I was in eighth grade when Tutmania hit New York. It hit hard, thanks to the exhibit “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 15, 1978. I don’t remember the day tickets went on sale, or the line that snaked down Fifth Avenue for more than a mile. But I’ll never forget walking past King Tut’s golden sarcophagus and wondering what life must have been like for the boy pharaoh who hadn’t lived to see his nineteenth birthday.
Today, Candace Fleming (right), author of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB (Scholastic), is here to fill us in.
About the Book
During the reign of the New Kingdom of Egypt, the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun ruled and died tragically young. In order to send him on his way into the afterlife, his tomb was filled with every treasure he would need after death. And then, it was lot to time, buried in the sands of the Valley of the Kings. His tomb as also said to be cursed. Centuries later, as Egypt-mania gripped Europe, two Brits—a rich early with a habit for gambling and a disreputable, determined archeologist—worked for years to rediscover and open Tutankhamun’s tomb. But once it was uncovered, would ancient powers take their revenge for disturbing and even looting the pharaoh’s resting place? What else could explain the mysterious illness, accidents, and deaths that began once it was found…?
Q & A with Candace Fleming
MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Candace. Thank you for joining us!
CF: Thanks for inviting me. I’m thrilled to be here.
MR: You have written more than 40 books for children, including biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Buffalo Bill, Amelia Earhart, and the Romanovs. What drew you to the story of the search for King Tutankhamun’s tomb and its decade-long excavation? Was it daunting to take on a subject of such epic proportions?
CF: When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to see the big Tutankhamun exhibit that came to the United States. I was awed. Mix in those black-and-white mummy movies from the 1930’s, and–voila!–a lifetime’s passion for the boy king. And yes, it was daunting to take on the subject. Let’s face it; the story has been told, and told, and told. But I had questions that hadn’t been answered before; questions about colonialism, and cultural appropriation, and where in the world that curse story originated. So I decided to tell the story again, and in doing so, I hoped to find the answers to my questions.
A Visit King Tut’s Tomb
MR: I read that you traveled to Egypt—specifically, to the Valley of the Kings, where you visited King Tutankhamun’s tomb. What was that experience like for you?
CF: Being in Egypt—literally stepping into history—changed everything I thought I knew about the story. Landscapes speak, and temples and tombs hold memories. I definitely gained a clearer understanding of ancient Egypt’s historical periods. I even learned to read hieroglyphs. But more importantly, I discovered how cool and silent it is inside a tomb, and how the rock in the Valley of the Kings crunches beneath your feet, and how the pink of an October sunset reflects on the Nile.
I climbed a summit, following a path that has been taken by Egyptians for thousands of years to look out across the vastness of the countryside. From there I could clearly see the line between the cultivated land the barren desert. For the first time, I truly understood why ancient Egyptians believed it was the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. And this is going to sound a bit crazy, but while I was there, all my senses were engaged. My imagination too. By the time I came face-to-face with Tutankahumen, I cried. I just felt this sudden, overwhelming sadness.
Questioning the Past
MR: Do you think you could have written THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY without a visit to King Tut’s tomb?
CF: No, I couldn’t have written the book you have in your hand without taking that trip. That’s because that unexpected emotion changed how I wrote the story. Yes, it’s still an exciting story of discovery and buried treasure. It’s still the story we all know. But I also included parts of the story that are less often told—questions that deserve to be answered for young readers of the 21st century. Why were rich, white men from western countries basically allowed to treasure hunt in Egypt? Why were they allowed to literally appropriate that country’s treasures? Why didn’t the Egyptian people have any say in it? I think it’s imperative to question our past, to re-examine and reconsider it in the light of new understanding. After all, memory is a powerful force in the way society evolves. And so I thought it was time for our young readers to think about these questions.
MR: Out of curiosity, Candace, were your travel plans affected by the pandemic?
CF: Luckily, I went to Egypt before COVID. The pandemic has affected my plans for this coming October, though. I was actually invited by some of the folks I met in Egypt to help dig in the Valley of the Kings. Can you believe it? And I was getting ready—buying a new sunhat and finding a dog sitter. Sadly, those plans are on hold.
A Shocking Discovery
MR: What surprised you most while you were researching the search for and excavation of King Tut’s tomb? Did you uncover any facts or information that knocked your socks off?
CF: The thing that blew me away–completely shocked me–was the autopsy that Carter and an anatomist named Dr. Derry performed on Tutankhamun’s mummy. They basically went on a treasure hunt, carelessly unwrapping the age-old linens in search of amulets and other treasures the ancient priests had so reverently buried within the layers. It’s really sacrilegious when you think about it. And if that isn’t bad enough, they next chopped off his hands, feet and—wait for it—head (!!!) in order to get him out of the coffin. They hid this mutilation from the public. Carter didn’t write about it in his notes or journals. Neither did Dr. Derry. And they covered up the severed neck with cotton wool before photographing it, so people wouldn’t noticed it wasn’t attached to a body. It was the 1960’s, more than thirty years before Egyptologists saw the evidence of their mutilation. Horrible.
Excavation: An Exact Science
MR: To follow up on this, the excavation of King Tut’s tomb—beginning in 1922 and lasting more than a decade—was a laborious, painstaking process. Each item had to be unpacked, catalogued, and removed with utmost precision and care by archaeologist Howard Carter and his team of scientists, engineers, and Egyptian helpers. Had the same excavation taken place today, would the methods employed differ vastly from those used in the 1920s? If so, what would be the biggest difference be?
CF: Nowadays we have CT scans and DNA tests to learn about Tutankhamun’s physical body. There’d be no need to chop his remains into pieces, as I had mentioned. That said, Carter did do an exceptional job for an Egyptologist of his time. Most of the hunters would come before weren’t interested in learning from the evidence. They were simply interested in grabbing treasure. But Carter didn’t rush. He took the time to gather every single object, no matter how small. One of my favorite stories is about him breaking a beaded necklace. Tiny faience beads bounced and scattered all over the antechamber. Instead of letting it go, he crawled around on his hands and knees for days, locating each one, then picking it up with a pair of tweezers, numbering it and cataloging it. He could be so meticulous and systematic. That’s probably why the whole autopsy thing is so shocking.
The Truth Behind the “Mummy’s curse”
MR: The occult plays a large part in the story of the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The mummy’s curse, for instance, was thought to have killed Carter’s pet songbird as well as caused the death of Carter’s patron, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, as well as the deaths and illnesses of countless others. Although the curse of the mummy was later debunked, what is it about curses—and about superstition in general—that has such a powerful hold on us?
CF: It’s pretty simple, I think. We all love a story, especially a spooky story. The media of the day knew that. They created the curse story to sell papers. And it worked. Why? Because I believe westerners recognized, on a subconscious level, what they’d really been doing in Egypt for centuries. That, of course, was robbing tombs and stealing a nation’s cultural treasures. The curse story–the idea that something sinister would “get you” for disturbing Tutankhamun’s tomb–spoke to their internal uneasiness with doing that. I included the curse story in my book because it not only hooks kids in, but it needs to be addressed and explained. Let’s face it. Everybody knows about the curse. They’ve seen the mummy movies. But do they know where the curse really came from? That it’s just “fake news”? I worried about that.
King Tut: Rock Star
MR: During his short time on earth, King Tut was a minor pharaoh; in death he became a cultural icon, inspiring “Tutmania”—an interest in all things Egyptian, from architecture to fashion. In fact, King Tut’s image could be found on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. And let’s not forget Steve Martin’s iconic 1978 SNL musical parody, “King Tut.” The sketch was so popular that the song was released as a record, selling more than a million copies. What is it about King Tut that causes such deep and continued fascination?
CF: It’s a lot of things; the fabulous wealth, the mystery of Tutankhamun’s life and death, the against-all-odds discovery, the timing of Carnarvon’s death. Also, Americans love an underdog, and Tutankhamun was the underdog of pharaohs. He wasn’t Rameses or Amenhotep or Seti. He didn’t have time to build anything famous or become the center of important events. Basically, he was a nobody in the scheme of Egyptian royalty. He should barely be remembered. And yet, he’s the only one whose tomb has been discovered relatively untouched. I think Americans especially love that. Tutankhamun goes from obscure ruler to rock star, all because of a series of coincidental events.
Writing with Oxford and Archie
MR: Mixed-Up Files readers are always curious about an author’s writing process. Could you tell us a bit about yours?
CF: I’m at my desk from 9am to 4pm every day, sometimes longer if I’m pushing a deadline. I’m never alone while I write. My 84-pound, mixed-breed dog, Oxford, lies under my desk, and my eight-month-old kitten, Archie, sleeps on the windowsill. I don’t compose on my computer. All my first drafts are written by hand–even long pieces of YA nonfiction. Needless to say, my office is FULL of paper. And I’m specific about my tools. I use wide-lined loose-leaf paper, and blue Bic pens. The smell of pens tells my brain, “We’re writing today.” And the paper reminds me that what I’m writing–these words and sentences–aren’t precious. I can scratch over them, doodle on them, crunch them up into ball and toss them to Oxford to chew up.
This process makes writing feel more like play, than work. Every time I sit down, it’s as if I’m just taking a few sentences out for a walk. No pressure to be perfect, or even good. And sometimes, I end up with something decent. Know what I else? At the end of a long writing day, I end up with blue ink all over inside of my lower arm. I love that. It’s like a badge, you know? I can hold up my arm and say to myself, “Look, I wrote today!”
Outer Space and American Cults
MR: What’s next on your authorial agenda, Candace? Care to share a bit about your latest book project?
CF: I’ve got two amazing pieces of nonfiction in the works. The first is a middle-grade nonfiction book called It Crashed from Outer Space (Scholastic) about Roswell, flying saucers, and our continued fascination with UFOs. The second is YA narrative nonfiction called American Cults (Anne Schwartz Books/Random House) that traces the history of cults in the United States starting with the Pilgrims and moving into modern day. It’s a fascinating and creepy subject, and I’ve made some wild discoveries, like, did you know that just two blocks from my house lurks the site of a famous 1930’s cult? Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Now I’m compelled to keep walking past the place, thinking, “Huh? Really? Why?”
MR: Oh! Last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack? Popcorn
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Favorite item from King Tutankhamun’s tomb?
The golden Anubis statue found in the entryway to the Treasure Room
Favorite song (excluding Steve Martin’s “King Tut” 🙂 )?
This week? “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello
Mummy’s curse: Yea or nay? Big nay!
Superpower? Time travel. I can imagine myself into the past
Favorite place on earth? Venice
You’re stranded on a desert island with only three items in your possession. What are they? A package of both wide-lined loose-leaf paper, a blue Bic pen, and the trick-or-treat-size bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups
MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Candace—and congratulations on the publication of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!
For a chance to win a copy of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account. THREE winners in all!
About the author
CANDACE FLEMING is the versatile and acclaimed author of more than forty books for children and young adults, including The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, winner of the YALSA Excellent in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award; the Sibert Award winner Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction winner, and Sibert Honor Book The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of the Russian Empire; and the critically acclaimed Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Learn more about Candace Fleming on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.