Secrets of the Crypt - Arthur Phillips talks about how he came to write The Egyptologist
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 the picture.
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 of plausibility.
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 real men.
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 novel?
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?
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 modern people?
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 'Prague'
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 Boneheaded Romantics.
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.
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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