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