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FIVE QUESTIONS ... with Megaera Lorenz

Welcome to FIVE QUESTIONS. In this feature on my blog, you'll learn about new and exciting books from the author's themselves. You'll hear about the book, their characters, the inspiration behind the book, and other insider details. All through five simple questions.

Today, we are hearing from Megaera Lorenz about her new novel THE SHABTI, available starting today.

What is your new book about?

THE SHABTI takes place in 1934. Dashiel Quicke is a down-and-out phony séance medium with nothing left to lose but his conviction that Spiritualism is bunk. Determined to leave his shady past behind, he devotes himself to exposing fake mediumship.

During one of his demonstrations at a university in Illinois, he meets sweet-natured, eccentric Egyptology professor Hermann Goschalk. Hermann is convinced that a genuine ghost is haunting the small museum he curates on campus, so he asks Dashiel to help him rule out a hoax. Dashiel agrees to investigate, certain that there must be a mundane explanation. He soon finds himself confronted with overwhelming evidence that the haunting is real, forcing him to question everything he has ever believed.

Dashiel is terrified by what he’s seen, and he also has his own ghosts to grapple with. Pursued by Porphyrio, his vengeful former business partner and ex-lover, he has every intention of skipping town and not looking back. But as Dashiel is drawn further into the mystery of the haunting, he finds it increasingly difficult to ignore his deepening feelings for Hermann. When the ghostly phenomena take a dangerous turn and put Hermann’s life in peril, he faces an impossible choice—flee to protect himself and Hermann from the jealous and unpredictable Porphyrio, or stay and find a way to lay the angry spirit to rest?

Of all the characters in your book, which one do you relate to the most, and why?

I think the most obvious answer is Hermann. Like him, I have a Ph.D. in Egyptology, and I share his nerdy enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian history, language, and literature. We’re both cat lovers. I also have Jewish heritage via my mother’s side of the family, although, unlike Hermann, my upbringing was secular.

Despite those common elements, I don’t consider him to be my direct analog in the story. So many different influences went into his creation. He’s a hodgepodge of real people I’ve known and fictional characters I’ve loved, but he’s also very much his own person. He’s not so much a fictionalized version of myself as someone I’d love to be friends with in real life.

What was the inspiration behind the book?

I’d be hard-pressed to narrow it down to a single inspiration, but one of the biggest ones was M. Lamar Keene’s memoir/tell-all, The Psychic Mafia. Keene was a real-life phony Spiritualist medium who was active in the 1960s. Although he enjoyed great success as a medium (by his own account, anyway), he eventually grew unhappy with the racket and decided to leave it all behind. He spent the next several years attempting to expose fake mediumship and make amends with the people he’d hurt. I highly recommend The Psychic Mafia to anyone who is interested in the history of mediums and Spiritualism in America, as well as Vicky Baker’s podcast on Keene for BBC Radio 4, Fake Psychic.

Keene’s book, and Keene himself, fascinate me. In his narrative, he comes across as bright, charming, and insightful. He says a lot of incisive things about human nature and why people are so easily tricked into believing the unbelievable. But he was also a deeply conflicted, complicated person. He describes his antics as a con artist with a peculiar mixture of remorse and pride. It’s obvious that he enjoyed the work and the lifestyle, as much as he ended up regretting the harm he caused.

I loved the idea of writing a story about someone like him, but with a speculative twist. I decided to tell the story of a cynical fake medium leaving his old life behind, only to find himself confronted with a real haunting—and forced to deal with the situation armed only with his arsenal of séance-room parlor tricks.

The other major influence was the array of ancient Egyptian literary texts, letters, and legal documents that I read as a graduate student. There are so many wonderful ancient Egyptian stories that deal with ghosts and the supernatural, but we’re also lucky enough to have a lot of documents that reflect the relatable, mundane aspects of the ancient Egyptians’ everyday lives. I thought it would be interesting to weave those threads together and present the ghost as both a magical, fantastic entity and something very human.

And of course, I also took a lot of inspiration from the great Universal horror movies of the 1930s, like The Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein. I wanted to capture the unique blend of spookiness, romance, humor, and drama that those movies pulled off so well.

What was the hardest scene to write?

The grand finale in Hotel Baker’s Rainbow Room was the hardest, hands down. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that it’s a very complicated scene, and I had to do a ton of research and intricate plotting to make it work. It was a great excuse to visit Hotel Baker and explore the real-life Rainbow Room, which is truly stunning and still an impressive technological achievement almost a century after its creation.

I also realized after I had drafted the finale that some key pieces were missing from the story leading up to it. As grand as I’d tried to make it, the ending felt flat and hollow to me after I completed the first draft. Once I reworked the previous chapters, I was able to go back and make it shine the way it was supposed to, and now I’m very happy with it. So, it was difficult from a storytelling craft perspective as well as in the nitty-gritty details of the scene itself.

Which is your favorite minor character and why?

I like all of them, but I think Agnes is my favorite. (In fact, I’m working on a sequel/spinoff in which she is the main character!) Her role was going to be much smaller, but she’s one of those characters who took on a life of her own. She feels very relatable to me, this frazzled, overworked woman who has had it up to here with everyone’s nonsense. She's also a good comic foil for a lot of the more serious business happening in the story. Several of my favorite funny lines in the book are hers.

THE SHABTI is available now, and can be purchased at the following retailers. - Supporting Local Bookstores


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