Interview with Historical Fiction Author Lavender Ironside

Earlier this week I reviewed Lavender Ironside's novel The Sekhmet Bed. I mentioned on her blog about a month ago how much I loved the book, and we agreed to do an interview. I emailed her some questions shortly before Christmas and she graciously took time out of her busy holiday schedule to respond. Without further ado, here is Lavender Ironside talking about her novel, her writing process, and her main character Ahmose:

Hello, Samantha and Samantha’s readers!  I’ve been a follower of Scroll of a Modern Scribe for some time, so it’s really exciting for me to be featured here.
  • Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in the Seattle area, which I love in spite of its cloudy skies (or maybe because of them.)  Like many writers, I’ve held down a strange array of jobs while working on my writing career, ranging from show dog handler to wedding photographer to zoo keeper.  Now I’m working triage in an emergency veterinary hospital – a very fast-paced job which keeps my writing brain fresh and full of ideas!

I started writing seriously (after a lifetime of vaguely planning to “be a writer someday”) in 2007.  After publishing a few short stories under a different pen name, I tackled my first novel, which was The Sekhmet Bed.  I researched the book for a couple of years and started and finished the first draft in the summer of 2009. 
  • The female pharaoh Hatshepsut is well known to many people, yet even Egyptologists know very little about her mother, Ahmose. Why did you choose Ahmose to be the central character for The Sekhmet Bed?
I didn’t set out to write a novel about Ahmose.  My plan was to write only about Hatshepsut, but the more I learned about her the more I felt her story really began with her parents.  After all, a girl who grows up to assume the throne of the Pharaoh must have had an interesting early life, and her parents surely played a large role in shaping her character.

As I was learning about Hatshepsut, I became intrigued with a mural in her mortuary temple which depicts her “origin story” – the god Amun came to Queen Ahmose in mortal form and seduced her, conceiving Hatshepsut, who was, according to this mural, literally half-god and not just the figurehead of a god as Pharaohs were supposed to be.

I realized this was just political propaganda to bolster her claim to the throne, but I thought it would make for a fantastic story if Hatshepsut’s own mother really believed that she had conceived a child with Amun.  That idea wouldn’t let go of me, so I decided to delay the Hatshepsut book (which turned into two books) and start at the beginning – with Ahmose.
  • How would you describe the character of Ahmose?
She’s young, and although she’s an intelligent and conscientious young woman, there’s a certain naivete that goes along with youth.  Ahmose takes her role as queen seriously and genuinely wants to make the right decisions for her country, but she’s also affected by the volatility of the teen years.  Her heart often gets in the way of her head and she makes some terrible choices, but not because she’s a bad person – she’s struggling to learn how to navigate life.

She is also fervently religious, and has total faith in her visionary dreams, and this, too, causes her some trouble.
  • What kind of research did you do? How much research did you do?
I read everything I could find on the Thutmosides (the family to which Hatshepsut belonged) for about two years.  Meanwhile I was writing and selling short stories, but I was putting a lot of thought and effort into developing the overall story arc that would comprise the three books in the series. 

I turned to any reputable Egyptology web site I could find (there aren’t many that cite sources!), but the biggest help to me was Joyce Tyldesley’s body of work.  Tyldesley is an excellent Egyptologist with a flair for accessible, entertaining writing, and her books are both thorough and enjoyable.  I took reams of notes by hand on Hatshepsut and on culture in the 18th Dynasty, sitting in coffee shops with stacks of Tyldesley’s books.

When I felt I had enough information to create a plausible story, I began tinkering with outlines.  I knew I wanted Mutnofret to be the antagonist, but I didn’t hit on the (historically inaccurate) idea of making her Ahmose’s elder sister until I’d gone through many permutations of Ahmose’s and Mutnofret’s relationship.  After so long researching and being devoted to facts, it was very difficult for me to write an outline wherein Mutnofret and Ahmose were sisters.  But once I got about halfway through that outline, I could tell that I had chosen correctly.  The story felt more exciting and tense, and to my surprise I felt serious emotional investment not only in Ahmose, but in Mutnofret as well.  Mutnofret, actually, is my favorite character and I’m so glad I made her Ahmose’s elder sister, in spite of the historical contortion I had to do to get her there.  I believe they call that “artistic license,” ha-ha.

After I’d nailed down the protagonist-antagonist relationship, it took about six months of sporadic work to develop the story of The Sekhmet Bed to the point that I knew it well enough to begin writing the book itself.
  • Are you planning on writing any sequels? If so, will Ahmose still be the main character?
As I hinted at above, I am indeed planning two sequels.  One is, in fact, already written (though it’s a rough draft and needs a lot of revision) and the third is outlined.  But Ahmose fades into the background in the next books.  She’s still present in the story, but the focus passes from her to Hatshepsut, and tracks Hati’s life and accomplishments.  The final book will split focus between Hatshepsut and her daughter, Neferura.

Self-publishing is a lot of work – more work for the author, I think, than traditional publishing – so I plan to only release the sequels if The Sekhmet Bed is popular enough with readers.  I must say I am very pleased with reader response so far, and it’s looking hopeful for the sequels!
  • Why were you drawn to Egypt as the setting for your first novel?
I’ve been fascinated with Egypt – and Hatshepsut particularly – since high school, when one of my history teachers suggested I focus a research paper on the female Pharaoh.  Ancient Egypt has been dear to my heart for many years.  The exotic nature of the setting and the forward-thinking culture of Dynastic Egypt are just wonderful to explore, as a writer or as a reader.  I think there aren’t nearly enough good novels set in ancient Egypt.
  • What was the process that led you to self-publish The Sekhmet Bed rather than pursue traditional publication?
I did actually pursue traditional publication with The Sekhmet Bed, for about a year and a half. 

I worked with two good agents to sell the book to a publishing house, and although most of the editors who considered it praised it, nobody offered a contract.  Publishing can be fickle at the best of times, and during a depressed economy that’s especially true. 

We received a lot of responses from editors that although they really liked the book, they didn’t feel the setting or the historical figures in it were familiar enough to readers to make the book successful (or, I though, reading between the lines, worth risking a chunk of money on during a terrible economy).  I’ve run businesses before myself, and I understand the hesitancy to take a financial risk on an unknown when times are so tough.

We also received quite a lot of response that editors liked the book, but felt it was falling between genres due to Ahmose’s age at the beginning.  She’s thirteen when the book opens, but the book deals with the very adult-fiction themes of motherhood, religious faith, and a marriage in crisis.  Several editors told us they’d make an offer on the book if it was rewritten to fit more solidly in the Young Adult category.

I seriously considered this for some time, and weighed the pros and cons with one of my agents.  In the end, I decided that to rewrite the book as a YA novel would be to change it too much.  I have never been hesitant to make sweeping changes to my writing at the recommendation of an agent or editor, but turning The Sekhmet Bed into a YA book would have required so radical a change that it would not feel like “my” book anymore.

Ultimately, I decided to self-publish The Sekhmet Bed because of the consistency of feedback from editors.  “This is really good, but it’s too risky,” and “This is really good, but it would be better if it was YA.”  I was hearing the “This is really good” part and feeling encouraged, and I decided that maybe readers wouldn’t care as much as publishers that Ahmose was a young girl in an adult situation, or that they were reading a book about historical people they’d never heard of before.  Publishers, after all, are in the business of making money, and they have to consider so many more factors than just whether a book is good.  Readers just want to read good books!

Plus, as we were submitting the book to publishers I’d continued to write novels, my writing was going in a dramatically different direction.  I felt that I wanted to devote my future writing career to contemporary literary fiction and did not feel so drawn anymore to historical fiction (as a writer, in any case).  So I though self-publishing The Sekhmet Bed would be an ideal solution.  I would make a good book available to those readers who wanted to explore an under-represented setting in historical fiction, and I would not have to deal with the headache of finding an agent who could successfully represent both historical and literary fiction. 

A long explanation, I know, but it was kind of a complicated decision to reach.
  • What advice do you have for aspiring writers of historical fiction?
Read, read, read!  I don’t think any writer is worth her salt unless she reads as often as she can, and as widely as she can – not only in the genre she loves to write.  It’s easy to tell when a writer is not well-read.  Don’t be that writer!

As writing pertains to historical fiction specifically, the biggest thing I learned in writing The Sekhmet Bed is that you shouldn’t be afraid to stretch history a bit if it will make your story stronger.  I made the right choice in turning Mutnofret into Ahmose’s sister; the story is stronger for it.  But keep in mind, too, that readers of historical fiction can be harsh critics and they don’t like their beloved history to be tampered with!  If you have to fudge history in service of your story, you must make your writing compelling – deep, believable characters and lovely, engaging writing.  Otherwise, you run the risk of losing readers.

And of course, before you stretch history you have to fully understand it.  One of the best things about writing historical fiction is all the amazing research you get to do.  If you want to write in a historical setting, fully immerse yourself in that setting via research until it’s as familiar to you as your own town or your own home.  It’s only when you understand it deeply that your fictionalization of history will come across as believable.

Thank you for interviewing me, Samantha!  Readers are always welcome to contact me at lavironside@gmail.com. 

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