Reaching Into the Past; Interview for “Year of the Hyenas”

15 Dec

The ancient era in which you’ve set the book is not necessarily the traditional setting for mysteries. What made you decide to choose Ancient Egypt? 

Ancient Egyptian archaeology has been a love of mine from the time I was ten years old. I’ve come to enjoy reading ancient laundry lists far more than other literature. Historical fiction was also a great love — books like “The Egyptian,” “Aztec,” and the Angelique series. Therefore, when I cast about for something to write, I thought it would be fun to do a “film noir” set in Ancient Egypt, with a kind of ancient Sam Spade at its center. I could thus write about the history that I love, but keep it short and fast-paced. In other words, I decided to write chamber pieces instead of symphonies.

Additionally, I find that I relate more to people and events from other eras. The study of history simplifies things, too, giving us a mirror to hold up to our own age. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” I find it comforting to know that the problems of being human were addressed five-thousand years ago, and in much the same way as they are today; only technology changes.

Finally, I believe that history in this country is being taught as an elitist subject. I remember taking a senior course in college when I was just a freshman — “Roman Republic.” I was appalled at how it was taught – the professor leached everything exciting out of it. Here was a fifty-year time period when Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, Jesus Christ, et al, breathed the same air at almost the same time, and he was gassing on and on about “the agrarian reforms of the Gracchi Brothers.” These reforms were important, of course, but not to the exclusion of what makes the era interesting to us today. I marched up to him and demanded to know how he could take such interesting times and turn them boring…? Witheringly, he said, “Oh, Brad, you just belong to the ‘gee whiz’ school of history” – a school to whom he relegated Edith Hamilton and the Durants, by the way. I was insulted for about fifteen seconds, but then responded with “Damn right I do!” And that, literally, is what I’ve been attempting to do ever since — put the “gee whiz” back into history. 

How much research did you need to do to make this book historically accurate? How long did it ultimately take you to complete the book?
“Year of the Hyenas” is the result of lifelong research into Egypt. I have been reading about Ancient Egyptian society for almost forty years, and my book has put all my research and passions together. Surprisingly, though, I had to check and re-check my facts. For instance, one of my characters is a potter. Did they throw or hand-build their pots? Finding the answer to that was a morning’s research. In the end, however, this is a work of fiction; sometimes I chose to deliberately blur historical fact, in order to make something clearer to a modern audience. To cite an example, I mention the use of gems and jewels in royal jewelry. Though the Egyptians possessed gold and silver in abundance, their use of rubies, emeralds, diamonds, etc., was extremely limited; they used colorful stones like carnelian and turquoise instead. These are considered semi-precious at best in today’s jewelry market. Nevertheless, to show how extremely valuable these pieces were to the ancient mind, I had them encrusted with such cut jewels.

As to how long it took me to write the book…I’m a fairly fast writer. I began the book in 1994, playing with the plot while I flew on endless business trips back and forth across country. I had finished the first 100 pages by 1998, writing it in dribs and drabs. But my producing work for Disney always interfered; it was not until I got the contract from Simon & Schuster in 2002 that I finished the book (I do better when someone is holding a whip over me!) So the answer to your question is that it took me 8 years to write the first 100 pages, and six months to finish the next 400 type-written pages. 

How much of the story is based on historical fact, and how much came from your imagination? 
“Year of the Hyenas” is based on what is known as the oldest court transcripts in history, detailing the trials of the conspirators who plotted against the life of Ramses III, the last great Pharaoh of Egypt. I’ve used the real names of many of the true-life characters involved. In that, the book is as close to historical fact as it can be.

BUT – as PeeWee Herman says, there’s always a big but – historians never knew why the conspiracy did not succeed. What force stopped the conspirators? Why did the plot fail? This is where my imagination came into play. I decided to write about the poor fumbler who stumbled onto the conspiracy, and how he put it down. This is done through my “detective”, the ancient Sam Spade, Semerket. Though he is a work of fiction, he embodies that unknown anonymous entity who saved the throne of Egypt from dastardly villains.

“Year of the Hyenas” actually combines two historical events, which took place about fifty years apart. The first is the conspiracy detailed above, and the second concerns a series of tomb robberies that occurred in the Valley of the Kings. This second event was called the year of the hyenas by the Ancient Egyptians themselves. I chose to combine the two events for the sake of compelling fiction. Archaeologists and historians may dispute me; I don’t think the reading public will care. 

You’ve done quite a bit of work in Hollywood. How does working on a book differ from working on a motion picture? 
First of all, working in Hollywood is a team effort. When you work in a huge organization like Disney, there are so many cooks stirring the broth that it is difficult to discover the origin of an idea or who was responsible for a certain concept. This is great in one sense, since you work with the finest minds in entertainment, but ultimately frustrating because Mickey gets all the credit. (It got so bad that I was forced to have a snake tattoo put on my arm, for we all know that snakes eat mice.)

Working on a novel is delightful, because (almost) everything you do is your own creation. But it’s all the more terrifying, because there is no one to hide behind if the public doesn’t like it. Also, working on a novel is the most difficult project I have ever done; the sheer amount of time it takes to fill the pages is like falling down a well and having to crawl back up.

But there is nothing better than writing “the end” on your masterpiece. After that, you never have to be afraid of anything again. If you can complete a book, you can do it all! 

Your publisher has said that they would like this novel to become the first in a series of mysteries with Semerket as the main character. What can you tell us about the next book? 
The next book will be called “Day of the False King” and continues the story of Semerket, Egypt’s Clerk of Investigations and Secrets. In this sequel we find Semerket in Babylon, oldest and greatest city of the ancient world. He has been sent there on a secret mission by the Pharaoh of Egypt, charged to bring back to Egypt the Golden Idol of Bel-Marduk, whose magic might just cure Pharaoh of his fatal illness. Semerket’s reason for being there, however, is far more personal. Now, Semerket finds himself in a city the size of modern San Francisco and the first in history whose population was over a million.

Assisted by a mysterious and crafty slave named Marduk, Semerket penetrates into the sordid underbelly of this most licentious and sophisticated of ancient metropolises, in the process uncovering a plot that will change the course of Babylonian history.

The terrifying events culminate on the Day of the False King, a yearly festival of orgiastic abandon and revelry, where Babylon literally turns topsy-turvy. For twenty-four hours “the most foolish man in the nation” becomes King, servants command their masters, and the rule of law is abandoned for riotous discord. It is then that Semerket discovers that the fine hand of Egyptian intrigue has reached all the way into Babylon to seize him. 


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