Interview From The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd.

Mary and Eric, your unusual writing duo has been very successful indeed, with over 12 published mysteries. Although ONE FOR SORROW is your first full-length novel, it might make it your 13th co-authored mystery. I'm intrigued as much as our readers. How and when did this writing relationship get started?

Eric Mayer: Our writing relationship originated with a mystery story I mentioned to Mary over the telephone, which I described as an "open tent" mystery as opposed to the typical "closed room" mystery. For about two years, she kept encouraging me to write it, but I never did. After we were married and I couldn't avoid her, she forced me to sit down and hash it out with her. It became our first co- authored piece and was sold to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. That was "The Obo Mystery", the first of the Inspector Dorj mysteries, set in modern day Mongolia. The latest Dorj story entitled Death on the Trans Mongolian Railway will appear in the March 2000 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

In this duo, who does what? How are tasks divided?

Eric Mayer: We both do a little of everything from the researching through the plotting and the writing. We have a lot of discussions about plot and clues and characters. One of Mary's ideas might set me off on a chain of thought I wouldn't have had otherwise, and vice versa. So at the end of it all it is really impossible to say who was responsible for what. In fact we have been known to get into debates over the authorship of certain bits after a story appears, with neither one of us being able to remember writing a particular sentence or a paragraph.

During the actual writing process we usually work separately on individual scenes, then weld them together and rewrite as necessary. I have a tendency to take stuff out while Mary usually adds. Apparently we manage in this way to blend our quite different styles, because no one has mentioned noticing big stylistic differences within the completed stories.

How has this relationship grown and evolved over the years?

Eric Mayer:
In the beginning the idea was for Mary, who had had some stories in Ellery Queen and elsewhere, to give me some pointers about mysteries and to convince me to write that "open tent" mystery I'd been talking about.

But when that resulted in a sale and subsequently Mike Ashley asked us to contribute a historical mystery to an anthology he was editing, it just seemed natural for us to collaborate again - especially since I had some ideas about a Byzantine setting but no mystery idea. That resulted in our first John story and so we just kept at it. Over the years we've probably come to divide the work more equally, with both of us working on all the elements, rather than one of us supplying background and the other the mystery, although Mary is still the final authority on clues!

Mary Reed: Eric's much better at evoking atmosphere and background color.

Explain how a historical mystery differs from a traditional mystery.

Eric Mayer: A regular mystery already differs from non mystery fiction in that the writer has to cope with an extra component - the mystery - which necessitates putting in clues, making sure the clues are fair and intelligible, etc. In a historical mystery you have to add historical background besides. It can be difficult to fit in period details and clues, and yet still keep the plot going and pay attention to the characters.

In addition, the mystery should, I think, be rooted somehow in the historical period, else why not have your private eye roaming the alleys of modern day New York rather than Constantinople in 535 AD? But you have to be especially careful to play fair with the reader. Even in modern day mysteries it can be a difficult question, deciding how much the reader must be told and what you might expect a reader to know. In a modern mystery, for example, a reader could be expected to have a rough idea of how long it might take a suspect to get from New York City to Los Angeles using various forms of transport. But how long did it take to get from the Golden Horn to Antioch 1,500 years ago?

You need to give the reader of an historical mystery all the historical details required without, hopefully, red flagging the clues as such!

Mary Reed: And, naturally, you have to make sure the historical details are correct.

How much research does one of your novels require?

Eric Mayer:
Lots, though it would be hard to quantify. Sometimes enormous amounts of time can be taken verifying very small points. For example, at one point in our writing, a question arose as to whether the Romans of Justinian's time ate swordfish. We had just mentioned swordfish in passing, since you can find them in the Mediterranean. Well, we never were able to find a source saying that swordfish were or not on the menu back then. After much fruitless research, we ended up taking out the passing reference. Which is why John at one point has to eat plain old, probably tasteless, generic fish instead of the swordfish he would've preferred, had it actually been available at the time.

But the first person who can give us a source proving that people in Constantinople ate swordfish in 535 AD will receive an autographed copy of ONE FOR SORROW.

In my mind, all the historical details have to be worked out before beginning, whereas Mary prefers to dive into the story and worry about adding the details later. I'm pretty sure Mary's way is the preferred method but mine makes an excellent excuse for procrastination.

Is the Internet helpful for your work?

Eric Mayer: It’s enormously useful. There's a wealth of academic material out there. But Mary is the real search wizard.

Mary Reed: As far as research goes, and some of it goes far off into the cyber woods, I must admit that I really enjoy the thrill of the chase, hunting down that elusive fact or an expert who can provide the needed information.

You now have a following of dedicated readers with high expectations. Is this difficult to live up to?

Eric Mayer: Speaking for myself, I wrote for more than twenty years with nothing to show for it but rejection slips (aspiring and discouraged authors take note) - so I still find it hard to believe that I'm finally doing something right. I once read that "Ten years of rejection slips is nature's way of saying you can't write", and I think I took it to heart. Strangely enough, getting published has actually made the writing process somewhat more difficult for me. With that background of rejection it is rather frightening to realize that I'm expected to come up with something good. It’s much easier to write something you expect no one but a slush pile editor to glance at anyway.

On the other hand, though the process might be a little more difficult, there is much, much more incentive to persevere.

Mary Reed: Trying to provide interesting mysteries to puzzle over is always a challenge, and we hope that folks enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them.

What challenges do you face daily when working on a novel together?

Eric Mayer: After a while it becomes difficult to think of new places to hide dangerous kitchen cutlery.

Mary Reed: It’s been somewhat easier to write together since we agreed that whichever of us has a strong opinion with a particular scene gets the final word on whether it should be included, changed, moved to another part of the story or just thrown out.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Eric Mayer
: Never give up. Don't take rejection to heart. Editors like to give reasons for rejections in terms of professional evaluation. Mostly it’s a matter of personal opinion. Often the difference between being published and unpublished depends upon the manuscript falling into the hands of the right individual. And finding a talented co-author.

Mary Reed: Getting a manuscript into the hands of the right individual sometimes happens in a strange way. One of the first non-fiction pieces I sold concerned the British custom of swan upping. Each summer, along a particular stretch of the River Thames, all the wild swans are captured temporarily to have their beaks nicked with a very slight mark. This is done to donate ownership - since all of the swans belong either to the reigning monarch or one of two guilds in the city of London. The second editor who saw that article happened to raise swans as a hobby, and so he bought it.

Swans may not always fly to one’s rescue. Breakthrough to publication takes time, so patience is important. And, as Eric says, be persistent - it will keep you writing when the first rejection slips arrive. Try to remember that the editor is not rejecting you personally, but rather your work. Quite possibly the next editor will love it - or the editor after that. If you've already managed to beat my personal record of a dozen rejection slips in 48 hours, you're also going to need a solid sense of humor! Refusing to take the hint, I sent all the articles out again and all but one finally saw publication.

Meanwhile, write, write, write, and then write some more.

What next? What are your forthcoming projects?

Mary Reed: Alas, there are but a certain number of waking hours in a day and unfortunately we've got to devote a few of them to other work. But we're currently hard at work on TWO FOR JOY, the next novel about John, which Poisoned Pen Press will publish this autumn. And we're still writing the odd - and some are very odd - short story now and then. For example, John's fifth short adventure appeared in Maxim Jakubowski's second Ellis Peters Memorial anthology, Chronicles of Crime, published late last year in the UK.

We'd also like to do a collection of stories about John sometime, and we've been thinking about a novel featuring Inspector Dorj, but right now we're devoting all our writing time to John.

We will be launching our own bimonthly e-newsletter in February 2000. To receive it, simply send us a note via email.

Any closing thoughts or comments?

Mary Reed: Although we'd write even if our only reader was our cat, we are very grateful to Poisoned Pen Press for the opportunity to tell our stories to a wider audience. The press made its debut in l996 because of concern about major publishers' shrinking mid-lists, a trend affecting readers as well as authors. In l998 our path crossed with PPP's, and the rest is history, or in our case historical fiction. The world is full of surprises. We only hope the same can be said of our writing!

Eric Mayer:
ONE FOR SORROW is set during a somewhat unfamiliar time period. Although Mary and I certainly maintain some sense of humor when we write, we have also adopted a less modernized and more realistic approach than seems to be the current trend in historical mysteries. We have tried to capture the feel of a distant time period, rather than dressing it up in television-age trappings. I wonder if a major publisher would’ve been willing to buck the trends with such a book. But thanks to Poisoned Pen Press, the book is out in the marketplace as an alternative and has done extremely well already.

Eric and Mary: In closing, we'd like to thank our readers for accompanying us this far along the literary road. There's still a long way to go, with many tales to tell, and hopefully when we reach the next crossroads, they won't rush off one way as we trundle down the other.

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