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The Hippopotamus Marsh
"Child of the Morning was my first novel. It was published in 1977. And at that time I was wearing my hair in a blunt cut and it was very dark: sort of a charcoal color. And I was forever being asked if I thought I was the reincarnation of Hatshepsut, and did I believe in past lives and so on? And I was denying, denying, denying. Because in a sense it's almost insulting. It's like saying you really didn't do a lot of research. Like this all just came from some... you know: no talent, just a past life experience."
There is a quiet truculence to Pauline Gedge that her initial appearance belies. At 54, she is somehow delicate and voluptuous; soft-spoken and worldly. These are the apparent inconsistencies that one sees in a professional meeting, though are in no way visible in her work. Gedge's books are carefully researched, colorfully executed and have earned her an international following of loyal fans.
Gedge's nine published novels have sold over six million copies and have been translated into 17 languages. Despite this success -- or, perhaps, because of it -- Gedge says quite plainly that she doesn't enjoy book tours. She doesn't much like the travel that relates to promoting her books, nor does she enjoy talking to journalists about her life or her work. She does promotion in the same way she used to do the detailed research necessary for the novels which she sets in ancient Egypt. She does it because she must and because it's part of the process and because it all means that she'll be able to get to the part that she does like: writing. And in the writing, Gedge loses herself -- one would think -- much in the same way Gedge's readers lose themselves in the stories she weaves.
Obsessed with ancient Egypt since she was a child, Gedge's new novel The Hippopotamus Marsh is the first book in the Lords of the Two Lands trilogy set in Egypt's 12th Dynasty. The Hippopotamus Marsh is Gedge's eighth novel, of which five have been set in ancient Egypt. For the last 11 years, Gedge has been relieved of the research that she never really cared for anyway. Her husband, Bernie Ramanauskas, enjoys that part of the work and Gedge was delighted to pass it off to him.
"There was a journalist who said that I go around and gather up the rose petals," says Ramanauskas, "and give them to Pauline, who turns them into perfume. I love that."
There is, however, no one to whom Gedge can pass the promotional tours. Like the veteran of the literary wars she is, Gedge complies. She does it with good grace, a tired mien and the air of one of the princesses she writes about so well.
Linda Richards: How long have you lived in Canada?
Pauline Gedge: We came out first in 1966. But the family history is extremely complicated travel-wise.
I think I read that you are from Australia?
I was born in New Zealand. But my family immigrated to England when I was six. To Canada at 14. Back to New Zealand. Back to Canada.
When were you first in Egypt? Where did this passion come from?
I was first in Egypt in 1984. My son and I went. And my agent as well. It was a lovely tour. There were only four people in the tour group. But the first time I saw Egypt -- I wasn't in Egypt, but the first time I saw Egypt -- I was only six and we went through the Suez canal by boat.
It sparked something for you?
Yes. It's a very vivid memory! Just that one moment looking out the porthole at all that sand and sky. That's stayed with me all of my life.
The writing is vivid. The writing is wonderful.
You bring such detail. There's got to be people that have asked you if it's like a past life memory.
Child of the Morning was my first novel. It was published in 1977. And at that time I was wearing my hair in a blunt cut and it was very dark: sort of a charcoal color. And I was forever being asked if I thought I was the reincarnation of Hatshepsut, and did I believe in past lives and so on? And I was denying, denying, denying. Because in a sense it's almost insulting. It's like saying you really didn't do a lot of research. Like this all just came from some... you know: no talent, just a past life experience.
I don't do my research anymore. Bernie does my research, but those early books were also well researched and I'm very proud of the work I put into them.
It's one thing to have the research: but the vividness of these pictures. The research certainly shows, but historians do research yet don't write in ways that touch you so.
Historians have nothing to do with fiction. Historians, I think, are concerned with facts. They're not concerned with motive. Or character, really. They're not interested in why a person might do a certain thing, they just say that this event took place. That this particular artifact was produced by so and so at such and such an age. I see part of my job as looking at an event or an object and asking myself why a character did a certain thing. I'm thinking of a particular piece that made me think, "What kind of arrogance and contempt produced a piece of work like that?" Why would a historian be concerned with that anyway? That's a novelist's job.
Do you find that sometimes what you do causes people to learn? Sometimes whether they want to or not? I mean, isn't that what good historical fiction does? Sends people spinning for the library to learn more? Have you gotten that kind of feedback from your readers?
Yes. And I occasionally get letters from students asking for information. Actually more from France and Germany than from North America. And I've occasionally been asked for a bibliography, which we provided with this book.
How many children do you have?
Two sons. Simon is now 31 and Roger is 28.
Are they writers?
I think my youngest son. He's trying to write a novel while earning a living, which is very difficult. And he works in fits and starts. He won't talk about what he's doing; which is good. He won't show anybody any of it. But he's promised that when he's finished I can read it and give him some editorial suggestions. Which is kind of a frightening prospect. I mean, I might lose my son in the process if I'm honest! [Laughs] But I'm hoping... he shows all the signs of being a novelist. Though he's still very young to be writing a novel.
What's next for you? I guess you're working on the other books in the trilogy.
No: they're all written, edited, copyedited. Everything. I wrote all three as one novel.
I want them now!
No, sorry. Though it's lovely to hear! But the three divided quite naturally. The father and then a son and then another son. So it was much easier for me to write the whole thing at once and then divide it up.
Did they think about issuing it as one big book?
No: it was almost meant to be a trilogy. It's 1400 pages. The second book is bigger than this one and the third is big as well.
When are they issuing them?
September the next one will be out. And then maybe the next in December of 1999.
So what are you working on now?
Absolutely nothing. I'm exhausted. Bernie has done the research for another book in the series. He wants me to bring the novels up to Child in the Morning s's time. Because these people [from the trilogy] were her ancestors. But I can't face it right now. I can't even think about it. I'd like to put my feet up and write some poetry for a year or two. That's what I did for 20 years before I tried prose. But I'm all worded out. There's nothing left at the moment. The well is dry.
It helps not having to do that research part. When I met Bernie, I was already tiring of the research. It's great to hand it over to him. He organizes in a way that I can't. In fact, for these books he provided me with research with direct quotes off the monuments and with an outline that included things that were coming up. Say if a baby was to be born, nine months before he would put in the margin of his notes that, "So and so has to be conceived now." So it made the writing a lot easier.
Bernie and I have been married for nine years now. I saw his potential as a researcher and decided to marry him because I was getting fed up with research. [Laughs.] That's my story anyway.
There is, of course, a great deal of research you can do. Some things just can't be researched though. Day to day conversations between two people, for instance. These must be fabricated, right?
I try and produce dialog consonant with the nature of the characters. We know a great deal, for instance, about the grandmother [in The Hippopotamus Marsh ] Tetisheri. History gives us a very clear picture of the kind of character she was. So I have to make sure that the words that come out of her mouth and her attitudes and so on agree with what history tells us about her. She was a very powerful, very sharp-tongued old lady.
How long were you at work on the trilogy ?
Four years. Well, Bernie started a year before I did. And I plugged away at it for about three years.
It must be nice to have someone to bounce ideas off.
Oh yes. We had a lot of discussions about motive. Bernie would produce some fact or other and I would have to say, "Okay, why do you think he did this?" And we talked out lots of those sorts of things.
Do you think it's more difficult, in some ways, than writing about absolutely fictional characters?
I find it harder [to write about absolutely fictional characters], only because I hate plotting. I'm a terrible plotter. And if history can plot for me, I unashamedly use it. I think I'm good at character development. I enjoy my characters very much. But I'm impatient with having to plot. Whereas that's where Bernie's interest is. The time line and those kinds of details.
So Bernie's role was an important one?
Oh yes! These wouldn't have been written without him. I would have thought of all the research and just quailed because I'm so tired of it. I just don't want to do it anymore.
Is your educational background in English or... in passion?
Hmmm... in passion, I guess. I don't think I learned anything in school after my family left England and came out here. The schools here are terrible. It was terrible then and it still is. I had a year at university and loathed it. I had a year at teacher's college in New Zealand and loathed it. I figured there was nothing else to do, I might as well go to teacher's college. I was very unmotivated and I hated college. So I have very little formal education.
I've read that you don't like book tours much.
No. When I finish a book now that's the first thing I think: if it's accepted I'm going to have to go talk about it. It's horrible. It's hard to talk about things that I feel are extremely personal. It's not the people. They're always nice people. And I'm happy talking about the book, but talking about the personal things is very difficult. | March 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.