Today on Straight From Hel we have two, count ‘em, two wonderful authors (I feel rather like the old Doublemint commercials). Susan Wittig Albert and Rhys Bowen are here for a Q&A, but I am not asking the questions. They are asking each other questions!
I do get to introduce the two of them, though.
Susan Wittig Albert is a well-known author who writes both fiction and non-fiction. She writes the China Bayles mystery series (a contemporary series featuring a Texas herbalist), the latest of which is called Wormwood. With her husband, she co-authored an historical mystery series under the pseudonym Robin Paige. She also writes an Edwardian series called The Cottage Tales, set in English Lake District with Beatrix Potter. The latest, The Tale of Applebeck Orchard, will be out in September. And I have great news for the millions of Albert fans -- next year, she starts a new series, The Darling Dahlias! Her nonfiction titles are Work of Her Own and Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story. Take a look at her page of books she’s written. It’ll amaze you. When she’s not writing, she’s gardening, blogging, and working with the national organization she started for women wanting to write their life stories - Story Circle Network.
Rhys Bowen writes three mystery series: the Constable Evans mysteries, the Molly Murphy Mysteries (featuring a feisty Irish sleuth in turn-of-the-century New York), and her latest series starring Lady Georgie, a minor royal in 1930s England, who has to learn to survive on her own. The latest in the Lady Georgie series, Royal Flush, is out this month. Rhys’ mysteries have been nominated for every major mystery award, including the Edgar for best novel -- and she’s won seven of them! She also has written short stories, picture books for children, young adult novels, and adult historical sagas. Since, clearly, she’s not very busy, she also blogs. I’m very happy that she stopped by here, even though she’s most likely exhausted since she’s in the midst of a tour to seven cities for the release of Royal Flush.
I now give the blog over to Susan Wittig Albert and Rhys Bowen. Welcome!
Susan: Rhys, we’ve all noticed that British mysteries do well here in America. Why do you think Americans are so fascinated with Britain? And why are they so fascinated with the royal family?
Rhys: I've always felt that the Britain that Americans love so much is that mythical village populated by Miss Marple--with the old pub, the hunt meeting to set out and a couple of nosy spinsters. It represents, I suppose, a universe of safety and order. If a crime occurs there, then the sleuth will solve it and order will be restored again. Also it represents a place where time has stood still. Most of us spend our lives rushing these days and would love to have the time to stand and gossip in the village shop. Of course this type of village still exists in England but the people who live there now are likely to be yuppies escaping from the rat race at weekends. However, in remote pockets you do get a feel for the real thing. My brother and sister in law live in Cornwall and I've been to local functions in her village hall--the fruit and vegetable auction for the women's institute for example, that really are stepping back in time.
I suppose this is why I choose to write about the past, because it is the time I long for, not the place. I too want to live in a world where it was safe to send me across Europe on my own at the age of 12. I want to have time to discuss the weather and gather fresh eggs. I want to know all my neighbors. I want the Vicar of Dibley!
And royals--it amazes me how fascinated Americans are with the lives of the royals. I suppose it's because our own president is always way too ordinary and human and we really like the pageantry that accompanies the royal lives. Not that we'd want a queen or king here, but it's nice to know there is one, somewhere else. We have a fascination with celebrities over here and they are celebrities par excellence, more interesting than Brad and Angelina! My 1930s royals are such fun to write about because they are creatures apart and there is so much to satirize in the upper class life and the class system.
Rhys: Now, let me ask you something, Susan. What made you think of using Beatrix Potter as a sleuth? How did that series come about?
Susan: Bill and I were writing a Victorian series together, back in the mid 1990s, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. The hallmark of the series was our use of real people as important characters: Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Lily Langtry, and so on. In one of the books, we used Beatrix Potter, and I started doing some serious research on her life. She fascinated me--at least in part because I felt (and still feel) a kinship with her. She was born to wealthy London parents but craved a life in the country, in a country village--like the village you’ve just described. That’s where she wanted to live, in what she thought of as the world of real work and things that really mattered. She wanted to have time to discuss the weather and gather fresh eggs and know the neighbors (although there was a catch there, because she didn’t always like the neighbors). And it was that real life, with its emphasis on animals and nature, that led her to write and draw the little books for which she is so famous. In 1901, when she was 35, she self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and the rest is literary history.
But she did get her farm. In 1905, when she was 39, she bought a Lake District farm, in the little village of Near Sawrey, and became a Lake District farmer. At 45, I became a full-time writer and Texas homesteader. When I learned Beatrix’s story, I felt I had discovered another version of my own life. Of course, I’m not a sleuth--and I have to say that my Beatrix isn’t, either. The Cottage Tales are very soft and cozy, and Beatrix’s sleuthing is of the “accidental” variety, more than any deliberate effort. She’s intrigued by puzzles and extraordinarily curious. She just wants to find things out.
Susan: Which leads me to ask you this, Rhys, about your own mystery series. Isn’t it stretching reality a bit, perhaps, to believe that a female sleuth could be successful in the early twentieth century?
Rhys: I get asked this question a lot, but in reality women were doing all kinds of amazing things, exploring the North Pole, riding across the Sahara disguised as a man and in World War 1 they had to take over many of roles normally assigned to men. Look at all those sheltered upper class girls who went out to the front as nurses and the horrors they had to deal with. ! I'm sure my Lady Georgie would have done brilliantly. She's been brought up to be plucky and resolute!
It's probably a stretch to think of a sleuth who is 34th in line to the throne--but it did happen that aristocrats found themselves penniless in the Great Depression and she needs to survive somehow. And having proved her worth, the royal family finds her useful as an inside observer where others of lesser rank couldn't go.
I have come across plenty of role models in my research for both Molly and Georgie. Nelly Bly was a role model for Molly—getting herself arrested to report on women’s prisons, and other daring exploits. The NYPD just had its first women detectives and one appears in my books. And for Georgie—well, I knew her, at least I knew people like her who had been in their twenties in the Great Depression. I married into a frightfully posh British family that goes back to King Edward III so the older relatives provided me with plenty of material (except they didn’t solve murders very often!)
Rhys: And that brings up a question for you, Susan. What kinds of research problems did you encounter as you began to work on the Cottage Tales? And why did you decide to write just eight books in the series? Isn’t that cutting it a little short?
Susan: You know, the research question is so crucial, Rhys, because there are so many different research challenges in the series. First of all, there’s Beatrix’s own life. Her most important contributions, her conservationist efforts, were entirely unknown until the last few years, when an American biographer, Linda Lear, began to study her. Until then, the focus was all on Beatrix’s creative, artistic work, and less on her life as a farmer and villager, which was really what interested me. So I’ve had to do some serious digging to pull it all together.
Another research challenge is recreating the village of Near Sawrey in 1905-1913, as closely as I can to the way it really existed. That involves the landscape, the animals, the weather, the people, their clothing and their dialect, the food they ate, their games and pastimes--oh, so much to learn! But that’s always what interests me about writing historic fiction: the opportunity to recreate a world that doesn’t exist any longer, and to make it real enough so that the readers want to go there!
As to the number of books, when I began to imagine the series, I decided that I only wanted to write about one part of Beatrix’s life, from 1905--when her fiancé, Norman Warne, dies and she buys the farm--to 1913, when she marries Willie Heelis and moves to the village. I’m sure that perfectly wonderful books could be written about other times in her life, but it was that eight-year period that interested me: how and why Beatrix grew into a mature and self-defining woman and could at last emerge from her parents’ iron embrace and move to the country for good, where she could live a creative, energetic life, away from the artificialities of London.
Susan: I wonder, Rhys--do you suppose that we all have this urgency inside us to somehow “get away” to a different place? For instance, what would you imagine to be a perfect place to write, if you were creating a writing fantasy place?
Rhys: It's strange that you asked that question because mine would be Beatrice Potter's cottage! I have this fantasy cottage nestled in a glen with a stream running past and roses growing over the porch and I'll sit at my window staring out at green hills with sheep on them. Of course I'd probably not get as much work done as sitting at home, looking at a blank wall!
Rhys: And you, Susan? What’s your fantasy writing place?
Susan: I live here already, Rhys. Bill and I have lived in the Texas Hill Country for nearly thirty years now. I have my gardens and woods and meadows and the animals that share the place with me--as well as a private place to write. I can’t imagine anywhere else that would suit me better. I just wish I could bring Beatrix here for a visit. I know she’d love it (although I’m sure she wouldn’t love our Texas summer!).
Rhys: Susan, thank you so much for inviting me in for a chat. I’ve enjoyed our virtual scones and clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam and the tea made in the big earthenware virtual pot.
Helen: I’m suddenly hungry. For scones and clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam. And for books!
Thank you, Susan and Rhys. What fun to have you both here. (Incidentally, if you Twitter,you can follow Susan and also follow Rhys.)
Okay, everybody, leave questions for Rhys and Susan - and tell us where your favorite writing place is (or would be if you’re still looking for that perfect spot).
6 months ago