Friday, July 14, 2006

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer: A Mystery Writing Duo

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You are a husband and wife writing team. How do you go about working together? When did you start writing as a pair?

Eric: First we've agreed to check all our weapons at the office door. But really it all starts when at some point one of us will say, "I've just had a thought. What if...?"

Once we have the initial concept for a plot we spend part of every day for a couple weeks batting ideas around. Eventually we have an outline. This is the fun part. It reminds me of making up stories when I was a kid. No doubt two heads are better than one for this process, since we can come up with twice as many possibilities. Mary will think of twists I wouldn't and vice versa. Some writers don't like outlining, but it's necessary when two work together on a mystery where all clues and loose ends have to be accounted for by the end of the book.

Mary: After we have a detailed outline of around 15 pages, we begin writing chapters. One of us will write a first draft for a chapter and hand it over to the other for rewriting as necessary. Meantime, the other writer will be drafting another chapter -- this is where the outline is vital -- and then we'll trade chapters back and forth until we decide the novel is done. After that, there will be some rewriting but usually the second draft of the complete work is considered final, or at least before our editor sees it. Looking back at our books, after a few years we often can't recall who thought up or wrote a particular chapter. And the odd thing is while we have very individual styles of writing, our blended writing has its own air which is neither fish nor fowl and yet fortunately works very well.

Tell us about John the Eunuch and your latest book, Six For Gold.

Mary: Well, John is not your usual detective. He's a Greek, free born but captured and sold into slavery, during which period he was emasculated. Fortuna brings him eventually to Constantinople to work at the Great Palace. He is intelligent and literate and therefore of greater value than many slaves,plus as a former mercenary pretty handy with the blade as and when necessary.

In due course, after rendering Justinian--then waiting in the wings to take over ruling the empire --assistance with a secret and delicate mission, John regains his freedom, thus setting his boots on the ladder to the high office of Lord Chamberlain to Justinian. That story is told in Four For A Boy, prequel to the series, which also explains how he met some of the major characters in the stories such as Felix, now captain of the excubitors, Isis, the Egyptian madam, and Anatolius, the young secretary to Justinian, among others.

Eric: In Six For Gold we sent John to Egypt to find out why sheep in a remote village were cutting their own throats. The previous two books had beenfairly dark so we thought it might be a good idea to write something a little lighter and to get John out of the city for a change of pace. However, he encounters the usual eccentric suspects, including a pretentious local landowner battling a self-styled magician for control of a lucrative village shrine, an exiled heretical cleric, an itinerant bee-keeper,and a disgraced charioteer. Part of the story involves John's friends Felix And Anatolius back in Constantinople, so the dark and dangerous alleyways of the capital get to make an appearance.

Publisher's Weekly called your John the Eunuch series
"Captivating." That's got to feel good. How do you try to captivate your readers?

Eric: I think the important thing is to keep the story interesting. And I can only judge that by what's interesting to me. We put in a lot of accurate historical detail because we both love history, but we try to integrate the detail into the story, keeping descriptions and explanations brief, and providing each book with a map (Sixfer had two) and glossary. We try to bring every character, however small his or her part, to life by giving them some personality, some agenda of their own, even if the reader only glimpses it in passing.

And not all of our characters are villains. Some are admirable. People we'd like to know. Also, we put quite a bit of humor into our books to balance the blacker aspects.

Mary: Speaking of spear-carriers, one or two minor characters have insisted on going on to play continuing and larger roles as the series advanced. For example, Peter, John's elderly cook, was introduced in the short story "Beauty More Stealthy," but now taking a much bigger part than we originally anticipated, and several readers have written of their affection for his rather prickly character.

Mary, you were born in England, in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Was it a culture shock to come to America and find that none of the towns were hyphenated?

Mary: Perhaps this country is too young to have hyphenated cities? 8} But certainly I noticed differences. For example, light switches are reversed, loo seats are lower, and sinks higher, and rather than the two-handed utensil use Britons utilise when eating, Americans tend to eat onehandededly--not to mention scooping up vegetables using their fork like a spoon rather than balancing their food on the curved part as Britons tend to do. On the other hand, while both nations allegedly speak the same language, the differences are fascinating--where else would you hear someone use lollygag and gandy dancer for example? (Mary, be sure to read Ann Parker's interview; her grandfather was a gandy dancer).

Two of the most jarring aspects--and these are things I still notice--are armed police and the vast distances between points A and B. Americans generally think nothing of making a round trip of 200 miles the same day to visit friends--and as the old joke has it, I don't think much of it either.

I'm American, but I don't know if I have friends good enough to make me drive 200 miles. :)

How did you and Eric meet?

Mary: We both contributed articles and letters to fanzines published by devotees of science fiction, which eventually led to a flourishing correspondence between us. So I suppose if we were pretentious we could say we met because we were both moving in the same literary circles.

Eric: I must've seen letters from Mary in the fanzines I was reading nearly twenty years before I met her. (And, no, I didn't immediately say, "That is the woman I shall marry," although that would be a good story). I suppose it is appropriate for two writers to meet via the written word.

Eric, one of your latest projects is to program "text based computer games." This sounds complicated. Tell us about it.

Eric: Well, it is rather complicated to explain! For a brief period back in the 1980s, before home computers had enough memory to display much in the way of graphics, there were quite a few companies which published games consisting mostly of text, usually referred to today as "interactive fiction" or just "If." The player took the part of a game's protagonist and typed in whatever it was he or she wanted to do. For example, if you were exploring a cave, you might decide to "go east" or "pick up the gold" or "attack the troll." The player controlled the story. Although many games were exploratory cave crawls, there were plenty of more sophisticated tales, including mysteries in which the player took the role of detective.

Once computers were able to show fancy graphics, games which were mostly reading couldn't compete with games which were mostly shooting. By the early 1990s If was dead as a commercial proposition. Since I didn't get my first home computer until around 1990 I only discovered text adventures in retrospect. I also found that If enthusiasts had created simple computer languages and game design systems to allow them to continue to produce text adventures. Many of the games available these days for free are superior to the commercial offerings of twenty years ago, but, alas there's no market for them.

My own efforts don't fall into the category of superior If. As a non technical English Lit major who grew up in an era when computers were owned by NASA and certainly didn't sit on your desk, except in science fiction novels, I was just amused to dabble in programming at all. Writing down some gobbledygook code and then watching the computer do what I'd told it to do was an exciting experience. Plus since most of my writing has been done with serious, professional intent the past few years, writing If allows me to goof off a little. There are a couple of short examples of my games,which can be played on-line, at our website.

Cool! I'll have to check them out.

You write historical novels, and Herodotus, "The Father of History," is one of your characters. Were you both history majors? Are you fascinated with all history, or Egyptian history especially?

Eric: I have a degree in English Literature and a law degree. The only college course in history I ever took was American History 101. History does fascinate me, particularly the almost alien landscapes of the ancient world, but the sorts of things most history courses focus on are not what interests me the most. I can't memorize the specific dates of great events. The powerful people who engage in wars and political machinations, mostly for their own benefit, are pretty much all cut from the same cloth and aren't truly representative of who we are as human beings. To me, history ought to be the history of humanity, not just accounts of the exploits of a few violent men. The sort of history that Herodotus wrote in his book on Egypt, with an emphasis on how people lived and what they thought, is the kind of history that attracts me.

Mary: Never went to college, but I've always been keen on history and read as much as I can, particularly how the ordinary person lived during times of conflict. Military campaigns are not too interesting to me except in the way they affect civilian life, so topics of particular interest would include resistance efforts, propaganda, civilian life including war work, evacuation and rationing, code breaking, and so on.

What are you working on today?

Both: This interview!

You literal devils, you.

Eric: We're also working on the next John the Eunuch novel, Seven For A Secret. I'm not sure how to describe it. Since we've just begun, neither we nor our publisher has come up with that short description you eventually see everywhere, and on which I always fall back when asked to describe the latest book. I can say it is intended to be a bit more of a traditional whodunnit than we sometimes write. John treads the streets of Constantinople, tracking down and talking to a variety of suspects, whose interlocking stories eventually form a coherent picture.

Do you ever disagree over the direction a novel should take?

Eric: Yes, but our disagreements tend to be more over the plot's twists and turns than the final destination, since we decide early on how a book will start and how, generally speaking, it will end.

Mary: I remember one occasion when the first and last chapters were drafted one after the other and then all we had to do was write the bit in the middle!

Eric: I probably have a tendency to veer into the melodramatic but Mary and our editor, Barbara Peters, both dislike that sort of thing so I'm inevitably outvoted.

Mary: But on the other hand Eric reins in some of my wilder character ideas. I should add, however, if one of us feels really strongly that a particular sequence or character should remain in the novel--or be thrust out into the darkness--generally the other will agree. There have been one or two instances of this sort of decision, which is really not that many considering we estimate thus far we've written over half a million words about John in the course of scrivening seven short stories and six novels about his adventures.

Many people interviewed on this blog have cats. Do you?

Eric: We have two cats, but one--Rachel--is in a tin on a bookshelf, having been cremated. Sabrina is 17 and still in good health. Both our cats make a cameo appearance in every book. No doubt the foetid alleys of Constantinople swarmed with strays, so there's no problem fitting them in.

Mary: Not to mention in one adventure a cat plays a prominent role when John finds himself in a sticky situation (here there be no spoilers, so I cannot mention the title). Then there were the dear little cat mummies in Six For Gold, one of which helps John and his companions out of temporary financial embarrassment in a somewhat unexpected fashion. At least we hope readers will be surprised...

Your website is very neat and multi-faceted. Who puts it together? Do you find it a helpful tool of book promotion?

Eric: I put the website together. I can't say it was "designed." I couldn't resist putting up a home page when we got on-line in the mid 1990s and it's grown as we keep tacking on additions and annexes. I'm not even sure what all is there any more!

We realize that my simple, hand-coded html doesn't give us the slick look that a professional webmaster would provide, but our attitude is we'd rather see a homemade site the author is personally involved in than one that's essentially a glossy advertisement. We don't think of the website as a promotional tool as such. It's more a repository of information about ourselves and our books which people can consult if they're interested. It's also a place where we provide a lot of our personal essays for people to read if they are so inclined.

Mary: Not to mention other interesting--we hope-features such as lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, an archive of Orphan Scrivener (our e-newsletter), Doom Cat (one of Eric's interactive games),and a jigsaw featuring the cover of Five For Silver.

How can your readers find out more about you?

: We're just ordinary schmoes really, but readers might like to visit our website (where they can also subscribe to Orphan Scrivener) at
or take a glance at Eric's blog at
However, our books probably reveal more about us, in their own way, than any nonfiction we write.

Thanks for the fascinating interview, Mary and Eric!

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