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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
John Ray is Sir Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge; he has worked in the British Museum. He is an experienced lecturer and is the author of Reflections of Osiris which David Starkey called "a triumph" and Tom Holland "the best introduction to ancient Egypt I’ve read" (Daily Telegraph).
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Rosetta Stone?
John Ray: I first saw the stone as a schoolboy, and was fascinated by it. Languages intrigued me, particularly mysterious ones, and Egyptian hieroglyphs are the biggest mystery of all.
MT: Some readers may not know what Stone actually is -- tell us John.
JR: It's in the British Museum, and it has an inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs, another script called demotic, which was used for everyday purposes, and finally Greek. It was discovered by Napoleon's soldiers when they invaded Egypt. The Greek text could be read, and this gave the first clues as to how the hieroglyphs could be understood. Nobody since the Roman empire was able to read this script until 1822, when a Frenchman named Champollion cracked the puzzle.
MT: How long did it take you to write your book?
JR: It took about 3 months, but it had been festering in the back of my mind for years. I always go through a long period of thinking I'll never be able to do the thing, then it tends to come quicker than I can write it down!
MT: Is Egyptology a real science or is it still lots of mumbo-jumbo!?
JR: Egyptology is a real science, with professors and museum curators and learned societies to see that things are done as they should (at least that's the theory). But it also has a big lunatic fringe, with people like pyramidiots and others who reckon the Rosetta Stone was really written in a Slavonic language, or that the sphinx was built by aliens. It's mostly harmless, but they can get in the way of real understanding at times.
MT: How do you write John? Longhand or directly onto a > computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
JR: I try to write directly on to the screen, but at the end of a chapter or section print the thing off and go through it in longhand. That way mistakes or awkward bits are much clearer to spot.
MT: What were the principle challenges of writing The Rosetta Stone and how did you overcome them?
JR: The story of the decipherment was straightforward, though I hope it fascinates. But once that was done, I wanted to widen things out - what is the history of writing, for example, and what did the ancient Egyptians have to tell us when hieroglyphs could finally be read? Then what would happen if we started giving works of art back to the countries they came from? Big themes, which needed a bit of thought.
If things aren't writing themselves I try to set a short word limit for each day - maybe as low as 100. If you write more than the 100 words, you can feel good about yourself at the end of the day - but the next day you still have to write the next 100. That way you can sometimes fool yourself into thinking you're doing things ahead of schedule.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
JR: I teach students in Cambridge - and exams are fast coming up. Then the golden retriever takes me for walks. He is mentioned at the end of the book, by the way.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
JR: From time to time I've lectured on Nile cruises, and perhaps it's the passengers I have in mind - people with intelligence and humour, but who may have no knowledge of ancient Egypt as such. But they want to know what draws people to it - and I try to address that.
MT: What are you working on now?
JR: I recently published an edition of two letters written in ancient Egyptian. They are addressed to an important man, and they are asking for oracles from the local god. They were found at a site near the border of Egypt and the Sudan, and they were still rolled up and sealed. The man they were sent to never opened them, and that meant I was the first person - after the scribe who wrote them - ever to read what they said. They date from around the time of Cleopatra, and they are quite amazing and human.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
JR: George Orwell is an ideal. It's the way he seems to have no style, but is talking straight to you. It's the utter clarity, which is, of course, very difficult to bring off. Then the Patrick O'Brian series, if you like sea stories. And William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain, which is a modern masterpiece, both funny and intensely sad.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
JR: The 100-words trick seems to work for me. And don't be afraid to simplify - something I often find I need to do.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
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