Love and power struggles in Egypt: an interview with Libbie Hawker
I’m so pleased to have Libbie Hawker over for buttered crumpets, coffee, and conversation about her historical novel, The Sekhmet Bed. Read on for insight into this long gone, but never forgotten, world.
I’ve already written a review for this exciting book, which can be found HERE and on Libbie’s Amazon page.
I enjoyed this book so much. It held my interest and captivated me from page one to the end. Libbie brought this ancient world and its characters to vivid life. The story revolves around Thutmose I, the “first” of the Thutmoses (of which, I believe there were three.) We also become intimately acquainted with Ahmose, her sister Mutnofret, and Hatshepsut, Egypt’s legendary female pharaoh (The Sekhmet Bed covers the time period before Hatshepsut was born and soon after, while she’s still very young.)
Without any more ado, here is the interview:
Lochlann: I understand that you’ve decided to concentrate on other genres besides historical fiction in the future. So that leaves me wondering if you have shelved the sequel to The Sekhmet Bed. I for one hope that isn’t the case.
Hawker: I haven’t shelved it, that’s for sure! It only needs to be polished up and edited, and it will be ready to go. I fully intend to write and release the third book in the trilogy, too, which explores Hatshepsut’s relationship with her daughter Neferura. (I’ve chosen to portray it as a rather rocky relationship, which is taking some risks with probable history!)
In fact I’ve felt inspired lately to write more historical fiction, but I’ve come to grips with the fact that my interests in historical fiction don’t tend to be highly commercial. If I do decide to continue writing historical novels it will be “on the side,” so to speak, while I pursue traditional publishing with my other books, and I will continue to self-publish the historical fiction…unless I should luck into an offer from a brave publisher I can’t resist!
So the fact that I’m focusing most of my writing efforts on my literary novels doesn’t mean I’ve entirely given up on historical fiction, and certainly not on the Hatshepsut books. Historical fiction will continue to be what I do “for fun” rather than as a career pursuit, but I will keep producing it.
RL: I’m happy to hear that! How is your indie “experiment” with The Sekhmet Bed going? Have you had time to come to any conclusions about self-publishing?
LH: Self-publishing is A LOT OF WORK. For very little payoff. That’s it in a nutshell!
But I’ve also learned that it feels very gratifying to see that readers are finding and loving my book when several months ago I had nearly resigned myself to the thought that it would remain forever a trunk novel. I worked on the idea behind The Sekhmet Bed and its sequels for two years, and spent nearly another two years trying to sell the first two books to publishers with the help of two agents at a major literary agency. It was somewhat upsetting to think that four years of passion and work would just sit in my closet gathering dust. I’m so grateful that modern self-publishing has gained some credibility over its previous status and that it’s become so easy to produce a quality product that readers can enjoy. I am so happy every day that my book is being appreciated by new readers.
Still, self-publishing is so much work and it takes so, so long to get a meager payoff. For a self-published novel, my book is doing respectably well, but I still haven’t come close to earning back a fair compensation for the time I’ve put into promoting it, let alone the time I’ve put into formatting it or writing it.
Traditional publishing through a publisher with a good reputation and strong distribution still looks to give a better bang for your buck to me. That’s why I’m still avidly pursuing it with other works. I believe self-publishing will continue to gain credence and one day will have a reputation for quality that is almost as good as traditional publishing. But we’re not there yet, and I am trying to start a writing career here, not nurture a hobby!
RL: The relationship between Ahmose and Mutnofret was spellbinding. It went from one extreme to the other, and took me with it. Was that a difficult aspect to develop to your satisfaction? Did you have any real life role models to use in your efforts? The love, the rivalry, the betrayals…it was all magnificent.
LH: Oh, gosh. Here it is. The question I fantasized about dreading back when I expected this novel to sell traditionally. I envisioned interviews just like this and gulped a little when I wondered how I’d answer this question.
Probably best to be straightforward!
The big, intense, crazy fight and reconciliation between Ahmose and Mutnofret was inspired, I am ashamed to admit, by an unbelievably stupid, pointless fight my sister and I were in years ago. We didn’t speak to each other for a year. It was the biggest waste of precious time in my life. The one and only thing I can say for that period of my life is that it helped me write a believable rivalry and reconciliation between two sisters later, when I wrote The Sekhmet Bed.
I adore my sister, who is my only sibling, beyond all reason. She and I have been best friends since I was a baby and she was my doting Sissy. (I still call her Sissy. We’re in our thirties and she will always be Sissy to me.) That big stupid year-long fight we had still makes me cringe and fills me with regret whenever I think of it. I mean, we claimed to be adults at the time. What kind of grown-up women do things like that to each other? We weren’t even trying to share a Pharaoh husband, for corn’s sake! That incident, and the time I punched her in the stomach when I was about ten – those are my only regrets in life. Sissy is precious to me, and I hate to think of the times we’ve mistreated each other.
Anyway, I am glad I’ve been able to make something positive out of that miserable experience by writing a believable tumultuous relationship between two sisters!
RL: Well, Libbie, speaking as someone with both a sister and a brother, I can say from experience that these kinds of things happen. What matters is that the discord didn’t last, and maybe even added to the special closeness you share now.
There are several childbirth scenes in The Sekhmet Bed, and I found them all riveting. I’ve had a baby, and one of your descriptions took me right back to that moment in the hospital when I cried, “No. Wait! Stop!” I would imagine that is a universal feeling among mothers experiencing their first labors. Tell us about the research you did for those scenes.
LH: Several mothers who have read TSB have asked me how old my children are, and whether I had a natural birth, because my birth scenes were so real-feeling. I am very proud that they came across so well, because I have actually never given birth!
This one goes back to my sister, too. Because we are so close, she asked me to be one of her birth coaches when she had her son at home back in 2008. At the time I was doing the necessary research for The Sekhmet Bed and its subsequent books. I knew I’d want to include some birth scenes in at least one of the books, so I got into my role as birth coach and did as much research as I could on natural labor and delivery. It was a fascinating subject that really opened my eyes to how distant and mechanical labor and delivery have become in the United States, and how little women in the U.S. know about their own bodies and a process so essential as giving birth. It scared me, actually. If I do decide to have a child or two someday, I will definitely have a natural birth, at home if I can, with a midwife. My research made me feel very strongly about that.
My primary research source was the various books written about The Bradley Method of natural childbirth. But nothing can compare to the experience of actually watching a woman bring a baby into the world naturally. I was lucky enough to be at the birth of my nephew, and I was supposed to be there when my niece was born, too, but she showed up too quickly for me to get to my sister’s house! Watching my nephew’s birth definitely gave me the “tools” I needed to write the birth scenes in these books.
RL: All that research definitely paid off, I think. Seldom in all my years of reading have I identified so viscerally with birth giving scenes!
I adored Thutomse. You took a murky historical figure and transformed him into a real-life human being. As the story progressed, I liked him more and more. What a renaissance man! He was gentle and wise. Not what I expected! I even felt sorry for him now and then. There must have been a time or two when he thought diving into war was easier than running a household of wives and concubines. Did you find evidence that the real Thutmose was really this way? Tell us about the research you did for him.
LH: Thutmose I is indeed one of the murkier figures in Egyptian history. Here’s what is known for sure about him, in brief. His mother was a commoner, not anyone of royal birth or of the upper classes. His father is unknown. He was a soldier, probably a highly regarded general, and he was chosen to succeed the previous Pharaoh for unknown reasons.
He had two recorded official wives, Ahmose (the queen) and Mutnofret. And he had four sons: Wadjmose, Amunmose, Ramose, and Thutmose II. Of his sons, at least two of them preceded him in death at an unknown age. Most Egyptologists seem to agree that his first three sons (before Thutmose II) had no real standing. The suggestion is that Thutmose lived a common man’s life before he ascended the throne, and that the real Mutnofret may have been his wife when he was merely a general and not the Pharaoh…but that is very unclear and is mostly conjecture on the part of Egyptologists. If he lived with one wife as a common man before taking the throne, then his sons with that wife were no princes – they were just rekhet, just common folk.
Yet when at least one of his sons died (Wadjmose), he used his new wealth and power as Pharaoh to memorialize his lost son with a beautiful chapel built inside the boundaries of Ipet-Isut (Karnak, as we know it today, a complex of important religious buildings). And he framed his sons’ names inside cartouches, which was an honor reserved only for those of royal blood.
This all says to me that Thutmose I was a loving father who grieved sorely for his dead sons. And his rise from soldier to Pharaoh seemed sudden and probably shocking to him, I’d imagine. He was almost certainly married to Ahmose for the express purpose of legitimizing his right to the throne. In ancient Egypt, before the Greek period, women were thought to carry the right of inheritance in their blood not men; and a Pharaoh could only be a Pharaoh if he married the female blood relative of another Pharaoh. As Thutmose I shows, even a common man could be king, if he married a Pharaoh’s daughter, sister, or female cousin.
I wonder, if Thutmose I had had a common wife and a nice, happy family, but then was tapped on the shoulder to become Pharaoh and married off to this strange woman Ahmose…that’s a lot of stuff to deal with. Surely only a very complex and sensitive man would agree to having his life so thoroughly uprooted in that way, for complex and sensitive reasons.
All this is to say, I am also fascinated by Thutmose I and his very strange story, though so little of it is known. If I’d written this book from his perspective it would have been very different, with Tut enjoying his nice, quiet life with Mutnofret and their sons, and Ahmose being a scary royal intruder. Hmmm…maybe that’s an idea for another novel some day!
But Thutmose really did have buck teeth. I can tell you that for sure.
Yet another thing I loved about The Sekhmet Bed was the writing. Your writing is fluid and smooth. Another word I would use to describe it is comfortable, in the sense that you draw in the reader without any lengthy, tedious back story, explanations or descriptions, and this makes us feel comfortable, “at home,” within the world you’ve created. I felt as though I was right there with these characters, living at the mercy of the Nile and the gods, to the point where it felt quite familiar. Tell us about your writing background: how long have you been writing? How has your style evolved? Have you joined critique groups, or have you gone it alone?
LH: Well, thank you! I am very flattered by that. The Sekhmet Bed was my first completed novel, so I am very pleased to hear that it feels so pleasant to read. That is often not the case with first novels! As with any artistic pursuit, there’s a learning curve.
As for how long I’ve been writing…that’s a tough question to answer. I’ve dabbled in writing since my middle school days and I’ve always sort of vaguely planned to “be a writer,” but I never really tried hard to write a reader-friendly book until I wrote The Sekhmet Bed. As I was researching TSB from 2007 onward I wrote and published several short stories, but short stories and novels are different beasts.
I place a lot of stock in critique and I seek it out frequently from trusted sources. I do belong to a weekly writers’ group, but our usual focus in that group is poetry (something I enjoy writing but will probably never try to publish!) I did not workshop The Sekhmet Bed to any appreciable degree, although my friend Lori Witt did give a lot of feedback on the first draft.
If my writing is appealing, I have my lifelong reading habit to thank for that. I very firmly believe that writers who don’t read a lot…well…you can tell when you read their work. I think a conscientious regimen of reading, and reading widely, not just within your own genre, is a must for any writer. The more ideas and techniques you’re exposed to, the more informed and confident your own ideas and techniques become. Writers can never stop reading, and reading like maniacs. I grew up in a family of artists and I know how important constant immersion in the “art stream” is to keep the creative brain vital. Writing is no different from any other art. We need to stay excited about books and stories in order to stay excited about our own books and stories.
As for how my writing style has changed…I’ve discovered I have much more of a passion for writing contemporary literary fiction than historical fiction! I guess fans of my book won’t love hearing that I am putting most of my writing effort into stuff that’s not historical fiction. But as I said at the beginning of this interview, I’m not giving up on historical fiction entirely.
RL: How old were you when you decided you wanted to write? Was there some particular thing in your childhood that contributed to this resolve?
LI: Oh, my, yes. Watership Down.
My mother thinks she is dyslexic, though she’s never been diagnosed, and reading has always been a struggle for her. She didn’t want Sissy or me to have the same troubles with reading, so she got my sister started early, and my five-year-old sister taught me how to read. My mom encouraged it by never putting limits on whatever I chose to read. I have an old copy of Charlotte’s Web with a handwritten journal of my reading progress in the front and back of it. My mother recorded how far I got in reading that book each day and how I felt about the story. The journal is dated 1983. I was three years old.
So my reading was always encouraged without limits, but I was obsessed with rabbits when I was a little kid. My dad rented the gorgeous animated film adaptation of Watership Down and we watched it together countless times. When my parents divorced, my sister and I moved with our mom to Seattle. I missed my dad a lot, naturally, and so one day I wandered into the elementary school library and told the librarian I wanted to read Watership Down. She kind of chuckled and told me it was too big a book for me (I was eight years old at the time.) I told her to show me the book. She did – it was a big, heavy, hardback copy. I checked it out on the spot and read it. And read it and read it. I read that book over dozens of times throughout my life – I can’t count how many times now. I found Richard Adams’ writing so enchanting, with its detail and its harmonious word choices. I decided when I was eight that I wanted to be a writer just like Richard Adams.
Watership Down still reminds me of my father and my early childhood. When he passed away I got a tattoo of the Black Rabbit of Inle to commemorate him.
RL: I, too, have loved Watership Down since I was very young! It’s a great book. I also have Adams’s Shardik, although I confess I haven’t yet read it, and his out-of-print book, Maia–which is rather explicit, but so good! Yes, I fully understand the draw of Richard Adams.
I’m also curious about how long it took for you to get comfortable with this era. I saw your credit to the author Joyce Tyldesley. Were there others you found particularly helpful? Did you get most of your information from reading non-fiction or fiction? What little I read of Egyptian history told me that it could easily consume many years if I let it.
LH: Egyptian history is addictive! And so fascinating! It’s so well recorded and that’s a rarity for cultures that stretch back so far.
All of my research came from non-fiction sources, with the possible exception of the inclusion of the “nine kas” bit of the story, which I took from a very old stage play about Hatshepsut which I admired. Otherwise, it was all nonfiction books and several thesis papers by various students of Egyptology I found online.
Tyldesley was the author I used most often because her writing style is so engrossing and fun. Reading her nonfiction is as good as reading fiction about ancient Egypt. Anybody who’s interested in the period should read as many of her books as they can find!
RL: Could you sum up The Sekhmet Bed in one sentence? How about with four words?
LH: Oh, gee…one sentence: A vindictive rivalry between two sisters leads to a life-and-death struggle to name a female child the Egyptian heir. Four words: Ain’t easy being queen.
RL: “Ain’t easy being queen.” I love that! Did you plot out the book with an outline or do you prefer to write spontaneously?
LH: The Sekhmet Bed and its two sequels were specifically outlined in great detail! My other writing – the literary stuff – is much looser and usually spontaneous.
RL: Here’s a question that often enters my mind when I’m feeling whimsical. If Hollywood made the incredibly wise decision of turning The Sekhmet Bed into a blockbuster movie, who would play Ahmose? Thutmose? Mutnofret? And the tender, handsome Ineni?
LH: Oh, no! I am a terrible follower of film, I am sorry to say, and I know very little of actors. So I am sure I will embarrass myself with this answer. But if I could get a time-traveling cast, I see Ahmose in my head as a very young Halle Berry. I think Mutnofret would be played by a teen-aged Glenn Close in good makeup. She has the range to play such a complex character. Thutmose would be Jason Momoa with slightly less muscles and a little more age. He was amazing in Game of Thrones as Khal Drogo. And I think Ineni would have to be Danny Pudi. He’s so cute and sweet-looking, but what a fantastic actor!
RL: Don’t worry, Libbie. I’m just happy you didn’t say “Brad Pitt!” Ha Ha! Thank you so much for visiting my website and giving me these delicious tidbits about The Sekhmet Bed. I’m so glad I have this book, and I know I’ll read it again and again. I can’t wait for volume two in this wonderful trilogy, and I look forward to many, many more Ironside books. Good luck in the future, Libbie!
I think it’s time for cake now….
Learn more about Libbie by visiting her blog. Here she is on Goodreads, and here is another interview of The Sekhmet Bed that I stumbled across, with S.L. Stevens, where you can learn even more about this fantastic book.
The Sekhmet Bed: Libbie Hawker
Again, another Indie-published book has moved me beyond my ability to express, has left me in tears, and will remain with me for a very long time. Publishers had a chance at this and passed? It’s really inconceivable. (I don’t know if this book was even offered to agents or publishers, so my comment/question might not apply.)
Okay, short rant over.
I’ve read many historical novels in the past few years, or tried to, and have often been disappointed, almost to the point where I don’t want to read historical fiction anymore, and have gravitated more toward the fantasy genre. The problem is that I can’t seem to get emotionally invested.
In any novel, first and foremost, I need to be invested in the characters. If I can’t find that investment, I cannot care about what happens. Reading becomes a chore.
After reading The Sekhmet Bed, I began to understand all this in a better way, because The Sekhmet Bed succeeds where, for me, others do not. The Sekhmet Bed offers us the princess, Ahmose, and her pharaoh, Thutmose, (whom I adored). Then we get the nasty sister, Mutnofret, and Ineni, the lover. Even Hawker’s secondary characters, like Aiya, Twomose and Sitre-In became real, fully-fleshed out. I would pick up The Sekhmet Bed intending to read for only a moment, because a moment was all I had at the time. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, a half hour later, I would still be reading, even though I felt antsy because I had other things I needed to be doing. I could not stop reading. I had to know what happened next. I had to know what was on that next page.
For this reader, that is the mark of a successful novel.
Many of the scenes in The Sekhmet Bed clearly show how fragile life was in ancient Egypt, even though in some ways, they lived very comfortable, modern lives. Still, the wound caused by an animal bite could fester, and they had no way to stop it. There was danger all around, not only from invading tribes but crocodiles, snakes, and childbirth. Throughout everything runs the gods, their ultimate control, and the need to appease them.
I loved how vividly the author shows the power of women in this culture. I learned so much from this book: about ancient Egypt, and about the possible birth, childhood and subsequent power of Hatshepsut, the famed woman who ruled as pharaoh. I loved how the names of the children, even the Pharaoh’s offspring, were chosen by their mothers. Although the book never ever fails for a single moment in its storytelling ability or in its beautiful voice or in the deep, vibrant connection between character and reader, it still managed to convey a tremendously visual, real, easy-to-identify-with culture and society.
I absolutely loved the full-circle progression of the complex relationship between Ahmose and Mutnofret. I don’t believe I have ever read a book where I disliked a character so much, and by the end of the book I loved her and felt intimately connected to her.
I must stop as this is getting so long. I must not tell more, in fear of writing any spoilers, and because I cannot do any real justice to the many layers of wonderful prose that make up The Sekmet Bed. I will just suggest that anyone who reads this pop on over to Amazon (click on the book cover image) and get yourself a copy.