Author of the Month
I read mostly non-fiction and genre fiction, with historical mystery novels probably my favorite genre. I love the sorts of stories they tell, filled with vicarious travel to a different world, along with the adventure of solving crimes while relying on entirely different tools from those available today.
It's a genre I know well, since I also maintain a website dedicated to it. Because of that I really appreciate authors who create something new, something which doesn't readily lend itself to cover blurbs about "the next Anne Perry" or similar "name writer," offering stories that are really just variations on the same old well worn characters and settings.
Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have been doing that for years with one of my favorite mystery series, historical or otherwise. It features Lord Chamberlain John the Eunuch, trying to both solve crime and survive the deadly dance along the sword-edge of imperial favor in Justinian and Theodora's 6th C AD Byzantine Empire. It's a great setting for a mystery series, filled with real life color, intrigue, drama and danger, nicely balanced here by a relatively straightforward, Golden Age writing style that never gets in the way of the story and suits the austere hero very well. Straightforward doesn't mean dry or boring, though. These are vivid, you are there stories, lightly seasoned with dry humor. That Golden Age style also means they're vivid for the right reasons - because of well crafted plots and scenes and people - not through squeezing overwrought melodrama out of the material, as too many of the newer historicals seem to do. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer are true craftsman, showing how to do historical mysteries right... but because they're so good, you're far too busy just enjoying the stories to realize that that's what they're doing. And if you haven't been busy enjoying them, what on earth are you waiting for? Bibliography at the bottom of the page.
I had fun trying to come up with some interesting questions for them to answer in an email interview, but have to really thank Mary and Eric for the generosity of their responses. Because of them (trust me, I only wish I could take credit), the result reads as a fascinating, appreciative-grin-triggering conversation, rather than a standard author Q&A publicity session. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:
Kim Malo: I liked the way you brought the counting song from which you've derived your titles into a scene in your latest book, Seven for a Secret. But that also flags the fact that "seven for..." is the end of the standard version of the rhyme. Is John going to continue and where will you get your future titles?
Mary Reed: Yes, John will continue for as long as readers would like to hear about his adventures and he is willing to tell his biographers about them!
We haven't solved the vexed matter of future titles although it's been suggested we run a competition to name Eightfer. There is in fact at least one longer version in which eight is for a hug, which isn't much good for a mystery title. Often, with short stories at least, the title leaps out in blazing technicolour from the text as it's written, but with John that will probably not happen. We shall see when we get there.
Eric Mayer: The title of the first book, One For Sorrow, arose from the fact that the rhyme was mentioned. Our editor suggested we employ the rhyme for subsequent titles, so unlike the case with the short stories, which usually tell us what their title is, we need to find a way to work the titles into the books. Up until now, that is. Theoretically we could wait for Eightfer to suggest a title for itself. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that the story will feature exactly eight of anything so maybe we had better start searching for lengthier versions of the rhyme.
Kim: The idea of collaboration fascinates me, probably because my gut feeling is that I am not someone who would play half as nicely with others in that sort of setting. How does it work for you two? Is there a usual division of responsibilities? Did you and Eric become collaborators before developing a more personal relationship or did the one grow out of the other?
Mary: It was the latter. As Eric has said, it was not until we were married and he could not escape his fate that he finally got around to writing a short story he had been talking about on and off for some time past. This was the debut story for Inspector Dorj of Mongolia.
Eric: I always had ideas for stories and for years I'd been mentioning this idea for an "open yurt" mystery as opposed to the traditional locked room mysteries, which I enjoy. Mary kept nag - er - encouraging me to write it, but an idea isn't a story. I had no clue about structure, how to make an idea into a story, which probably helps explain why I've never sold any fiction myself. Mary, on the other hand, knew something about how to put together a mystery, having sold stories to Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine. With her help I was able to lay the story out - beginning / body discovered / investigation / solution - and fold in the requisite clues. Mary remains the actual mystery maven. Although we both contribute to the puzzle part of the books to some extent, I bow to her expertise in making sure the clues are fair, not too obscure nor too obvious, and reasonably distributed.
Mary and I both do a little of everything but we each have our particular strengths. In addition to making sure the puzzle works Mary is also the ultimate fact checker when it comes to research. I probably do a bit more work on scenery and non-mystery plot points - making sure people get hit over the head once in a while - that sort of thing.
We hash out an outline first, usually around 6,000 words long, briefly describing every scene in the book. This changes drastically with endless additions and subtractions as we write but it gives us something to go on. We'll each choose scenes to begin based on our writing strengths, or interest in the scene. One of us might have a particular idea of how the scene should be presented while the other doesn't. We trade the scenes back and forth then, rewriting until we are both satisfied and, we hope, eliminating any seams between our personal styles.
Oh, and who says we play nicely? It can get rather contentious. Not to the point a private investigator needs to be called in, however.
Mary: Indeed, as Eric has remarked, what co-writers need are strong hinges on the door and to put away the kitchen knives before sitting down to collaborate! Ultimately however we put the story's needs before our own feelings about our prose, and so far it has worked well.
Kim: As you know, when I discovered you and John in one of Mike Ashley's wonderful historical anthologies, I was simultaneously ecstatic to find an enjoyable new author and heart broken because there was such a Golden Age feel to the storytelling that I was sure you were long dead and so not likely to be bringing out any new books. Was that Golden Age feel intentional (and if so, why?) or simply the natural way you write?
Mary: Yes, we're still alive and kicking 8-} I am a great devotee of the Golden Age detections and it is possible they influence the way I write but not consciously as far as style goes. They do leave their fingerprints on our work by our insistence on fair play with clues and a lack of explicit gore, profanity, or sexual content. However I have to admit some of the literary trimmings - a herd of fortune-telling goats, sheep apparently committing suicide, bull dancers, automatons, prophetic chickens, a man who dances with the dead, and so forth - would cause quite a stir in St Mary Mead or the Inns of Court!
Eric: Although I am not so much a devotee of Golden Age mysteries as Mary, I grew up reading Golden Age science fiction, and both genres tend to be intellectual rather than emotive and to emphasize ideas over style. I actually find a lot of modern books unreadable. Why would anyone, for example, want to fill a book with explicit gore? Isn't there enough of that freely available in the news?
I think our writing style is a bit old fashioned in that it is unobtrusive. Mary and I both have very different styles and in order to write together we had to find some blended style which we could both agree on. Obviously, the less idiosyncrasies and frills the easier it is to make our bits match. That's fine with me, though, because I believe that writing should be as simple and concise as possible and never call attention to the author lurking behind the curtain, pulling the strings. A lot of modern writers want to be out there on stage themselves along with their characters.
Kim: I know there's a link on your website (more on that below) to some Golden Age Mysteries reviews and eTexts, so clearly you're a fan. Were any Golden Age authors particular influences?
Mary: Well, as I say, not consciously. A reader once complained we use big words - this may be explained by the fact we do not write down to our audience - but at the time I wondered if my reading GAD novels so much had not nurtured this tendency. I look up and keep a list of new words I discover reading these works. And there have been a fair number, such that I have concluded education during that period was more far ranging than we see these days. The problem is remembering the new vocabulary!
Eric: I don't know whether you would call Georges Simenon's Maigret books Golden Age mysteries because he continued writing them long after the Golden Age ended, but the series began during the Thirties and remained essentially the same. The style and feel of those books has influenced me. They are concise and to the point. And the style seems to be too, although, alas, I have only been able to read them in translation, being ignorant of French. The books are also understated. Maigret is a thinker rather than an action hero. Those are all characteristics I strive to get into our books.
Kim: Speaking of John's stories in Mike Ashley's anthologies, and some of your other ones I've enjoyed, such as those featuring Herodotus, are there any plans to bring out your collected short stories in a book of their own?
Mary: We would love such a collection and have in fact been asked about the possibility by a couple of readers, particularly those who missed the earlier stories about John. Our understanding is that it's usually Big Name Authors whose collections are issued commercially so it may be a lengthy wait if indeed it ever happens. Still, we can but hope....
Eric: I fear we would need to hit the bestseller lists with a book before anyone would consider a short story collection. In the old days - and maybe even today - science fiction authors used to stitch together vaguely related stories and pass the thing off as a novel. So, perhaps Mary and I could arrange the stories chronologically, pen some connecting scenes, and call it another prequel...but I suspect our editor would see through the ruse!
Kim: Also, are there any plans to bring any of the other characters - again, thinking of Herodotus, given my fondness for historical mysteries - into book length stories of their own?
Mary: Herodotus would be a wonderful protagonist for a novel, even with the need for a vast amount of research in a new era! The problem is finding the necessary time to write a full length story. It is not lack of ideas or interest, it's lack of a time machine in the basement! While we can arrange our work schedule to a certain extent because we're both self employed, the necessary three month block of writing time - our research is done beforehand in dribs and drabs and then as needed during the actual writing - means no income producing work is done for that period, although a year or so later we will see returns on the effort when royalties arrive. It's always something of a gamble. Now if the state lottery would just cough up we could easily write two books a year, but then just about every author could say the same.
Similarly, we had an idea for a Dorj novel several years ago and still he waits to step on the stage. Back in the early '90s, when we began telling his adventures, Mongolia was not so well known or visited as much as it these days. Incidently, in the course of researching Death on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, our contact at the Mongolian Embassy in Washington mentioned his countrymen were keen mystery readers and sent us a Mongolian mystery. Unfortunately we have never been able to read it but it was a kind gesture. Hearing of this interest was both exciting and difficult inasmuch as when writing about a foreign culture it is so easy to make a slip. In the case of this short story we almost put the guard's van at the wrong end of the train!
Eric: Indeed, we had a very specific idea for a Dorj novel, but as Mary says, we've never had the time and now, I see, someone has actually started a series of mystery novels about a detective in modern day Mongolia, and what's more the author has spent a lot of time in the country. Since we're not world travelers I guess we should confine our plans to historicals since history is a place no one else can visit either and our guess about it is as good as theirs.
Kim: I remember reading that the first John story came about because of Mike Ashley asking you for a story when you'd just been recently reading about Byzantium. Has that always been a particular area of historical interest for you, and why? What other periods interest you in particular, and why?
Mary: That's right. John is all Mike Ashley's fault! Not to mention Alexander Graham Bell's, whose invention allowed Mike to give us a jingle and make the request with its very short deadline of less than a month. Had it been sent through the post, it is possible we could not have completed it in time and John would not have leapt out into the world.
The other historical period of great interest to me is the mid to late l9th century, a time of great change and social movement, the industrialisation of Britain and its resulting great wealth and stark poverty, all the inventions and advances in science and medicine, the sun never setting on the British Empire, the vast gulf between rich and poor, the flowering of the arts...in some ways, come to think of it, paralleling the empire ruled over by Emperor Justinian. But the greatest interest to me lies in the lives of the ordinary people. I have a lot of sympathy with the ordinary schmoe's experiences having been born and raised in a poorer part of a huge industrial city, though in saying this I am thinking more about those about whom Mayhew or Booth wrote, or in other words the working poor rather than the totally destitute or criminal. It is true we lived in a succession of houses where plumbing was represented by a cold water tap in the kitchen and an outdoor loo, but on the other hand we always had food on the table and a roof over our head, even if it did leak on occasion, not to mention our own front door. These were much better conditions than those in which the working class lived in the l9th century, of course.
Eric: Both the sixth century and the latter part of the 19th century seem to be periods of great transition. Well, history is nothing but transition but during those periods the western world was certainly undergoing particularly rapid change. Periods like that present a lot of contrasts and competing viewpoints and often strange concoctions of old and new. The Byzantines lived in a society which was in many respects no different than that of classical Rome. Government and society were Roman. So were the laws and the architecture and the dress. Classical literature was read and admired. However, this society, born in paganism, was now styled as Christian. The Victorians were fascinated by what was then modern technology but spiritualism was also hugely popular.
We actually wrote a book set in the late Victorian era which we like to call an occult thriller. There is a murder involved but there are also supernatural forces at work. At the time we wrote it I considered our best work, by far, and figured it might be more accessible to people than the Byzantine mysteries, being set in a less remote era. Unfortunately it currently seems as unlikely to see print as that short story collection.
Mary: Although expressions of interest will be gratefully received 8-}.
Kim: Also, the research being already fresh explains the setting, but could you please tell us a bit more about how and why you created this particular hero - John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain, and why you made him as he is. He's a very complex person and one of the many things I really like about your books is the way that John grows and changes as a person as we read through them.
Mary: It may be that John has grown and changed as we got to know him better and can tell more about his character. He was originally created because we needed a protagonist who was powerful in his own right, rich enough to possess resources upon which to draw, and situated in a place and time of some danger - that is to say in the imperial court as well as those dark alleys he insists on racing through while involved in various investigations.
A perennial source of personal danger was Empress Theodora's hatred, plus the fact that he and his friends are secret worshippers of Mithra in an officially Christian court. Had this become public knowledge it would have been fatal. The years at court have made John what we would call poker faced, something of an enigma to many, from sheer necessity. He would just as soon return to his native Greece but cannot until Justinian permits it, and so between one thing and another there is a great deal of difficulty in his life even though he is rich and powerful. His character has been based also in part upon the world through which he moves.
Really his is a stressful life and he walks a very fine line, never knowing what will happen next. At times we have really put him through the mangle, poor chap!
Eric: We realized that the court official some Victorian historians referred to as the Grand Chamberlain met those criteria Mary mentioned. And when we saw that quite a few historical Grand Chamberlains had been eunuchs we called our character John the Eunuch, little realizing we'd have to deal with the wound we'd so carelessly inflicted over the course of several more short stories and then a series of novels! If only we'd known then...
We have chosen to deal with John's condition much as he has, by trying not to dwell on it, by usually refusing to talk about it. Mary and John and I are kind of in the same boat, having all suffered an accident and trying to make the best of it. If we had planned John out as Eunuch he might have been different.
Kim: If you could change places for a day with a character in your books, which one would it be?
Mary: Hmmm. Probably Peter, John's elderly servant. He is one of the few decent characters at court, and as a devout Christian worries constantly about his pagan master. We suspect he has an interesting life to tell, having himself been a slave as was John. Not to mention Peter was even so a bit of a lady's man in his youth, although for John there will never be anyone but his bad tempered but beloved Cornelia. Living in John's house, Peter sees him as few others could. But if so I hope John would not ask me to make honey cakes as I am a rotten cook!
Eric: As a Rocky Horror fan I would have to choose Theodora. If you look at the famous Ravenna mosaic of her you have to admit that outfit is even more outrageous than Dr Frank-N-Furter, even if it is less revealing. Well, OK, platform shoes would be better than those little Byzantine slippers. And probably it would be fun to have people prostrate themselves in front of you as Theodora insisted. That isn't an experience I have had. Not even at book signings. If anyone had ever actually shown up at a signing, they might have thrown themselves at my feet but I rather doubt it. I know John is our hero, but he lives a spartan existence. He's a very private person, very reserved, thinks too much. He's often downright morose. I wouldn't need to change places with John. I'm John already.
Kim: When you talk with people about your books, what surprises them most about John? About his times?
Mary: I have the impression that the most surprising thing about John is that his condition is historically correct, yet it is only a dozen years since Sun Yaoting, the last eunuch from the imperial Chinese court, died at the age of 94 in a Beijing temple. That was in December 1996.
Eric: If readers are like me they would be most surprised that the Roman Empire didn't really miss a beat after the so-called fall of Rome in 476 and simply went on, changing slowly, for another 1,000 years. That was what interested me most when I first started reading about Byzantium because I had always been given the impression that 476 marked a huge demarcation line, the end of the Roman Empire, but really, the focus of the Empire had long since moved east, and during the time of Justinian society was absolutely Roman except, of course, for the adoption of Christianity as the state religion.
As for what might surprise people about John...perhaps the fact that he doesn't agonize endlessly over his condition. I have a suspicion that many modern protagonists so afflicted would spend page after page emoting and would likely be much more warped by it than John is, although he does have his dark side.
We sometimes wonder whether the books would be more popular had we appealed to the thirst for freakish characters by emphasizing John's condition but alas for marketability we write only what we like.
Mary: Not to mention this sort of behaviour would not fit John, a former military man and a Mithran. Plus he is entitled to his privacy, like everyone else.
Kim: What's the most unusual or silliest question people have asked about your protagonist being a eunuch? About anything else in your books?
Mary: Offhand, I can't think of questions in either category though I rather surprised our family doctor when I asked him in passing about the result of a certain manoeuvre (not to commit a spoiler, it occurs close to the end of One For Sorrow) and found my guess about it was correct.
Eric: A reviewer will occasionally make a joke about John's condition, but I can't recall any questions. Maybe John makes it pretty clear that such questions should not be asked and will be ignored if they are. Actually, in the first book, a character does pry too hard and John proceeds to give a calm explanation which sends the questioner straight to the lavatory to bring up his supper.
Kim: Your stories are a mixture of contemporary (Inspector Dorj) and historical (John, Herodotus, et al). Can you talk a bit about the differences for you in writing contemporary vs historical. I'd say other than research, but of course the Inspector Dorj stories are not exactly set in your back yard, so that may not be such a difference.
Mary: I would say that the contemporary stories are somewhat easier to write because there are more resources, but equally as I mentioned earlier it's easier to make a mistake. And readers *will* call you on that so you better keep your notes handy!
Eric: The only collaborative writing we have done with a modern setting are the four Dorj stories. Since neither of us have ever been to Mongolia, and it is such an alien place, we approached those stories in exactly the same way as if they had been historicals. Aside from research, we made sure that the stories depended in some way on being set in Mongolia, just as with the historicals we try to make sure that the stories are firmly tied to the era. I don't know if we'll ever write a novel with a modern setting. If we'd did I'd have to research stuff like cell phones and iPods, I fear.
Kim: Mary, is there any of you or Eric in your characters? What about your cats (not the mummified one, I trust)?
Mary: Well, I do not like deep water, never having learnt to swim, and I am very fond of bread and cheese (grin). As for our cats, both Rachel (now gone) and Sabrina make a cameo appearance in every book. No dear little cat mummies grace our establishment, although we do have Rachel's ashes. Rachel died not that long before we left NY and we did not want to leave him behind so he came along and still lives with us.
Eric: As I hinted, there's probably a lot of me in John. He's a thinker, not very demonstrative, likes his solitude, can fall into bleak moods, but unlike me he is excellent at handling people and discerning their motivations. He manages to get along as an adviser to the emperor, right in the midst of the Roman bureaucracy. I couldn't even get along in a corporate environment. So John can do things I'd like to do. He also has adventures. Prowls dark alleys at night seeking to bring ne'er do wells to justice. Kind of a Byzantine Batman and as a kid I really wanted to be Batman!
Kim: Mary, you and Eric have one of the first real author sites I saw on the net and it's still one of the best in terms of offering a lot more substance than just a plug for your books. It's a treasure trove for fans of history, fictional and real life, and the same is true of your newsletter. Since you were a bit ahead of the game on this, how did you start doing all this and what's the most fun part of it for you?
Mary: Thank you for the kind words! We already had a personal website as Eric explains below, so I will leap ahead and mention that, after we had our contract with PPP, it changed somewhat. Since we do not tour or do signings, the site has grown to an alarming degree and remains a major part of our online promotion efforts. We try to offer content that is interesting and varied so it is not one of those all about me sites. We are not fans of in-your-face marketing. It's too strident for us.
Right now I am having great fun in my ongoing efforts to collect eTexts of Golden Age mysteries for our library page, and I may say I am enjoying the hunt itself and also discovering some gems I had overlooked before. The problem is the more I find the more I have to read! And similarly I am working on the smaller as yet library of classic ghost and supernatural tales. M. R. James, anyone?
Eric: Mary and I have always insisted on inflicting our thoughts and creative efforts on the world. We were doing so long before we had publishers. Both of us did sf fanzines at one time or another. These sf fanzines were not about sf, oddly, but contained material having a more personal slant, such as you read on blogs today. I did a fanzine filled with personal essays for years and when we got on the Internet in the mid-nineties and read about how you could make your own homepage in cyberspace I immediately said, "Neat! Electronic fanzine!" and put up a website.
A few pages on our website - some of the essays - date all the way back to the original homepage, which went up about five years before our first book was published. Quite a few of the essays were written for my fanzine, back in the eighties, and then were rewritten and appeared in the local newspaper before finally coming to rest at our site. So we started doing our web pages for fun. Period. And we still, mostly, do them for fun, but since we really owe it to our publisher to help get out the word about the books we carry news about them there. Of course, writing is about the most interesting thing we do right now so we would be talking about it on our website, or fanzines if we were still doing them, anyway.
Kim: What question do you wish people would ask you about your work that they haven't?
Mary: We've never been asked what mystery novel we would have liked to have authored. The problem is that our answers would vary from day to day. Today for example I'd probably say Ethel Lina White's chilling Some Must Watch, in which a number of people lock themselves into an isolated and rambling house overnight as mutual protection against a murderer loose in the countryside outside - but one by one they leave the house for perfectly good reasons. Tomorrow it might well be another novel entirely.
Eric: To be honest, I'm quite happy if people don't ask about the work. I am a bit embarrassed talking about writing as if I am some sort of expert although I try to oblige. I don't have much of a plan, or philosophy or axe to grind. I just make up stories so it's hard for me to talk much about the work. I can't offer advice or rules. If someone asked me if I would accept a million dollars for the next book that would be fine!
Kim: What do you want readers to remember most about your stories?
Mary: That they were ripping yarns that were true to their period!
Eric: I hope readers feel as if they were transported to another time and place for a few hours and that they are left with something to think about...something beyond just a lot explosions and running around and the bad guy's dead and the good guy wins sort of thing. And I hope readers like the fact that the books, whatever their flaws, are unique, personal visions, not products manufactured to specification.
2008's Honorary List