Interview: Michelle Moran

Michelle Moran is the author of The Heretic Queen: A Novel, Nefertiti: A Novel, and the upcoming Cleopatra’s Daughter: A Novel.

We’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Cleopatra’s Daughter, which debuts on September 15th. To help celebrate the release, Working Writers is currently running a giveaway where you can win a copy of the book! Hurry to enter tho, the giveaway ends on September 14th. Michelle Moran was also kind enough to post a guest essay on the life and libraries in the ancient world. Her level of research is fascinating. I know you’re going to enjoy this interview!


We’re so excited for the release of Cleopatra’s Daughter. How did you become inspired to write this book?

Actually, it all began with a dive. Not the kind of dive that people take into swimming pools, but the kind where you squeeze yourself into a wetsuit and wonder just how tasty your rump must appear to passing sharks now that it looks exactly like an elephant seal. My husband and I had taken a trip to Egypt, and at the suggestion of a friend, we decided to go to Alexandria and do a dive to see the remains of Cleopatra’s underwater city. Let it be known that I had never done an underwater dive before, so after four days with an instructor (and countless questions like, Will there be sharks? How about jellyfish? If there is an earthquake, what happens underwater?) we were ready for the real thing.

We drove to the Eastern Harbor in Alexandria. Dozens of other divers were already there, waiting to see what sort of magic lay beneath the waves. I wondered if the real thing could possibly live up to all of the guides and brochures selling this underwater city, lost for thousands of years until now. Then we did the dive, and it was every bit as magical as everyone had promised. You can see the rocks which once formed Marc Antony’s summer palace, come face to face with Cleopatra’s towering sphinx, and take your time floating above ten thousand ancient artifacts, including obelisks, statues, and countless amphorae. By the time we had surfaced, I was Cleopatra-obsessed. I wanted to know what had happened to her city once she and Marc Antony had committed suicide. Where did all of its people go? Were they allowed to remain or were they killed by the Romans? What about her four children?

It was this last question which surprised me the most. I had always believed that all of Cleopatra’s children had been murdered. But the Roman conqueror Octavian had actually spared the three she bore to Marc Antony: her six-year-old son, Ptolemy, and her ten-year-old twins, Alexander and Selene. As soon as I learned that Octavian had taken the three of them for his Triumph in Rome, I knew at once I had my next book. This is how all of my novels seem to begin – with a journey, then an adventure, and finally, enormous amounts of research for what I hope is an exciting story.

I like that you do a “what’s fact vs. fiction!” section on your website for each of your books. How much research do you do for each story?

Because the publishing industry likes their authors to be on a book a year schedule, I divide my time evenly. Six months for research, six months for writing.

In your opinion, who is the most interesting person in history?

Honestly, I don’t think I could name one. There were so many people throughout history who were fascinating for different reasons. Although I tend to agree with Kennedy, “The White House hasn’t seen this concentration of sheer human genius since Thomas Jefferson dined here…alone.” There was a man of great genius.

Please share some of your writing goals.

I think my greatest goal will always be to write better and better books which my readers will continue to enjoy!

Is there a specific time of day you like to write?

The morning and afternoon is best. By evening, there are too many distractions.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Again, I’m not sure I can pick one, but I was riveted by Gary Kinder’s Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, one of the best examples of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever come across.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Since I was in the single digits – eight or nine at the latest. My first attempt at getting published was in seventh grade, when I was twelve. I had written a full length book that was certainly pathetic but everyone praised it and my father hailed it as the next Great American Novel. My father was very good at ego-boosting. But no one knew how to go about getting published, so I went to my local Barnes and Nobles and asked them how. And instead of laughing, the bookseller took me to the writing section and I purchased the current edition of Writer’s Market. From then on, no agent or publishing house was safe. I learned how to write query letters and regaled them all. And some of them sent personal letters back too, probably because I had included my age in the query letter and they either thought a) this kid has potential or b) this is sad and deserves at least a kind note.

Favorite authors?

Oh – there’s so many! C. W. Gortner, Robin Maxwell, Sharon Kay Penman, Margaret George…, the list goes on and on!

Book you’re currently reading.

I just finished Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts: A Novel, which is fifty kinds of fabulous. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

Ha-ha. No! I just turn on the computer and go.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

No. I’m a great believer in the apply-ass-to-seat method of working. Writers who are getting paid to write and are under contract can’t afford (literally and figuratively) to get writer’s block. You simply write, and if you don’t like what you’ve produced – well, that’s what editing is for! You can always go back and tidy up.

What’s the measure of a successful writer?

I think each person defines success in their own way. For an established NYT Bestseller it might be reaching #1. For someone who is still querying agents, it might be obtaining an agent and making that first sale. I think it’s relative.

Advice for other writers?

Learn as much as you can about the business of writing. Because we writers feel an emotional connection to our stories, we tend to feel that publishing is also emotional. If I’m nice, they’ll publish me. If I send them chocolate with my query letter, they’ll see what a good person I am. But publishing isn’t personal and most of the time it’s not emotional either. It’s about numbers and sales and – at the end of the day – money. So learn everything there is to know about the business before you send off your material, especially once your material is accepted for publication. That’s when business savvy matters most, and knowing important publishing terms like galleys, remainders and co-op is extremely important when trying to figure out how you can best help your book along in the publication process. Learn everything, but above all, keep writing!

Where can we learn more about you?

On I’m quite open about my traveling life. I have hundreds of photos from the many archaeological singles I’ve visited, and I’ve tried to post an interesting tidbit of historical information beneath each one.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d just like to thank you for taking the time to host me on your fantastic website!

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