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Pauline Gedge

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Talk like an Egyptian

Sitting in Penguin’s Toronto office on a sleety winter morning, Pauline Gedge is looking forward to a respite. From the publicity grind, from city bustle, and most of all from writing about Egypt. “I’m tired, I’m really tired,” she says. “The well is dry. I’ve worked on this project for three years.”

Pauline GedgeThe project in question is a new trilogy of novels; Penguin Canada has just published the first, The Hippopotamus Marsh. Like most of Gedge’s work, the Lords of the Two Lands series is set in ancient Egypt, and promises handsome recompense for its author. Penguin is already considering a reprint of The Hippopotamus Marsh, and the book appeared on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list in its first month of publication. More importantly, Gedge’s agent Bella Pomer reports five translation-rights sales for the trilogy already. Over her 20-year career, Gedge has become a historical fiction brand name, with her financial well-being resting largely on her international audience.

She’s done it all from rural Alberta, geographically and philosophically removed from the CanLit community. “I don’t think about Canadian literature,” she says. “I do my job, I make the money, I have no pretensions.” When asked about Canadian publishing’s heavy slant toward literary fiction, Gedge decries the “ethos around the whole matter of literature in this country, which I find irritating and a little abhorrent.”

She’s more concerned with what her readers think. After Gedge’s 1994 novel House of Dreams appeared (recounting the life of Thu, a fictional pharaoh’s concubine), fans wrote her to beg for a sequel. Gedge obliged with House of Illusions in 1996, and admits that the follow-up was something of a chore. “I didn’t want to bring her back, I felt that she got what she deserved,” she says of Thu, who was left in exile at the end of Dreams. But loyalty to fans won out: “I listened to my readers and I cared that they were not satisfied.”

A lifelong lover of Egyptian history, Gedge was born in New Zealand and moved to Canada in her teens, settling in Alberta in 1966. After writing unpublished poetry for years, Gedge made a couple of failed attempts at mainstream fiction, twice entering novels about contemporary Canada in Alberta’s Search for a First Novelist Contest. In 1974 she was 30 pages into a third attempt when epiphany arrived. “I knew that those 30 pages were rubbish, they were nonsense,” she says, and suddenly her imagination settled on the historical figure of Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only female pharaoh. Gedge went on to write Child of the Morning in six weeks and arrived at a personal mission statement: “Discard contemporary fiction, don’t try to be significant, don’t try to be relevant, just be myself.”

The plan worked. Child of the Morning won the contest, earning a spot on Macmillan Canada’s roster in 1977. Gedge produced three more books for Macmillan before switching to Penguin Canada with 1990’s Scroll of Saqqara, and from the start she has lived exclusively off of her writing. Pomer, who was Macmillan’s rights manager at the time (she took on Gedge as a client when she began her agency work), says that Gedge “was totally popular in France, Germany, and Spain right from the start.” Good thing, too, since international sales account for the bulk of Gedge’s income. “I couldn’t live off my money from Canadian sales,” she says.

However, European readers place a premium on historical detail, and Gedge says that research demands drain her energy. So she has occasionally branched out into other genres, with books like 1982’s fantasy Stargate and 1992’s Gothic mystery The Covenant. But Pomer says European sales of those titles were sparse, and Gedge knew early on that Egypt would be her perennial subject. “It was simply a matter of economic necessity,” she says. “I just knew that if I wanted to remain a free person, I would have to go back to writing about Egypt, because I’d already realized that the French and Germans would always pay well.”

Luckily Gedge’s husband, Bernie Ramanauskas, has relieved her of research duties. “When we got together, I was already really tiring of the research,” she says, “and I would give him the odd assignment.” Ramanauskas went on to unearth the background detail for Lords of the Two Lands (mostly from books, he says, although the couple did travel to Egypt two years ago), and Gedge wrote the trilogy all at once. “It would have been a psychological block to me to have to write THE END and start again,” she says.