Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Medieval Noir: Jeri Westerson Interview

Jeri Westerson Interview

My blog guest today is Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest medieval noir mysteries.

Q:  Jeri, what is meant by “noir”?

A:  My books are styled after the crime dramas of “film noir,” those dark and shadowy stories of crime with disreputable protagonists, and plots where you know it won’t end well. However, I go slightly lighter and aim more for hardboiled, more along the lines of the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Q: Crispin is an entrancing character, where did he come from?

A: He comes from all those hardboiled detectives of the thirties and forties. When I set out to write a medieval mystery I wanted an unusual protagonist, someone to stand out amongst all the monk and nun detectives. I was entranced by the idea of placing a hardboiled PI in a medieval setting. And I wanted him to be a Private Eye of sorts, someone specifically hired to solve crimes. Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, was called a White Knight, a man with his own code of honor, so why not make my PI a real knight and slip in all those hardboiled tropes; a hard-drinking, hard-talking man who stands up for himself in the face of hopelessness; a guy who isn’t afraid to use his fists and is always a sucker for a dame in trouble. A lot of action and a lot of plot. It actually works quite nicely while still keeping it historically accurate. Of course he’s called the Tracker, rather than a detective, which was a term unheard of in that time period. He gets into all kinds of scrapes with thrilling action and adventure.

So I like to say Crispin is a sort of mix of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Errol Flynn. 

Q: When you start a new novel, do you begin with an outline and work out all the plot essentials, or do your stories evolve?

A: I have to outline. I always have an idea how it begins and how it will end—though sometimes the murderer does change. But I really have to know in what direction I’m heading. It’s not etched in stone, though. As you write, new ideas and directions present themselves simply through the process of writing, so I can veer down any dark alleys I want to.

Genre fiction, like a mystery, is different from historical fiction. Often, the historical novelist has years to work on a book. Not so with a mystery series. The fans and the publisher expects one a year so outlining is essential to me.

Q: Has Crispin taken on a life of his own, surprising you sometimes? Where do you think such characters might come from?

A: Crispin was carefully designed and I’ve carefully plotted out the rest of his life, at least his life in print, that follows the actual timeline of history. But that doesn’t mean he’s ever very far from my thoughts. There was one time when I was doing some extra research on John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster (Crispin was raised in the duke’s household and he was so loyal to him that he threw in his lot with other conspirators who wanted to put Gaunt on the throne. That’s how Crispin lost his knighthood and his place in the world). Anyway, I was absently reading about the duke and in the back of my head I was thinking that I’d come across some info about Crispin any time now. And then I pulled myself up short because naturally I wouldn’t find anything about him in this text book because he doesn’t exist! That was a strange and wonderful moment, because of course he does exist to me.

I think Crispin has been percolating in me for a while. I really do like the idea of writing about an outcast and someone who goes by his own rules. It’s a lot of fun to put him in awful situations as well as those scenes with a lot of pathos.

Q: What drew you to writing of the Middle Ages?

A: I was raised in a household of Anglophile parents who loved medieval history. It was all around us from the books on the shelves—both fiction and nonfiction—to the music my mother played on the record player. I grew up with a love of history and that time period in particular.  

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: How long have you got? Well, it’s quite an eclectic bunch. Old favorites like Anja Seton and Nora Lofts, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, J. R. R. Tolkein, Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Sharon Kay Penman, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, Arturo Perez-Reverte and J.K. Rowling…

Q: What do you think of the history of the historical novel – beginning as it did with Walter Scott, touching on Twain’s use of it in his “time travel” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for political commentary, to the present (predominance of the romance novel)?

A: I think it’s a wonderful way to time travel, to delve into fantasy. And actually, it’s been said that Mark Twain despised Scott and his playing fast and loose with history and that’s why he had his protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee exclaim “Great Scott!” as an oath.

It’s an excellent use of political commentary, too, which is a very old tradition. From the Bible to M*A*S*H*, it’s been used to comment on the present while disguising it as a story from the past. I do that just a bit in The Demon’s Parchment.

Historical novels seemed to have their heyday in the fifties and sixties and started to fall off again sometime around the nineties (when I was trying to sell mine! I couldn’t sell any of them and ended up switching to writing historical mysteries which I had been told were an easier sell. Turned out to be true in my case.) They did very well in the romance genre because that is all about fantasy, and a different setting and time is, well, romantic. But there is a great resurgence and historical novels seem to be doing better than ever. I think they’ll always be around. Readers do like to take trips to a different time and place, and they always seem to like the Middle Ages, too. Lucky me.

Q: Your work meticulously envisions for the reader the world of the backstreets of London, and of England (beginning in 1384), with the actual political circumstances of the period and some historical figures, yet your principal characters and their stories are fictional. Where do you draw the line? (For example, in Serpent in the Thorns – was France’s precious relic, the Crown of Thorns, ever actually sent by the King of France to England?)

A: As long as something is possible, and you work in the authentic realm of the piece, I think you can play a bit with some minor bits. Relics were nebulous things. Here one minute, gone the next. Passed here and there and then disappeared only to reappear somewhere else. Is it the “original?” No one can say. And no, the Crown of Thorns, as far as I know, never took that trip, but it could have. Thorns were taken from it and given to many of the crowned heads of Europe so why not? I draw the line at facts about the people themselves. I won’t make Richard do something he clearly didn’t, fight a war somewhere for instance, if he hadn’t, or marry him to someone he didn’t. As long as the facts are there, one can play around them. (John of Gaunt never raised a certain young knight in his household either, but that doesn’t stop me from putting Crispin there.) 

Q: You capture the mindset of your period so very effectively, including the religious aspect, which was so much a part of medieval life. Has rendering this for the modern reader been difficult for you?

A: I think we all understand something like this to a degree. We are under the power of our bosses at work, helpless under the vagaries of our government, so it’s not so different today. I think readers who like reading about history like learning about the different mindsets of those periods. The medieval period is rife with a social system and strict rules and as long as the characters follow those dictates consistently, the reader will begin to understand by context what the characters are going through. The Church was the foundation of society. The feasts help mark the seasons just as the bells marked the time of day. It was just part of their lives.

But at the same time, you can’t make the characters so foreign that modern audiences can’t relate to them. One thing that is the same is the emotions and motivations around crimes. Hate, jealousy, envy, greed, lust—all the deadly sins, really, are things contemporary readers can relate to. 

Q: Like many of Walter Scott’s principal characters, your Crispin expresses strong moral and ethical views, even at severe cost to the quality of his own life (refusing the return of his knightly status as it would entail loss of his own moral freedom.) Is this a quality you prize in literature? What is your view of publishing and author-impact as a social influence?

A: Crispin is an extreme example of the chivalric code. For most in this period, it was more about the honor of your superior than on an individual. But the idea of personal honor making for the greater good of society as a whole was certainly not foreign to the medieval mind. It was all rolled together with the notion of holiness and sin. And society, community, was most important in this time when everyone depended on everyone else to do their job. If anyone faltered it would all collapse.   

Do I prize this quality in literature? In the right literature. I suppose my general underlying theme is that might doesn’t make right, and that an inner morality can and does affect those around you. The individual can make a difference. Those are good things for any society.

There are many great works of literature that influence society. I doubt that mine are among them. My aim is to entertain, not create social change…unless that change leads to buying more books!

Q: While we are all in favor of freedom of artistic expression, in what direction would you like to see book publishing go in the future?

A: As you have no doubt noticed, (American) publishing is leaning heavily toward e-books. It’s not a bad thing, because it makes it easier for people to access books anywhere they want to be. But don’t be fooled that it helps the environment. We may not be cutting down trees but we are mining for rare materials that go into these technologies and people in countries outside the U.S. manufacture them under conditions that are far from ideal.

That aside, it’s great that we have new ways to send content, but I worry over how many incarnations they will go through. Don’t you hate it when your expensive device is suddenly obsolete? And a paper book doesn’t require needing a device in an ever-changing format or require batteries. It works in daylight or at night (with a light) and you could get it wet, dry it, and still read it. 

And I also worry that the creators of the content—the authors—will get the short end of the stick. A certain large online company is trying to school the public that a book should only cost “X” amount. When you have a traditionally published book, that is, one published by a New York publisher, that amount has to be shared by editor, book designer, copywriters, proofreaders, cover designers, agents, and, yes, the author. What kind of industry is this when the people who provide the content—the authors—can’t make a living at their chosen profession? It’s only something like one tenth of one percent who make it to the bestseller list. Well, I can go on all day.       

I just hope that authors can continue to share in the pie and that e-books can share shelf space with paper books. We need both.

Q: You seem to be very well served by Saint Martin’s Press. What can you and your editor and publisher do to keep trade publishing alive in this rapidly changing world of book publishing?

A: I just hope they are keeping up with the changing landscape. I know my agent is trying to stay on top of it. Me, I’m just writing the books.

Katherine Ashe's web sites:

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Day in the Life…

My apologies – I’ve been down with a nasty flu that left me capable only of wending my way through Jeri Westerson’s highly enjoyable Crispin Guest Medieval noir mystery series. Jeri will soon be interviewed here. Then, just as I returned to functioning, my computer crashed. I’m going to tell the tale of the day I spent getting it fixed.

First thing in my workday, which begins about noon since I’m very nocturnal: I turn on computer – no arrow, no functioning. I call my local Apple Store (fifty miles away) and they can see it right away (that is, an hour of quick driving from now.) Since I’ll be in the neighborhood, I change my photo appointment for the new picture I need for the new press release that’s going out for my book.

All is arranged. But Peter's scowling. There’s to be an ice storm this afternoon. I won’t be able to get home. So I call my friends Bob and Jim who live not far from the photographer and I arrange to spend the night with them. Off I go, and fall flat on the ice in my driveway. (Computer is okay; Peter is holding it and now is even more set against my leaving.) But I take off anyway, a trifle shaken up.

Let it be understood, there are no policemen where I live in rural Pennsylvania. Once, when I was home alone and there was a prowler, I called the police and was told there were only two on duty for the whole huge county at night, but they would send an officer up to see me in the morning. The officer I was talking to asked if I had a gun. I said we did. He said, “If he comes in the house, use it.” So I sat with a Colt revolver in my lap while the intruder rummaged in the cellar. Then (thank heavens) my human target went away.

So it was with the greatest surprise that, as I breezed through the nearby village of Thompson, I saw a police car behind me, blazing like a demented Christmas tree. I pulled over, and an irate officer came to my window announcing I had been going FORTY MILES AN HOUR and didn’t have my lights on. It was drizzling, and the only speed sign anywhere near Thompson states a 35 MPH speed limit.

I told the officer I was rather shaken up from a fall in my driveway and may indeed not have been behaving as I should. He offered to take me to a hospital. I told him I didn’t need a hospital. He insisted upon calling an ambulance. I told him I would not go anywhere in an ambulance. He repeated himself, and so did I.

At about this point in our increasingly emphatic discussion, a truck driver pulled up to give the officer assistance. The officer went to talk to the truck driver for a while, then the trucker went on his way and the officer returned to my window. "Did he mean to defend you from me?" I asked. He replied, unamused,“How did you hurt yourself?” “My elbow hit the ground, causing my shoulder to hit my jaw and ear. I don’t think that could cause a concussion.” The officer contemplated that, and went to his car. I admired the delicate green of a pair of his six flashing lights for a while, then got bored and took out my Kindle to read.

Eventually my tormentor returned. “I’m not giving you a ticket, but I’m giving you a warning.” He handed me a slip of paper to sign. “Oh, thank you, Officer. Actually, I’m so glad to know there are policemen here,” and I told him my experience with the intruder. He seemed impressed, especially when I added, “I don’t think I could shoot a man, but would rather have been shot instead.” 

It was at this point I noticed his name tag. “My heavens, I wrote a play about your ancestor!" Well, I had written a play about a man with the same name. And now I had a happy audience as I told the officer the whole story of my play. We parted best of friends, with him promising to look up my books on Amazon and buy all of them. I always tell Peter that he should leave dealing with policemen to me (he’s gotten a ticket twice in the thirty-two years of our marriage.)

Now there was no time for me to get to the computer repair before my appointment with the photographer. Being meticulous about the speed limits, I still managed reach to the photo studio with one minute to spare. Then it was on to the computer repair. I had been considering buying an iPad, so this was a good opportunity. But, for this, I found I had to buy the newest operating system for my computer so it could communicate with the iPad – and incidentally, it would save me the repair charge since it would take care of whatever was ailing my computer. I agreed. And bought an iPad. (by now, I was figuring this excursion was putting the better part of $1000 on my credit card, but hey, I didn't have to pay a speeding ticket.)

The installation of the new program would take three hours – and the ice storm was coming. So I arranged to retrieve my computer the next day, and I rushed back to the photographer to pick up the photo prints. I’m hard to photograph; I either look cross or I look like a jack-o-lantern, but this photographer had, after many tries, gotten a shot I actually liked. I’m mostly my knitted hat.

Photos in hand, I drove over to Bob and Jim’s, with the road starting to freeze beneath me. Jim had just gotten home from New York City and said the highways were treacherous. So, while the world around us froze (I called Peter to let him know I was safe and richer by an iPad), I had a civilized evening of dinner and conversation about the publishing business and the misdemeanors of Amazon, Jim’s particular adversary. While this might sound dry, it’s a topic that never tires me since I’m deep in the grip of this swirling maelstrom of change in the book business. But then came the high moment of the day. Jim had gotten a new fur coat, (he’s a whizz at e-bay) and insisted upon giving me his last fur coat achievement, which, amazingly, fit me perfectly and did not fit him.

So I came home the next day, not only with a speeding warning, new photos, a new operating program in my computer (which would take me three days to master) and a new iPad, but swathed up to my knitted hat in fluff that transforms me into an apparent (hatted) Ghost Bear of the Pacific Northwest.

(No, it's not that rare creature, it's not bear at all. It's coyote, and since coyotes have eaten numbers of my geese and chickens and nearly got my sheep -- we reached a point where no animal could be allowed outside the barn -- I might look on this coat as a repayment of sorts.)

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Jan. 24, 2012 A Midwinter Night's Delight

I'm just finishing reading Debra Brown's The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, and if the title seems a bit old fashioned, a survival from the 19th century, it's not without reason. And a very happy discovery it is for me that such a work, elegant in its manners, thoroughly original and not an imitation of Jane Austen, is finding great popularity among readers.

Those who crave explicit sex and violence can look somewhere else. Perhaps the greeting "The Companion" is receiving suggests a weariness with those tawdry subjects and, along with the wave of Austen enthusiasm, a rising yearning for visions of virtue set amid exquisite manners and sensibilities.

Those interested in the history of literature and theater will find delight here too, with echoes back to Cinderella, or further back to Roman comedy with a lost child and a ring.

But breathtakingly, joyfully, what we are treated to is the perfect book for an operetta. Oh for music by Franz Lehar! Those who don't love "The Student Prince," "The Merry Widow," "The Land of Smiles" need not apply. But for those, like me, who long for more sweetness and innocence in our entertainments, I wait eagerly for Brown's next book.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Millennium and Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel died in December, he was perhaps the clearest exponent of the the millennium of this thousand years, that began with the creation of an elected parliament in 1258 -- and of the need for an electorate worthy of democracy. His fundamental belief in a "moral  minimum" shared by all religions, and at heart by all people, is the very essence that must be cultivated, cherished, kept alive from day to day despite the comforts of prosperity and the hazards of times that are strained or worse.
But how do we keep that spirit of rightness and responsibility alive?

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jan. 17, 2012: Romania Now

Today’s post is messages I’ve been receiving from the protests in Romania:

Jan 16: Everyone entering a main square in every Romanian town has to show an ID to the police (which had surrounded that square). They note anyone in order to give them fines( which are half a monthly medium pay) so people are somehow discouraged to go to meetings; the meetings are spontaneous as ordinary people are just trying to cry their bitterness against the hardest measures ever taken in EU (in Greece, the medium wage is 4-5 times higher than In Romania but its government did not cut it at all whereas our government did cut it by 25%). My point is the Greeks were manifesting the entire 2011 for a lot less trouble than our trouble here).
Because the meetings are not organized and have no official approval, they are considered illegal and all the participants are fined; this way, the poorest people cannot go as they have no money.....

Jan. 15: Since Friday, we live another Revolution, with demonstrations in every main town and with street fighting in Bucarest! The ruling party being of extreme right, we expect the worst consequences. Until now, no state authority had anything to say, which is extremely curios. Everywhere else, Greece or Hungary, in similar situation, the prime minister appeared to try some conciliation......but here, nothing....scary....
I am wordless as right now we see live on TV that a young man (just passing by, not a participant) was beaten by police as he tried to escape the poisoned gases. His leg has been cut off!

Jan. 8, 2012: Education: Part Two: Sweet Destruction and the Busy Child

At times I’ve thought that Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder might be the product of boredom, and in some cases it might. But I’ve also been treated to a view of erratic busyness that can only be described as obviously abnormal and unhealthy. A teacher coping with this understandably might despair of imparting any learning.
I mentioned before my adventure of taking a child (an eleven year old boy) to New York to see the Christams tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The expedition included his mother, an eight year old girl who was his neighbor, and a friend of the mother.
Six hours into the trip (the first three hours had been spent on the bus), the boy was not just obsessed with getting a baseball cap as I mentioned before, but was actually hurling himself against lamp posts and the walls of buildings. He was incapable of looking at anything except baseball caps, and was fairly unresponsive when spoken to.
He had started the day in a normal, enthusiastic way, excited about the bus trip, thrilled at sitting up front with a broad view of the passing landscape, and chatting with the amiable driver. He had a grand time on the subway too. Though the tree at the Met didn’t greatly impress him (weren’t those angels like the cone angels at Wal-Mart?) the swords and armor at the Met were a wondrous discovery for him. How did he soon become this crazed being hurling himself into buildings?
Let’s look at what actually happened on this trip.
Before we got on the bus we bought breakfast sandwiches and coffee and sodas at a convenience store. By the time we reached New York, the boy was thirsty and had another soda. After the subway trip uptown and the bus across town, it was time for a hotdog and soda outside the museum. Half an hour later we had to leave the museum because another soda was needed. By this time the boy was using the emptied soda bottle in his right hand to rapidly beat on his left hand. And he was becoming unresponsive. Unfortunately, we got wedged into a terrible crowd on Fifth Avenue by Rockefeller Center, but by the time we got ourselves safely over to Sixth Avenue, it was time for another soda. At the Port Authority Building it was suppertime. The boy had a fine looking hamburger with all the trimmings, but ate only the bun, while drinking another soda and eating a dessert. His mother said nothing about what he did and didn’t eat, fearing no doubt that if she crossed this super-charged child, she’d have a screaming banshee to deal with.
While our dietary precautions lead us to monitor fat intakes, just how much sugar do we take in? This child had so many calories to burn that he was very literally bouncing off the walls.
Sodas, in that ancient time when I was a child, were a rare treat. Actually I only got Coca Cola when I had the flu, and then only by the tablespoon. Those were ancient times. Now soda is for many of our population the primary beverage. More cautious parents may prefer fruit juices, but that’s no answer to the sugar intake issue.
How much of ADHD may be caused by excessive sugar intake?
I’m not going to blame the soda bottling corporations that are making hearty profits, nor the pharmaceutical firm that profits from Ritalin while we drug our children into a semblance of calm. Parents and school cafeterias are where the problem may well begin. Try stopping all this business with the sodas. Why not drink milk? And why the Hell does McDonalds charge more for milk than for sodas? Let the fast food restaurants do a public service by SUBSIDIZING milk consumption.
(When our farmers here are being forced into bankruptcy because of the controls on milk prices, one must ask why milk is so expensive for the consumer?)
And if the child has a milk allergy, water might be considered a possible beverage for children?


Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Jan. 7, 2012: The Sin Nobody Knows About

Jan. 7, 2012
Being a medievalist, occasionally I post on the Seven Deadly Sins. This topic is Acedia.

What’s that, you say. (Even my husband, with twelve years of Catholic education, says he never heard of it.)
Acedia: the failure to attempt to live up to your potential. It appears on some lists of the Seven and not on others. Aquinas and Dante have a lot to say about it. You can look it up on Wikipedia.

The idea behind it was that each person is blessed by God with a unique potential, and to fail to try to fulfill it is to undermine God’s intent. This ranks as a sin comparable to suicide: throwing back in God’s face the gift of life –which would get you excluded from burial in hallowed ground in the old days.

Whether you believe in God or not, making the most of what you are certainly is good advice in any case. Of course life never, or at least usually, doesn’t make it easy.

Acedia. Perhaps this is the sin that over-arches all the others, since the others are really a matter of allowing your focus of attention to be absorbed in a mode of behavior that is going to be destructive to you, and to others, in the long run if not right away. The other sins all lead to Acedia – diverting you from fulfilling what you ought to be doing.

Acedia. It fits yesterday’s post. Focusing on sports, adoring athletes, or rock singers, actors, talk show hosts, whatever, to the exclusion of developing your own potential in a meaningful way. Yes your boy or girl may learn to throw a ball really well. Just what good does this really do for mankind? Or for his or her security in terms of being able to make a living in a way that brings some daily happiness?

Acedia leads to despair, most often the dull sort that makes life a daily trudge, sparked only by the engineered consumerism of TV entertainments, especially sports. It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? Bring the child up on the hopeless fascination of sports so that he or she hasn’t the practical means to develop a fulfilling life of his or her own, and is left with the life long escape back into sports – buying overpriced shirts with ball players’ names and numbers, for themselves and for the next generation they are bringing up in their own hollowed-out footsteps.
We don’t have to live like this.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series