A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Eminent scholar and best-selling author Barbara Mertz holds forth on the wonders of the Nile.
Papyrus reeds and blue Egyptian water lilies--not what you would expect to find at an 1820s stone farmhouse in the rolling Maryland countryside northwest of Washington, D.C., unless you knew that this was the home of respected Egyptologist and author Barbara Mertz. Here, under the pen name Elizabeth Peters, she has written many of the best-selling mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Amelia Peabody, set in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth. Here, too, she is currently revising her nonfiction books Red Land, Black Land, about daily life in ancient Egypt, and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, a popular history. Her novels--she has more than 60 to her credit--and scholarly works have earned her accolades from colleagues in both fields. Mertz recently took a break from her labors to speak with ARCHAEOLOGY about her career, her current undertakings, and the state of Egyptology--animated and serious talk, but punctuated with humor ranging from sharp barbs to wry witticisms.
Her first successful work of fiction, published under the name Barbara Michaels, tapped into the suspense and Gothic vein then popular. "They were very derivative," she admits. "Everybody was writing the damn things at that point--girls in diaphanous nightgowns fleeing from castles up on the hill. But I enjoyed doing them. I have never written a kind of book that I didn't like. I couldn't do it, I don't think."
Few would-be authors make a go of it, and for a woman raising two children in the early 1960s, writing would appear to be a gutsy throw of the dice as a career move. "It does now, I suppose," agrees Mertz. "But what it was, was desperation. What else was I going to do?"
In archaeological circles she is better known for her Amelia Peabody mysteries focused on Egypt. After she had written three or four romance novels under the pen name Barbara Michaels, her publisher wanted another, more contemporary series, and they wanted another name, recalls Mertz. "Pseudonyms were all the rage," she says. "So the first one I wrote as Elizabeth Peters was called The Jackal's Head." The book, which appeared in 1968, was about a girl who goes back to Egypt, where she had spent her early years, to clear the name of her father, who had been accused of selling forgeries. "I had a wonderful time with that," she says. "I discovered Nefertiti's tomb, which I had always wanted to do." Nearly a decade passed before Mertz returned to fiction in Egypt with the publication of the first Amelia title, Crocodile on the Sandbank, in 1975. She was then working on a nonfiction book on the history of archaeology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and thought to combine her interests in Victorian England and Egyptology. The book is set in 1884-1885, and Mertz's Victorian heroine is off to Egypt, where she encounters a perambulating mummy and a handsome Egyptologist. "It was one of those books that got away from me," she recalls. "I don't believe in letting your characters take over. But Amelia sort of did, she marched onto the stage, and there she was. Not a typical Victorian heroine at all, but a bullheaded, independent woman."
Serpent on the Crown, her newest Peabody mystery and the 17th in the series, comes out this April. Mertz intends to follow Peabody and her fictional family up until the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in the fall of 1922, but Serpent, she says, is just before that. "I'm having a lot of fun with this one, because one of my difficulties is that my hero, Amelia's husband, Emerson, is supposed to be such a hotshot, that he knows everything that's going on. Could I let Howard Carter find Tutankhamun and not let Emerson find him? Well I've gotten around it in this one, I think, and I'm just awfully pleased with myself. I will say no more. They'll have to buy the book to find out what happens!"
Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.