A Session with Lynn Voedisch
Writers often are besieged with that unanswerable question, “where do you get the ideas for your novels?” Most of the time, scriveners bury their heads and cry, “I don’t know. It just comes from my imagination.” However, the truth is that the germ of a novel almost always comes from something the novelist has encountered in the outside world—not in his or her head. The trick is recognizing the spark of a good novel idea and running with it, embellishing it, and grooming it to become something great and powerful.
I came across the beginnings of my novel The God’s Wife, when I was watching a cable television show. Since I didn’t have my mind consciously set on doing research, I didn’t even pay attention to what channel it was. But I do remember the title; it was a fairly trashy piece (with bad acting and horrid costumes) entitled When Women Were Pharaohs. The name was completely misleading, for the documentary was really about the God’s Wives of Amun, priestesses who had a heretofore vast amount of power in several dynasties of the 4,000-year history of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
Partially because I’m a bit of an Egypt freak, and a bit because the show was about powerful women, I sat down and watched the program, noting that the experts interviewed were real scholars. The closest the program ever got to pharaohs was that the narrator surmised that the God’s Wives were second only to the pharaoh in the Egyptian power structure—higher than the highest priest or the crown prince. What did the God’s Wives do? The program hedged—a lot—but seemed to intimate that the vaunted priestess danced and performed some kind of sexual favors for the temple statue of Amun, the most important God in Egypt at that time. What were these “favors?” No one knew.
Now I was intrigued. With little to go on, I researched the subject and discovered that the office of God’s Wife was indeed real, but only recently recognized. The role had little to do with sex, however. It seemed to accompany royalty, most famously in the case of Hatshepsut, the female regent of Thutmose II. She was a God’s Wife, and then went and proclaimed herself pharaoh and dressed as a male. Obviously controversial, Hatshepsut’s image was almost obliterated throughout Egypt until it started showing up in dumps and other unlikely places. She was restored to the King’s List, and turned out to be a pretty darn good pharaoh at that. From there, Egyptologists have found other God’s Wives, who served only one at a time, in some dynasties.
Searching for more info, I even wrote to the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, but neither answered me. (I think no one wanted to claim ownership of the documentary.) A look back at the shows they offered on videotape showed no sign of When Women Were Pharaohs. But the name of that program did show up in the credits of one Egyptologist, so I know that it had existed somewhere.
After all that spadework, what did I have other than some great material for a nonfiction book? There was no novel here. No drama. Then I began mulling another story I’d wanted to tell for some time, but couldn’t find the right way to relate it.
I had been haunted by the indie film The Double Life of Veronique by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski for years. I wondered how the general idea could be told (in my own way) in novel form. It’s about two women who share the same soul. One dies and the other must make her way for the rest of her life feeling depleted and not knowing why. I wanted the opposite to happen. I wanted two parts to join and happiness to ensue.
Artistic lightning struck, and I decided to morph the shared-soul story onto the tale of a young, newly elected God’s Wife and a modern-day woman. The worlds of the two women would be set on a collision course. The contemporary female is a Chicago dancer who will dance the lead role in an Egyptian-themed production of Aïda. She becomes lost in her role. The actual God’s Wife feels the modern woman’s presence. Eventually, one life subsumes the other. Here was the drama I was looking for.
The modern character, Rebecca, kept seeing her ancient counterpart in dreams:
“It’s like those mirrors they have at the museum,” (Rebecca said).
“You know, the Field Museum. If you look in them long enough, you see what you’d look like if you were an Egyptian.”
“Oh, yeah. Oh, my God., I haven’t been there in about seven years. I’ll bet you go almost every day you can get time off.”
Rebecca nodded, and Raven continued. “What do you see there?”
“Well, no. this is not about what I’m seeing at the museum,” Rebecca said. “It’s just a similar situation. When I dream, I see myself living there, in Egypt, way back then. And it’s so real, Raven. I can almost reach out and touch the papyrus plants.”
“So what’s wrong with that? You’ve researched this role until it has become the real thing to you.” The furrow in Raven’s forehead was deep and her voice husky.
“What’s wrong is that I’m not alone. There’s someone with me. A woman just like me. Have you ever felt that? That you aren’t alone in the world and a…a…you know…a doppelgänger, a copy of you, is living a life just like yours?
Naturally no one understands Rebecca’s conundrum, except for the God’s Wife, Neferet, who sees a spiritual crisis on her end.
Neferet sat up in bed, jolted out of sleep with a sudden need to consult Nebhotep and the holy books of the temple. Darkness filled the room, and Ra had not even peeked over the horizon, but she grabbed a robe and some linens and made her way to cleanse herself for the day.
She dreamed that her Ba, a part of her being that her religion considered part of her soul, flew about lost, like a trapped bird flitting about in a space with no windows or doors. It tried to get back to her Ka, or her physical self. It isn’t supposed to happen. The Ba only separates at death. However, the dream pecked at her consciousness. Not only would it not fade away, it grew more troubling over the hour.
(She goes to the Karnak temple.)
She requested several scrolls dealing with the Ba, the Ka, and the constituency of the soul.
The readings, deep and philosophical, got her nowhere at first. She discovered nothing about the Ba that did not have to do with death. Could the Ba have no role in life? Neferet noticed that trapped bird tapping at her sternum again and she clutched at her heart.
(Her aged teacher reprimands her for missing a temple ritual, but then becomes interested in her reading.)
He read in a strong but cracking voice.
“The one who knows takes care of his Ba—his capacity for sublimation. He makes certain it will survive and be long-lasting. Thanks to his Ba, he is happy on Earth.”
He rolled the papyrus shut. The next words were his own.
“That is the Ba in the living. It is that which seeks the vital energy of light in life. You cannot lose your Ba in life. But you can be unable to recognize it.”
Neferet chewed on her lower lip. Had she ignored the light in her life? She didn’t feel certain.
Whether parallel worlds collide, as one scientist explains it, or if Ba finds its Ka, there is a grand meeting at the end and the two characters become one, leading to an ending that was thrilling, but not universally loved by readers. Plenty of reviewers wanted to find a way to save the character who is “sacrificed” (even though she was only living half a life).
Was this an ideal meld of story and subject matter? Really only the reader can tell.
Reviews were generally good, some very good. But others thought I had stitched a sci-fi idea onto historical fiction in Frankenstein-like manner. To each his own, I guess. As writers, we are all free to choose what makes a good story into a novel, and how to embroider it. Because I am a fantasy writer, I took a more imaginative route. But who’s to say a domestic drama wouldn’t have proven just as powerful a tale?
However, finding that first spark, the bright little quark that will explode into a cosmos of a novel, that’s the quest all writers are on. It’s often in the quotidian walk to the car garage, but usually not. It’s more often in a conversation with some talented friends over a magnificent dinner. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with a quotation from a French friend who was regarding a bottle of Perrier that he rejected for the night’s entrée.
“The bubbles,” he said, “are the wrong size.” This brings any number of philosophical discussions into play. Or maybe bubbles are just things that pop.
About the Author…
Lynn Voedisch writes contemporary fantasy like no one else. Technorati called The God’s Wife, “a feast of romance and excitement, keeping the reader in its thrall with suspense,” and Windy City Reviews said of Dateline: Atlantis, “Voedisch is able to project a variety of places and times, a blend of people with different ages, genders, educational levels and interests, and miraculously connect the dots for a greater good.” http://www.lynnvoedisch.com