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I spent the earliest years of my life in a small town in Illinois–and when I say “small,” I mean fewer than 2000 people. It was an idyllic sort of existence, I suppose, except for a few minor disadvantages like a nation-wide depression and the fact that my home town had no library. Luckily for me both my parents were readers. From my mother and a wonderful great-aunt I acquired most of the childhood classics and a few classic mysteries. My father’s tastes were somewhat more eclectic. By the time I was ten I had read (though I won’t claim to have understood) Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dracula and a variety of pulp magazines, to mention only a few. I can’t emphasize too highly the importance of this early reading experience–its diversity as well as its extent. I will not claim that a writer must also be a compulsive reader, but it certainly helps.
When I was in fourth grade we moved to a suburb of Chicago and I discovered the public library. I read everything I could get my hands on, but didn’t begin writing until I was in high school. Oak Park-River Forest High was one of the finest public schools in the country. I was majoring in history, but I had a minor in English and among the courses I took was one in creative writing. It may well be that the first seeds of a desire to write were planted during that course, when my teacher called me out of another class (a definite no-no in those days) to ask whether I had –unconsciously, of course– plagiarized the sonnet I had handed in the day before, That sonnet is the only thing I’ve ever written that has appeared in a respectable literary magazine. We sent it to Saturday Review, asking readers whether they could identify it. They couldn’t. It was my own–such as it was.
I didn’t want to be a writer, though I wanted to be an archaeologist. After graduating from high school I went to the University of Chicago– not because it had a world-famous department of Egyptology, but because it was close to home and I had received a scholarship. My mother went back to teaching to help out with expenses, and I worked every summer and part time during the year. Practicality was the watchword. I was supposed to be preparing myself to teach– a nice, sensible career for a woman. I took two education courses before I stopped kidding myself and headed for the Oriental Institute. I got my doctorate there when I was twenty-three.
Much good it did me. (Or so I believed for many years.) Positions in Egyptology were few and far between, and in the post-World-War II backlash against working women, females weren’t encouraged to enter that or any other job market. I recall overhearing one of my professors say to another, “At least we don’t have to worry about finding a job for her. She’ll get married.” I did. And they didn’t.
While I was raising my children– the most challenging, tiring, rewarding, demanding job in the world– I still wanted to be an archaeologist. I had, however, become addicted to mystery stories, and finally decided I would try to write one, It was awful. The second was awful too. I rather enjoyed the process, though, and kept on scribbling. My husband’s job sent us to Germany for two years; the additional leisure (for we were able to hire household help) and the stimulus of travel abroad allowed me to produce a book that finally aroused some interest in publishing circles. It didn’t sell, but it got me an agent. Exasperated by his inability to sell the book, which he had liked, he demanded, “Can’t you write something else besides mystery stories?” Thus my first book to be published was not a thriller but Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, A Popular History of Egyptology. It was followed by Red Land, Black Land, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. Finally that degree had “paid off,” – in a way I never expected. I am modestly proud of the fact that those two volumes stayed in print for over thirty years and that new revised editions have recently been published.
Finally, in 1966, I managed to get a mystery novel published. The Master of Blacktower appeared under the pseudonym of Barbara Michaels. I have written approximately twenty nine mystery-suspense novels under the Michaels name and another thirty seven under my second pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters. (The ostensible reason for using pseudonyms is that readers need to distinguish the various types of books written by a single author; Mertz writes nonfiction on archaeology, Michaels writes thrillers, many with a supernatural element, and Peters focuses on mystery suspense. I find the various names a horrible nuisance, but apparently readers do see a difference between the productions of these personae.)
It has taken me over a quarter of a century to realize that I love to write, and that this is what I should have focused on from the beginning. If I were superstitious, which I am not– and if there were not so many examples that prove the contrary– I would fancy that fate somehow pushes us into the kind of life that is best for us. I am still fascinated by Egyptology and I have used my training, not only in the nonfiction books and articles I have produced but in my most popular mystery series, written under the Peters name: the saga of Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody, who has been terrorizing nineteenth-century England and Egypt through eighteen volumes (so far). The research necessary for these books is a joy in itself, and the characters have become almost frighteningly real to me.
The research skills I learned can be applied to any field; I have used them to collect background material for novels that deal with the Peasants’ Revolt, Etruscan archaeology, vintage clothing, the Risorgimento, the chartist movement, and innumerable other subjects. Accuracy is very important to me as a novelist; not only does my own professional pride demand it, but I have many readers whose expertise in various fields is at least as great as my own. They can and do chastise me when I make mistakes. To err is human, but to err through carelessness or laziness is inexcusable.
The craft of writing delights me. It is impossible to attain perfection; there is always something more to be learned– figuring out new techniques of plotting or characterization, struggling with recalcitrant sentences until I force them to approximate my meaning. And nothing is ever wasted. Everything one sees and hears, everything one learns, can be used.
At the present time I am living in an old farmhouse in the Maryland countryside. My children are grown and married, with children of their own. I have four lovely granddaughters, one of whom is already writing mystery stories, and two grandsons. I have never been able to understand how people can complain about being lonely or bored; there are so many interesting things to do, so many fascinating people to know. I love my work, and I hope to go on doing it till I drop at the age of 99. In my spare time I collect vintage clothing, cats in all forms, and a variety of other objects. My hobbies include gardening, reading, music, embroidery, and long conversations with fellow mystery writers.
Books by MPM.
Just the facts, ma’am.
Barbara G. Mertz studied at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, receiving an M.A. in 1950 and a Ph.D. in Egyptology in 1952. In 1950 she married Richard Mertz and had two children, Elizabeth and Peter. She was divorced in 1969. A past president of American Crime Writers League, she presently serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of KMT, A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt. She is also a member of the Egypt Exploration Society and the James Henry Breasted Circle of the Oriental Institute. Under her own name she is the author of Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, A Popular history of Ancient Egypt and Red Land, Black Land, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. Under her pseudonym as Barbara Michaels she has written twenty nine novels of suspense. As Elizabeth Peters, she has produced thirty seven mystery-suspense novels, many of them set in Egypt and the Middle East. Dr. Mertz was awarded a D.H.L. from Hood College in 1989. The Mystery Writers of America awarded her the MWA Grandmaster in 1998. She has also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic and the Grandmaster Award from Bouchercon.
Dr. Mertz died on August 8, 2013.