Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A New Voice: Jeri Westerson

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Jeri Westerson developed a taste for noir while growing up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, at the same time she was absorbing the history of England in the Middle Ages from her Anglophile parents. When she began writing mysteries, combining the two interests to create what she calls “Medieval noir” seemed only natural.

Jeri worked as a graphic artist in L.A. and Pasadena in the mid 1980s and early '90s. After becoming a mother, she poured her creative energies into writing, but success eluded her. She continued to write while holding a variety of jobs –
luggage salesperson, wine-tasting host and tour guide for a winery, choir director, travel insurance agent, secretary, ceramic studio manager, journalist. At last she found a publishing home with St. Martin’s Press, and her debut novel, Veil of Lies, came out on October 28.

Jeri and her husband, a commercial photographer, have a son in college and
share their southern California home with two cats and a tortoise.

Q. Tell us about Veil of Lies and your protagonist, Crispin.
A. First off, thanks, Sandy, for allowing me to be here on Poe’s Deadly Daughters.

Veil of Lies is my own little subgenre, what I call a “medieval noir,” a darker storyline than you might find in medieval mysteries, with a hard-boiled detective. Crispin is an ex-knight, having lost his wealth, his title, his status—in short, he’s lost himself and now has to redefine his role on the mean streets of 14th century London. He found his niche by becoming the “Tracker,” my take on a 14th century private eye. He’s an interesting man; dark, brooding, a bit intense but very sharp. Likes to quote Aristotle. He’s much smarter than I am!

In this first in the series, Crispin is hired by a rich merchant to spy on his wife to see if she is unfaithful. When Crispin discovers that she is, indeed, up to something, he returns to the merchant to tell him the bad news, but the man is found dead in the proverbial locked room. What follows is a nest of lies and dangerous secrets involving international intrigue, a beautiful femme fatale, and a mysterious religious relic.

Q. Why is a modern woman like you hanging out in the 14th century? Why did you choose this particular era to write about?

A. Because it’s really hard these days to hang out in the 14th century. But seriously, it’s an era I have enjoyed researching and reading about for a very long time, really since I was a kid. My parents were both rabid Anglophiles and my father was even studying to teach medieval history. We had medieval history books on our shelves as well as the big names in historical fiction. I devoured those books as well as absorbed the odd discussion at the dinner table about some point of British history. Honestly, if I hadn’t picked up something I wasn’t trying very hard.

The fourteenth century in particular interested me because this was an era buttressed by the Plague in the early 1300’s and the forced abdication and murder of Richard II by century’s end. In between are the intrigues of court life, a nobility that now considers English its language rather then Norman French, tournaments, wars, a peasant revolt, Geoffrey Chaucer—you name it, it’s got it.

Q. Why did you choose mystery rather than straight historical fiction?

A. Ah, confession time. Actually, I was trying to get published in historical fiction for about ten, eleven years. But it’s an awfully tough market to crack. A former agent of mine recommended I try switching to historical mystery as an easier market to break into. My response: I don’t know how to write a mystery; I don’t want to write a mystery; I’m not going to write a mystery. But when a few more years passed with more rejections, I bloody well learned to write a mystery! But I didn’t want to write the run-of-the-mill medieval mystery. I wanted my own twist to it. So I combined my love for hard-boiled/noir fiction into this cross-pollination and came up with “medieval noir.”

Q. Why did you create a male protagonist? Does writing about a man of that period give you more freedom than you might have writing about a woman?

A. The thing of it is, I really never have written from the female point of view. Not in any satisfying way. I’ve always been a bit male-centric. There’s nothing misogynistic about that, I’ve just always had my mind geared that way, from my childhood as a tomboy to my writing as an adult. If I had wanted to write from the female POV, I would have found a way to give my character the freedom she needed to succeed. There are plenty of such role models in medieval mysteries. I just like getting into the mindset of a man. Particularly in this instance of a man with a strong code of honor. I’ve always been attracted to this “band of brothers” idea of men in battle and cleaving together in these intense relationships. In my experience and observation, women just don’t do that. With men, it’s very different. Maybe it stems from Neanderthal days of banding tightly together to hunt and defend, but it seems to be uniquely male. I like to explore that aspect of male personality with my character.

Q. Your characters have none of the tools used by modern detectives, professional and amateur – no telephones or computers, no databases, no forensics, no network of police departments. They don’t even have electricity. Does this allow you to be more imaginative and make up your own rules? Has the time period created any obstacles you’ve had to work around?

A. I don’t really find these to be obstacles. Getting into the mindset of the period is the fun part. I don’t really “make up my own rules.” I allow my characters to work within the rules of the society in which they lived. After sunset, a curfew is enforced and so now the only ones out on the streets are usually up to no good. It’s dark inside one’s lodgings except for a small fire in your hearth—your light and heat. You light a candle or oil lamp to chase the dark, but it’s still pretty shadowy. These are things I can use rather than having them be an obstacle in the story.

That being said, it must be explained that there were no private eyes in medieval England. The conceit of the character is in the “what if” factor: What if a man with his intelligence and skills were set adrift from all that he had ever known? What might he do for a living that would satisfy his intense sense of honor and justice? How could he do this and atone for his own sins at the same time? The fact of the matter is, such a person is possible. That’s what makes it interesting and challenging.

And as far as “medieval forensics”, you’ll have to scoot on over to Lee Lofland’s blog The Graveyard Shift at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ where I will be a guest blogger the first week of November, talking about what tools Crispin could have had at his disposal.

Q. Tell us about your road to publication. Was it harder or easier than you expected?

A. Let’s see. It took me 14 years and 19 novels to get a publishing contract, so yes, this was a lot harder than I expected. When I first decided to turn this long-time hobby into a career (I had already written three novels “just for fun” before I decided to write “for real”), I researched the situation. What was the industry like? What did I have to do to get published? Did I need an agent, etc. I worked hard to discover all these things on my own and just began writing.

Three years in, I got an agent and we worked together for three more years trying to place two of my manuscripts. To be fair, she did place one of them (an historical novel about Shakespeare and the earl of Oxford) with a small publisher, but they went out of business before it went to press. We finally parted ways. More manuscripts and two awful agents passed.

When I finally took the advice to switch to mysteries I had given up on agents and planned on going it alone to small presses. But has it ever happened to you? When you weren’t looking for it, it falls into your lap. Love, the perfect house, agents. I stumbled upon this agency and the junior partner had a degree in medieval literature. I courted him for about a year. We exchanged emails and he helped me revise my manuscript, all without a contract. After a year we signed. Though the first Crispin Guest medieval noir got rejected everywhere, the second and third did not. He placed Veil of Lies and the next in the series, Serpent in the Thorns, with St. Martin’s Minotaur. I’m still with that agency (you better believe it!).

Q. What do you enjoy most about fiction writing? What aspect of craft has been most difficult for you to master?

A. I really enjoy the research. You find the best turns of plot when you are researching something. I can’t tell you how many times I have been led in an entirely different direction from a footnote!

What’s the most difficult? The other things you have to do: writing a blog, maintaining a website, getting yourself out there to promote, the day job. I’d rather just write!

Q. Although you’re knowledgeable about life in the Middle Ages, do you still find that you need to research certain things?

A. There’s always some specialty you need to research or something that never occurred to you to look up. Each novel concerns a religious relic—it’s my McGuffin—and so what is known about that relic must be researched. Real people show up, so they need to be researched. I had to research the wool market in this novel, archery in the second, things like that.

Q. Do you have a strict writing schedule? How do you balance writing with your day job?

A. It’s not strict, but I like to write at least three to four pages a day. Doesn’t always come out that way right now, but I try. I work at a day job three days a week (the same place my husband works, so we carpool). He works late, so when I’m done at 5:30, I whip out my laptop and work for about two hours and write while he finishes up. On my days off I write and research all day.

Q. With your first book coming out, you’ll have to add promotion to your schedule. Where do you plan to aim most of your promotional efforts? Signings, conferences, online activity?

A. As a new kid on the block, signings at bookstores aren’t the best use of my time since no one knows me and may not make the effort to come out. But I am going to be at a few bookstores in southern California where I live. I will be in San Diego, Orange County, Riverside County, Los Angeles, and the Valley. Check my website for my appearance schedule if you’ll be in the area. There are two large mystery fan/writers conferences I go to – Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime -- and I will be starting to go to the Historical Novel Society’s North American Conference. These are expensive for me so I’m keeping that down to a low roar.

I also blog. You have to blog these days. I have a popular one called “Getting Medieval” at www.jeriwesterson.typepad.com and my character Crispin has his own blog at www.CrispinGuest.com. The website — www.JeriWesterson.com — is fairly static. I just add news and my appearance schedule to it. And, of course, I’m doing a blog tour by posting as a guest blogger on various blogs or doing interviews like this one and advertising the heck out of it. (You can view my blog tour schedule on my website.)

I’ll also be appearing on various panels around the southland and doing presentations at libraries and women’s organizations. Any place that will have me, really. I love giving presentations like: “The Challenges of Researching 14th Century London from 21st Century California,” “Top Ten Myths About the Middle Ages,” and “Medieval Forensics.”

Q. You had a blog before you sold your first book. How do you think that will pay off now that you’re published?

A. The blog helped me get recognized. I pushed myself out there with a variety of interviews of not only authors but librarians and small publishers. By advertising those to the mystery and history community I got noticed. At the first Bouchercon conference I went to back in 2006, I was shocked to discover that people recognized my name from my blog. It’s all about networking, really. My posts got linked by a few big bloggers, I linked back, chatted with them, met some of them in person at various book festivals and found myself suddenly with important contacts.

I figure readers will find my blogs to be good spots to get to know me and get to know Crispin. It will be a nice bridge for them between book releases.

Q. How long does it take you to write a book? Do you outline first or just plunge in?

A. I take about a month or two of just thinking about it (yes, I’m really working when I’m staring into space, at least that’s what I tell my husband when the laundry isn’t done), doing some preliminary research, taking notes and writing some scenes of dialogue that occur to me. And then I loosely outline, but I never seem to follow it once I start writing (but it’s good to have a starting point). And then I write, rewrite while I’m writing, and continue researching. In nine months, I have a novel ready to be critiqued. My husband reads it first—always. He’s my solid rock, by the way, the one who encouraged me to keep going for all those years of rejection. And then my critique partners—my Vicious Circle—get ahold of it and rip it a new one. And then I rewrite again and send it off to my agent, who also makes suggestions for changes. And then it goes to my editor, who will make even more changes. I’m actually pretty grateful that I started out life as a graphic artist. Having to create something for a client is good exercise for this sort of thing. You learn not to take these suggestions personally, thinking of it as just more clients you have to satisfy with your “product.”

Q. What mystery writers do you read? What have you learned from the writers you admire?

A. My biggest heroes are those writers of the past. I’m a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy Hughes. Dorothy Sayers and Ellis Peters are also faves. I’m also a big fan of current writers Julia Spencer-Fleming and Laurie King. But my tastes are quite eclectic, from J.K. Rowling to Arturo Perez-Reverte.

When I set out to create my own kind of medieval mystery, I started literally tearing apart the works of Chandler and Hammett to see what made a good hard-boiled detective. Dorothy Hughes lent me her noir strokes. Her sense of place is amazing. I wanted to use the spare style of Chandler but still give it enough of a lush feel of another place and time. It’s a tough act to follow, to be sure.

Q. Have you found writers’ organizations helpful? Would you advise aspiring writers to become active in mystery writers’ groups before they’re published?

A. Oh my God! Yes! When I switched to mysteries, I found a whole new world of opportunities. Not only are there numerous small presses devoted solely to mysteries, but there are also independent booksellers who pride themselves on just stocking mysteries. All over the country you can find these bookstores. Conferences. Panels. What a market! When I joined Sisters in Crime, I got the answers to the many questions I had. I found like-minded writers, support, critique partners. Really, everything you need to get a leg up. I don’t think I could have done it without organizations like Sisters in Crime. They are duly thanked in my acknowledgements. And yes, I would definitely recommend to start out in a local or online chapter. I belong to a “local” chapter, but it is quite far from where I live and a bit of a drive. I have found the online chapter to be most helpful (and saves on gas!).

Q. What do you see in your future? Where would you like to be as a writer in five years?

A. I would like to be well along in the series and with another medieval mystery series on its way. I’m already in the thinking stages of that one. I hope to be in a position to write a novel in each series every other year. I don’t think many of us can really devote the proper time to two novels a year. I don’t think I could do either justice, but we’ll see. I’m already a little ahead with the Crispin series because three are already written.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Don’t do it! Naw, just kidding. Well, don’t do it until you’ve done your homework and really know what you are getting into. It’s not easy. But if you are obsessed with writing and can’t not do it, then you’d better give it a go. And join writer’s organizations like Sisters in Crime. Get yourself a good critique group and—here’s the tough part—listen to what they have to say! You’ll save yourself a world of hurt if you can learn to take advice from other writers. You’ll learn to drop bad habits and begin to see your work more objectively. And when you finish your manuscript, don’t sit back on your laurels. Write the next one right away. You might find that the second one is better than the first.



11 comments:

Darlene Ryan said...

Welcome Jeri! I'm intrigued by the combination of noir and historical fiction. Do you plan to stay in the 14th century or will we see a more "modern" story from you at some point?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great interview, Jeri and Sandy. I'm married to a history buff who's also spent a lot of time hanging out in the 14th century. For a long time, Barbara Tuchman's A DISTANT MIRROR was his favorite book. How about you? And yes, I'll make sure he reads VEIL OF LIES. :)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Jeri. Why is it when you're an avid reader of histories & biographies, it is the footnotes that contain some of the intriguing ideas?
I'm finishing up a new mystery/suspense by one of the big name authors and all I can say is "Ugh." VEIL OF LIES should be here today or tomorrow and the weekend will be devoted to Crispin.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Congratulations, Jeri! What fantastic stories--about you and about your novels!
Can't wait to read VOL. And I love the idea of a Tracker! Great name.

(Terrific interview, as always, Sandy.)

Let us know when you're in Boston!

Jeri Westerson said...

Hi Darlene,
For now, I don't have plans to go modern. My next medieval mystery series will also be a unique twist on the genre...but I haven't decided which century it will be in yet! It, too, will be centered in London. it is likely it will be set earlier. Hope that peaks your interest! :)

Julia Buckley said...

This is a fascinating interview, and now I want to read your book, Jeri!

I like the concept of creating your own genre. Now I want to create one, too.

Anne Carter said...

Adding my congrats, Jeri! Great interview. I would never have considered reading something like this, but you've made it so intriguing I'll have to get a copy. So proud when a local "Sister" makes good!

Will it come out in ebook format?

~Anne

Jeri said...

Thanks, Anne. Give it a shot! I don't think St. Martin's has any current plans to make it an ebook. :(

Jeri said...

Hank, a funny side note. My friend kept emailing me about VOL. And I kept thinking, "VOL. VOL. What the hell is VOL?" ...until it finally hit me. Duh!

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