Welcome to Dames of Dialogue, Mary and Eric! Tell us one strange and provocative tidbit from your life that nobody has heard before.
MR: There is, if they did not throw it out when housekeeping at one time or another, archival footage in the BBC vaults of my riding around the office on Clive Sinclair’s prototype electric bike. It was extremely heavy due to the battery mounted at the back, and increasingly difficult to control. Thus the bike wobbled somewhat as I passed between desks delivering letters. Even so my young nephew thought it was quite the bees knees to see his aunt on TV.
Tell us about your latest book.
MR: Ten For Dying opens with the theft of a fragment of the Virgin’s shroud by two demons while an unconnected and blasphemous ceremony is under way nearby to raise a woman from the dead. Murder and intrigue follow. Felix, commander of the palace guard, is ordered to solve the mystery but has to rely largely on his own wits to do so.
Unfortunately for him, an anonymous corpse is left at his house before… and his good friend John, former Lord Chamberlain, had sailed away into exile the morning after the theft. Among the characters are the diminutive magician Dedi of Egypt, Julian, popularly known as the Jingler because he wears so many protective charms his approach is announced by their jangling, General Belisarius’ wife Antonina, and the famous charioteer Porphyrius, not to mention Felix’s newest and somewhat mysterious mistress Anastasia.
When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
EM: I am. How could it be otherwise? My characters only exist in the words I type onto the screen. I’ve always thought the idea of characters taking over is a bit of romantic hyperbole. Certainly there is more than a bit of mystery in the creative process. None of us are really sure why this or that idea bubbles up into our consciousness when it does. Why did that plot twist suddenly occur to me? Why did I decide John should say that to the emperor. (That…of all things…boy, is he in trouble now!) Well, perhaps we form the idea of a character in our minds and in our subconscious that idea influences other ideas. So I might admit that my idea of my characters sometimes takes control.
Who are your favorite authors, the ones you read when you should be doing something else? Why do they appeal to you?
EM: It’s hard for me to name favorite authors since I tend to go from one to another. I am a very promiscuous reader. Two favorites though are John D. MacDonald and Mickey Spillane. They are typical of writers I enjoy in that they write things I can’t imagine writing. There’s no way I could manage to think enough like Mike Hammer or Travis McGee to write convincingly about those guys. Which is precisely why I like reading about them.
Promotion is a big–and usually the most hated–part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
MR: We’re promoting year-round to a certain degree. So we provide guest blogs and interviews, details of which, along with relevant links, we announce in Necessary Evil, the BSP section of Orphan Scrivener, our e-newsletter. We tweet @marymaywrite and @groggytales are our noms de Twitter) and blog — Eric has his own blog and I contribute each 18th of the month to the Poisoned Pen Press multi-author blog — and we both provide content to M. E. Mayer’s blog. M. E. is the shadow identity chosen by our British publisher Head of Zeus, and M. E.’s blog is heavy on reviews of Golden Age mysteries, of which I am a great fan. Then too there are appropriate signature lines, varied as much as possible to keep content fresh, on posts to mystery-related elists.
We also have a home page, hanging out on the Web’s virtual washing line at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ With our website we have made an effort to provide content that is not all about us, so for example it features a couple of games written by Eric, two of our ghost stories, and libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural.
Who or what has been the biggest influence in your writing career and why?
EM: My wife Mary. Without her I wouldn’t have a writing career. At least not a career that included fiction writing. For years I made sporadic and unsuccesful efforts to sell science fiction short stories, mostly because that was the genre I read growing up. I was familiar with the magazines. Never mind that I stopped reading much sf in my early twenties. After we were married Mary managed, with difficulty, to talk me into collaborating with her to turn a vague idea I’d had for a sort of locked room mystery into an actual story. Ideas, of course, are a dime a dozen. As far as the mechanics of writing a mystery went, presenting suspects, parceling out clues, I didn’t have…well…a clue. So it was a learning process for me. Our first co-authored story, An Obo Mystery, was set in Mongolia and appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Over the years I’ve learned more about writing mysteries but Mary remains the puzzle maven.
What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
MR: To tell our stories to readers we shall never meet nor know. It’s quite startling to consider John’s adventures have been read in places we shall never see for ten books now, particularly since when A Byzantine Mystery, the first short story about our protagonist, was published in Mike Ashley’s collection The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits we had no notion we would write more of them, much less embark on a series of novels. So we are ever grateful to have had the opportunity to talk about John’s world and for the interest readers have shown in it.
What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
EM: Basically it’s meaningless. Or only meaningful in a very trivial way. We all know everything we need to know to write whatever we want to write. Is there any writer who hasn’t experienced basic human feelings like love, hate, fear, joy, anger, curiosity? Settings and technical details can be researched. Neither Mary nor I, nor anyone living, has ever walked the streets of sixth century Constantinople, but we can read history, and more importantly I’ve lived in New York City and Mary has lived in Newcastle-on-Tyne. The particular details are not as important as knowing what it feels like to live in a big city.
How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.
MR: Primarily as writer of historical mysteries. We’ve also written two historical mysteries set in different eras from the Byzantine series and published several non-Byzantine short stories, as well as the Dorj stories set in contemporary Mongolia.
Describe your writing process once you sit down to write–or the preliminaries.
MR: First, get the coffee brewing, then look up any applicable notes for the chapter to be written, then sit down and type and see where I end up. Eric, however, is much more formal in that he prefers to work from an outline. He also serves as resident coffee wallah, an important role at Casa Maywrite.
Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
EM: Definitely. Starting out with Little Golden Books and later the adventures of Tom Swift Jr., my parents never failed to bring me a book when they went to town. Most of my reading came from the library though. The family scraped by on a teacher’s salary, which wasn’t what it is today, and to keep me supplied with books would’ve required living in a box under the bridge. Luckily the library was only about a mile distant. When I first started reading I’d come home with a stack of as many picture books as I could carry and in the summer, when I was free to read all the time, I’d exchange them for a fresh stack the next day.
Did the classics have any effect on you in your formative years? (Shakespeare? Alice in Wonderland? Gulliver’s Travels?)
EM: Is The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham a classic? Well, surely it must be. My grandmother read that to me before I could read for myself and it was magic. It transported me to an entirely different world, and one that was in many ways more attractive and exciting than the one I lived in. Great friends, wonderful adventures. So I became addicted to books because they took me out of my own humdrum existence and I even tried escaping into my own writing. I’m not sure it was altogether healthy but it certainly helped form me.