ARCE Member and Author Janis Susan May Uncloaks Her Fascination with the Greatest Muse of All: Egypt Find us
Short on ideas for summer reading? Start with this one-on-one interview with Janis Susan May, author and proud founding member of the North Texas ARCE Chapter.
Publishing simultaneously under four pseudonyms, the author shares her deep passion for Egypt and writing and then reveals the genesis of her current project, A Killing at El Kab. Read about her stay in the dig house of 19th century English architect and Egyptologist, Somers Clarke, where the story is set. Says May, "Our trip to the dig house was spectacular, the stuff of dreams. The house itself is a fantastic, romantic, domed dream of a place."
ARCE: What made you write a book about Egypt? What is the genesis of this story?
JSM: It’s simple; I love Egypt. I had already done one Ancient Egypt book back in the late 90s, a very spicy time-travel romance called Passion’s Choice, which has been recently re-released by Sefkhat-Awbi Books.
“Little did I know what changes in my life that quick stop [in Elkab] would eventually make!”
When my husband Hiram Patterson and I traveled to Egypt in 2010 it was the first trip we’d made there since 2000 (when he proposed to me) and we both agreed it had been much too long. While there our group (mostly North Texas/ARCE Chapter members) was there, we made an impulsive, unscheduled stop to see the New Kingdom tombs that are just off the highway at Elkab. Little did I know what changes in my life that quick stop would eventually make! Open for centuries, the four tombs are of course empty, but their paintings are still lively and beautiful. One of the tombs has a much later graffito that for years was regarded as crude Phoenician, which I believe Eugene Cruz-Uribe has translated and proved to be a form of Demotic.
It is a well-known fact that writers have arcane and convoluted thought processes, and that graffito stayed in my mind, becoming a germ of an idea. Of course, the original shape of the book has very little resemblance to the finished product, but that’s where The Egyptian File began, during that impulsive stop to see those stone tombs at Elkab.
ARCE: How did you research The Egyptian File?
JSM: If there is anything about which I am passionate, it is accuracy. When the idea for The Egyptian File started to coalesce and solidify, and work began some two years later, I began to realize just how much I did not know that I really needed to. I referred to our photographs, of course, and the Internet, and our rather substantial library of Egyptological books, but I still had unanswered questions. I believe in going to the source, so I asked several friends I had met through ARCE and put out my questions on the Egyptologists' Electronic Forum and several other listserves. Everyone was so generous and so many people took the time to answer my questions – unfortunately, though, a lot of the answers were direct contradictions. Sigh. (The old saying that if you ask five Egyptologists a question you’ll get seven answers and a fist fight is closer to being true than is comfortable.)
However – two of the people who answered caught my attention and became real blessings. The first, Dr. Dirk Huyge – Director of the Belgian Archaeological Expedition to Elkab and Curator of Prehistoric and Early Dynastic Egypt at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels – was most generous in answering my questions. When a plot point didn’t quite work out, he was helpful in letting me work around it. He even gave me permission to add a tomb (theoretically newly discovered) to the necropolis, as things went on in that tomb which should never ever happen in a real one!
The second blessing was Jane Akshar, owner of Flats in Luxor (which rents out the loveliest flats for holiday makers) and a tour arranger. When it became obvious that I would not be able to go over for this book, she volunteered to be my researcher-on-site and was invaluable with little things like train schedules and travel times – things you can’t really find on the Internet.
I am indeed blessed that both these lovely people have become close personal friends, and we chat by email almost every week. And both of them are enthusiastic about helping me with my new project – more about that later.
ARCE: How long have you been writing? What all do you write about?
JSM: I was first paid for writing at the age of nine, and I’m not going to tell you how long ago that was! It was for a contest for an advertising slogan solicited through a national contest, and my fate was sealed. As both my parents were ‘word’ people – former teachers and owners of one of the top 300 advertising agencies in the country (as rated by AADA) – I didn’t have a chance to become anything else but some sort of a wordsmith.
Romance, horror, mysteries, adventure and time travel…May manages her personae to her readers’ delight
What do I write? I’ve been known to say ‘anything anyone pays me for.’ I have written ad copy, radio skits, industrial films, novels, short stories, non-fiction articles, even a stage play… just about anything that involves stringing words together in a cohesive format. I sold my first novel in 1979 – a romantic suspense called Where Shadows Linger to Dell Publishing’s Candlelight Romance series. Because of that sale I was invited to the organizing meeting and therefore becoming one of the 40-odd founding mothers of what came to be Romance Writers of America, arguably the largest writers’ organization in the world. I am also a member of Author’s Guild, Novelists, Inc., Sisters in Crime and currently sit on the Southwest Regional board of Mystery Writers of America, as well as being an officer of our local MWA chapter.
I write romance, horror and other things as Janis Susan May, cozy mysteries as Janis Patterson, children’s as Janis Susan Patterson and non-fiction/scholarly as JSM Patterson. I sometimes have to ask fans which one of me do they want to talk to!
Janis Susan May was both my maiden and my author name, but when I started writing cozy mysteries I wanted a different persona for the purposes of branding. I chose Janis Patterson for three reasons – (1) it is my legal married name, (2) it honors my wonderful husband and (3) with any luck at all it will get me shelved next to James Patterson.
ARCE: You are very active with and helped found the North Texas Chapter of ARCE. How did that come about?
JSM: As long as I can remember I’ve always been interested in Egypt. By the age of nine I had read every book on Ancient Egypt in the Dallas Public Library – back then there weren’t as many as there are now, but there were still quite a few. They just whetted my desire for more Egypt. I don’t know why I didn’t study archaeology – a different life path, I guess, that and lack of opportunity. That didn’t blunt my interest, though. For one reason or another I couldn’t go to Egypt until I was in my 40s, but going there was always a dream of mine.
I suppose the catalyst for North Texas/ARCE (NT/ARCE) was the Ramses the Great exhibition that came to Dallas in 1988. You have to understand that before then Dallas was a wasteland as far as Egyptology was concerned. The local museum had a few paltry artifacts and there was a very amateurish organization in the area to which the local Egyptomanes belonged because there was nothing else, but that was about it. Even the wonderful 1970s Tutankhamun exhibit had skipped Dallas – my family and I had to go to New Orleans to see it.
May and fellow Texans started the North Texas ARCE Chapter after years in a self-described Egyptological wasteland.
So, when I received the press release about the Ramses exhibit coming to Dallas (I was then Editor in Chief of a multi-magazine publishing group) I volunteered immediately. So immediately, I think, that they weren’t even open to process volunteers yet! I spent every moment I could working the exhibit and it was such a wonderful time. Being surrounded by those incredible artifacts was an experience simple words can’t describe. I also met some people who would not only become part of the backbone of NT/ARCE, but lifelong friends.
When the exhibit finally closed, it was almost like a death in the family. The day after the last day I refused to go away, showing up at the exhibit hall (the automobile building at Fair Park) and volunteering my services, which they actually took. There had been some friction between the Egyptian and the American factions, so while I started my post-exhibition career by keeping the soft drinks box and the coffee pot full, I became a go-between, carrying messages and making myself generally useful. In lieu of salary, I was given a lovely title – Cultural Liaison to the Egyptian Delegation. If the Egyptian gentlemen wanted something special for lunch, I got it for them. If they wanted to go shopping, I took them. If they had questions, I tried to find answers. There were lots of parties in that final wrap-up phase, and it was my duty to pick all of them up, take them to the party and then take them home – all of which was sometimes easier said than done. As some of them spoke little to no English and I had about six words of Arabic, it made communicating very interesting and sometimes difficult, but it was also very rewarding. A few of those gentlemen are friends to this day.
So what does all of this have to do with starting NT/ARCE? Everything. After Ramses was gone, we Egyptomanes were bereft. We had tasted the joys of real Egyptology, and being sent back to the wasteland was not acceptable. Still, there was nothing else, so we went back to the extant study group, but after the professionalism of the exhibit it was very elementary and unsatisfying. In the spring of 1992 this group arranged a tour to Egypt, which a lot of us avidly took. It was not a good experience, but it still whetted our desire for real Egyptology even more.
We were a small coterie of friends – Jim and Nancy Murray, Toni Schreiber, Beverly Stone, Marilyn and Ken Terwey, Greg Thomas, Theresa Thompson, and me – and I don’t remember who among us first suggested starting our own organization. We were a mixed group, a combination of ex-Ramses volunteers, others from the older unaffiliated group and survivors of the awful tour that group sponsored, and others just through association with us. We ended up calling ourselves the Organizing Committee and started looking into various Egyptian study groups. After several meetings we decided that we wanted to be affiliated with ARCE. In those days ARCE was not as member/chapter friendly as it is now, and we had to jump through a lot of hoops, but we were finally accepted.
For the first few meetings we gathered in various member’s homes, but with spouses and other interested people whom we invited from time to time, no one had a room big enough to accommodate us all comfortably. My mother’s house – where I now live – had an enormous den and even though she had no interest above the average in Egypt Mother offered us the use of it. It was here that the Organizing Committee met most often. We parceled out the jobs that were necessary to start and run an organization; being a long-time veteran of publishing, I volunteered to start a newsletter.
I am proud of that newsletter. We had no money, so everything had to be done very economically. In those early years the printing and postage were paid for by a whip-round of the Organizing Committee as often as not; I donated my time and expertise and extensive clip-art collection, as well as many midnight runs to the main post office to see that the current edition got out in time for the meeting. During the nine years of my reign (word chosen deliberately) the NT/ARCE Newsletter was – so far as I know – the only regular monthly publication for ARCE in the world; it was also archived in many museums and universities as a scholarly publication. I loved the Newsletter, but it was a great cost on my time. I had to quit in 2001 due to marriage, the unexpected loss of my mother and my expanding career as a novelist. Occasionally I still miss doing the Newsletter, but if I just lie down and be quiet for a while the feeling usually goes away fairly quickly.
The first Newsletter went out in January of 1993. We had our first public meeting in February 1993 in Room 153 of Heroy Hall at Southern Methodist University (SMU), thanks to the kindness and support of the late and much missed Dr. Fred Wendorf. We have met at SMU ever since.
ARCE has been a big part of my life; I am not always as active in the chapter as perhaps I should be, but my husband Hiram Patterson (whom I met through NT/ARCE at the very first meeting) and I attend regularly and support the chapter as we can.
Currently I am working on a history of our chapter, as I am one of the very few left who was in on the very beginning. One of our members called me NT/ARCE’s ‘Memory Keeper’ – isn’t that lovely? Unfortunately the history project is going much more slowly than I would like because of other, much more unforgiving deadlines, and I regret that. But – I do have high hopes of having it finished before the end of the year.
ARCE: What are you working on now?
JSM: My current project could almost be called Son of The Egyptian File, because I doubt the new book would exist without it. While Dirk Huyge was helping me with research for The Egyptian File, we became friends and continued to chat via email after the book was finished. He told me about the dig house at Elkab, about how it was the home of an English architect and Egyptologist named Somers Clarke and how it was supposed to be haunted. He suggested that I set a mystery there.
The ghost of Somers Clarke, 19th century English architect and archaeologist pulled May to walk the hallways of his Nile-side home. Dirk Huyge, director of the Belgian Archaeological Mission, made it possible.
I’ll admit the idea sounded tantalizing, but totally impossible; I mean, how often are civilians allowed to stay in a dig house? And Dallas is a looong way from Egypt. Dirk was insistent; he asked, “How can you write about a house if you have not walked its halls? How can you write about a ghost if you have not laid hands on his grave? ”Well, writers have strange minds and I can spin a yarn at the drop of a hat. I began spouting this tale of a failed psychic and hidden treasure and the ghost of Somers Clarke, just pulling it off the top of my head. Dirk encouraged me to write it, but only after coming and staying at the dig house itself.
I think it was the fact that Mr. Clarke is buried by the wall of his house that convinced me. I had to see that place! I thought convincing Hiram that we should make a trip to Egypt for a few days would be difficult; as I waited for him to come home that day I created a thoroughly Byzantine scheme for convincing him with reasoned arguments and then tears if necessary… I underestimated him. When he came in I said, “Dirk has invited us to come stay at the dig house.” Without missing a beat he said, “Cool. When do we go?” Wow!
It wasn’t that easy, of course. We had to arrange to be away from our everyday lives and work, and to agree with Dirk on the actual days of our visit, and for Dirk to apply to the Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo and the Aswan Governorate for our permissions to visit, and to buy airline tickets, and… Well, you know.
Then Hiram and I decided that going from Dallas to Luxor for just a few days wasn’t practical, so he took more time off from work. I took my work with me, and believe me, a 17” laptop gets heavy over twenty some odd hours of traveling! We added two weeks to our stay, rented a wonderful flat on the West Bank from my friend Jane Akshar and ended up having the most lovely holiday!
Our trip to the dig house was spectacular, the stuff of fantasies. The house itself is a fantastic, romantic, domed dream of a place, but sadly in need of repair. It wasn’t luxurious, but who cared? The crew all made us feel so welcome, and we had some great times brainstorming ideas. Stan Hendrickx, the ceramicist, came up with the absolute perfect murder weapon, and I have used it in the book.
The stuff of dreams – the view from the dig house of the Belgian Archaeological Mission in Elkab.
We spent a day at the dig, and Dirk took some time off to drive us to some desert temples that most people never get to see. It was one of the finest gifts anyone has ever given me. I told Dirk quite frankly that if I had any practical skills that the dig could use at all I would be on my knees begging to come back and work, to which he remained most eloquently silent. But – at least we did get to go, and that will live in my heart forever.
And in the book. It is called A Killing At El Kab (yes, I am spelling it El Kab instead of Elkab for a variety of rather esoteric reasons, too arcane to go into here) and it is going very well. There is a fake psychic on the run in fear of her life, a very unpleasant archaeologist with a secret history, another archaeologist who knows this expedition is the last chance to save his professional reputation, the ghost of Somers Clarke, a lost treasure, a pair of estranged young lovers, a Russian gangster, two murders (perhaps three – I haven’t decided yet)… it’s great fun!
I also intend that this book be more than just a bagatelle to amuse people. The Somers Clarke house at Elkab is in need of restoration, so I am donating one quarter of all the royalties on A Killing At El Kab to the restoration fund. That way the readers will get not only the pleasure of a good story but know that they have helped save a world treasure.
As of this writing I am just over 60,000 words in and aiming for 90,000 or so. Yes, I do know who the murderer is and why. I haven’t quite figured out how my sleuth is going to discover and prove the killer’s identity, but finding out is part of the fun!
And there’s more to the story. Back when Dirk and I were still just joking about a mystery set at Elkab, I had lunch with a dear friend – another Egyptomane – and we were talking about The Egyptian File and my next novel. I had planned to work on a mystery set in 1916 New Orleans called A Killing On Basin Street and had done a lot of research on it. (Does anyone know if the 1916 Jordan Sport Marine automobile started with a crank or a self-starter? It’s the one thing I have not been able to find out definitively.)
Whether simple coincidence or a joke from the gods, May/Patterson’s next book, A Killing at El Kab, is well under way.
She had loved The Egyptian File and when I told her about the then ongoing joke Dirk and I had about the Elkab mystery she urged me to work on it instead. I told her perhaps someday, but as I had already done three novels with Egyptian themes – Passion’s Choice, The Egyptian File and Murder and Miss Wright, a Janis Patterson contemporary murder mystery set at a scholarly Egyptological conference which is set to release in a month or so – I told her I liked the idea, but I didn’t want to be typecast as ‘that Egyptian writer.’ After all, Egyptological novels are at best a small niche market, unless you’re the late great Elizabeth Peters (aka Dr. Barbara Mertz). My friend was disappointed, and promised she wouldn’t give up encouraging (i.e., nagging) me until I did the Elkab book.
Well, I don’t know what kind of contacts she has (she is one of the world’s leading authorities on the worship of Isis in the ancient world) but it wasn’t three weeks later Dirk invited us to come stay. Do I think they colluded? No way – they don’t even know each other. Sometimes coincidence is purely coincidence, and sometimes the gods just like to dabble in human affairs, and in my case they have indeed been busy, because I am off and running again. While working on A Killing at El Kab I had a wondrous idea for a mystery series written around a woman archaeologist who works on digs around the world, of course finding murder and mayhem at every one.
Whichever it is, though – simple coincidence or a joke from the gods – A Killing At El Kab is well under way, and as much fun as I am having doing this interview, I had better get back and finish it. Don’t want the gods to be disappointed in me!
If you want to learn more about me and my books go look at my website,
INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF MUSEUMS
The International Council of Museums, in an effort to fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods, compiles the Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk. This list aims to help art and heritage professionals and law enforcement officials identify Egyptian objects that are protected by national and international legislations. View the Red List for Egypt.