Interview with Fiona Ingram
The Secret of the Sacred Scarab
Reviewed by (age 13) for Reader Views (10/09)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Fiona Ingram, who is here to discuss her new book, “The Secret of the Sacred Scarab.”
Fiona Ingram (B.A., Hons. (Natal), M.A., (Wits)) was born and educated in South Africa. Her interest in ancient history, mystery, and legends, and her enjoyment of travel has resulted in her writing “The Secret of the Sacred Scarab,” the first in her exciting children’s adventure series “Chronicles of the Stone.”
Tyler: Welcome, Fiona. I’m excited to talk to you today because “The Secret of the Sacred Scarab” sounds like just the kind of book I loved to read as a boy. For starters, will you explain for our readers just what a sacred scarab is?
Fiona: The scarab is an extremely important part of Ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. It was, literally, a sacred creature to these people of long ago, both as an insect they would see daily, and a symbol of much more. The scarab was linked to Khephri (“he who has come into being”), the god of the rising sun. The ancient Egyptians believed that Khephri renewed the sun every day before rolling it above the horizon, and then carried it through to the underworld after sunset, only to renew it again the next day. The scarab was based on the image of the dung beetle, or Scarabeus Sacer(sacred scarab) a very industrious and important insect in term of the environment. Heart scarabs were placed next to the heart after the body was mummified. The scarabs were usually made of green stone, and could range in size from 7 to 25 inches in size. On almost all of the scarabs, Chapter 30B from the Book of the Dead was inscribed. In this chapter, the dead person asks his heart not to testify against him during the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony (whether he has committed a sin or not). In other cases, heart scarabs were used for just general protection from evil during the journey to the afterlife. Heart scarabs were always made of some green material, usually green jasper. The reason why green was used was that it symbolized resurrection and health.
Tyler: Tell us about the main characters, the Sinclair cousins. Why do you think readers will like them, and why did you pick two cousins rather than brothers, or even two boys over girls?
Fiona: I’m not sure if you know that I wrote the book after a trip to Egypt with my two nephews and my mother. I based my two young heroes on my nephews, and their relationship is strong. I have four brothers and I know how much sparring can go on in a family. Here, the boys are close, but as cousins there is a distance that enables them to be “their own man” as it were. Why boys? I went with my nephews so had firsthand experience about how two potential heroes would behave in such a different environment. The Sinclair cousins are both very appealing characters, and there’s lots of humor even though they were severely tested by the trials and dangers of their adventure. I like to write from reality and you’ll find my characters all have some real, living, breathing inspiration. The year we went on the trip I “inherited” an African foster child, a girl, who bonded with my youngest nephew. Their friendship inspired me to introduce a female character in the next book. She’ll share the boys’ subsequent adventures. I also did want to include girls as an audience.
Tyler: Why are the boys in Egypt?
Fiona: Lucky for them, their Aunt Isabel is going to Egypt on a journalistic mission—she’s researching a story on a smuggling ring that is depleting Egypt of its most important ancient treasures. (This is actually a real problem in Egypt.) However, because she is quite a famous investigative journalist, she is travelling incognito so as not to alert this gang of very clever thieves. Isabel takes her mother and her two nephews under cover of a “family holiday.” Only later is her true motive revealed.
Tyler: Why are the boys given the scarab in the first place, and do they realize it has some significance even before Dr. Khalid tries to get it from them?
Fiona: The sacred scarab is an extremely important artifact discovered by James Kinnaird, a Scottish archaeologist whose family historical records have alerted him to this special object. He has made a name for himself by pursuing sometimes mythical “treasure hunts” and the most recent one is the tomb of a legendary king, the Scarab King. Actually, the boys have read about him as well because they are studying Egypt at school, so they are keen to know more about the legend of the Scarab King. However, after gleaning as much as he could from old manuscripts, James Kinnaird finally discovers the sacred scarab in an obscure, unmarked tomb in the Egyptian desert. The scarab actually contains a Stone of Power, one of seven scattered through the ancient world thousands of years ago. It is the most important one, and once it has been discovered, it’s just a matter of time before the other stones manifest around the world. Their combined powers are incredible, as the reader will discover. However, initially it does not look at all like the magnificent object it later becomes. The priests of the Scarab King (the last person to own it) dyed it black to conceal its magnificence after the Scarab King was killed by his step-brother who wanted power. Dr. Khalid (who knows more than anyone else) is also hot on the trail of the scarab and he catches up with Kinnaird, kidnaps him, and blows his camp sky-high. Kinnaird’s manservant Abu Ali manages to escape with instructions to take it to the British Embassy in Cairo where the archaeologist (the son of a Scottish earl) is well known. Poor Abu Ali gets his facts muddled up, is chased by Dr. Khalid’s men, and ends up in the market at Memphis, miles away from Cairo. In the market, he sees the two boys admiring several tourist souvenir scarabs, hears them mention the Scarab King (they speak English too!), and draws them aside with promises of something special. He thinks he has no option but to give it to them and hope that’ll be good enough. While the boys are looking at his ordinary scarabs, Abu Ali slips the disguised scarab into Adam’s pocket. He knows he will be caught soon because Dr. Khalid has authority at his fingertips (being high up in the government). He then runs away after mumbling some strange words at Adam. From then on, odd things happen to the boys, but nothing to frighten them … yet. When Adam finds the black scarab in his pocket he knows instinctively it means something special. Justin is, as usual, more skeptical, and thinks it’s just an old piece of rubbish. But wait … then really interesting things occur that change his mind!
Tyler: Tell us more about Dr. Khalid. Do you feel he’s a typical evil villain, and as a character, how do you feel about him personally?
Fiona: Dr. Khalid is a very interesting villain. He is highly intelligent, odiously charming, and completely ruthless. His qualifications are genuine and he has worked himself up into a position of power in the government and in the area of archaeological research. Remember, Egypt’s tourist trade is based almost entirely on its magnificent history. He is not the arch-villain, however; he works for someone far more powerful. We only get hints of this as things proceed. He is searching for the seven Stones of Power and is perfectly placed as head of the government’s archeological program because he gets to see all the treasures that are unearthed; he gets to say yea or nay to permission for digs to be conducted—in fact he controls all activity related to ancient artifacts in Egypt. He is also running the smuggling ring that is draining Egypt of her treasures, not because he wants the money but because in the flurry of stolen treasures leaving the country, no one will miss the one vital one—the sacred scarab. The furor surrounding the smuggling ring serves as a smoke screen and he thinks it is very amusing that he has been appointed head of the squad designated to crack this ring. One can only grudgingly admire Dr. Khalid, whose complex nature becomes more apparent as the book proceeds. He has thought of everything, well, so he assumes, and cannot believe that two young boys somehow manage to evade his clutches for so long. He has no compunction about killing the boys, the archaeologist, and Aunt Isabel once he has them all in his clutches. This is not because he is particularly cruel, but the goal is too compelling, too desirable … there is no room for compassion. You’ll see changes in him as the books proceed. He is like a dangerous, sleek reptile. One can only admire the perfection, but stay well away.
Tyler: Fiona, while Egypt is obviously a place of great mystery and a perfect setting for an adventure story, what else about it appealed to you?
Fiona: The sheer enormity of what this ancient civilization achieved. You can only really appreciate this when standing in front of a massive temple or monument and you wonder how these people managed, thousands of years ago, to create these structures with no “modern” technology. It is beyond belief. One feels quite small and stupid, regardless of us now having the computer chip! There is also a sense, in many places, that time has not passed and one is still in the “now” of thousands of years ago. The carvings, the inscriptions, the many examples of brilliance and creativity all serve to take you into that ancient world.
Tyler: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and what about Egypt most fascinates you?
Fiona: Of course the physical experience was wonderful for research—the heat, the blinding sunlight, the culture, the vast expanse of desert etc. When the boys complain about their drinking water tasting like warm bath water … that’s exactly what it does taste like after a day in the sun! I collected loads of bits and pieces to jog my memory and to put up on the website as images. But the real slog was getting all the facts right once I began writing in earnest, and weaving them into the story so that readers enjoy the information, knowing their heroes will need it to survive. I found the mythology behind the Ancient Egyptian civilization inspiring and in my book, only the Scarab King and the seven stones are fiction. The legends of the Book of Thoth, the Stone of Fire that fell to earth (and started it all), the ten master gods (the Neteru) that came from a land destroyed by fire (Atlantis), the demi gods (the Shemsu-Hor) that came after, serving as great teachers—these details and many more already exist. So, you could say it was a story waiting to happen.
Tyler: What about this book do you think will appeal to readers and what age group specifically is your audience?
Fiona: I think the wonderful, complex history behind the seven Stones of Power (each has a history on its own) is very appealing, with an almost mesmerizing effect on the reader as layers of the plot are revealed. The sacred scarab is not just an artifact; it’s a Stone of Power. There is a Book of Thoth that must not be read, a curse, death, and imminent destruction to the world. Then one peels back more layers and find tentacles have spread into medieval Britain … and how did that information get there? The amazing thing is that this is all legend … makes you wonder. Another aspect is that young readers can feel (from the heroes’ experiences) that adventure and excitement are also within their reach. The journey is so real, the boys’ feelings and predicaments so tangible that readers will be able to empathize with their dilemmas and decisions. I had initially had my heroes as younger, the same ages as my nephews. But the publishers were adamant that the situations, emotions, and the plot lines were too complex and the boys had to be older. I conceded but I feel that ages 9/10 up to 14 will enjoy it. And for the young at heart … this is the adventure you’ve always longed to have!
Tyler: It sounds like readers agree with you, Fiona, and I understand you’ve entered some book contests with good results. Will you tell us about those competitions?
Fiona: When I first started researching the marketing (the hardest) part of my book, I read how competitions are a fantastic way to get news of one’s book “out there.” There are so many competitions available to writers now that they should enter as many as possible. You don’t have to win to get noticed. Getting a Finalist place is also important because the competition organizers do marketing and publicity afterwards, so your book title gets to share a lot of the glory. In addition, librarians and book buyers are more likely to take note of a book cover displaying an award sticker. I entered four major USA competitions in 2009 and was delighted to be placed as a Finalist for Children’s Fiction in two of them: the 2009 New Generation Indie Book Awards and the National Best Books 2009 Awards. I am particularly proud of myself because not only is “The Secret of the Sacred Scarab” my first children’s book, but I live in South Africa so I am doing all my marketing “long distance.”
Tyler: Fiona, what books did you enjoy as a child, and are there any books or films that you can point to as an influence on your writing this book?
Fiona: I loved books from the time I could read. My parents (particularly my mother) influenced me in this respect and I thank them for it. I read all the children’s classics that my mother had kept. I have some very old editions even from my grandparents. I think the best book for sparking imagination is “The Lord of the Rings.” I discovered it early and read it every few years. The film was incredibly inspiring in the sense of one delving back into a forgotten age, a time of secrets, of different awareness of the world around us. I can say it’s the best film (all three) ever. Second comes “The Chronicles of Narnia” (books and films). When the boys ask about magic in my book, their tour guide tells them that magic is everywhere, in a kind of “earth magic,” harking back to a time when we were more in touch with the magnetic resonances around us, more in tune with nature, animals, the forces of the universe—that’s the magicality of my books.
Tyler: “The Secret of the Scarab” is the first novel in the “Chronicles of the Stone” series. Can you tell us what the “stone” is?
Fiona: The stone is the Stone of Fire, a stone that fell from the heavens to earth. This is based on the legend of the Benben Stone, that fell to earth in Egyptian mythology (from that spot where it landed, the earth arose from the waters of the sea, and creation occurred). In my story, seven fragments broke off from the Stone of Fire. When Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, saw that the teachings of the Neteru and the Shemsu-Hor were not appreciated by the world of men, he encapsulated the wisdom of the ages in the Stone of Fire, placed the stone in an alabaster Pyramidion, and concealed it for later generations. This is called the Book of Thoth. The Book which “the god of wisdom wrote with his own hand” was, though, a deadly book that would bring nothing but pain and tragedy to those that read it, despite finding out about the “secrets of the gods themselves” and “all that is hidden in the stars.” The person who unites the seven fragments with the stone of Power will be able to read the book of Thoth. However, the person will suffer the curse unless they are pure in heart.
Tyler: Fiona, you’ve mentioned that the Stones of Power are fictional and your creation. Will you tell us more about them, and how you came up with the idea for them? Am I right in guessing you plan to write seven books, one for each Stone of Power?
Fiona: That’s right. It might seem a monumental task—seven books about seven different ancient artifacts. How does one find the one main thread connecting all these different stories? But, in fact, once I began researching the mythology behind Ancient Egypt, this led me to explore other ancient cultures, and the same themes, legends and issues cropped up, just “packaged” differently. I think we should remember that thousands of years ago the world population was very much smaller. Catastrophes (famine, drought, flood, earthquakes, climate changes etc) shattered and spread various groups of people who carried their legends and beliefs with them to wherever they fled. How is it that the same stories appear in most people’s ancient history—a flood/catastrophe, great teachers, a civilizing process, forgotten wisdom … the list is tantalizingly endless. Ancient civilization is incredibly exciting. It’s as if people had more interesting lives then. There is a magicality about the old stories and half-forgotten tales. It draws us back to a time when we were so much more in tune with the earth, sun, moon, stars, seasons, the cycle of life, time itself. Amazingly enough, I have found links that draw all the ancient seven Stones of Power together into a modern quest. Why seven Stones of Power? Seven is a “magical” number and reappears constantly throughout ancient and not-so-ancient history. I won’t give away any more, but the significance of this number becomes apparent from the second book onward.
Tyler: Fiona, will you give us a little preview of the next book in the series? When will it be published?
Fiona: In “The Search for the Stone of Excalibur,” Adam and Justin find themselves en route to Scotland, having been invited there by James Kinnaird (they rescue him at the end of Book One). He had also hinted (end Book One) that the boys will be needed in the quest for an ancient scroll mentioned by his ancestor, and of course in the search for the remaining Stones of Power. At the airport, Justin and Adam are horrified to find that their aunt has saddled them with a complete stranger—an African girl she is fostering who is joining them on the trip—and that Isabel has to rush off to Paris because James has had a terrible accident on a dig, and they have to travel to Britain on their own. The idea of the journey alone is nothing compared to what they feel about having to share their adventure with someone else … and a girl! Eeeuw! (Justin has a very annoying younger sister so he is expecting the same kind of behavior from Kim, their unwelcome guest.) Once in Britain, they jump straight into the adventure because they meet several very interesting people (all experts in the field of ancient history) and discover that the second Stone of Power might have been discovered. It appears that the remains of a 6th Century British war leader’s regalia have been discovered, and there’s a sword among the relics. A sword containing a stone in the hilt … could it be Excalibur? Adam starts having very realistic dreams and things become interesting. The stone is stolen from the Ashmolean museum where the relics are stored, but it may not be Dr. Khalid. The boys discover they are being pursued by a strange maverick group of monks called the Eaters of Poison, a throwback from an ancient association of assassins, a group with their own agenda, one that’s clashing with Dr. Khalid’s plans and the boys’ mission. A castle in Scotland, a ruined chapel, dungeons, a book of poisons, and other interesting things are in store. Oh, and of course, lots of danger, a medieval manuscript written by Bedwyr the Curious Monk, James’ ancestor, ancient codes to be cracked, and a strange diagram and poem that sets the boys and the readers firmly on the path to the next books. And before you ask … I’m writing as fast as I can!
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Fiona. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information our readers may find there about “The Secret of the Sacred Scarab”?
Fiona: The website is called www.secretofthesacredscarab.com and it’s packed with great stuff for readers who enjoy Egypt and want to experience the boys’ adventure. There’s a Journey Map taking them along the same path as in the book, with photos, information and (bonus) Hidden Chapters not in the book. Follow the boys’ path all the way to the Tomb of the King, where the Mummy will help you crack the Curse of Thoth (it’s actually a real one). Then you can read the first chapter in Book Two. You can also read the first chapter of Book One by going to The Book button. In the image are some interesting artifacts on James Kinnaird’s desk: papyrus, a whip, a telescope, some strange ornaments and some World War 2 pictures of Egypt. The boys befriend someone very useful in Book One who served in the British forces in Egypt at that time. My grandfather was there, and it’s actually him in some of the pictures, so they have special meaning. There is also a link to the site for “The Chronicles of the Stone.” This is a very old map that will show readers where the adventures are taking place all over the world. I actually own the map—it’s a copy of a 15th Century Dutch map, and is very ornate and interesting. At the top right hand corner there is a strange looking red wax seal. Click on it—Bedwyr the Curious Monk will tell you more about the Scroll of the Ancients and his terrible discovery that set this train of events in motion. The image is also very important because you’ll find out more about this seven-pointed star (The Star of Venus) in Book Two. Join the Fan Club as well! On Cool Links there is good material for teachers and home schooling parents, with links to other educational sites and books. The Glossary on The Book page is a quick reference to anything related to Egypt, with loads of fantastic extra info.
Wow, Fiona. That sounds like quite a website. Thank you again for the opportunity to interview you today. I hope you continue to have great adventures with your writing, and I know readers will be anticipating the rest of your book