Charles Tan Interviews Jared Shurin

Jared Shurin’s anthology The Book of the Dead is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: How did you decide to do an anthology based on Egypt and in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society?

Jared Shurin: I met John J. Johnston (Vice Chair of the EES and the author of the book’s introduction) at the launch party for one of our earlier anthologies. We were introduced by a friend and I was completely star-struck: an actual Egyptologist! John said something along the lines of “hey, this anthology you’re doing [inspired by Dickens] is neat, why don’t we do one about mummies?”. And like an ancient curse, I held him to it. 

Of course, the EES has a long heritage of involvement in speculative fiction: its co-founder, Amelia Edwards wasn’t just a pioneering Egyptologist, she also wrote some of the great Victorian ghost stories.

Charles Tan: How did The Egypt Exploration Society play a role in the creation of The Book of The Dead?

Jared Shurin: John and the EES were fantastic partners. At the beginning, we discovered that there hadn’t been an anthology of original mummy fiction in… well… at least seventy years, and possibly longer. Which made The Book of the Dead even more important to us.

John has, of course, spent years studying mummies in popular and literary culture. I wanted to make sure that The Book of the Dead understood and reflected the proud – if slightly neglected – tradition of this wonderful monster, and John was incredibly helpful in bringing me up to speed. The reading list he assigned me, plus a few small additions of my own, helped formed the basis of The Book of the Dead’s companion volume, Unearthed.

The EES also provided much-needed expertise, as they reviewed the stories for accuracy. They gave us a lot of free rein, of course – as this was speculative fiction – but we wanted to make sure that, where we were relying on facts and figures and names and real things, we were using them correctly.

Beyond that, the EES were supportive every single step of the way – letting us use their offices as a temporary headquarters for wrapping and sealing the books; even teaching me enough about hieroglyphs to design the cover. The limited edition came wrapped in muslin, with a ‘stamp’ that we made from the seal of the EES. I think the most nervous moment for all of us came when we were making the cast.

Charles Tan: What was your criteria for selecting the stories in the book?

Jared Shurin: The mummy really is a forgotten ‘monster’, and I wanted to re-establish it the way it deserved: as a literary device with depth, flexibility and contemporary relevance. The stories needed to reflect all that a mummy could be: a mindless, devouring creature, a symbol of an ancient empire (and all the class and social weight that carries), an icon of timeless love and romance, a discussion of death and the role of mourning, a symbol of the struggle between heritage and colonialism, and even as an object – the mummy itself as a treasure of value. There aren’t many monsters that have this sort of versatility, and the purpose of The Book of the Dead is to capture the range.

Also: fun. It is easy to rationalise a lot of worthiness into The Book of the Dead, but it really was born in excitement. The stories needed to come from that same place of joyous enthusiasm: mummies can be many things, as long as they’re not dry. (Well, except for actual mummies. Else they get messy.)

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