Passing on her passion for ancient Egypt to children

Leena Pekkalainen is a Finnish writer and artist who studied Egyptology at Manchester University. She loves cats, horses, ancient Egypt, and above all, writing. In fact, she began to write stories as soon as she taught herself to read and write. Her books have one thing in common: ancient Egypt.

“During my Egyptology studies a little mummy figure appeared one day on my sketch pad,” says Pekkalainen. She went on to name him “Mr. Mummific”—a pompous mummy with an attitude. After describing his death and long mummification process in How I Became a Mummy (AUC Press, 2016), Pekkalainen wrote the sequel: Mummies, Monsters, and the Ship of Millions (AUC Press, 2018), another hilarious adventure with Mr. Mummific, for children [and Egyptologists of all ages!], recounting his complicated and hazardous journey to the Afterlife aboard the magnificent Ship of Millions.

In her latest book Tutankhamun: In My Own Hieroglyphs  (AUC Press, 2018) the famous boy-king of ancient Egypt, chronicles—in his own hieroglyphs—the ups and downs of his short life and his very long afterlife, and how everything changed when Howard Carter found him and his magnificent treasures in 1922.

Pekkalainen visited Cairo last month and talked to kids about ancient Egypt. For the special occasion, we asked her to give us some insights into her sources of inspiration and methodology for writing books. Here are her ‘Seven Answers.’

AUC Press:
What is it about your field of expertise that really fascinates you?
LP: On a general level it is the basic humanness that connects us to the people of the distant past. The more you study, the more you understand we have so much in common. Fears, hopes, love, sorrow. The surroundings may be different, but I can feel a connection to these people who lived thousands of years ago by seeing their emotions reflected in their everyday objects, their letters, how they buried their dead.
The reason I write children’s books and fantasy books about ancient Egypt is to make children and young adults interested in history. Catch them young (yes, I have planned writing novels of ancient Egypt that are set in the everyday life of ordinary people, the target group being adults, but haven’t found the time to do so yet).

AUC Press: How much time goes into research before you sit down to write and draw for a book?
LP: The research takes about a month or so.  I have about 300 Egyptology books on my own bookshelf, so I make notes from them; also online, from trustworthy sources such as JSTOR.  I write down what facts I need to bring out in the book, and in which order. Then I plan the pictures necessary to illustrate the facts. After which I do another round of research, this time finding the details I can use for my drawings. Again my own bookshelf is of great help. But also pictures of objects in museums. I also ask for help from friends—like the senet-board on Tutankhamun’s book. I just couldn’t find a clear photo of a certain marking on the board, and a friend came to the rescue with her own photos. It is quite a job to get one symbol right, but I do hope my details are as correct as possible in my drawings. Of course I don’t expect to find every detail for my drawings before I start. I research as I go along. The writing process itself is pretty fast. Well planned is half done.

AUC Press:
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing your books?
LP: Details, details, details. To find the correct details for the time in which the books are set. The timeline of ancient Egypt is looong. Habits change, designs change during thousands of years. I wouldn’t want to put in Ptolemaic details in a New Kingdom story.

AUC Press: How do you select the names of your characters?
LP: Mr. Mummific sort of selected his name on his own. You may have read how he appeared on my sketch pad when I was taking a break from my Egyptology studies. I looked at the little fellow grinning at me, and I just “heard” how he exclaimed “Mummific!” It sort of stuck as his name.
When I write Young Adult novels (with the Egyptian theme), it’s the same with me as it is with so many writers. Inventing the names is almost hopeless. As I am not a native English speaker, I scroll around the websites searching for names I can use, and then checking to make sure those names aren’t too old-fashioned, for example. Friends help, again. Medieval names are a bit more irksome. (The Seven Shabtis—a series I am writing, required a medieval lord’s name. Pulled my hair out with that one.)

AUC Press: What book would you have liked to have written and why?
LP: The Lord of the Rings. I adored that story when I was young. And of course I tried to write something similar. Thankfully, I think those efforts disappeared a long time ago. My stories aren’t about a ground of elves, dwarfs, dragons, and what have you, embarked on a never-ending sightseeing tour in an effort to get rid of magical objects. I prefer human mythology and create my characters from these myths.

AUC Press: What is your life motto?
LP: Wherever you go, that’s where you are.

AUC Press: If you were writing your autobiography, what would the title be?
LP: Too few pyramids in Finland. I don’t know. Maybe in the words of Howard Carter, Wonderful Things. Because that’s how I see life. It is full of wonderful things. Just open your eyes, look at what makes you excited about life, and work your way towards it. One step at a time.


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