Two years ago, Arthur Phillips made an impressive debut with the teasingly titled Prague. Now, with THE EGYPTOLOGIST, he’s trying something entirely different.
The setting of your new novel is far removed from near-contemporary Budapest, where Prague took place. What inspired the leap?
I just had a flash, what seemed to me to be a really great idea for an ending to a story. And, yes, I did panic a bit. This didn’t feel like how Prague had felt at the start, this seemed like a leap into territory I had no knowledge of, a style I’d never tried. But the idea was too good to ignore.
There’s plenty of historical detail here that makes the narrative feel truly authentic. Did you do a lot of research?
Research always came second. I did do a fair amount, but it was always a question of going ahead and writing first, and leaving blanks (literal blanks) with the word research in them. Then, I’d go and track down the answer I needed. In the process, I often learned something new that inspired a later element of the story, but it was definitely a question of amusing myself first and getting the truth second.
The publisher describes the novel’s conclusion as harrowing, but at times this work is also quite funny. How does one balance a comic tone with harsher realities?
Great question, and I don’t know the answer. If I had a funny idea, I tended to try it out and see if it could be made to fit with the characters or the plot as it stood. Usually, if it entertained me, I kept it. That goes for dark ideas, too: whatever amused me and seemed to fit got to stay, so the balance sorted itself out.
The Egyptologist is a series of interlocking puzzles, and Prague opens with a complicated word game. Are you, at heart, a playful sort of guy? And do you think of writing as a game?
I do like books that include an element of game-playing or puzzles, but I mean that broadly. To me, one of the great pleasures of fiction is its ability (sometimes, among others) to unlock what’s going inside a person, and that sort of decoding fascinates me. It may or may not be paired with formal gaming (and I do like it), but unlocking the puzzle that is other people’s behavior never fails to interest me.