JERI WESTERSON TALKS TO SANDRA CAREY CODY
Jeri Westerson writes mysteries that combine the gritty edginess of noir detective fiction with the intrigue of the Middle Ages. Her debut novel, Veil of Lies, was nominated for the Mystery Reader’s Journal’s Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. The Boston Globe called her detective, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass … this book is pure fun.” Booklist and Library Journal were equally enthusiastic in their praise. The second book in the series, Serpent in the Thorns, was a finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award and garnered reviews comparable to the first. The third in the series, The Demon’s Parchment, will be released October 12, 2010. To learn more about Jeri, you can visit her blog www.Getting-Medieval.com for articles on history and mystery or visit her character’s blog at www.CrispinGuest.com. Her website is www.jeriwesterson.com
SANDY CODY: What prompted you to become a writer?
JERI WESTERSON: I’ve always created stories. Before I could read and write, I would just illustrate them and sometimes my older sister would write down the “storyline” as I dictated it. Then I started writing my own. It was just one of the many creative things I did for fun. I think creative people are resourceful in many disciplines at once. Sometimes they don’t explore them. At home, I was the one who could draw, so art was my thing, but my thing was also singing and acting and writing. I never viewed the writing or the drawing as something to make a living at. In fact, from early on I was aiming myself toward an acting career, but after some real world auditions in college, I found that I was not suited for that kind of rejection and switched majors to art. I was a successful graphic artist in Los Angeles for many years before I slowed down and semi-retired to have a baby. It was having that toddler at home that prompted me to explore the possibility of being a novelist and remaining a stay-at-home mom. And, at the time, I thought, “How hard could it be?” Plenty, I found out.
CODY: What part of writing do you find most satisfying?
WESTERSON: When you’re in the zone and sentences are just flinging themselves onto the screen. That’s very satisfying. I know that there are many new authors out there who find typing “The End” very satisfying, but I’d been writing and finishing novels for decades before I sat down and took this seriously, so I know that I can finish a novel. I’ve finished twenty-one of them!
CODY: What part do you find most difficult?
WESTERSON: The middle. I think everyone says that. You can get excited about the beginning and you know that you have to get to the end, but sometimes the middle is where you lose steam. I find that I have to outline these days. Not a very detailed one, just one that lets me work out on paper what will happen in what order and then I number the paragraphs for chapter breaks. I know I can always change things around later.
CODY: What comes first for you? Character? Story? Setting?
WESTERSON: Well, I guess in truth, the setting is first for me because of the medieval setting, but character is right there too. It has to be or there is no story. My characters are very three-dimensional to me and it must be absolute that they inhabit the space they are living in. That is, that they can’t really translate to another place and time. They belong in their setting and their setting informs who they are.
CODY: Where do you find inspiration?
WESTERSON: For my Crispin Guest novels, I really do find inspiration in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels. I know this seems to belie what I just said in answer to the previous question, but I like to be inspired by their detectives’ situations and the characters they encounter and translate the sense of all that in the medieval setting. I’m writing hard-boiled detective fiction set in the Middle Ages, after all, so it’s gotta come from somewhere.
CODY: Tell us about Crispin Guest.
WESTERSON: Crispin Guest was a man born to privilege. He didn’t always have an easy time of it growing up (He was orphaned at seven) but he always knew who he was and where he was going. He was a serious student and well versed in languages and history as well as the art of warfare. He was an excellent jouster and swordsman. He is loyal to a fault and his loyalty to his mentor and foster father, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, ultimately becomes his downfall.
When the duke’s ten-yar-old nephew, Richard, was to take the throne, there were whispers of jumping the line of succession and fetching the crown for the duke and, because of his loyalty to his mentor, Crispin threw in his lot with the conspirators. The plot was discovered and the other conspirators were put to death. Crispin was to suffer the same fate, but instead, the duke spoke for him to the now King Richard and begged for his life. Crispin’s life was spared but his wealth, status, knighthood—all the things that defined him—were taken from him and he was banished from court and set loose on London with nothing but the clothes on his back. He re-invented himself as the Tracker, a man who, for a fee, finds lost objects, rights wrongs, and brings to justice the occasional murderer. It’s difficult for him to reconcile his past with his present circumstances, living as he does in the stinking butcher’s district, eking out a life and mostly going hungry. But he does what he can to satisfy justice—doing his own personal penance on the streets of London—while keeping his tattered honor intact.
In short, he’s a dark and brooding character . . . and a sexy beast.
CODY: What attracted you to this particular time period?
WESTERSON: I’ve always been attracted to the Middle Ages. My parents were rabid Anglophiles and we had plenty of books, both non-fiction and fiction, of the period. It’s a romantic period, I think exotic and full of pageantry and rules and cruelty and beauty. And I love sword fights!
CODY: Obviously, a series like this requires a lot of research. Tell us something about your research process. Is it part of the fun of writing historical fiction or a difficult slog to get through? How much time do you spend on research compared to the actual writing? Do you finish all the research first or does it continue as you write your story?
WESTERSON: If you are going to write an historical, you had better like the research because you will be doing a lot of it all the time. And it’s really an integral part of the plotting process. You get some really great ideas while doing the research, things that you find you want to incorporate in some way. The trick is not to dump so much stuff into the book that it reads more like a treatise. You don’t need too many details to place the reader there. As long as your characters know what they are doing, it naturally becomes part of the context.
I usually take about three months of solid research before I begin each novel. And then there are things I have to research as I go. I will usually stop if I come to something I’m not sure of because if I don’t, it inevitably changes all sorts of things when I find out the real facts. You’d be surprised!
CODY: What other projects are in the works?
WESTERSON: The third Crispin Guest novel is coming out this October. It’s called The Demon’s Parchment, and Crispin number four is in the can and will be released next fall. It’s called Troubled Bones. So right now I am developing/writing a new medieval mystery series with all new characters. It’s a lot lighter in tone than the Crispin Guest series, with a lovable rogue type of protagonist. It’s also unusual and, again, my own subgenre on medieval mysteries. I’ll let you know more the farther along I am. It’s fun writing new characters but I still feel a little unfaithful to Crispin when I’m writing it.
CODY: What other authors do you especially admire?
WESTERSON: I admire a lot of authors from the past, mostly Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, James M. Cain, Dorothy Sayers. Contemporary authors I admire are a little more eclectic: J. K. Rowling for the fun of the Harry Potter series and some truly monumental and enviable outlining. Arturo Perez-Reverte for his prose (and that of his translator), Alan More for some inspiring wit and taut and memorable characters in his graphic novels.
CODY: What do you do when you’re not writing?
WESTERSON: Reading and cooking. I love to cook. And I love to travel. I get to do a lot of it now as an author, though it is breaking the bank.
CODY: Do you have a schedule for writing or do you squeeze it in when you can?
WESTERSON: I must schedule it. Currently, I am without a day job so I’m trying to keep to a discipline of writing ten pages of the novel a day and still write those thirty guest blog posts for the fall, write and get published (I hope) some short stories, and continue to plot and plan my promotional stuff. I try to do emailing and business stuff in the morning and write the novel in the afternoon and evening. Sometimes late into the evening, which I can’t do when I have a day job. Money’s tight, though, so I don’t know how much longer this reprieve will last.
CODY: What refreshes you creatively?
Naw, just kidding. Nature refreshes me. I have a lovely backyard I spend time in and I take long drives and do fun things out with my husband.