Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guest Blog: Jeri Westerson

Noir and hard-boiled fiction seem to be in Jeri Westerson’s blood. She was born and bred on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Reporter, would-be actress, graphic artist; these are the things she spent her time on before creating the newest hardboiled detective, Crispin Guest—ex-knight turned PI, solving crimes on the mean streets of fourteenth century London in her Medieval Noir series. The Boston Globe called her detective, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut, VEIL OF LIES, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, is also a 2010 finalist for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, and her third, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT is due for release October 12.

E.B.D.: How do you combine a murder mystery and mysticism in one novel, based in the fourteenth century, which is actually combining three genres? And is there a fourth, romance element?

Jeri: Can I sneak a vampire cat in there, too? But seriously, the mysticism is only a small part of it. And I like the reader to be a bit ambiguous about it; does the relic really have these powers or are the characters projecting their own beliefs and wishes into it? The relic becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the object that propels the plot and puts everyone into action. Sometimes the relic becomes central to the story and sometimes it’s its own red herring, having little to do with the plot. And then, of course, it’s in an historical setting which already gives it something of an otherworldly feel. Crispin is a hard-boiled detective in the Middle Ages and comes with all those tropes you usually see in hard-boiled stories—hard-drinking, chip on his shoulder, lone wolf, corruption, loose women--but it’s not anachronistic. Everything, including the mores and attitudes of its central characters, are true to the period. And romance? Well, yes, Crispin is a sucker for a dame in trouble. And he is a sexy beast.

E.B.D: So your fan base must include romance, history, science fiction, mystery buffs? Does that leave out any readers, except maybe true crime?

Jeri: Funny you should say that, because my third book, The Demon’s Parchment, is based on a true crime! So I guess I’ve got them all covered! I don’t think there are too many science fiction readers as fans, though there are a lot of male readers and some male young adult readers (I think the cover brings them in. Crispin looks like he belongs in a video game—which I think is an excellent idea. Anyone interested in going for it?) There are some fans in there of hard-boiled fiction, but the majority of the fans are readers of historical mystery and some who specifically only read medieval mysteries. They like history with their fiction.

E.B.D.: Were there any books you used as a model for your books?

Jeri: Oh, yes. I keep rewriting Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. :)

E.B.D.: Were you a History or English major in college?

Jeri: I was not a history or an English major in college. I started off life wanting to be an actress so I was a theatre major, but after some real world auditions I discovered that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of rejection so I switched to the other thing I had an aptitude in, which was art and became a graphic artist, working in Los Angeles for about fifteen years.

E. B. D.: Were you always interested in medieval England?

Jeri: As for my interest in history, that was just what I grew up with. My parents were rabid Anglophiles and there were always books—both fiction and nonfiction--and discussions about English history, particularly about the medieval period. I was a goner.

E.B.D.: I noticed on your blog, references to medieval weapons, battles, and code of chivalry, how do you research your novels?

Jeri: I was writing historical novels for about ten years before I switched to writing mysteries so I already had a lot of research in my pocket. But there’s always some extra research to do, like about real historical figures or on archery, for instance, that I needed for my latest book, Serpent in the Thorns. I first go to my own book shelves. If it isn’t there, I go to the Internet and ask on a list serve of medieval scholars, historians, and professors what books they would recommend. Then it’s off to my local university library where I can almost always find the reference I’m looking for. Sometimes I have to contact archives in England but I can always reach those online. Those guys have been most generous with their time, copying maps and floor plans for me and snail mailing them. I think they are just so happy to talk with someone who is interested in what they are doing that they are willing to go that extra mile.

Then I do a lot of hands on stuff, too, like making my own medieval clothing, cooking medieval dishes, making medieval style beer, and learning how to use the cache of medieval weapons I have on hand (I own a broadsword, daggers, a flail, all sorts of nasty things).

Next Wednesday, we'll present the second half of our interview with Jeri Westerson, revealing her TV interview success and her tortoise's hibernation symptoms.

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