ended up as a poor-quality jazz musician. All of which was worth it,
as I had fallen hopelessly in love with Budapest, and would have done anything just
to stay there a little longer.
Did you play Sincerity?
It is interesting to note that people have read the book and told me they
recall playing in the game in the late 80s and early 90s. Equally interesting is
that I recall making the game up one sunny day in Cambridge in 1997 and thinking
I had found a nifty way to start my Budapest novel. Either I am a genius
who can create games that total strangers incorrectly FEEL they have played, or
I am a fraud, unable to distinguish my inventions from real experience. I
am okay with either of these possibilities.
Why is your novel called Prague if it's not set there? How
did Prague become known as the city to go to in the early 1990s?
The novel is named not for a city, but for an emotional disorder. Milan
Kundera wrote a marvelous book called Life Is Elsewhere (set in Prague,
incidentally), which touches on the same idea: if only I were over there, or
with her, or doing that, or born 50 years earlier, then I would be where the
action is. So for some expatriates living in Budapest, Prague felt like
the place to be. Had those same people been in Prague, Budapest would have
seemed like their paradise misplaced.
Prague's reputations as the reincarnation of 'Paris in the 1920's' may or may
not have been earned, but of course Paris in the 1920's was probably not really
Paris in the 1920's until A Movable Feast was published in the
1960's. And, had people suffering from this disease actually made it to
Paris in the 1920's, they'd have been disappointed that it didn't feel more like
London in the 1880's. I know I would have been. Of course, purely
aesthetically, one's preference for Prague or Budapest really depended on
whether you preferred your temporarily adopted city untouched by war, or bombed
and rebuilt. Those are different looks, and appeal to different strains of
Did you ever go to Prague? Was it your ultimate destination?
My 'ultimate destinations' tend to be a little more difficult to explain to a
travel agent. Prague in 1913. Budapest in 1931. Rome in 1964.
How did your actual experiences in Budapest inform your fiction? Are
the bars and cafes and business enterprises real? Are any of the
characters based on real people? What about Nadja?
As a matter of policy, anytime I was tempted to write autobiography or
biography, I went and had a cold shower and a lie-down. I knew were were
going to slap 'A Novel' on this, and I didn't want to cheat anyone. As for
just precisely how my actual experiences inform my fiction, I'm afraid the
question skates into trade secrets, and I cannot disclose the answer.