FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS -
NOVELS AND WRITING
I've answered this question so many times since 1988 when I was first published that, had I known how many times I would be asked, I would have set my novels somewhere else!
I've answered in a variety of ways, mostly to continue to keep myself entertained by the reply. However, the reality is very simple: I set my novels in England because I like to write about England.
I first became interested in England in the 1960s when the Beatles made their initial invasion into pop culture in the United States. On the heels of the Beatles came not only a score of other British pop music groups, but also fashion in the person of Mary Quant, modeling in the persons of first Jean Shrimpton and then Twiggy, and film making, with such British-oriented films as Alfie, Georgy Girl, The Collector, and The Family Way.
Hard on the heels of all this, I began studying Shakespeare and, in 1966, I made my first trip to England in the summer in order to take part in a Shakespeare seminar that was taught in London. We were given the freedom to explore the city, and I fell in love with it. I returned to England for a second visit in 1971, and I've traveled there ever since.
In college and at the university, most of my reading was in English literature rather than in American literature, and when I first became a teacher, I taught Shakespeare Studies. This further cemented my love for British literature.
I began creating short stories about England while I was still in high school, and when I decided to pursue a career in writing, I never considered setting my novels anywhere except England.
I surely hope this puts the subject to rest, as I have nothing further to say about it but this: Why on earth do people find it so weird that I write about England? It worked well enough for Henry James.
I'll answer this question in parts. I'll do the mystery part first.
I write mysteries—or rather crime novels or stories of psychological suspense—because I like the throughline that a crime offers me. The crime and its solution provide a natural structure on which I can hang as much or as little as I like. For example, I can have the criminalists march hand in hand toward the conclusion of the novel and the solution to the crime, with no diversions. Or, on the structure of the crime, I can hang theme, subplot, character development, and anything else from the writer’s bag of tricks and the fundamentals of fiction. I can make the book as sophisticated as I want, or I can keep it quite simple. I can take a “rule of crime fiction” and deliberately break it. I can take the readers’ preconceived notions about what a crime novel is and turn those notions on their heads. In short, a crime novel gives me tremendous flexibility as a writer while still demanding that I adhere—relatively—to a structure that provides a satisfactory and believable solution to the mystery. As to the literature question: I’ve found it endlessly fascinating to note that the only place I ever go where I get asked this question is Europe. I’ve also found it interesting to note that in no English speaking country—and I have thus far been to Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and England in addition to all over the U.S.—have I ever been asked it, and this despite the fact that the novel’s birthplace was England and the finest practitioners of the craft of novel writing have come from the English speaking countries. So I’m always left wondering what is implied by the question.
Thus my answer: For me, literature is in the eye of the beholder. One reader’s literature is another reader’s garbage can liner. To hold up a piece of writing to the eye of snobbery as is done over and over in Europe is to defeat the purpose of reading a novel in the first place. Novels were designed to entertain, and those of us who wish to keep the art form alive need to keep this in mind. To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting that’s brought to life is to go at the art form, like putting the varnish on the canvas first. I attempt to write a good novel. Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe.
Initially, I planned what Edgar Allan Poe called the formula detective story. In this story, two characters are central: an eccentric detective and an admiring narrator. Although Poe created this form, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle perfected it and is best known for it through the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
For my eccentric detective, I designed a character called Simon Allcourt-St. James. He was a recluse, having been seriously injured in an automobile accident while in his early twenties. Professionally, he was a forensic scientist with a field of expertise wide enough to allow him to assist the police whenever they were stumped by a crime.
I had no Watsonian narrator since I wanted to write a third person novel, but I did have a detective from New Scotland Yard who was designed to come to St. James with his pressing problems. This was Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, and I deliberately made him an earl for my own amusement since I thought it would be more fun to write about an earl than to write about an ordinary schmuck living on a policeman's salary in an ill-lit bed sitting room with a neon light going on and off outside.
After writing two novels with these two characters (as well as with Deborah Cotter and Helen Clyde) and after having no success publishing them, I decided to see if Lynley could solve a case on his own. Giving him a case meant giving him a partner, so I designed Barbara Havers to work with him. She would be his polar opposite and she would serve the function of introducing the reader to Lynley through her eyes and in her mind before the reader ever saw the man himself. I hoped in this way to prepare the reader to like—rather than to dislike—Lynley. Since Barbara hated him so much in that first novel and since she herself was fairly unlikable, it seemed to me reasonable to conclude that however she felt about someone, the reader was likely to feel the opposite. That novel was A Great Deliverance, and it was the first of my published books, setting up a partnership between Lynley and Havers that still exists in the novels today.
I read very eclectically. I am not a big reader of crime novels or mysteries. When I do read crime, I prefer true crime stories.
My favorite writers in no particular order are John Irving, John Le Carré, Alice Hoffman, Graham Swift, Penelope Lively, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jane Austen, and John Fowles.
The crime writers whose books I always read are P.D. James, T. Jefferson Parker, and Robert Crais, the last two blokes being friends of mine.
Without a doubt, it's John Fowles. Fowles never wrote the same book twice. He was always out there, always pushing the envelope, always taking chances with his work. Sometimes he succeeded and sometimes he failed. But he always did something different, and I have tremendous respect for that.
Aside from three creative writing classes that I took between the time I was nineteen and twenty-one years old, I am entirely self-taught.
I've been in two critique groups in the past, but I don't like critique groups in general when I'm writing a rough draft. The work is too fragile then, and having a group of people tear it to pieces before I'm sure about what it is that I'm doing would not help me artistically.
You'll just have to keep reading.
I teach in Maui once a year, at the Maui Writers' Retreat.
Additionally, I run a seminar in Huntington Beach, where I live. I meet with the same students every Wednesday night when I'm in the country, and they engage in a critique session that is chaired by me.
It's gotten longer over the years as the books have become more complicated. I wrote my first novel, A Great Deliverance, in three and a half weeks. My last novel at the time of this writing was In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner, and it took me two years from the time I left to do the research till the time the book was in production at Bantam in New York. The rough draft, however, took about fifteen months.
"The Inspector Lynley Mysteries," featuring both movies based upon my books and original stories by other writers, is currently shown in both the UK and in the US on the PBS series "Mystery." To read the FAQs on this series, click here.
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