ONE FOR SORROW, which kicked off Mary Reed and Eric Mayer’s John the Lord Chamberlain historical mystery series, was the very first novel published by Poisoned Pen Press back in 1999. Two decades later, the husband-wife writing duo is still going strong, with the 12th installment, AN EMPIRE FOR RAVENS, now in stores. In this interview, Mary explains how she and Eric managed to connect with the Press all those years ago, the amount of research that goes into recreating the world of Byzantium in the sixth century, and the fascinating inner workings of their collaboration process.
Question: The John the Lord Chamberlain series, of which is the 12th installment, was the very first novel published by Poisoned Pen Press back in 1999. How did you and your husband, Eric Mayer, manage to connect with the Press, since they had virtually no track record back then?
Mary Reed: It’s an interesting, not to say unlikely, story. Poisoned Pen Press was founded in 1997, and that same year published AZ MURDER GOES…CLASSIC, a collection of papers read at a crime conference in Arizona. The topic was what makes a mystery a classic, and the compilation was nominated for the 1998 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work. We wrote to the Press to congratulate them, while also boldly asking if they were considering publishing fiction. As we later learned, it happened that when our email arrived, editor Barbara Peters had just been observing that there seemed to be no Byzantine mystery novels, so purely by accident we chose just the right time to inquire.
Q: The amount of research that seems to go into each John the Lord Chamberlain entry must be staggering. How do you go about recreating the world of Byzantium in the sixth century in each book?
MR: We burn a great deal of midnight oil and imbibe quantities of coffee in the course of consulting all manner of websites and books. Occasionally we find information in unlikely places — for example, contemporary mosaics and statuary provide useful details on clothing, or at least garments worn by the wealthier classes. We find that older books in particular have much interesting and useful information (Gutenberg is our friend!), plus we keep our notes from previous books in case we need to refresh our memories on some point. If all else fails, we have been known to grill appropriate experts who we’ve found are always generous with their time and knowledge, despite some of the odd questions we’ve posed!
Given that it was the first time we had set a novel in Rome, and with neither of us having set foot in the city, the research for AN EMPIRE FOR RAVENS involved consulting over 150 sources on topics ranging from sixth-century medical practice, catacomb inscriptions, Roman proverbs and folklore, and tavern signs to the Goth sieges of Rome, contemporary personages, furnishings and cuisine, and architectural and historical details of important buildings in the city. Procopius’ THE SECRET HISTORY and his HISTORY OF THE WARS, J. B. Bury’s HISTORY OF THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE, Samuel Ball Platner’s A TOPOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF ANCIENT ROME, and William Smith’s A DICTIONARY OF GREEK AND ROMAN ANTIQUITIES are always really useful sources, as well as enjoyable reads in their own right for anyone interested in this period of history. We also must give a nod to Lacus Curtius, Bill Thayer’s extensive and fascinating website.
Q: Setting a mystery novel in the sixth century was an inventive notion. Have there been any historical mystery series over the years that helped shape your approach to writing the John the Lord Chamberlain series?
MR: Neither of us can recall any that did! Really, it was a case of up and at it. However, we were both fans of science fiction and (in particular) fantasy when we were younger, and our writing approach is derived from the world-building found in those genres. We see sixth-century Constantinople as a place as different from our present day as we are to Middle Earth. Of course, we are constrained by historical fact but even so hope to immerse readers in our “alien” world of long ago. However, as I have been known to say, we will extrapolate from what is known for the purposes of the plot, and provided our statements do not violate the laws of the universe, we’ll stand ready to defend them any day.
Q: There have been several husband/wife writing teams in the world of mystery fiction and beyond, and like snowflakes, the collaboration process for each couple is likely unique. Please share your methodology with us.
MR: We begin by tossing ideas around, and after a while one puts itself forward as the starting point for the next novel. Then we are off to the races, ping-ponging plot thoughts between us. After a while, when the bones of the plot are decided, we sketch out an outline. That’s Eric’s job as he has the more analytical mind. Or at least that’s my excuse. It usually takes a while to get that organized, but once done we begin writing chapters or scenes individually, sometimes wandering a bit from the outline, often out of chronological order, and occasionally working on different chapters at the same time. There was one book where the opening and closing chapters were written first, leaving us with just the bit in the middle to write. Then, when a scene or chapter is completed, we pass it over to the other party for rewriting as needed. We’ll trade them back and forth until we both agree we have its first draft completed. Usually it takes a couple of trades to reach that point. Once the manuscript is done, it’ll get a couple of polishes before it is sent off to the Press. With this sort of co-writing, there is no room for ego, so if one of us insists that a certain scene be included or deleted, the other agrees it shall be so.
Q: You’ve also written two mystery novels set during WWII under the pen name “Eric Reed.” What is the biggest difference in preparing to write one of these versus a John the Lord Chamberlain novel?
MR: Because we are now so familiar with the layout of sixth-century Constantinpole, we can stroll around its streets, dash as quickly as possible through its dark alleyways, direct visitors to churches and other famous buildings, and make our way with confidence around the grounds of the Great Palace, all without consulting a map. But there is still a lot of room for creating streets and structures from whole cloth, because there are many areas where the topography is simply not known, so we have a free hand to create a little bit of the city landscape.
Not so, however, with World War II Newcastle-on-Tyne. People still with us remember living there in wartime, and of course much more is known about the period, including those indispensable aids to research, contemporary photos, documentaries, and Crown Film Unit informational films. Thus there’s virtually endless material from which to draw — but also a great deal less leeway on inventing suitable details for the plot. Although the scanty ruins of the Roman temple playing an important part in RUINED STONES still exist on an ordinary street in Newcastle, we did erect a couple of fictional roads and a building or two. This was because, as we explained in our afterword, we took poetic license — or perhaps we should say poetic building permit — to do so. Easily accessible census records show who lived in every house on every street, and we did not wish to inadvertently press gang real World War II city residents into service on the fictional ship Ruined Stones.