1. Tell us about your latest published book in your John the Lord Chamberlain mystery series, SEVEN FOR A SECRET.
We can do no better than quote its official blurb! And here it is:Who killed the mosaic girl? As Lord Chamberlain, John spends his days counseling Emperor Justinian while passing the small hours of night in conversation with the solemn-eyed little girl depicted in a mosaic on his study wall. He never expected to meet her in a public square or afterwards find her red-dyed corpse in a subterranean cistern. Had the mysterious woman truly been the model for the mosaic years before as she claimed? Who was she? Why had she sought John out? Who wanted her dead—and why?
The answers seem to lie among the denizens of the smoky streets of that quarter of Constantinople known as the Copper Market, where artisans, beggars, prostitutes, pillar saints, and exiled aristocrats struggle to survive within sight of the Great Palace and yet worlds distant. John encounters a faded actress, a patriotic sausage maker, a sundial maker who fears the sun, a religious visionary, a man who lives in a treasure trove, and a beggar who owes his life to a cartload of melons. Before long John suspects he is attempting to unravel not just a murder but a plot against the empire. Or is John really on a personal quest, to find the reality behind the confidante he thought existed only in his own imagination? Is there such a thing as truth in a place where people live on memories, dreams, and illusions? Even if there is, can John push aside the shadows and find the truth in time?
2. How did the idea for your protagonist, Lord Chamberlain, John, come to you?
One afternoon we had a call from Mike Ashley in England, who was in the process of editing The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits.
He asked us if we could write a short story for the collection on a very tight deadline — less than a month — so we said we’d have a go. The first question was which era to pick as its setting. It happened Eric is interested in, and had several books about, the Byzantine period and in particular the reign of Justinian I, so we picked his court as our setting. For a protagonist we decided on John, making him lord chamberlain. He was also created as a eunuch which was both historically correct and allowed for a streak of melancholy and the suppressed rage in his character.
Because he held such high office he was wealthy and so in a position to investigate in all social classes, and to add extra dramatic tension we arranged for Empress Theodora, a strong-willed woman to say the least, to conceive a hatred of him. Thus while John serves Justinian and gains some protection from that, at any moment Theodora might demand John’s head be removed—and she would get it too. Plus we made our protagonist, a former mercenary, a worshiper of Mithra, a highly dangerous religion for him to follow since it was proscribed at the time. Thus he must necessarily practice it in secret along with fellow devotees.
A Byzantine Mystery was written in a week or two and was duly published. At the time we had no notion we would write more short stories involving John, much less a series of novels, so in a nutshell we freely acknowledge John is all Mike Ashley’s fault!
3. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Having just finished John’s latest adventure at the beginning of June—EIGHT FOR ETERNITY, which takes place during the January 532 Nika riots and will be published in April next year—we still haven’t decided on the next project. Which is not to say we haven’t been researching and mulling over various possibilities. We do expect there to be a ninth book in our Byzantine series, but whether that will be the next thing we write we can’t yet say. With a wealth of ideas, it’s often difficult to pick one on which to concentrate so regrettably this somewhat unsatisfactory answer must suffice for the nonce!
4. I imagine writing as a team has to have its good point and bad points. Can you tell us how you manage it and what a typical writing day is like for you?
The most important thing is you must leave your ego at the office door and be prepared to sacrifice what you may regard as your best writing for the overall good of the book. And, of course, we can and do disagree about what is good for the book! It might seem that a writing team would be able to finish a book in less time than a solitary author but since both of us write and/or rewrite every scene and need to discuss our ideas and accommodate each other’s thoughts, co-authorship may very well take longer.
On the other hand we bring to the books two different sets of skills. Mary, for example, excels at designing mystery puzzles and arranging clues artfully and fairly throughout the story, something that Eric would be hard pressed to manage. Eric, on the other hand, is good at handling description. (Did we just say Mary writes the play and Eric moves the scenery around?)
A typical working day? Well, we tend to have the opposite to most working schmoes inasmuch as we are just as likely to be working at ll pm as not. Get up late and work late pretty much sums up our typical day. Eric, in particular, likes to finish a scene in a day, regardless of how much of the day it takes — usually most of it. The vital thing is to keep the coffee pot going!
5. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Anywhere and everywhere! For example, a newspaper report fishermen in Hong Kong had caught an alleged mermaid led to The Ladyfish Mystery, one of our Inspector Dorj stories. Similarly, an article about curse tablets not only inspired All That He Calls Family, a short story involving John, but has also provided background material for one of the novels.
Working in the shadows of history as we do, we’ve also used incidents mentioned in Procopius’ scandalous Secret History as kicking off points for our somewhat convoluted, not to say Byzantine, plots. In fact the plot of EIGHT FOR ETERNITY is based on accounts of the 532 Nika Riots in Constantinople, as well as a curious incident which took place near the Persian border, years earlier, as related by Procopius in his History of the Wars. For historical novelists, taking incidents from history and contemporary reports is not unlike a modern writer grabbing an idea from a current news story.
We tend to take our plot ideas from history rather than formulating our plots and then adding historical coloration.
6. You both are very prolific writers, in both fiction and nonfiction. How do you move back and forth between the two? Any problems keeping it all straight?
The two types of writing are so different that keeping them straight is not problematic. On the one hand you have facts to be reported and data summarized and on the other imagination takes wing. The only problem is muttering under our breaths about the necessary time taken for non-fiction when we would far rather be writing fiction, but then that’s a common complaint of all authors, we suspect.
Moving from one to the other does, however, cause Eric some problems. He writes a lot of legal articles where the last thing that is wanted is any creativity. Legal writers aren’t allowed to make up laws, no matter how much more amusing fictional laws might be! So there is often some uncomfortable grinding of gears when he has to get his imagination out of storage and start it running again.
7. Promotion is an essential, and oft lamented, part of being an author these days. Tell us a little bit about how you promote your work. Any tips for other authors?
Our promotion is almost exclusively online, so thank goodness for the Internet! There are many opportunities to promote on it, including but not limited to participation in appropriate e-lists, issuing an email newsletter, contributing articles to websites, including your title in your email signature line, and so on. Lately there has been much interest in visual promotions such as Youtube videos and book trailers on authors’ websites, and many authors belong to social networks such as Myspace and Facebook.
We may just be Luddites, but we are not very comfortable promoting our writing with anything but words. We figure our potential audience consists of people who love reading, a trait becoming increasingly rare, and not, say, avid movie-goers, so things like book trailers are not for us.
Also, we believe it is important to remember it’s not all about us. Take participation in e-lists for example. The writer should be posting on various topics and not just showing up every so often with a “drive by” announcement of a new book whenever one is published. Newsletters are another effort that can backfire. Since we abhor in-your-face promotion, our Orphan Scrivener has an apologetic section we call Necessary Evil, which relates such news as there may be. But we also each write an essay — their topics often not even related to mysteries—and these two sections sandwich Necessary Evil and are always much longer than that section. Thus the newsletter is not about our writing as such, which is uncommon for newsletters, but the arrangement suits us and seems to please those who receive it or read it on our website.
8. You’ve received many outstanding reviews from some well-known book reviewers and multiple awards for your writing, but what is your most cherished reader reaction to your work?
It really relates less to the work than to an acknowledgement!
A gentleman who read ONE FOR SORROW wrote to Poisoned Pen Press with a request to be put in touch with a person mentioned on the novel’s acknowledgement page. This we were happy to do. And thus by an almost unbelievable chain of events, two old friends regained contact after losing touch with each other many years before. This occurred almost ten years ago and since then one of them has died, so it is a poignant anecdote to recall.
9. Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
No doubt our editor at Poisoned Pen Press, Barbara Peters, who has given us a chance to write eight books thus far. If Barbara had not bought all those books we would not have much of a writing career at all. But we must not forget Mike Ashley who, as we’ve mentioned, bought the first John story and for whom we wrote numerous other short stories, which led eventually to our books.
10. What part of the craft of writing has improved since your first book?
We’re still serving our apprenticeship in the craft, but we’ve certainly wrassled some of the more technical aspects to the mat since we first wrote together! One that springs immediately to mind is the comma before the “and” in a list with more than three items. This is completely alien to a British writer, who would automatically omit that last comma before the “and” — and I did, alas, until I trained myself to remember to put it in place. Granted, the use, or lack thereof, of the serial comma may not add much to a reader’s enjoyment, but there are quite a few rules like that to follow.
Where we have probably improved most is in the overall structuring of the books. Our first book, as submitted, consisted largely of set scenes which we had conceived of pretty much for themselves and then strung together into the semblance of a plot. Our editor had us do quite a bit of work on that first book! Now our stories probably move along more smoothly and at a better pace. Events are, we hope, easier to follow. We had both had a long apprenticeship learning how to use words for short pieces, but we had no experience in putting together anything as big as a novel.
That said, we recall someone once remarked that novelists didn’t learn to write a book until they’d written a millon words. We are still not there yet, but getting close.
11. It’s obvious from some of the stories on your website that you are cat lovers. Do you have any pets now and can you tell us a little something about them?
At the moment we have one cat, Sabrina. She will be twenty-one in October, having been rescued from a neighbor’s garage by Eric, long ago, in another time and another place. She enjoys having a scrap of cheese when we have a snack. Perhaps she just likes to feel included. She has a bad habit of yowling in the morning to get us up, much too early. Apparently she has never learned that we stopped keeping regular working hours when we started freelancing.
Her former buddy Rachel is still with us in spirit, and also, to a degree, physically, since his (yes, “his”. She was named by a couple of young kids!) ashes reside in a canister on an office shelf. We sometimes catch a glimpse of Rachel’s passing shadow out of the corners of our eyes.
12. Besides writing, what else interests the two of you?
Eric has, at times, been involved with drawing, orienteering, and even programming simple computer games of the text variety. Lately most spare time has been taken up writing books. He does, however, continue to write essays, another longstanding interest, mostly for his blog.
As for Mary, she has quite a range, really. History is a great interest, particularly social history focusing on the lives of the ordinary working schmoe for the period 1900 to 1950. But she also reads on many topics, ranging from mythology and British folk customs to Golden Age mysteries and classic tales of the supernatural. The latter pair led to her collecting free etexts of stories in both genres for the two online libaries now on our website. The problem is every time she finds a new title, she is tempted to read the book!
To find out more about Mary and Eric and their books:
Eric’s blog: http://www.journalscape.com.ericmayer/
Official blurb for EIGHT FOR ETERNITY:
In January 532 the mobs ruled Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire. Against a murderous backdrop lit by raging fires, John, Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, must find those seeking to use the Nika Riots to dethrone the emperor. But are the ringleaders still in the city—or even alive?
Porphyrius, the most famous charioteer of his time, may know more than he tells about the mysterious disappearance of two men under imperial guard. What roles are a pair of brothers with a distant claim on the throne playing? Does a headstrong young girl hold the key to the mystery? With the fate of the empire at stake will General Belisarius and his armed troops side with the rioters or remain loyal to Justinian?
To some the riots portend the end of the empire, to others the end of the world itself. John must untangle a web of intrigue in a city where death holds court in every corner before the escalating violence in the streets removes all hope of finding those he seeks.