Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jane Finnis on The Roman Empire, The Beauty of Yorkshire, and the Glorious English Apple Pie

Your mysteries, Get Out or Die and A Bitter Chill, are set in First Century Roman Britain. Living in England as you do, were you always fascinated by the Roman ruins in your country? Or did this setting emerge generally from a love of history?
I’ve always found history fascinating. I remember as a small child marveling at the straight Roman roads in East Yorkshire where I was brought up, and being awed by the mediaeval Minster at York, where we went every year for the Christmas Eve carol service. Then when I was about thirteen, I read Robert Graves’ wonderful pair of books, I Claudius and Claudius the God, and from then on I was hooked on Ancient Roman history, and I still am.

Your heroine’s name is Aurelia Marcella. What sort of research did you do to place Aurelia authentically in the ancient world?
I did, and still do, a mass of research on the Roman Empire in the first century AD. I love research, so it’s no hardship. I read hooks, by modern historians and also by classical writers; I use the Internet (but one needs to be cautious here, because some websites are richer in enthusiasm than scholarship;) I pick the brains of experts, and find people very generous with information.

Your home in Yorkshire, pictured so beautifully on your website, looks a little bit like paradise to me. You were born in this country, moved away from it, and have now returned. What’s it like living in Yorkshire?
In a word, great. Yorkshire is England’s biggest county (though I know it’s small by U.S. standards,) and Yorkshire people have often been likened to Texans. We don’t merely believe that our home area is the biggest and the best, we know it is! We have a big variety of countryside – dramatic peaks and moors, gentle green wolds (where I was brought up, and my books are set,) sandy beaches, tall cliffs, rich farmland. We have all kinds of towns also: the business city of Leeds, historic York, Scarborough by the sea, and any number of small market towns. And don’t forget the villages and hamlets…I’d better stop, this is turning into a tourist promotion.

But it's working! You told me that you also once lived in Wensleydale, in the Dales, which were made famous, for me, in the James Herriott books. Isn’t Wensleydale also famous for its cheese? (I learned this from watching Wallace and Gromit, mind you).
There’s a white Wensleydale cheese, and a blue version. They’re made from cows’ milk now, though long ago sheep’s milk was used. The white one is a mild cheese which goes well with apple pie; other cheeses do this too, as long as they’re not too strong. There’s a Yorkshire saying, “An apple pie without some cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.”

Now I have the strongest desire for pie . . . You share a blog with The Ladykillers: Rhys Bowen, Cara Black, Mary Anna Evans and Lyn Hamilton. How did you all come together to begin this blog (aside from being mystery writers all)?
Rhys Bowen invited me to join the blog when it had been going some time, and another mystery Lady Killer dropped out from pressure of work . Of course I was delighted, especially as Rhys and I go back a long long way – we were at College together in London in the swinging ‘60s (we were both very precocious children, you understand!) We were writing even then – we wrote and performed comic sketches and songs together around the University. We always knew we wanted to write for a living, and here we are – though nobody then foresaw the Internet, let along blogs. What surprises await today’s young would-be writers, I wonder?

On your blog, you recently posted about the fact that you love to come to America, but that your experience going through Customs was so unpleasant that you would think twice about making the trip again. My husband had a similar experience trying to LEAVE the country when he recently went to South America on business. Do you think that the post-9/11 world has created this problem, or did airport officials always enjoy abusing their authority?
In my experience, confirmed by other travelling Brits, the rudeness and aggression of US immigration officials are a post 9/11 development. The unpleasantness of it all makes me very angry, and also very sad.

You’re working on a new Aurelia Marcella book called Buried Too Deep. What’s this one about?
Part of the book takes place near the sea, and part, as before, at Aurelia’s inn. Aurelia’s sister Albia and her family get caught up in a feud between two rich and powerful landowners, who both appear determined to acquire all the neighbouring smaller farms, including Albia’s own. The crimes of a band of sea-raiders add to the violence and confusion. Aurelia and her brother Lucius the investigator get drawn in to try to stop the feuding, as does Timaeus, a Greek doctor who lives near Aurelia’s inn. (If you’ve ever wondered about Roman medical procedures, you’ll learn some of them here.) Various killings and a missing shipment of gold combined with unforeseen consequences of a long-ago family drama make Aurelia’s effort at peace-making an extremely dangerous undertaking.

I have not wondered about Roman medical procedures, but I will now. Your mysteries have a similar setting to those written by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (interviewed on this blog). Do you three know one another?
We’ve never met – I hope we will some day – but I feel as if I know them, especially Mary, who originates from Britain, not far from Yorkshire in fact. We’re all published by Poisoned Pen Press, and the PPP authors are a lively and supportive group, keeping in mutual touch through our own email list. Mary is a regular contributor, and I think it was she who came up with our group’s nickname – the Poisoned Pen Press Posse.

You have a red Cocker Spaniel named Copper. Do dogs ever appear in your mysteries? Did people keep dogs as pets in Ancient Rome?
I love dogs, and Copper, though a rascal, is a lovable one, who came to us from a dog rescue place. Dogs do take part in my mysteries; one plays quite an important role in A BITTER CHILL, when…well, never mind. Romans kept dogs, cats, and other creatures as pets, and Aurelia has several dogs, but hers are farm dogs really, employed for herding and guarding as much as for their company.

Do you speak Latin?

Speak it, no. Read it, yes, but slowly and with frequent dips into my dictionary.

You also have broadcasting experience. What sorts of things did you do in the broadcasting world?
I worked first as a radio producer for the British Information Service, and then went freelance as a radio reporter and documentary maker, mostly for the BBC. I still do very occasional odd reporter jobs for the BBC if they need a stringer in my area. It’s a wonderful job, though you’d never make a fortune at it; but it gives you a licence to meet fascinating people, ask interesting questions (and sometimes daft ones,) and if you’re making a documentary, you get to research in depth. Programmes I remember with special pleasure are a series about ESP, another about modern farming which took me all over the UK, and a documentary about women in history who served in the armed forces disguised as men (like the 19th-century US “marine” Lucy Brewer.)

You have a pond on your property, which is home to fish, frogs, a newt, and various butterflies who like to visit there. This seems idyllic; do you ever sit there and plot your stories?
Yes, often. I write there sometimes too, using a laptop, but the British weather isn’t always very co-operative, (and truth to tell, I’m too easily distracted by the lovely setting!) so I do most of my writing indoors in my office.

I am terrified of planes, but if I ever get on one I will fly to England. Yorkshire is one of the places I’d like to visit—where else would you recommend that I go, assuming I had all the time in the world? :)
Heavens, what a question! There’s so much choice, you’d certainly need all the time in the world! I’ll just pick five of my personal favourites for now, aside from Yorkshire, which of course contains York, one of my favourite cities because of its long history. First London, still one of the world’s great cities, a wonderful mixture of past and present; second, the woods and coastal area around the New Forest (Hampshire and Dorset, the south coast;) third, the dramatic mountain scenery of the Lake District; fourth the historic city of Bath, a special favourite of mine because of the remains of the Roman baths there; and fifth, the unspoilt countryside of the Wye Valley near the Welsh border.

You have me drooling now. I am an Anglophile who has never been to England, but someday . . .

The historical mystery is a very popular genre. What do you think draws people to this combination: history blended with mystery?

You’ve put your finger on the reason, using the word “blended”. Historical novels have always been popular, and so have mysteries, and if a writer can successfully combine these two strong elements, he or she is onto a winner. Even people who “don’t like history” (usually because of poor teaching at school) find they like learning about a different time and place, if they can do so while enjoying a good plot and interesting characters.

Were you a fan of Ellis Peters?
Yes, especially of the Brother Cadfael books. I think my favourite is probably Monkshood.

What are you reading now?
I’m between books as I write this: an unusual situation for me, and it won’t last long. I’ve just finished The Empty Chair by Geoffrey Deaver, and enjoyed it, especially the mounting tension towards the end. I’m about to start The Last Precinct by Patricia Cornwell. I haven’t read any of hers before, so I can’t say yet whether it will be my cup of tea, but I’ll enjoy finding out. After that, coincidentally, will be a book by another Cornwell – Bernard this time. I love his Peninsula War novels about the riflemen Richard Sharpe and Sergeant Harper, and bought Sharpe’s Havoc just the other day.

What sorts of interesting details have you pulled up about life in Ancient Roman Brittania? What did they eat? What games did they play? Are there any other curiosities you’ve uncovered?
Heaps and heaps of them. The details of food, clothing, and home life in general which I put into my books are as accurate as I can make them. For the book in progress now, I’ve been finding out about Roman medicine, which was surprisingly sophisticated, considering they didn’t have microscopes, didn’t know about germs, and had no anaesthetics of course. Their doctors could successfully mend skull fractures, set bones, and stitch up wounds. Some of this I describe in the book, but I try to keep a balance between telling it how it was, and making it too gory.

That would be a delicate balance, I fear. As a lover of history, do you ever wish you could travel in time? Do you enjoy reading time travel stories?
I’d love to travel in time; first to – you’ve guessed it – Roman Britain, but then to almost any other era and place, as long as I was certain I could get back to my “home” period. Perhaps Restoration England for starters, then France at the time of the 1789 Revolution, then back to Britain for Victorian times. I enjoy time travel tales: among my favourites are Wells’ The Time Machine, and Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

People sometimes criticize English food, suggesting that it is bland. Is this true?
No it isn’t, although we do have our fair share of tasteless “junk food” here. But English food at its best is a world-beater. You won’t find anything tastier than a joint of roast British beef or lamb…roast duck with orange sauce…a good rich game pie…or for simpler fare, fish and chips, freshly fried and still sizzling. Round off the meal with sherry trifle, or apple pie (ours is just as good as the American kind!) And if I can broaden my answer to include Scotland, smoked salmon from there is wonderful, and they grow the best raspberries you’ll ever eat.

I should know better than to ask a writer about food--they always make it sound so good! You refer to Yorkshire as “God’s Own Country,” so it’s obvious that you find it beautiful; but if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’ve been lucky and have traveled fairly widely, but there are still so many places left to explore, or to re-visit: Italy, the French Alps, northern Spain; Arizona and the south-west of the USA, Hawaii, perhaps on the way to Australia and New Zealand.. And if I live long enough, I’d like to travel in space, to see the Earth as a blue ball floating against the stars. Now that would be something!

It really would. Thank you so much for chatting with me, Jane!

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