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Interview Arthur Phillips

When we triumph over our enemies or fate, we call for a dozen girls
Who come to us in haste, and Atum-hadu's robe unfurls.
And they dance and bare themselves for us, their breasts so high
That Atum-hadu's hooded cobra leaps as if to fly.

- Quatrain 7, Fragment C

Arthur Phillips
Stacey Knecht

The Egyptologist

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SK — Did you set out to write a book as different from your first book, Prague, as you could possibly make it?

AP — No, not particularly, I just got an idea that I got very excited about. And then after a while I realized how different it was going to be. And then was torn between thinking, oh wow, that’s fantastic! And: oh no, I’ve wandered into some place I shouldn’t go. I’m going to get into trouble for having messed with something that worked the first time, but by then it was too late.

SK — And you didn’t have that feeling when you started on Prague? Or was that more familiar territory?

AP — No, but it was my first book. And no one was going to publish it, of course, so you just get excited about the idea and start to write. Which is what happened the second time, only it was just so different that I started to think maybe the only way I can keep this going as a career is if I stay in the same world, but as I said, by then it was too far gone.

SK — People always talk about writers and their second book, how tough it can be – especially if the first book was a success. Had you already begun thinking about this book, The Egyptologist, while you were writing your first? Had that begun to sprout?

AP — A little bit. I started writing this before Prague was published, just as I began writing another book before this one was published. The ‘second novel question’ was definitely on my mind. But it turns out it’s the same question as the third novel question. And I suspect it’s the eighth novel question, too, the fear that eventually you’ll stumble and everyone will stomp on your grave. ‘I told you so!’ But I imagine that if you have more than one story, you must have a multiplicity of stories.

SK — This book had me laughing, and it was at the same time so very painful to read: one man’s rise and another mans demise. I was both moved and frustrated by the character of Ralph Trilipush, his total misjudgment of his situation – in fact, many of the characters’ total misjudgment of every situation! And then the ‘real Egyptologist’, Howard Carter, who seems to have it all together. You’ve pitted these two men against these other. What would you say was the reason for Carter’s success and Ralph’s non-success?

AP — Carter knew what he was doing! (laughs) Actually, Carter was a failure, too, until he was a success. The reason I wanted to pit them against each other was much more about Trilipush’s feelings for Carter, the sense that somebody else has all the answers - effortlessly has all the answers, that someone else knows how to fill in the great blank, but in this case conducts an Egyptological expedition. As it turned out, Carter did know how to do that, and Trilipush was not totally clear on the details of how to do it, but that sense of insecurity around someone who seems to have mastered all elements of the thing you desire... that’s what I wanted to convey. In this particular case: Carter had spent years and years in the field, on all kinds of expeditions, starting at the bottom and working his way up. So in fact he’s entirely qualified to be doing what he’s doing, and Trilipush is perhaps not so well qualified.

SK — He thinks he is!

AP — He’s done the best he can with limited resources. Limited resources and availability of resources. But you know, at least in the last case, Carter did look for King Tut for six years, and was about to quit – which is such a wonderful story in itself. He was prepared to pack it all in, but he convinced Lord Carnarvon to finance one more year’s digging, and was within days of saying ‘We’re done’, when they found that first stair. So after six years of going in circles, on really quite skimpy evidence… Trilipush’s evidence was really no skimpier than Carter’s was. They say Carter had three reasons to believe he could find Tut's tomb: records showing that Tut had definitely existed, the fact that no relics of Tut's had ever come on the market, which meant that his tomb had probably never been found or pillaged, and two small items of Tut's – I think it was a burial cloth and a cup – that Carter found in the Valley of the Kings, which implied that the tomb was near.
That’s all he had. Ralph Trilipush has a less certain historical record that Atum-hadu existed, but he has more written relics, all in the same geographical area, and a reasonably good sense that the tomb was somewhere nearby. So he’s got almost as good a case as Carter, and Carter did spend six years working on this. It’s not entirely delusional that Trilipush might have been on track.

SK — He could have, he might have…

AP — Sure. And with the same argument: the relics hadn’t turned up on the market, so if there was a tomb it hadn’t been pillaged. It was an okay bet.

SK — But Trilipush was in a hurry.

AP — Exactly. A big hurry.

SK — The ‘Tomb Paradox’: was that your invention?

AP — It’s my phrase, I guess, but I picked it out of Carter’s memoirs, actually. It’s a historical fact: the ancient kings had to be buried intact, with treasure, and stay buried intact, with treasure, and yet tell everybody where they were buried intact – with treasure. If people didn’t know where they were buried, it wouldn’t work.

SK — Forever?

AP — Forever and ever and ever. So you had to tell everybody where the gold was buried, and yet prevent everyone from touching it. Forever. Which is a wonderfully complicated problem. It’s requires an awful lot of faith in your living benefactors, who have other things to do with that gold! So it’s a great paradox. And it seemed to me to have a certain relevance, for people who are interested in leaving behind a clean record of their life, without any dirty loose ends, while of course challenging everyone to find dirty loose ends. Every memoir and biography is essentially a balancing act, a ‘Tomb Paradox’.

SK — It’s kind of sad, really, that people are digging up these poor guys who have done their very best not to be found. What did the ancient Egyptians believe would happen to a person buried intact, with treasure, if he was dug up? Would he forfeit all chance of eternal life?

AP — I’m not a great expert on Egyptology, but my understanding is that if the body is disturbed prior to arriving in the Afterworld – don’t forget, the tomb is essentially a moving capsule, the tomb is ‘on its way’, I’m not totally clear on how this was meant to happen or how long it was meant to take, but the point is, the tomb was getting you somewhere. So if, before it gets there, someone comes in and unwraps your body, you’re not gettin’ there!

SK — Arthur, I’m very interested in the character of Margaret, the woman Ralph loves. He idealizes her no end, as he does everything else. In the passage we just recorded you reading for The Ledge, a letter from Ralph to Margaret, Ralph tells her that if he doesn’t survive he’ll need ‘a brilliant and courageous redactor who can puff away dusty speculation to reveal stark, cold, obsidian and alabaster truth.’ He entrusts her with this task, entrusts her with his ‘immortality’, basically. Now, Margaret is not exactly in a fit state to do that. On the other hand, she seems to me, despite her opium addiction and all the rest, to be the most clear-headed character in the entire book. Where did she come from? How did she evolve?

AP — Well, I just imagined her as someone who, despite addiction, is trying to set things straight, trying to grasp towards a slightly better future. She views the person ‘Ralph’ as someone who, in modern parlance, ‘keeps her sober when he’s around’. She’s not prone to going out as often when he’s around, and she realizes that. She says at one point, ‘You’re the best cure for my insomnia.’ And of course, she’s Keeper of the Papers!

SK — Do you remember how she first came to mind?

AP — Not really. Characters all come in little chunks, little lumps of clay… I do remember that while reading the diaries of Géza Csáth…

SK — Who’s that?

AP — Exactly. (both laugh) Csáth was one of these extraordinary turn-of-the-century Renaissance men. Hungarian. He was a neurologist and a gynecologist and a violinist and a music critic and a playwright and a short-story writer. His stories were translated into English about 25 years ago, and his most famous story is called ‘Opium’. Anyhow, I was reading his short stories and diaries, and as I was putting together these characters, I decided that Margaret had read his stories, too. Ferrell remembers her getting high and saying, ‘I traveled a million years every night’… that’s from Géza Csáth. I don’t know how she got a hold of his books exactly, maybe it was some early English translation… maybe she speaks Hungarian?

SK — If I had to characterize this novel, I’d say it was a tragi-comedy of total miscommunication. The characters are hopelessly muddled, seeing things that aren’t there and misjudging just about everything, and all those the crossed letters... Everything that can possibly go wrong, goes wrong. Do you think that a story like this could’ve happened nowadays?

AP — You’ve sort of hit on one of my ambitions: which was, crossed letters, misjudgments, and tragic miscommunication. There was an English playwright who made kind of a specialty of that (grins). Yes, I think it’s the easiest thing in the world. I mean, communications get lost all the time! We have such faith in our communication systems that when an email or a voice mail is swallowed you can spend a week saying, why didn’t this person get back to me? We have a disproportionate faith that everything is delivered perfectly. It seems to me obvious that all sorts of social misunderstandings and near-tragedies are taking place every day because of e-mail and voice mail. Because they have an aura of perfection to them. Actually, maybe Shakespeare worked even better in Shakespearean times, because people believed that if you sent a message with a messenger, it was going to get there, which of course to us seems pretty foolish. Of course they were going to stop at a bar and lose the message! Of course they were going to be slaughtered by… Sioux! (laughs) It’s possible that every communication system has always had the faith of its users.

SK — If it didn’t, it probably wouldn’t function at all.

AP — Well, maybe you just hope for the best. When you think about Medieval communications, or Renaissance communications, or smoke signals, or the Pony Express, or telegrams – it’s amazing that any of them got through! But everyone obviously must’ve been using them thinking, it’s all set, I sent a smoke signal telling them not to worry!

SK — People must’ve had faith in a lot of things that we usually take for granted. Like medicine, for instance.

AP — Of course. I have a friend in Los Angeles who had an incredible problem with the postal service. Her postman was throwing away all the mail! Just throwing it away! There were packages she wasn’t getting, there were thank-you notes that never came for birth gifts she had sent – ‘I thought these people were my friends! But they don’t care one bit about the sweater I hand-knit and sent to their child!’ I don’t know why the guy was doing it, but her life was collapsing. She complained, but nothing was done. An incredible social trauma, all because of one an angry postman. And we’re surprised to hear there are angry postmen? Of course there are angry postmen! Pass the word!
So I’m sure that star-crossed lovers would have no problem getting their stars crossed even now. That’d make a great story, actually…

SK — In addition to the miscommunication between the characters, there’s also miscommunication over the decades, and centuries. This sense that history itself is unreliable. I mean, what’s to stop anyone from changing documents, altering them to suit their needs? Do you think there is such a thing as historical truth?

AP — Oh, I’m sure there is. I’m not one of those people who thinks that nothing can be determined. But there’s also historical error, probably a lot more than people acknowledge. It’s similar to what we were just talking about: I think we have a kind of faith in historical fact that is probably, usually, misplaced. I’m sure there is historical truth, just as there is historical clarity, and the ability to assign historical blame. But: I don’t think people are entirely clear today what happened in the halls of power even two years ago. I’m not speaking politically, I’m just speaking historically. The causes of the Iraq War – I think it’s not unreasonable to say – will never be known, because the people who made the decisions relied on information which, even when it was false, may have seemed to them to have been true, or on the other hand, they may have known it to be false, but have pretended that it was true. And left intentional historical records in which they say, here’s the truth, as far as I’ve seen it for the first time today! And yet it might have been deceptive… I don’t think anyone will ever know. I don’t think there’s any way to know. Too many people either believe in lies, or lied. Or believe in mistakes, or intentionally made mistakes, or intentionally pretended to believe intentionally-made mistakes…. There’s no way. It’s lost. And that was two years ago. And what started World War I? I’ve never been able to get that one straight. There are new revisions of the histories now saying, well actually, it was this, it wasn’t that… That one seems to be pretty well lost to me. It’s down to opinion.
And then of course, the same thing happens on a very small social scale. For instance, why did a marriage collapse? I don’t think anybody knows! Good arguments can be made all over the place, but nobody’s totally clear. There should be such a thing as no-fault history.

SK — (laughs) The poems in this novel: did you actually know you were a poet, Arthur?

AP — (laughs) I wouldn’t claim to be poet, but I can certainly write ancient Egyptian verse, badly translated into English.

SK — Were they based on authentic Egyptian poems?

AP — Ancient Egyptian literature isn’t much like that. There is poetry, certainly, but nobody has any idea whether it rhymes or not, or whether it moves in rhythm or not – no one really knows what it was like, what it sounded like. All you can do is translate the words. And there’s ancient Egyptian prose and stories and things, which are in some cases not too far away from what Trilipush finds on the tomb walls. There were also ‘admonitions’, that was basically political administration literature: how to run this place, for the next team coming in. Very practical. And of course, the chronicles, which were an important part of maintaining immortality. People had to tell your story over and over again. There were lists of kings, lists of who ran things, straight, chronological histories, which are tantalizingly incomplete, but they do give us most of what we know about Egyptian history.

SK — Would you say you were a history buff?

AP — Oh, yes. I was a history major at college. I fell in love with medieval English history when I was a little boy, because I’m Arthur, and I started reading the King Arthur stories and then I wanted to find out about all the kings. I became weirdly obsessed with it. By third grade I knew all the kings from 832 until 1500… The first king of England is the name of Trilipush’s father. And my kids are named Egbert and Ethelrede and … No, just kidding.

SK — (laughs) The first thing the reader realizes when opening The Egyptologist is that this is going to be no ordinary reading experience. Before the story even begins, there’s a page of ‘onion skin’, followed by a fairly unorthodox table-of-contents, a Royal Cartouche, showing King Atum-hadu’s name in hieroglyphics, and finally a reproduction of a telegraph sent from the Hotel of the Sphinx, written in delicate, 19th-century handwriting. And then the rest of the book: documents, letters, poems, diagrams. What made you choose this form for the novel?

AP — It occurred to me very early on. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I could do this with an extract from his journal, pull a page right out of it, and then of course when I found out how you would spell Atum-hadu in hieroglyphs it was too wonderful not to offer to the reading public. How could I resist! I wish I could’ve made it up myself. The cartouche was actually drawn by an Egyptologist at the British Museum. I asked him, how do you say ‘Atum is aroused’, he said, ‘Well obviously it’s spelled: loaf of bread, slave, palace, map, open hand, issuing penis.’ Naturally.

SK — Why ‘loaf of bread’?

AP — I don’t honestly know. The whole thing is baffling to me.
There are other ways you could have spelled it, from what I understand. I think hieroglyphs were both phonetic and idiogrammatic. And also grammatically determinative, which is what the issuing penis is. But when it was a symbolic loaf of bread and when it was just a loaf of bread, I don’t know. I understand the whole Rosetta Stone thing, and how the geniuses were able to extract meaning from the hieroglyph’s and explain what a particular word would be, but how they know how to assign sound to it – I honestly have no idea.
But getting back to your question, about where the idea came from to put all this together as a documentary history… When writing this story, about six months into it, I made a very conscious decision: if I do this third person omniscient, what am I going to get, what am I going to lose? If I do it first person all the way, what am I going to get, what am I going to lose? And then I spent about two weeks going with my options and then came up with one that I loved, which lost me some things but gained me most of the things I wanted. From there, it was the fun of putting together documents and including a map and an illustration and onion skin, and you need to have a picture of the stationary Ralph Trilipush was writing his notes on. By the way, does the handwriting look familiar? It’s Babar! Isn’t it incredible? The first time I saw it, I said, hey! That’s Laurent de Brunhoff!

SK — Each character in the book is represented by his or her own particular typeface. How did you decide on who was going to get which?

AP — In my typescript, I gave them almost random typefaces. Then the art department gave me several options, the most important criteria being: can you tolerate looking at this for 90 pages? Does it look different enough that you instantly realize, okay, we’re moving on to something else?

SK — And what about literally saying, this typeface, this is definitely a ‘Margaret typeface’. Did it go that far?

AP — Yes, it did. But we also didn’t want to make people insane, looking at this book. We just wanted to remind them that we’d moved to a new document. The only other solution was – I don’t know if you’ve ever read Dracula? I read it recently, and it turns out it’s a series of letters and documents. I believe Dracula is the only epistolary novel I’ve ever read that involves more than two people. The edition I have, and I’m sure this is the way Stoker did it originally, says at the top of each document: this is a letter sent from so-and-so to such-and-such on such-and-such date. To me, that isn’t nearly as much fun.

SK — Towards the end of the book, Ralph says: ‘We are all plenty Egyptian still, and no debate’. Perhaps he’s right.. What would you say is the modern-day equivalent of ‘the mummy’?

AP — Well, I was at the Rijksmuseum yesterday, seemed like plenty of mummies to me, all those paintings of prosperous burghers posing with their goods… Nowadays we’ve got baseball stadiums named for corporations, we’ve got museum wings named for the owners of the collections, we’ve got chairs at universities named for the guarantors – it goes on forever. Once you start to look, it’s everywhere.

SK — Do you think less-moneyed people have their equivalent?

AP — Of course they do. That’s why there’s such a nice business in scrapbooking. We very carefully preserve our papers and photographs of our kids, and we have great video archives of the videos we’ve been taking since the minute our kids learned to walk, and videos of our weddings – we’re constantly producing as many relics as we can. And hoping that they won’t get burnt as soon as we die. That’s the heartbreaking thing. I recently read some story about junkmen. They had to clear out the storage facility of somebody who’d died and hadn’t left any family behind. The journalist who was doing the story asked, ‘What happens to the pictures?’ And the junkman said, ‘What do you think happens to the pictures?’ It was a heartbreaking moment for the journalist, it was like, oh no! My pictures are going to be burnt after I die! Well of course they’re going to be burnt after you die, what do you think is going to happen? You’re not going to take them with you to the Afterworld! So you don’t have to be rich to have this recurrent delusion that somehow your life will be recorded and preserved and you will be immortalized. And novelists, of course, are the worst of all. Writers get an extra million years, by the way, in Egyptian theology.

SK — Why?!

AP — Because we’re important! We recorded everything. We were the scribes. We kept the whole culture alive, and as a reward, we got at least a million years of immortality.
We might have also set that rule ourselves, since we were the only ones who could write it down…

SK — What would you take with you to the Afterlife?

AP — Friends, family, my books, CD’s… my dog would certainly be there… you know, everything you take with you when you move into a nice new apartment. You want to be near your friends and family and have your books and your records and your dog. I’d like a nice kitchen, too, I’d love to have a Viking range, a subzero fridge… wouldn’t that be great?
The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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