Hess completes The Painted Queen (Morrow, July), the final novel by her late friend Elizabeth Peters (the pen name of Barbara Mertz).
Elizabeth Peters left only a partial manuscript for The Painted Queen. How did you become involved in the project?
After Barbara’s funeral, Dominick Abel—Barbara’s agent as well as mine—and Beth Mertz—Barbara’s daughter—asked me to finish the book. I vehemently declined. Egyptology is not my field. However, I knew I was the most logical person to do so because she and I had the same slightly sardonic voice and jaded wit.
Did you encounter difficulties in ascertaining her intended direction?
When Barbara began to conceptualize The Painted Queen, she told me that she wanted a man with a monocle to fall over dead in Amelia’s bathing chamber. She researched monocles, ordered some, and offered to send me one. (I declined.) She was concerned about drawing out the plot based on three assassins. I suggested five. We talked weekly about the work in progress, but she hadn’t decided how to handle the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti and the ensuing madness. I received what was the first third of the manuscript and some scribbled notes that did not tell me how she intended to resolve the major issues. Of course I was concerned about fulfilling reader expectations. I reread most of the series, focusing on the books set just before 1912 and immediately afterward. (Barbara didn’t want to carry the series past WWI.) My biggest challenge with The Painted Queen was attempting to capture the subtlety of the somewhat stilted language of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contractions—how I missed them!
Didn’t you once travel with her to Egypt?
My trip to Egypt with Barbara was incredible. We had a suite in the Winter Palace in Luxor with a balcony. Every evening we sipped beverages and watched the sun set over the Nile. We were invited to the Chicago House in Luxor and given private tours of the nearby temples. We went on a cruise of Lake Nasser with an alumna group from Michigan to explore Abu Simbel.
Which is your favorite Emerson family member?
Nefret, because of her level-headedness, quirky comments, intelligence, and generous spirit.
What were the pains and pleasures of working on this book?
I thought about Barbara every day—laughing, sputtering over politics, relishing gossip, groaning about our offspring. I miss her very much.