CLJ was honored recently to talk with author Mesu Andrews about her newest novel, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, which released in March, 2015. Andrews’ first published novel, Love Amid the Ashes, was selected as the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2012 Book of the Year for a Debut Author. (ECPA’s Christian Book Award® program recognizes the highest quality in Christian books and Bibles and is among the oldest and most prestigious awards programs in the religious publishing industry.)
Following are highlights of our conversation:
Q: Good morning! Would you please tell us a bit about yourself and where you live?
A: Good morning! Yes, we live in Washington State, just across the river from Portland. My husband works in Portland at Multnomah University. He’s the dean of the seminary there. We love it out here! It’s gorgeous! And Portland is a unique place. We love to visit but we’re happy living on the other side of the river.
Q: What is the catalyst that started your career in Christian fiction?
A: I wanted to write Bible studies, actually. The Bible is my passion. I love to study God’s word and love to kind of roll up my sleeves and get in deep. I started studying the Song of Solomon and read all eight chapters every day for a year, and the Lord gave me a story. I wanted to write a Bible study in story form. I took it to a writers’ conference and was told I should stick with speaking because I couldn’t write worth a dime. I was really discouraged. I tried to write devotionals and I sent them out to family and friends–those people who can’t unsubscribe from you. That kind of grew as I was doing a lot of speaking, and people would sign up for the devotionals, but the Song of Solomon thing wouldn’t leave. I had a best friend who said, “You really just need to write this as a story. Don’t write it as a Bible study; write it as a story, fiction.” And I said, “I don’t think it’s as effective as studying the Word.” And she said “Oh, so you think you know better than Jesus how to teach.” Oh dear, that was like a dagger to the heart! And that’s when I started learning to write fiction. My purpose in writing biblical fiction is so that I can teach a passage of Scripture or a story from Scripture. I believe that’s why God tells us stories in Scripture, because He wants us to learn from the characters that He has maintained in his Word. They’re our teachers.
Q: I think you capture more of people’s imaginations with fiction.
A: Yes, and our memories just absorb a story so much better than a list of facts. We’re going to forget a list of facts as soon as we read it, but a story we just absorb and tell it to the next generation. And that’s what God’s word tells us to do–read this story or sing this song and tell it to the next generation. That’s what I love about storytelling.
Q: I think your story of initial rejection may be inspiring for aspiring writers too. Some of them may have been told they can’t write but may still feel they have a calling to do so.
A: Oh, absolutely.
Q: After getting that negative feedback early on, it must have been a really exciting moment when your first novel, Love Amid the Ashes, was selected as the 2012 ECPA Book of the Year for a Debut Author. How excited were you about that? Was it a surprise?
A: I didn’t even know it was a finalist. I didn’t know anything about fiction. I didn’t start reading fiction until I started writing fiction. When I got the ECPA award, everybody was congratulating me, and I called my marketing director and said “OK, I think this is a really big deal evidently, so could you explain to me what that is?” And she said, “OK Mesu, this is a big deal. You need to be really excited about this.” And I was really excited once I realized what it was, but I think I have become more excited in years after, because now I realize what it is. But when I got it I was such a newbie, I just had no idea how the Lord had blessed. Looking back on it, it was miraculous.
Q: He has blessed you with talent, that’s for sure. And you’re using that talent, which is wonderful.
A: Well, it’s all glory to Him. He is amazing to me.
Q: Yes He is, and He gives us all talents for a reason. It must make you very happy to be living your purpose.
A: Yes, it does. I should insert this in here, too. In 1997, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and had to tone down on speaking because physically I couldn’t keep up the pace. That’s when I started writing a little more. And in 2002 I had a complete health crash where I was in bed for six months, and that’s when I really started writing more. In 2005 I started with daily migraines and I still struggle with that. That is the reason I write now instead of speak. I still do some speaking, but it’s much more hit-or-miss now than it was in the late 90s. The thing that I love about the Lord is that I am able to write even though I struggle physically. I am able to do and to minister, and it is at a level that is even more fulfilling than when I was running my legs off and beating up my body in the late 90s. I’m doing what I love to do, even with health issues and, like you said, feeling like I’m doing really what I’m called to do. I’m just amazed at the Lord. He is so good.
Q: In the Afterward of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, you reference I Chronicles 4:17-18 where it talks about the Pharaoh’s daughter and her children and her husband. I don’t remember that particular verse ever registering with me. What caused you to focus on that particular verse?
A: I did a search in my Bible software on “Pharaoh’s daughter” because I like to write on the Bible characters that we don’t have a lot of detail on and I love to do research. Pharaoh’s daughter was one of those characters. There were only three Pharaoh’s daughters mentioned in Scripture. One was Solomon’s wife, then the one who pulled Moses out of the Nile, and one who was very obscure. My Bible software wasn’t really sure who was being referred to in the I Chronicles passage, so I went to another commentary and it said that because of the surrounding names in that I Chronicles passage, that Pharaoh’s daughter had to be in the time of Moses. The name Bithia also stuck out for me because I love the movie The Ten Commandments. Bithia was the name that Cecil B. DeMille attached to the mother in the movie. I realized Cecil B. DeMille had done some Bible research when he made that movie. That’s kind of awesome! I’m thinking how in the world have I been a Christian this long and not heard that Bithia married a slave? And that’s what got me going into research and finding out how could this fit with history AND with biblical research. My goal is always to weave the historical and biblical together. Israel was a part of history. I love to find those niches where Israel fits into the larger world history.
Q: You do such a good job of bringing the setting to life in your novels. How did you discover all the daily life details that you include in your books? Like the kind of grain they eat or the kind of clothes they wear?
A: I have books that tell me that. One that was really helpful is Life in Ancient Egypt. One of the authors is Adolf Erman. And another book that was really helpful was World Eras: Ancient Egypt (2655-332 B.C.). The editor of that one is Edward Bleiberg. Probably the most helpful book of all is The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt by Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton.
Q: There’s a significant amount of brutality in this novel. Did that make this novel’s details more difficult to imagine and write?
A: This novel was not as difficult for me to write as the Jezebel novel, which is the novel I wrote just before this one. I think it was because I knew going into this one that Scripture says the Egyptians treated them ruthlessly, inhumanely. I have images in my mind from America’s own history with slaves and slavery, and I have The Ten Commandments movie images of how the Hebrew slaves were treated. Slavery is a terrible business in every way. So, yes, it was disturbing to write, but it was not surprising. It’s what God’s word says. If anything, I probably toned it down from what it actually was.
Q: Some of the scenes were a little disturbing for me to read. There’s a scene in the throne room toward the end that is particularly brutal and it horrified me to think that people actually were, and are, continue to be to this day, that brutal and that uncaring.
A: Yes, I am so immersed in the Middle Eastern culture when I’m researching. When God prophesied over Ishmael, he said, “You will be a wild donkey of a man and your hand will be against your brothers forever.” They are a passionate people. My editors think I’m overdramatizing. Actually, I’m not, but it doesn’t always translate well into an American read. It’s up to my editors and me to tone that down some so that it can be palatable to readers in other parts of the world. The scene in that throne room was probably not uncommon for 1250 BCE.
Q: That’s how I read it, that that could happen any day. It didn’t seem to impact anyone except the children and the women. For the men, it was just an everyday activity.
A: The part where they buried the hands, that was historically accurate. It was a fact that they found holes full of hands on the dig site of Avaris. So I came up with a reason for that historical fact. I’m so glad I don’t live in that time!
Q: How long did it take you to research and write The Pharaoh’s Daughter?
A: Actually, I did this one a little faster than the others, in about eight months. Most of them take about a year. Usually, I do six months of research before I begin writing.
Q: It was Anippe’s fear of childbirth that stood out to me. Why did you choose to make her so afraid of childbirth, rather than just be unable to have children until later in life?
A: There are two great motivators in life: fear and love. My editor is always hammering me about having sufficient motivators. I felt like she (Anippe) needed to have both of those motivators in order to go against the king’s edict and save a Hebrew slave’s baby and take it as her own son. That was such a CRAZY thing for her to do! In that culture, for an Egyptian to take a Hebrew slave that they considered like livestock—a possession—there had to be HUGE motivation for her to go against every cultural more of the time to take that Hebrew baby to herself. I had to come up with some sort of fear that would override her senses. Fear of childbirth was it.
Q: Is this book part of a planned series? If so, tell us about other books in the series.
A: This book is part of a series. The second book is with my editor right now, waiting on her suggestions. It is about Miriam. Time has elapsed, and the book picks up when Moses is about to come back from Midian. He’s been exiled for killing the Egyptian taskmaster, and he has heard from God in the burning bush. Miriam is 86 years old. She has become the prophetess of Israel and is caring for her elderly parents who are now well over 100 years old. They are a miraculous family in the camp. Ramses II is now the Pharaoh and has more severe demands than any other Pharaoh before him. Moses comes back saying God now has a new name, Yahweh. Miriam knows nothing about this and she’s supposed to be the prophetess of Israel. So, she’s feeling a little displaced. It’s about Miriam and about how this God that she thought she knew is acting differently. She’s not understanding what He’s doing and He’s not talking to her like He used to, yet He’s working on behalf of the Hebrew nation and is revealing Himself to the Hebrews. They are getting more and more excited about Him and Miriam is getting more and more confused about Him. She just doesn’t know what to think. The story will challenge our preconceived notions about who God is, and are we willing to trust Him even when we don’t understand Him?
Q: That will touch most readers. I think we’ve all been in those places where we think we know what to expect and something else happens.
A: I like this story! We’ll see all the plagues from a little different perspective and we get to see the crossing of the Red Sea, so the research was fun. And there are some real searching questions in this book that will stir you up on the inside. I’m really looking forward to this one!
Valorie Cooper, CLJ Special Features Writer
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