Like a lot of other 12-year-old girls, Mattie Hon was a daydreamer and always looked forward to her family’s vacations at their cottage on Tybee Island, just off the coast of Savannah, Ga. Their little beach house had once belonged to a sea captain and she describes it as “nothing fancy – but full of ocean magic!”
“My favorite time was at night when it was cooler. I loved the ocean breeze’s majestic sounds, starlit nights and full moons glistening on the water,” she recalls.
Late one night, while sprawled across the bed as the curtains billowed in the wind, she remembers wishing she could stay there forever. “I just had this romantic notion: ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to be at the ocean and writing a book?’”
Quite a grandiose thought for most little girls, but not for Hon.
“Even at a young age, I could sit for long periods of time and contemplate issues that seemed way too serious for someone my age. You never know when some small thought you have in your youth could be a part of something bigger that you discover later.”
That night at their seaside cottage, the thought of writing a novel was buried somewhere deep within the recesses of her heart and didn’t resurface for many, many years.
To prepare for each gathering, she would search out a biblical woman who would best illustrate the evening’s topic. She was especially fascinated by everything she ferreted out about this ancient queen.
“Whether studying for a handful of people or for a larger class, I would become engrossed in it,” she admits.
She realized that this tenth century monarch had the same yearnings as most twenty-first century American women.
“We see in her a person who, outwardly, has everything that would bring satisfaction,” Hon explains.
Today’s modern, sophisticated and well-educated woman may outwardly appear to have it all together, yet struggle to find true identity and real peace.
Hon explains, “People look at outward trappings and accomplishments and assume they just have to be happy and satisfied.”
Diane Bruemmer recalls being at those gatherings of women and listening to Hon teach.
“I remember feeling privileged to have Mattie Hon as the teacher. It was such a passion of hers.”
Bruemmer remembers how Hon made Biblical women come alive and wondered if there might be some greater purpose up ahead for Hon’s in-depth study and teaching about the Queen of Sheba.
For nearly six years, Hon continued to study and teach about the Queen of Sheba at women’s gatherings and sometimes in private high school classes.
Like a sleuth in hot pursuit of the facts, she collected one clue after another until one day, while walking alone on the beach in Maui, she was overcome by an unshakeable thought: “I’m supposed to write a book about the Queen of Sheba,” she thought. “I was shocked when that thought hit me in such an impactful way.”
That was the beginning of an exhilarating journey that culminated in her publishing “Queen of Sheba” a year and a half ago.
Hon calls the writing experience a “treasure hunt kind of journey. It was like a mosaic that, piece by piece, I had to figure out… It was, at times, confusing because her story ends so quickly in the Bible.”
But that brief narrative whetted Hon’s appetite.
The more she researched, the more questions she had. Questions like, “Where exactly was the land of Sheba?” Josephus, a first century scholar and historian, called her the “Queen of Ethiopia and Egypt.”
In that era, a country’s borders looked a lot like the blurred edges of a watercolor painting without distinct Sharpie-like lines marking where one country ends and another begins.
“Kebra Nagast,” a well-respected Ethiopian history book dating from the fourteenth century, confirms that at the time the Kingdom of Sheba was located in Southern Arabia – the area we know as modern-day Yemen.
Hon is often asked why she chose the genre of historical fiction to tell her story.
After so many years of intense research and study, why not write something more scholarly, purely academic, or biographical?
Hon’s answer to this question is actually quite simple. “I wanted to use fiction to frame the facts to make the facts stand out more. I felt that there were people who would pick up a story, but would not pick up a research book…It took a lot of time, a lot of effort and thoughtfulness because my teaching personality would not allow me to breach the bounds of the historical facts.”
The prospect of writing a historical novel was rife with challenges every step of the way, and the biggest hurdle to overcome was self-doubt.
“I knew that I had a choice. I could focus on my feelings,” Hon says, “or I could believe that if I was truly meant to accomplish this dream, I would have the grace to do so.”
So, she started writing in the face of looming doubts. “I set aside four hours every morning to write and endeavored to protect the time from interruptions,” she explains. “When I made this slot of time a priority, the creative process flowed freely each morning.”
At first, she was reticent to tell people she was even writing a book. “It wasn’t until I got to a place where I knew I would finish it that I began to tell people.”
While earning a master’s degree in counseling at the University of Missouri and later while working as a therapist at a local psychiatrist’s practice, she wrote progress notes for clients’ records – not historical fiction!
The last time she’d written anything that remotely resembled “fiction” was for an undergraduate English class. “I had to get out of my comfort zone and read other kinds of things and widen my horizon,” she explains.
She began by reading commentaries written by others who had studied the Queen of Sheba, and eventually delved into everything from Renaissance art and archeology, to music and historical writings from other countries. She even did word studies to learn what certain words meant during the time the Queen of Sheba lived.
“There were times when I’d just throw up my hands and say, ‘this is too much for me!’” she remembers.
She was overwhelmed by the volume of information she had to manage. “I’m a very detailed person and for that reason you can almost feel overloaded with all the details.”
That’s when she sat down and plotted out a comprehensive timeline of the Queen’s life. “Ok… this is such ‘n such BC; what age would she have been when she met Solomon? And, at the end of the story, how old would she have been?” Mattie-Hon-the-Teacher wanted to make sure her novel was full of substance and continued scouring pertinent resources throughout the writing of the book.
After reading an early draft of Hon’s book and learning about the Queen’s relationship with King Solomon, one reader commented, “I don’t know about that love child thing!”
That one comment,” Hon remembers, “threw me for a loop!” So she continued researching until she had a consensus from many different and reliable sources about their relationship.
Not long afterwards, she came across a cover story in “Biblical Archeology Review” entitled, “Where is Sheba?”
The author came to the same conclusion as Hon did. “I didn’t just pull things out of a hat,” she insists. She wanted the finished novel to provide a clear and panoramic view for her readers. She was unwilling to compromise truth for fantasy.
At every stage of writing, Hon’s children and husband, Bob, were her chief encouragers, cheering her on until she finished.
Bob refers to her as a “very talented and capable woman” and is excited that others get to “partake in the depth of wisdom stored up in her heart.”
When he first read snippets of her writing, he found himself thinking, “I wonder if this could be a book or something?”
He’ll never forget the first time he read Chapter 1. “Wow!” he beamed. “This is so good! It just grips you from the very beginning.”
Every time Hon completed a section, Bob would read it and offer invaluable feedback. “Some portions I read five or six times as she worked on them.”
Most of his support, though, came in the form of household help and encouragement.
“She would be writing and I would take care of more of the stuff at home; things like making meals.”
Once when one of her editors suggested massive rewrites, Bob had to encourage her, “You can do this! You can make it better!” And she did! “She’s done a phenomenal job in capturing the story, while being faithful to the historical record,” he adds.
Wendy K. Walters, a motivational speaker and writers’ coach, has helped hundreds of writers launch their first book.
“It was obvious to me that this woman figure is a hero to Mattie…she handled her deftly throughout the manuscript,” she explains. “She showed how the queen had to maintain her femininity while flexing her authority.”
Walters loved the way “Queen of Sheba” reflected not only Hon’s “wide-eyed curiosity,” but also her “sweet gentle grace.”
There are, perhaps, millions of people around the world who might be interested in reading a story about a woman who ruled in a time and place where women were thought of as little more than property.
If you Google “Queen of Sheba,” you’ll get more than a half-million results and find adjectives like like exotic, wealthy, legendary and powerful to describe her. For generations, this queen’s story has inspired books and songs, Hollywood movies and priceless works of art.
“Her story is written in the books that are considered sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Hon explains, “and some from each group have read my book.”
There are even restaurants named after her and she’s viewed as an important part of Ethiopia’s national identity.
Yemeni, Ethiopian and Egyptian history books are filled with chapters about this powerful woman and Hon’s book is number three on Amazon’s list of hundreds of books about the “Queen of Sheba.”
Why does a woman who was born more than 3,000 years ago and more than 7,000 miles away pique the interest and capture the imagination of Hon and so many others?
Cynthia Khan is the community outreach director for POBLO International, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants from 30 nations assimilate in America.
“I work with a lot of people from many different nationalities and cultures and this book is very important and useful for people from other cultures to read,” Khan says.
She immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan 20 years ago and has a unique insider’s perspective on the needs and aspirations of people from the land of Sheba. She believes that women from cultures where having a career and working outside of the home are unheard of are mesmerized by this queen’s life.
“A position like the Queen of Sheba’s is very fascinating even if they cannot be in that position, they admire it very much.” The Queen of Sheba had wealth, position and power – all in a man’s world!
Nagy M.T., who works for a publishing company in Cairo, Egypt, is currently translating “Queen of Sheba” into Arabic. Hon is thrilled that the translation will be completed before the end of the year.
Nagy believes Hon’s book “brings this amazing, outstanding queen back to life by unraveling her human frailty and strength. She’s made her story our story.”
When asked about her plans for future writing projects, Hon says “Mining the gold from her story does not yet seem complete and I look forward to audio versions becoming available in English and Arabic.”
Plans are also underway for a Spanish translation and she’s started writing a Queen of Sheba Study Guide for group or individual use. “The potential for a sequel is real… time will tell,” she muses.
After more than a decade of searching for the truth about this powerful woman, a few questions yet remain that Hon would like to ask her personally.
“I would like to know from her own lips how she was impacted by King Solomon because the fruit of that trip [to Jerusalem] is enormous.”
She’d also ask, “Were you pleased with what I did? I really tried to honor your story.”
And, in response, the queen would, perhaps, lift her gaze, smile and say, “Yes, Mattie… you did just fine.”
Be sure to grab your copy of Queen of Sheba: The Half Has Never Been Told here.