Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Lillian Stewart Carl on Tolkien, Mary Stewart, and her own Scotland-Inspired Mysteries

  Posted by PicasaThanks for chatting with me, Lillian.You are best friends with Lois McMaster Bujold and your favorite writer is J.R.R. Tolkien. We know you are a mystery writer, but have you written any science fiction?
My first publishing credits were for four fantasy novels and several fantasy and science fiction short stories. One of the latter, “Pleasure Palace”, set on a moon of Jupiter, actually garnered an award nomination. Lois and I used to write bits and pieces of stories for each other when we were teenagers---and believe me, she was a better writer then than most people could ever hope to be! It was she who introduced me to science fiction and fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular.

She came back from a trip to Europe with The Fellowship of the Ring, not realizing at the time that it was a trilogy. When the book didn’t really end she thought it was “one of those weird British things”. Then we discovered the complete trilogy and, oh my, there was no looking back. (For the record, we both like the recent movies a great deal.)

Like Betty Webb and others I’ve interviewed, you love Scotland. What is it that draws you to this place?
Physical beauty combined with strong emotion. Its history is filled with enough dramatic incidents to inspire a legion of fiction writers---which, indeed, it has. I find the modern Scots’ bemusement with his own history to be another inspiration. Traveler H.V. Morton was thinking of the Scottish Borders when he wrote, “They are a queer compromise between battlefield and fairyland,” but you can apply that to the entire country---and then include the uneasy bedfellow of the modern heritage industry. It’s all grist for my mill.

Besides, after spending most of my life in hot, dry, brown, Texas, the rocky coasts, fresh cool breezes, and the misty green hills of Scotland are like catnip to me.

You wrote that “Soon after finishing Ashes to Ashes, which is about a woman from Missouri named Rebecca working in a replica of a Scottish castle, I visited the real castle and discovered the tour guide was a woman from Oklahoma named Rebecca.” Wow! And did you know that Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had one named Lincoln? AND you and I have both had cats named Holly! :)
I’m a firm believer in congruencies and coincidences and correspondences. These things happen to me so often I barely notice them any more. It’s the equivalent of opening a reference book at random and finding exactly what you need on that page. Some of it seems fantastical, yes, but then, human beings tend to look for patterns. After all, how many times have I walked into the site of one of my stories and *not* found someone with one of my characters’ names?

Let’s talk about your books. Your last book, The Secret Portrait, takes place in Scotland. How did you come up with the premise of the book?I’m a member of the Clan Stewart Society of America. Many of the members have a sentimental if not exactly rational attachment to the Stuart/Stewart dynasty of Scotland and later Britain. The last Stuart pretender to the throne was Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pillar of the Scottish tourist industry and quite a controversial figure---was he dashing and courageous or was he an egomaniac who got a lot of people killed during his 1745 uprising?

Several years ago a book was published titled The Forgotten Monarchy of Scotland by the self-styled Prince Michael of Albany---a sprig of very minor European nobility who claims to be a legitimate descendant of Charlie and therefore the proper heir to the throne of Britain. Right.

This book is one of the most amazing mad-mouse rides through history since Holy Blood, Holy Grail, one of the inspirations for The Da Vinci Code---into whose territory it strays a time or two.

It was a member of CSSA who proved that Michael wasn’t even who he said he was, let alone a descendant of Charlie---something that I, though a historian only by avocation, noticed pretty darn quickly.

But then, as a novelist, I thought, what if…. And The Secret Portrait resulted.

The actual secret portrait is of Charlie, “the king over the water”. It was painted after the uprising which terrified the English (and a lot of Scots) so badly that redcoats were engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Highland Scotland. It’s an anamorphic painting---it looks like just a smear of paint until it’s reflected in a silver cylinder. Confused? There’s a picture of it on my website.

Many of your books are available at How did you become involved with e-books? Are there advantages to e-book publishing over traditional publishing?
I’ve never had anything published only in electronic form, so can’t compare. Fictionwise does not publish original material. It provides electronic versions of material that was print-published to begin with. From my point of view, it’s a great way to present my work in yet another form.

You have traveled extensively. I’ll put you on the spot the way I did Bob Morris: What’s the most beautiful place in the world?
I’m tempted to say Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but I suppose that technically that’s another world. There are days when I’d say that the most beautiful place in the world is my own home. I’m a Cancer and I do love curling up in my shell.

Seriously, though, the world is so full of beautiful places it’s hard to say: Sissinghurst Garden in England, the Acropolis in Athens, the shores of Lake Superior…. If I’m forced to choose, I’d choose the northern coast of Scotland---rocky headlands, green rolling hills, the islands of Orkney rising like Tir nan Og (the Celtic Otherworld) from the sea. This area is not on the main tourist route. I have a good friend there who has taken my husband and me to ancient stone circles, ruined castles, and secluded bays that we had to share only with sheep and seabirds.

You are attending many conventions in the next couple of years. Do you find that these are helpful to your sales?
I’ve attended quite a few conventions the last few years and would really like to cut down, but …. Are they helpful to my sales? I keep telling myself they are. If nothing else, it’s good to sit down with friends and colleagues---I can’t communicate entirely by e-mail, although there are times when I’ve tried!

You have a book coming out this month called The Murder Hole and one in 2007 called The Burning Glass. What are they about?
These are books two and three in the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series, which begins with The Secret Portrait. I describe the series as: “America’s reject and Scotland’s finest on the trail of all-too-living legends”.

Jean’s an American ex-academic and Alasdair’s a Scottish cop. They meet during the murder case spawned by what Alasdair calls “charlieoverthewaterism”---the romanticization of Scotland’s history. I deliberately set up the series with a different mystery in each book but with the arc of their relationship running from book to book.

In The Murder Hole they meet again at Loch Ness, when a monster-hunter’s boat is blown up and one of his assistants is killed. In The Burning Glass they go off to the Borders together, intending a honeymoon of sorts. Of course mysterious events intervene, this time stemming from the occult legends surrounding Rosslyn Chapel---a place that was doing just fine, occultly-speaking, *before* the Da Vinci Code juggernaut came rolling through.

Like all my books, this series explores the tension between legend and reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with legends, Jean would say. We use them to make sense of ourselves and our world. It’s Alasdair who says that legends go wrong when true believers refused to recognize that they are legends.

You attended your son’s wedding in India. How did this come about?

My younger son met his wife when she was a bridesmaid at his brother’s wedding. While she’s a native of Houston, her family is originally from Hyderabad---and has many relatives living there---so that’s where the wedding was held. It was an amazing experience, with what seemed like all the flowers in Asia and the women wearing colorful fabrics and jewelry that made my eyes bug out.

You have been compared to Mary Stewart. I LOVE Mary Stewart. Which of your books would I find most Stewart-ish?
I used to read her all the time when I was in my teens. One of my favorite fan letters asked if I was by any chance her daughter! Alas, we’re no relation.

Shadows in Scarlet might be similar to Stewart, if rather more frank sexually---you have romantic complications played out against a long-hidden secret. Memory and Desire and Ashes to Ashes might also evoke Stewart, in a way, with each main character on a quest that brings her both romance and danger.

You’ve also been compared to Daphne Du Maurier, and as we saw earlier, one of your characters is named Rebecca. Was this an homage?
Yes, as a matter of fact it was. I never said so in the book, Ashes to Ashes, but I intended for my character’s mother to have named her after the book character. Which I think tells you something about the mother, who we never meet but who is described much more like Du Maurier’s nameless bride than like Rebecca de Winter herself.

The reviewer who evoked Du Maurier, however, was referring to Memory and Desire, which has a major character who is dead before the book starts.

You consider the British Isles your “home away from home” and you love history. Do you ever feel that you lived there in another life?
I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The place is very comfortable and familiar. I’ve been reading books and watching movies and TV shows set there all my life and have been fortunate enough to visit there something like fourteen times---I’ve lost count.

Do you have any British or Scottish ancestors?
So far as I can tell by my ancestor’s names, they all were British.

I haven’t been able to trace the Stewart side of my family across the Atlantic---they arrived in the US well early in the 19th century. But my coloring and complexion shouts Scottish. When I’m there I blend right in. And I have the gene for appreciating bagpipe music, so that counts for something!

My paternal grandmother was named Bridges. Her father claimed that our family is descended from the Bridges who was the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower of London during the days of Henry VIII. One afternoon in the British Museum I literally stumbled across the prayer book that Ann Boleyn inscribed and gave him on her way to the scaffold.

I also had an ancestor named Armstrong, a name from the Scottish Borders, who fought in the American Revolution.

What are some of your favorite books?
Other than The Lord of the Rings, which is the only book I loved passionately as a teenager and still love passionately, I have great respect for A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I thoroughly enjoy Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters’ books. (You’d never guess, reading Ashes to Ashes and other of my romantic-suspense-leaning novels.) I like the classic mysteries of Ellis Peters and Dorothy L. Sayers, who evoke their settings and characters so beautifully. In non-fiction, it’s hard to beat travel writer Jan Morris. And of course I’m a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold.

How can readers learn more about Lillian?
Ye olde website has information on all my novels and stories, including photos of some of the places that appear in them, as well as a short biography and links to various interviews. It is, easily enough, And that’s stEWart rather than stUart, the Scottish rather than the French spelling. (Let’s not go to Stiubhart, the Gaelic version!)

Thanks so much for answering all my questions!

Thank you so much for asking such great ones!


Anonymous said...
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Bill Cameron said...

The Lord of the Rings is my comfort book. Any time things are rocky, I break it out and read it again. It's funny, because I think it's getting rather hip to denigrate Tolkien now, which makes me sad. I also think that the movies, which were wonderful in many ways, oversimplified Tolkien, and missed a critical them of the novel, which I think makes it easy for people who haven't read the book to be dismissive.

Good to learn about you, Lillian! I will be on the lookout for your books!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Scotland? Oh, I'm so there! I love Scotland.

Julia Buckley said...

I thought everyone loved Tolkien.
Hi, Bill and Sandra.

Bill Cameron said...

I thought everyone did too, until the last few years when I have increasingly encountered what I consider to be an I-Think-I'm-Too-Hip-for-Tolkien-itude. And I think, "Wha-? Are ye daft, man?!" (Unless it's a woman.)

Mindy Tarquini said...

We're in the middle of moving and I remember shelving a couple of Lillian's books in the process. They're funny, no-nonsense and hang together well.

Thanks for the interview, Lillian! And thanks to Julia!

Mindy Tarquini said...

Oops. By shelving, I mean re-shelving, in the new media room. That is, they made the cut for the move.

Julia Buckley said...

Hear that, Lillian? You made the cut! I'm not sure we'd all be so lucky. :)