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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Interview with mystery writers Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short John the Eunuch detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's highly acclaimed first full length novel, One For Sorrow. Their protagonist's adventures continued in Two For Joy (2000), a Glyph Award winner in the Best Mystery category. Two For Joy also gained an Honorable Mention in the Glyph Best Book Award list and in addition was afinalist for the IPPY Best Mystery Award. Three For A Letter (2001), Four For A Boy (2003), and Five For Silver (2004)followed. The latter two novels were nominees for the Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award. Five For Silver won the 2005 Glyph Award for Best Book Series. In June 2003 the American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the John the
novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series. Their most recent novel is Six For Gold. Seven For A Secret has just been released (April 2008).

Betty Webb's interview with Mary Reed

Betty: Your John the Eunuch series is -- to put it mildly -- unusual. In a day where sexy heroes and heroines and the standard, you've actually got a guy with no, um... ? Tell me when the idea for him came to you and why you decided to risk it.

Mary: Strange to relate, it was as the result of a very tight deadline. Mike Ashley was organizing an anthology devoted to historical mysteries and rang us up one afternoon to ask if we'd care to contribute. Naturally we said yes. The snag was it had to be researched, a plot constructed, and written in less than a month. And the first question to be addressed was what era would be suitable? Eric is interested in the Byzantine period and had a number of books about it, so the
research material was already to hand. But then who would be our protagonist? Well, we decided to make our sleuth Emperor Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, making John a powerful man in his role as Justinian's advisor. Many men of high rank at the time were eunuchs, so John was also set among their ranks -- but we also made him a man who had been a mercenary before being captured and wounded so badly, so he is able to take care of himself and those he cares about. He is not at all the conventional notion of a eunuch as a simpering, effeminate, chubby fellow with a treachorous nature, and in fact dislikes such eunuchs intensely. Given all this angst it is no
wonder he occasionally has bouts of black rage, which most of the time he keeps controlled, presenting what we would call a poker face to the world. The court was officially Christian, so John was given another burden, that of worshiping Mithra, as did many military men. Exposure of his religion could well mean execution so this is something else lurking in the background. To add to his difficulties, Empress Theodora hates him and would like to see his head separated from his shoulders, so between that and his proscribed religion, not to mention court intrigues and ever present danger on the streets, John is a man who has power and wealth and yet is
in as precarious a position as any beggar.

Betty: Did you have trouble selling a novel based on such a hero?

Mary: Oddly enough, no. How it came about was one of those instances where luck played a part in publishing, which happens more often than some writers will admit. Some years ago the MWA newsletter mentioned Poisoned Pen Press had been nominated for a 1998 Edgar for their A-Z Murder Goes...Classic. PPP was a fairly new venture at the time and in writing to congratulate them on their nomination we boldly asked if they also published fiction. It turned out editor in chief Barbara Peters had only recently been complaining about a lack of mysteries set in the Byzantine era. Aha, we said, we have a manuscript with that very setting, would you be interested? The press asked us to send it and it was accepted within a few weeks. In the event some rewriting was needed before it became the first original work of fiction they published,appearing in 1999. It should be pointed out, though, that we're talking about what was then a small publisher. Whether we could have interested a major publisher is hard to say.

Betty: Your method of working is also unusual. Tell me how you and Eric work.

Mary: We begin by batting ideas around. There are always some floating about unused anyway so it isn't hard to come up with them, but the question is whether they are any good -- and whether they are sufficiently different from what we've done in previous books. Once we decide on what the story will be about in general terms -- the model for the girl in John's wall mosaic shows up or he is sent to Egypt to find out why sheep are committing suicide, or has to investigate a murder during a plague -- we start outlining and researching. Those two things fuel each other. We start looking up what we need to know for the parts of the story we already have in mind, and as we read we come across things we didn't know, which suggest new avenues for the story to follow. We discuss and exchange notes and outline revisions until we have a scene by scene outline. Of course, as we write the outline can change drastically but at least we have something to go on. Once we have the outline we begin writing individual scenes. Sometimes I will write the first draft and sometimes Eric will do that. We are often each writing the first draft of a different scene at the same time. Once the first draft is done by one of us it is sent straight across the office to the other, who then rewrites it and sends it back. We trade scenes back and forth until we are both satisfied. So we both, at some stage, write the whole book, which probably means we don't really save as much writing time by collaborating as one might think.

Betty: Do you two ever have spats over how a book (or chapter) should go? If so, how do you work it out? The creative temperament is notoriously testy.

Mary: Ya got that right! However, we agreed long since if one of us feels very strongly a certain scene should be in the novel it will remain, though it may be rewritten a little to address the concerns of the naysayer. Conversely if either of us feels a certain scene should not be in the novel it goes out. This situation does not happen too often, fortunately, although as Eric has been known to remark it helps if your doors have industrial strength hinges. However, it should be
noted that occasionally, when there is an impasse, we involve our editor in the discussion and, in effect, she gets the tie-breaking vote.

Betty: Seven For A Secret has been getting great buzz. Tell me about the book, how you came up with it, how it plays into the entire series, and how it's being accepted by the critics.

Mary: Seven For A Secret came about because we were always asking ourselves about someone depicted in the wall mosaic in John's study. We have, from book one, shown him confiding to the young girl pictured but we never explained, either to readers or ourselves, who the model for the figure had been. So this book answers that question. In addition, we wished to write a book in the
classic tradition, in which the detective pieces together the story behind the murder from his interviews with characters. We both prefer classic mysteries of this sort to action-packed books and we have always leaned towards the classic model. We wanted to really affirm that preference this time. Reviews have been excellent so far, including a starred review from Library Journal. For those interested there's a page of extracts at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/sevrev.htm

Betty: About how many Eunuch books will there be in all? Do you foresee an end? Or a -- to use Hollywood terms -- a spin-off?

Mary: We'll keep writing them as long as readers want to read them! There are many adventures to be told, not only about John but also the lives of some of the supporting characters -- Felix, the excubitor captain, for example, and Isis, the Egyptian madam, though the one I have my eye on is Peter, John's aging servant. He's already dropped a few intriguing hints about his early life, you know.

Betty: Is there any other period of history you'd be interested in as a series setting?

Mary: Strange you should ask because in fact we have already written the first novel in what we hope will be a new series. It is currently on the market so we'd be very glad to hear from interested entities! It's set mainly in London in 1895. It is a mystery with a bit of woo woo but that's all we can reveal at this point.

Betty: Your books are very popular, yet you guys don't tour much (if at all). Want to address that?

Mary: We have concluded touring is not for us for a number of reasons, while occasional book signings have not been very productive. We've also noticed many writers have been experiencing the latter situation this past year or so by all accounts so we are not alone in our focus on online promotional efforts. There are many opportunities and new possibilities show up constantly. For example, during the past year or so there has been an explosion of author blogs, virtual tours, and book trailers. Then, too, online promotion suits our temperaments better. We have no ego and abhor "in your face" methods of promotion. We therefore practice the subtler sort. You won't see us tooting our horns in our newsletter (see, slipped a mention of Orphan Scrivener in there!) although we do have a section we dub Necessary Evil, wherein we mention such BSP as there is to hand. But this is usually short and always sandwiched between two essays -- we write one apiece each issue -- whose topics wander all over the landscape and quite often are nothing to do with John and his world or writing or publishing. Among other matters we have written about garden gnomes, wallpapering, the Newgate Calendar, Roman cabbages, and
detectives on stamps. Though we take our writing very seriously, we also invariably poke fun at ourselves, something not common in authorial newsletters. Thus our unfortunate subscribers never know what they will be reading next but we hope it will be entertaining at least.

Betty: Maybe you could give us some details about your online promotions.

Mary: It takes a fair bit of time but it helps when you have to be online to do your ordinary work anyhow! We go in for more subtle forms of promotion, the simplest form of which is signature lines. But not just any old siggy line! Each is written to fit the post above it by connecting comments made or the general topic in some way with the novel. Sometimes of course there isn't a connection, in which case the reader will be informed "(Title), guaranteed to be free of dancing rats", if twirling rodents were the topic of the post. So every signature line is different, and hopefully readers will be tempted to read each rather than sliding their gaze past them.

Contributing to elists is an important avenue for online promotion. But it's equally important to make certain something useful or interesting or thoughtful is contributed to the list, not just a flyby trailing a banner saying our novel is out, buy it now. This is insulting to the reader and does the writer no favors either. Finding comments to contribute is easy enough when we are talking about mysteries, because we are onlist as fans of same rather than only to publicize what we are
doing. Beyond that we contribute articles and reviews to appropriate venues, where the bio line promotes our works. Also interviews, such as this one! With so many magazines, review sites, and newsletters online the array of subjects to talk about is vast. Many are quite outside the areas of writing and mysteries, so pastures anew are ploughed that might otherwise lie fallow. With this sort of promotion we can share our ideas and knowledge with different segments of readers. For example, I am currently contributing occasional reviews for the Golden Age of Detection elist. They are archived on our website and also now appear on a British historical mystery site, but my signature line is merely my name and our website because if interest is raised that's the best place to provide information to the reader.

Well, then there's blogs. Eric has had one a while now but again writes about subjects all over the landscape and little about our writing as such -- but the book cover is there as a hint and a link to our website. Links are another way to get word out, exchanging them as well as asking they be listed on appropriate websites. This once led to a rather comical juxtaposition. A site devoted to Turkish travel gave us a link on the right side of the page and on the left was an ad for condoms...Then too virtual tours via blogging are increasingly popular, and so are guest blogs. We just did our first guest blog for Bev Myers, a fellow Poisoned Pen Press writer, a week or so back. Myspace and Youtube are getting a lot of attention right now. Author videos and trailers are the big thing at the moment and these are often mentioned as good sites to upload them, but my feeling is these sites have too high a noise level, and how does the individual author attract attention among the thousands of others there? Plus there is one aspect that can ruin the effort:
the unconsidered detail. For example, what if the accompanying music chosen is anathema to the viewer? Half a bar and they're out of there! But obviously other authors feel differently, so it is certainly an opportunity to consider.

Then there are e-newsletters. Our Orphan Scrivener is unusual in that it does not talk much about us but rather offers two essays an issue, again usually about topics unconnected with our writing (that's dealt with on our website, mentioned in the OS signature line) sandwiching such news as there might be. Newsletters can also be listed on other sites, just as we offer lists of mystery-related newsletters and author freebies on ours.

Speaking of freebies, they don't have to be physical entities. Ours is a reading guide to our series, provided on our website. Online freebies can be a challenge but besides reading guides or teaching online courses, mystery authors' sites offer such items as novel extracts, short stories, newsletters, serials, writing tips, recipes, and even a paper doll with appropriate outfits!

Opportunities to promote online are all over cyberspace if we can but see them. For example, many libraries list "if you like this book you will enjoy that one" or have bibliographies devoted to fiction dealing with specific topics. Generally we find a polite note asking if they would consider adding our series to their historical mystery list on their next update results in an obliging we will be happy to do so. And the same can be done with sites devoted to the location or subject of the work. The latter however is not something we go into. Our hero is a eunuch as is historically correct but we never emphasize the fact or go into great and gloating detail, an approach we find repugnant. There are many such men, often in this condition as the result of birth defects or, more commonly, war wounds so while there are certain avenues we could exploit in that line we won't do so. We treat John's condition in a matter of fact way, as he does, allowing him dignity despite the horror of what happened to him. So when writers complain they have problems promoting their work we just smile and say, well, try it with our protagonist!

Another example of what I think of as sideways promotion involves content not directly connected to our work. Our site offers libraries of free etexts of classic ghost and supernatural stories and Golden Age mysteries. It's time consuming tracing these etexts, especially as when I am looking them up I am always tempted to immediately read novels or short stories I have overlooked. For us it is a labor of love, but if someone is seeking this kind of reading these collections may well bring them to us and perhaps creates interest in our own work. If not, well, they've got other fine reading instead!

The website is a writer's most important resource. No matter where you live, it's there 24/7 and is useful in many ways beyond promotion. For example it can be used as a calling card when pitching projects or entered for awards. We've done both and it worked well. As you've doubtless gathered, we strive to offer content of a varied nature. So for example visitors can play Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), assemble a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, or read about our protagonist's religion Mithraism. There's a bibliography of our scribbles, an archive of Orphan Scrivener newsletters, and Other Stuff. There is a lot more writers can do by way of online promotion, but this gives a good indication of the type of promotion we do for John and our other work.

Betty: What's up next for John?

Mary: We're thinking about that right now. While we have not got it completely wrestled to the ground yet, the eighth book will be set some years before Seven For A Secret, but taking place after the events of Four For A Boy, in which John first met Felix, captain of the excubitors, Isis, the Egyptian madam, and Anatolius, that feckless lad, but before One For Sorrow. It will be set during the Nika Riots, when Emperor Justinian was almost deposed. In keeping with our desire to give each book a slightly different feel, the next one will have a background more closely involving actual historical events than previous novels, while at the same time revealing more about how John and Felix came to be friends and how they rose to their current high positions.

Betty: You’ve give so much excellent, detailed advice that I almost hesitate to ask this next question, but heck, I will anyway. What other advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Mary: Advice for writers? Practice your craft, persist, and be patient and polite. Don't take rejection personally and above all keep your sense of humour well to the fore. You're going to need it!

If you’d like to learn more about Mary, Eric, and their creation, John the Eunuch, check their website at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite and Eric’s blog at http://journalscape.com/ericmayer


Martin Edwards said...

A truly fascinating interview and some excellent advice. Thank you.

Maryann Miller said...

Great interview Betty. What Mary had to say about online promoting was very interesting and helpful. I tried to go to their Web site from the link at the bottom of your entry, but it didn't work. ???

Patricia L. Brooks said...

Betty - thanks for the information - as a marketing junkie, I liked it! Look forward to seeing you at Scottsdale Society of Women Writers as our June speaker - Patricia