An interview with Patricia L ONeill

Patricia L ONeill

Patricia L O'Neill was born in Chicago and earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1986 she moved to Australia to continue her scientific research and began writing science articles for Australian magazines. After winning several national awards for her short fiction, she decided to write full time, and concentrated on historical fiction so she could combine creative writing, research skills and a scientist's eye for unsolved mysteries. The enigma of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut ignited a passion for ancient Egypt which culminated in Her Majesty the King, which won the NSW Writers' Centre & New Holland Publishers Genre Fiction Award for 2008.

Patricia kindly spoke to Snjezana Bobic in January 2011.

1. Of all the Kings of Egypt, why did you choose to write about Hatshepsut?

I think Hatshepsut was unbelievably cool—she was the first important woman in recorded history. Until she came along, a woman's only source of power was to influence the affairs of men. She was the first woman to successfully reign in her own right, and she ruled the world's first true empire. But she is also the most misunderstood woman in history. In history class, many of us were taught that she stole the throne from her young nephew. She's presented as a power-hungry, ruthless megalomaniac who pretended to be a man by strapping on a false beard and wearing men's clothes. Then her nephew, who succeeded her, punished her hubris by smashing all her monuments. When I was in school, all that sounded like a bunch of baloney to me! I was suspicious of any tale that seemed designed to keep girls 'in their proper place.' Much later in life, when I was considering topics for a novel, Hatshepsut's story still intrigued me, so I decided to try to find out what really happened and write it as a series of novels, so we could see what sort of person she was. It took eight years of research and I had to learn to read hieroglyphics, but I think I've finally uncovered her true story. It's a lot more interesting and surprising than anything we learned in school. Hatshepsut makes Cleopatra look like a pipsqueak!

2. Do you think newcomers to historical fiction would be surprised at the way Egyptians lived their lives?

Definitely! In Hatshepsut's era, about 3,500 years ago, most of us expect that everyday life would have been relentlessly filthy, uncomfortable and harsh, but it wasn't in ancient Egypt. It was every Egyptian's pious duty to be clean, beautiful and sweet-smelling. In some ways, they were just like us—they loved their children dearly, valued education and grumbled about income taxes (which they invented). But in other ways, their culture can seem quite alien—the sacred role of sexuality in their religion, the incestuous royal marriages and the unimaginable splendour of their cities. It's this juxtaposition of the familiar with the strange that fascinates us so much.

3. The relationship between Hatshepsut and Senenmut is an untold love story. Do you think they were really lovers?

Historians have argued about the relationship between Hatshepsut and Senenmut for generations. The ancient inscriptions show us that Hatshepsut thought very highly of her chief steward. Senenmut clearly adored her, and we know he never married, which was extremely unusual in ancient Egypt. But my conviction that they were lovers is based primarily on my assessment of their personalities. They were both highly intelligent, creative nonconformists. Such people are rare; they don't expect to find a soul mate. I think once Hatshepsut and Senenmut stumbled across one another, the attraction would have been irresistible. Although their society would have frowned on their relationship, they were both smart enough to figure out how to conduct a covert love affair. While I was writing Her Majesty the King, I got a very strong 'vibe' about the interactions whenever I wrote scenes where Hatshepsut and Senenmut were together; they even invaded my dreams! That convinced me that I was on the track of history's greatest untold love story.

4. As an Executive of the Ancient Egypt Society of Western Australia, do you find students have become more intrigued by Egypt since the publication of the book or do they simply wish to know the secret to getting published?

Great question—yes to both! Whenever I lecture about ancient Egypt, I'm gratified to see people's imaginations fire up. There's some indefinable magic that Egypt exerts that seems to fascinate people, and the more they hear, the more they want to learn. Hatshepsut's story in particular is so compelling that it stimulates people to find out more about Egypt's great golden age.

Like any successful author, I'm often asked for advice about getting published. I'm afraid there's no secret formula—just love writing, write a lot, read voraciously and enter competitions. It also helps to start small. Try getting short pieces and non-fiction published first before you tackle a novel. And don't let anyone tell you it can't be done!

5. What do you think is required to be a great historical fiction writer?

The role of a novelist is to explore the inner life of her characters, but in most genres, the writer gets to build characters to suit the story. In historical fiction, we dissect the character and motives of real people participating in events which have already happened. This means that a historical novelist needs to be a master psychological detective. Even if the historical characters are imaginary, the time and setting are fixed and the characters must be true to their era. Relating history by telling stories is one of humanity's oldest cultural traditions. Modern historians frown on this sort of narrative; they prefer to stick to 'who did what, where and when?' But in great historical fiction, the author can tell you why people behaved as they did and how they felt about it, and to me, that's the most interesting story of all.

6. Is there a message that you think readers will come across about Hatshepsut's time and reign?

I think a lot of modern readers will identify with Hatshepsut. Although she led a remarkable life, she faced a problem which is familiar to many of us: a huge burden, which she didn't expect and didn't think she could cope with, was dumped in her lap. But she managed anyway, because there simply wasn't anyone else around to do it. Although her burden was being a divine king (which is kinda a big ask!), I think many people have this sort of thing happen in their lives and they somehow manage to soldier on against the odds, just like Hatshepsut did. So her story is all about finding that inner steel even when you don't think you have any.

7. What's known about Hatshepsut's tomb? Do you think she is buried in the Valley of the Kings?

Hatshepsut was buried in tomb KV20, the first tomb ever dug in the Valley of the Kings. Whether it was Hatshepsut or her father who originally constructed KV20 is a matter of controversy amongst Egyptologists. The burial was pillaged in antiquity, and no one is really sure what happened to Hatshepsut's mummy. In 2008, Dr. Zahi Hawass claimed to have proved that a female mummy hidden in the tomb of Hatshepsut's nurse was the female Pharaoh herself. However, the evidence for his claim has not been published in a professional journal so it's impossible to say if his conclusion is valid at this juncture. It is clear, however, that Hatshepsut received the full burial rites of a ruling Horus King.

8. What happens to her daughter Nef?

Aw, spoiler alert! The archaeological evidence indicates that Princess Neferure died before Hatshepsut did. We know Neferure meant a great deal to Hatshepsut, so her death would have been a major blow. There is some good evidence that indicates how Hatshepsut responded to the loss of several people who were important to her, and I've incorporated that into the story of the third book of the Hatshepsut Trilogy, The Eye of Re, which is due for release in October 2011. But there is a happy ending—I promise!

Patricia L ONeill books reviewed