About the Author

Patricia L. O’Neill was born in Chicago and earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Los Angeles. Her career as an academic scientist took her to universities throughout the U.S. and to the remotest deserts of Africa.

In 1986 she moved to Australia to continue her scientific research and began writing science articles for Australian magazines. After winning several national awards for her short fiction, she decided to write full time, and concentrated on historical fiction so she could combine creative writing, research skills and a scientist’s eye for unsolved mysteries. The enigma of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut ignited a passion for ancient Egypt which culminated in Her Majesty the King, which won the NSW Writers’ Centre & New Holland Publishers Genre Fiction Award for 2008.

Patricia is an Executive of the Ancient Egypt Society of Western Australia, where she lectures on Egyptian history and teaches hieroglyphics; she also belongs to The Western Australian Museum Centre for Ancient Egyptian Studies, The Australian Centre for Egyptology, The American Research Centre in Egypt and the Egypt Exploration Society. Patricia is the science columnist for Aurealis Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. Patricia lives in the hills outside Perth, Western Australia.

Read an interview with Patricia on UK site, Fantasy Book Review fantasybookreview.co.uk

Author FAQs

Why did you choose Hatshepsut as the subject for a novel?

When I finally understood what had really happened and what Hatshepsut was like as a person, I knew this was a story I had to tell. Hatshepsut came into my life by a very strange route—a shared love of gardens. When I decided to landscape my property with trees, everyone told me I was mad to even try—I live atop an outcrop of solid rock. But I recalled an old history lesson about Hatshepsut, a remarkable female Pharaoh who had planted lush groves of trees around her temple in an arid, rocky valley outside Thebes. I wondered about Hatshepsut’s tenacity and willingness to experiment, and I was curious about what made her tick.

When I began reading about her, I was immediately intrigued. Much of what Egyptologists had written about Hatshepsut made no sense at all. No one knew how or why a woman had taken the throne of Egypt and ruled as a female king. She was usually portrayed as a ruthless, power-hungry schemer who had stolen the throne from her young nephew, but she had also mentored him and had appointed him as her heir. This is not what you’d expect if she were a usurper! The ‘Hatshepsut problem’ had baffled Egyptologists for generations, and it seemed like the judgements of history had been very unfair to the female Pharaoh. In my previous career as a research scientist, I had learned that long-standing enigmas often yield when viewed with a fresh perspective, and I felt compelled to tackle this mystery.

I spent a lot of time immersed in Egyptology journals and I made a detailed study of ancient Egyptian kingship, a system unlike any other in history. My academic background allowed me to access rare scholarly publications from around the world that would not have been available to most other novelists. I learned to read ancient Egyptian and translated the inscriptions from Hatshepsut’s era myself. She rewarded my persistence with a ‘eureka moment’ when everything fell into place. When I finally understood what had really happened and what Hatshepsut was like as a person, I knew this was a story I had to tell. Hatshepsut’s story was richer, more interesting and more surprising than anything that scholars had proposed. Although at the time I specialised in science writing, I decided to present Hatshepsut’s true story as a series of novels. Only a novelist can reveal the inner life of the characters, and that’s always the most fascinating part of history.

And I believe that Hatshepsut sent me a sign of her approval—by the time I had completed the first book of the Hatshepsut Trilogy, my trees were flourishing in the barren rock.

Do you do your research before you write the story, or do you write the story and then research the areas you need to?

I adore doing research, so I always start from a solid foundation of evidence, and let the story weave itself from the facts. I also continue research while I’m writing, since many questions come up while I’m constructing the story. I believe that true stories are more interesting and complex than anything writers can concoct. When people make up stories from scratch, they tend to produce the same tired old plots; in contrast, real people and real events are full of unexpected twists and surprises. And stories about real people are much more involving and produce a more intense emotional buzz for the readers.

One of the joys of reading historical fiction is losing yourself in another world. In Her Majesty the King and the other books of the Hatshepsut Trilogy, I’ve tried to give readers the most accurate picture of life in ancient Egypt that it’s possible to present in a work of fiction. So much about ancient Egypt has been misrepresented or distorted in popular media. Hatshepsut’s world was more splendid and sensuous, but also more dangerous and confronting than most people realise. I wanted readers to feel like opening the covers of Her Majesty the King was like entering a time machine.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve always been a storyteller—I come from a long line of yarn-spinners and tellers of tales. But when I was growing up, being a writer was one of the few careers considered ‘proper’ for women, and they were supposed to restrict their work to women’s magazines or prim poetry. I wanted nothing to do with all that! Interesting, challenging careers were reserved for men, so I was determined to make it in a male-dominated field. However, after I was successful in my academic career, I had gained enough confidence to take up writing without being concerned about gender stereotypes.

What did you do before you became a writer?

I was a biologist. I have a B.Sc. in biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana, and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California at Los Angeles. I’ve taught and done research at universities in the U.S., South Africa and Australia. My main field of research was comparative biomechanics, which is a way of understanding organisms by blending together physiology, ecology and mechanical engineering.

What’s the best part about being a writer?

The ability to use many different skills to produce a single work. All novelists need to have insight into human nature and personality, but writers of historical fiction also require both imaginative and analytical abilities. Delving into historical enigmas and the human psyche have a lot in common with scientific research, but the novel that results is an artistic creation. I wish I’d realised how much fun all this was earlier in life!

Do you have any favourite books and writers?

I don’t think I could name a favourite book—there are so many I love. There are several writers I admire greatly. Tim Winton’s writing is breathtaking and precise, and his characters are masterworks. Erica Jong mastered the rare art of combining compelling stories, impeccable research and flawless prose, and she had the courage to tell the truth about women’s desires. Bill Bryson must be one of the world’s most observant people, and he writes with a freshness, intelligence and insight that make me feel good all over.

Why did you learn ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics?

Those ancient stones will speak to you—but it’s not going to be in English! When I began research into Hatshepsut’s life, I soon noticed significant differences in the ways that individual Egyptologists translated and interpreted the ancient inscriptions that they had used to reconstruct the story of Hatshepsut’s reign. Differences of opinion about what Hatshepsut actually did could often be traced to these variations in translation. Ancient Egyptian is an extremely difficult language to translate and understand, and every scholar makes his or her own judgements about the meaning and intention of an inscription. The only way to tell if someone’s interpretation was valid or sensible was to learn to read ancient Egyptian myself, so I could make my own judgements about what the Egyptians themselves meant.

Learning ancient Egyptian was extremely challenging, but I was rewarded with insights into that ancient culture that you can’t get any other way. Those ancient stones will speak to you—but it’s not going to be in English!
© Patricia L. O'Neill · All Rights Reserved