Thursday, July 09, 2009

Susan Wittig Albert and Rhys Bowen

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).
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  1. I love the Texas Hill Country! (Former Houstonite here.)

    Thanks for sharing. Interesting format, too.

  2. Hello Alexis. I bet you're as hot in Houston as we are in the hill country - except you have the humidity to deal with!

    I so enjoyed the Q&A. It was fun to see what they asked each other.

  3. Great interview concept! Kudos also to Helen who is the penultimate blog book tour host - in fact, if you look in the sidebar, she wrote a guide for hosts.;) And Susan, you live my perfect life - if only that slice of heaven were on one of the coasts. LOL.


  4. A wonderful and entertaining interchange. Loved this format for a guest post.I liked Rhys' answer to Susan's query about an early 20th century female sleuth having success. There were LOTS of incredible strong women back then, just the male dominated media didn't make much of them. You go, girl! :)

    The Old Silly

  5. First, nice job by two pros. Thanks for sharing.

    My question is for you both. Series writing. Do you get bored with it? Do you find yourself asking, “Hmmm. We did X, what shall we do for Y?” Or, “Gee, X looks a lot like Y. That won’t do.” Do you find it as challenging as creating different characters, settings, and plots every time out? Thanks.

    I like to write in the study of my home. It’s pretty mundane. There’s no great view, just peace, quiet, reference books, a comfortable chair, and accommodating desk. It works fine because I get lost in my character’s world pretty quickly anyway. Maybe my answer should be, my favorite writing place is anywhere my characters are.

    Best regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  6. Do I get bored? No, never. But after 17 books in one series, 12 in another, 7 in the third, I do ask myself the questions you pose: Have I done this before? and Does this look too much like that? I think a lot about keeping a series fresh. And yes, it is a challenge, especially because some readers seem to prefer the same-old same-old in a new book. I posted about this issue recently:

    Re: your "mundane" writing spot. I like what Stephen King says about that: "It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around." I work with my back to the window, my face to the fall. As you say, it's easier to lose myself in the fictional world that way.

  7. Dani, this is for you, re: the "perfect life." If you could see the dog-fur bunnies in the corner, the piles of books on the floor, and the laundry waiting, you could see that this life is a lot like any other. It has its beauties, its freedoms--and its dark side. I tend to get terribly compulsive when I'm 50-60,000 words into a project and growl a lot at the dogs and the cat and the DH when I'm interrupted. Maybe it's fair to say that writing is like any other at-home job: it tends to take over the rest of the life, whatever Stephen King says. When I'm writing a book, that's the center of my life. And I don't take weekends off. Maybe not entirely healthy?

  8. Rhys, I love reading British mysteries, too. I think you're right--the village aspect really pulls me in. It sounds like many of your characters are amalgams of people you know. How do the real-life inspirations view their fictitious counterparts?

    Susan, I have more of a comment--I love the idea of Beatrix Potter as a protagonist. I've always admired Tasha Tudor, who died recently, and thought how wonderful it would be to have a similar life. It will be nice to feel I'm living it when reading your books!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. Elizabeth, it's interesting that you mention Tasha Tudor, because the comparison of Potter and Tudor is so apt. Tudor has written that she was quite an admirer of Potter's work--although she didn't know anything about her life on the farm in the Lake District. (Nobody did, until Judy Taylor wrote her biography of Potter in the mid-80s.) It's interesting that Tudor created for herself the same sort of life that Beatrix did, and for many of the same reasons.

  10. What a great post idea to have Susan and Rhys asking each other questions. Very interesting, ladies.

    And just a note about those early 20th century gals--my mom left home at 17 to attend nurse's training in Chicago. She was independent, feisty, and very brave (at least, that's the way Mom tells the stories).

  11. They were really feisty and brave, Patricia! My aunt Jo was one of the first female telegraphers on the railroad in Missouri in the 1910s. Unusual job for a woman in those days. I loved her railroad stories.

  12. Wonderful post and interesting exchange between two talented authors.

    Love the comments, too. Glad I am not the only one with "dog-bunnies" in the corner, but I don't growl at my dog. Just my husband. :-)

  13. Terrific morning read. Now I'm off to Amazon!

  14. Susan Schoch7/09/2009 1:32 PM

    Susan and Rhys, thanks so much for sharing the conversation. it's always enlightening to hear authors speak about their work, and their workplaces. now a question for you about research. Susan, your comment "I’ve had to do some serious digging to pull it all together" left me wondering how far you take the research. For instance, did you feel compelled to go to the Lake District before you began the series? For either of you, how many hours of research do you feel is justified for each book in an historical series?

  15. Susan Schoch7/09/2009 1:37 PM

    Thanks, Helen, for hosting this dialogue. I'm a newbie on your site and this was a delightful introduction. I look forward to more…

  16. Susan S, the answer is yes, I went to the Lakes before and during the writing of the series. It's a place I love, though, so the visits were more like pilgrimmages than research trips! That said, I knew I would have to do very substantial "place" research, because I'm writing about a place that many people know, and I want the books to be taken seriously, as credible presentations of the landscape and the people. I supplement that on-site research with a great deal of text-based and Internet research. But I think I had to be there first, before I could write about it.

    As far as hours go (eyes rolling here) I couldn't begin to say. I just do all I can, and then some, and I know I haven't done enough. For this series, there's the research into place, people, language, Beatrix, the animals (ask me about badgers!), and on and on. But it's all a joy. Truly.

  17. Welcome Susan Schoch! I hope you'll be back often.

  18. This is what happens when you show up late for a party - some people have already left!

    I do want to thank Susan and Rhys for their books. They keep me entertained. I love reading series because the characters start to feel like old friends. Of course, it is difficult when your friends don't visit often enough. My only question is - can you write faster?


  19. Very good question, Charlotte. I'm sure Rhys and Susan could write faster. Sleeping is overrated.

    More books! More books!

  20. Maybe we could, Charlotte (although my DH would probably say 'nuff's 'nuff!). But the publisher has only so many "slots" during the year. It's a general rule (may have been broken but I can't think when) that each series gets only one book a year. The key word, though, is "series." Right now, I have two series, so I'm doing two mysteries. Next year, I'll have a new series and be doing three--so maybe you'll have some new friends to visit with.

  21. I'm also coming late to the discussion today but I have a good excuse. I've just flown into Portland on my book tour and have a few minutes at my hotle before I go out to do my event.

    Getting bored with series? I made a vow that if ever I thought "oh no, not that one again," I'd quit writing it. However I adore writing both Molly and Georgie. They are such fun, feisty females and the two series are so different that I enjoy exploring the darker side in Molly and the lighter side in Georgie.

    Many thanks to Helen for hosting us and to Susan for taking the time to chat with me. Please check my website, to see where I'll be speaking during the next few weeks. I love seeing friendly faces.

  22. Susan, I don't know how you can do three books in a year! Wow.

    Rhys, have fun on your tour. Hope you took your own pillow - I always end up wishing I had when I travel.

  23. I finally took a break from my day's work to treat myself by reading your charming interview. Helen, it is a great format.

    Susan/Rhys, my question for you both is this: How long do you research your era/locale before you feel you can start your first book in a series. I'm a history major by training (with BA and MA in Colonial History) and I always feel overwhelmed by the background. I can't get beyond preparing to get engaged with the story I want to tell. I always feel I need more details, more facts, more period color.

    Again, this was great.

  24. Husband and I have spent several summers in England, centered in Oxford, but traveling north and northwest. Inspiration literally jumped on me like a fast growing vine, just seeing the fabulous green, undisturbed countryside. I sat in Boscastle thinking what a great location for a book and now there is a BBC TV series, Doc Martin, that appears to be filmed there.
    Seeing the spires of Oxford from the place where Hardy's Jude first glimpsed them gave me shivers.
    I try to make my own wooded retreat, just making do with our short trees, hotter weather and remember my beloved England as inspiration. And, even in the heat, I love to make husband a traditional English tea, clotted cream, scones, and all!

  25. Thanks to both Susan and Rhys for a fascinating exchange, and to Helen for hosting it.

    As for my ideal writing space, it would be right here in the Northeast - I keep planning to build a writing shack in my back yard. It's definitely not my current office, which is up under the roof and gets very hot in summer. It also doubles as the cats' bedroom, so I can't use it between 11pm and 7am. That will soon change, though.

    Susan, I like your description of your home in Texas, but I've been reading your recent posts about the serious drought - I'm afraid I'd get panic attacks if I lived there.

    Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso

  26. Kendra, there's another response here on the area/locale research. To elaborate a little: the easiest thing is to set your fiction in the land you love and know. There are so many stories lurking behind familiar towns, local folkways. If time/travel/expense are limiting factors in your writing life, go local. You'll be amazed at what your research turns up. (I can say that: I have one "local" series, China Bayles, and try to work something historical in to every book. I love learning about the land.

  27. Hi, Julie--the drought, yes, yes, is a serious issue. But that's the nature of the land, even if it's uncomfortable, inconvenient, and even frightening. And with global warming underway, we'll all have to learn to live with change in the climates we're currently adapted to.

  28. I agree that research can become overwhelming and time consuming. For the Molly books I tend to do a lot of broad background reading before I start on the book, then I have a large library of New York history books that I place within reach as I write. And of course I call the NY historical society if there's something I need to know and I go to NY and walk the streets and have friends there who can look things up for me.
    For Georgie, I know London well, I have relatives who sound like the people in my books so it's just a question of tying in real history and making the royals as true to life as possible.
    Yours from Houston (car came for me at 4.15 this morning) Rhys

  29. Good lord, Rhys, where are you going that you had to leave at 4:15 a.m.? Whew. And welcome to TX. Hot enough for you??

  30. I tell ya, cars that pick you up at 4:15 in the morning are why authors are going on virtual tours!

    I, among many others, love your China Bayles series, Susan. For both of these authors, you can learn while you have fun reading a great story.

  31. Geez, I'm late to the party but I loved reading Susan and Rhys's Q&A.

    Thanks, y'all, and thank you, Helen! Try to stay cool in this maddening heat-wave!

  32. I tell ya, Lynn, I am tired of triple digit temps. This year just seems incredibly hot to me!


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