Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
You have a Welsh name, Rhys. In your various mystery series you have a Welsh protagonist, an Irish protagonist, and now you’ve added an English one. To top it off, you live in California. Will you tell us something about your family background, where you grew up, and where your loyalties lie?
I was born in Bath, England. My father was English, my mother’s family Welsh, so I had exposure to both cultures growing up. I grew up mainly in England and attended school and university there, so obviously the English aspect of my upbringing was important, but so were the visits to relatives in Wales.
As to where my loyalties lie—I suppose there is a pull in both directions. I never forget that the English invaded Wales and that all things Welsh have been suppressed for centuries. I identify myself as British, which encompasses both sides! In writing Her Royal Spyness I used my experiences with upper class friends, and then I married into a very upper class family, that goes back to Edward 111, so I know all about stately homes, weird nicknames and aristocratic quirks.
You’ve received at least seven major mystery awards and been nominated for many more. Even before you started writing mysteries, your work, including children’s books and young adult novels, was very well received. Besides good writing and hard work, to what do you attribute your consistent success? Have you had any disappointments along the way? What strategies have you used to publicize your work? Have you had any lucky breaks?
One thing I’m proud of is never writing the same book twice. There is a temptation to repeat something that has worked well and indeed the publisher and bookstores would like nothing better than a repeat of a successful book. I’ve tried to stretch myself throughout my writing career and I’m still constantly wanting to try new things. This isn’t always good for a writer, as fans get annoyed when a writer doesn’t deliver what they want and respect. I’d never been allowed to write noir, for example (even if I wanted to).
Disappointments? Of course I’ve had plenty. I’ve found my whole career has been a case of one step forward, two steps back. Things I have counted on haven’t worked out and things I haven’t expected have come to fruition. So one thing I’ve learned is to enjoy every success and count it as miraculous and never to expect things to remain unchanged. Editors move, publishers drop books…there are so many pitfalls. I have been truly blessed in that I’ve been able to earn a constant living from my writing for 30 years.
I’ve worked equally hard on publicity from day one. I’ve made a point of visiting as many mystery bookstores as possible, going to conventions, sending out newsletters to fans. I’m not sure how much publicity actually works, but it’s better than doing nothing. Unless the publisher has a vision of a writer as the next best seller, that book is not going to the top. But I keep plodding along, hopefully.
Lucky breaks? Not the kind a miraculous break in which Steven Spielberg happens to pick up my book at an airport, but some good reviews and some great award nominations. They’ve been fabulous.
Are you equally fond of Constable Evans and Molly Murphy? In what ways, if any, is either of them like you? Is either of them more fun or easier to write? And how on earth do you turn out at least two high quality books a year?
I’m fond of them both, of course. I enjoy spending time with each of them. Evan annoys me sometimes because he is so polite and not driven enough. Molly is much more like me—impulsive, outspoken, strong sense of justice. I do find her easier to write, as her first person voice is very much like mine. The Evan books are more multi layered with several stories going on in them, making them more complicated to write.
As to writing two books a year. Put it down to insanity. I push myself very hard. When I am writing I am totally focused. I find it hard to switch off.
What are your work habits? Are you an outliner or an into-the-mist writer? Do you write every day? In solitude or with people around you? Do you love or hate the first draft? Is there any significant difference in the way you go about writing the Evans and the Molly books? Do you work on more than one manuscript at once? How do you research your books, and do you like or dislike doing research?
Wow, that’s a lot of questions!
1. I work very intensely until I have a first draft completed. Usually this takes about 2 months. During that time I write every day and sometimes get up during the night as well. Then I give it to various people to read and digest their reactions and suggestions. Then I work on polishing and off it goes.
2. I need peace and quiet in my office. I can’t have music or distractions (apart from husband bringing me coffee!)
3. I don’t outline. I find it doesn’t work for me. I start knowing very little—what kind of environment Molly is going to operate in, for example. I usually know who is going to get killed and why. Then I start and see where the story takes me. It is terrifying each time and I am in full panic mode until I’m about half way through. But not having a clear direction means that I can go off on wonderful tangents and end up with a much stronger story.
4. I can only work on one ms at a time. It would be too disruptive to have to pull myself out of Wales, or out of 1902. And I do loads of research for the Molly books. I read and visit and study in advance of each book, so that I have the background down pat. I really love the research. New York is such a great city to write about and I’m constantly learning fascinating new details. I go to NY a lot. I have collected a large library and also I use photographs. And when I write about Wales my research often has to do with hanging around in Welsh pubs, eating in restaurants, listening to gossip—my kind of research, in fact!
Beyond the ongoing series with their devoted following, how do you decide what to write? Does a new project spring directly from your imagination, or do you think in terms of career and marketplace? How involved does your agent or editor family get in any part of this process?
I write what I’d like to read. I choose characters I’d like to hang out with. Evan started because I wanted to write about Wales and relive happy moments from my childhood. Molly started with a desire to write about Ellis Island and my emotions when I visited it for the first time. And Her Royal Spyness was my reaction to my editor telling me she needed me to write a big, dark standalone. I thought about this and wrote the opposite.
So you can see I write to please myself. I don’t think about market or career. I do work closely with my agent, however. We thrash out every step of the way until the book goes to my editor.
The one disadvantage to writing a series is that I have no time to try new and different ideas as they spring into my head.
Where does family fit in for you? Is your husband or any of your children a writer? Do they read your work in manuscript?
My family is my wonderful writing team: my eldest daughter reads my ms first and has a great feel for pacing and plot. My third daughter reads it next and has a great empathy for character. My husband then reads for picky details. By the time I’ve had input from the three of them the manuscript is really polished. All of my children write well. None is published yet but that is only a matter of time.
You’ve been on the national board of Mystery Writers of America, you appear at many conferences, and you do a lot of touring. Do you enjoy the travel, networking, and promotion part of being a writer today? Do you have any particular techniques or tricks for making it work for you and not spreading yourself too thin?
I wish I knew how not to spread myself too thin!!
I do travel a lot. I really enjoy the conferences, as I enjoy hanging out with my friends and meeting fans. I enjoy the travel to a certain extent. Sometimes it becomes overwhelming (as this month with 8 flights). Book tours, signings etc, can be wonderful when the store is packed and everyone says they love my books. When there is an audience of 3 earnest people they’re not so much fun! But they are necessary and if it weren’t for the mystery bookstores, I would still be an unknown quantity.
What books influenced you to become a writer and, in particular, a mystery writer? What did you read as a child? What do you read today? Did you ever read, write, or flirt with literary fiction or any other genre?
As a child I read all those mystery/adventure books: The Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons, then moved on to Agatha Christie who is still my favorite writer. I have also read widely in literary fiction, which I still enjoy. Writers like Margaret Atwood and A.S. Byatt are among my favorites. I still love most mystery novels and read as often and as widely as I can. I find it hard to read when I am writing, however. The thing I like about mystery novels is that they come to a satisfying conclusion. And for me the best mystery novels are superior to any literary fiction!
What are your words of wisdom for emerging or aspiring writers? What do you wish you’d known or done differently? Have you made any egregious mistakes you’re willing to talk about?
For emerging writers: read and write as much as possible. Learning to put words on a page is the same as learning the tools of any other craft form.
Network and build a relationship with other writers. And above all, only write what you are passionate about, not what you think the public or editors want. You have to live with your characters for a long time!
No egregious mistakes. I’ve been lucky in many ways and always fallen into things. What I wish I’d done differently? I spent too long writing YA books—necessary at the time as my husband was jobless and I had 4 kids to put through school and college, but I wish I could have started my mystery career earlier.
Is there anything you haven’t done, any dream on your to-do list, as a writer or in general?
I’d like to write that one definitive novel—my Gone with the Wind, for which I’d be identified through generations to come. That would be most satisfying.
And I’d like to go on a Safari. Oh, and own a cottage in England.
Finally, please tell us what’s next for Rhys Bowen and where you’ll be in the next few months.
I’ve just launched Her Royal Spyness and I’m currently busy touring and promoting that book. And I’m just finishing up the next in that series, called A Royal Pain. In September I’m on vacation in Prague and Budapest. Then in October speaking in Tucson AZ. After that a breather while I start on my next Molly book.
Anyone interested in my upcoming schedule can always check my website at www.rhysbowen.com. And visit my blog at www.theladykillers.typepad.com.