Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Beverle Graves Myers is author of a historical mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Tito Amato, a castrato who sings with the Venetian opera in the 18th century. Beverle made a mid-life career switch from psychiatry to full-time writing. A graduate of the University of Louisville with a BA in history and an MD, she worked at a public mental health clinic before her first mystery was published in 2004.
Bev also writes short stories set in a variety of times and places. Her stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Woman's World, and numerous anthologies. She has earned nominations for the Macavity Award, the Kentucky Literary Award, and the Derringer Award. She and husband Lawrence live in Louisville.
Q. Would you tell us a little about your new book? Who is the mischievous lady in your intriguing title?
A. In Her Deadly Mischief, Tito Amato has shaken off the grief caused by events depicted in the previous book and is once again singing lead roles at the Teatro San Marco in Venice. During an opening night performance, his crystal voice has the packed auditorium entranced. All eyes are on this prince of the stage—except for one fourth-tier box with its scarlet curtains tightly drawn. Miffed, he aims a powerful arrow of song at the box and is astounded to see a woman fall through the curtains like a limp rag doll. For a long moment, he locks eyes with her killer, robed and masked for Carnevale, before the man escapes. Since Tito is the only one to view the murderer, the chief of Venice’s rudimentary police force involves him in the case. They quickly identify the victim as Zulietta Giardino, a courtesan involved in a mischievous wager over a rival’s jewels.
Q. I'm always curious about how writers of historical fiction were drawn to certain time periods. Why did you decide to set your books in the 1740s?
A. I love the 18th century. It’s ripe with conflicts that a mystery writer can work into plots. Absolute monarchy, the culmination of the old feudal system, is sparring with the rise of democracy and individual rights. Science and religion are clashing head-on. The old European world is being challenged by the upstart colonists of the new. These changes affected the mindset of every living person, Tito included.
Q. Why did you want to write about the Venetian opera community? What opportunities for story and character did you see there that felt unique to you?
A. If I recall correctly, I first considered using a castrato protagonist after reading Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven. That put my proposed series squarely in the 18th century and allowed me to indulge my longtime love of opera. Venice, Naples, and Rome were the three great centers of early opera. No contest—Venice won! It makes such a wonderful backdrop for intrigue—misty canals, a crumbling society, nonstop carnival revelry, a crossroads for scoundrels. And Tito right in the middle of it all, because opera and its stars were the popular entertainment of the day.
Q. I'm sure many people have asked why you made your leading man a castrato. I can see you have fun confounding expectations of such a character – Tito is happily married and passionately in love with his wife, far from being asexual. Is he a realistic character? How much detail about the personal lives of the castrati have you turned up in your research?
A. I started with the idea of Tito being a chaste eunuch, unruffled by the urges of a typical man, and thus able to view the world through dispassionate eyes. He refused to cooperate. He said (yes, I’m one of those authors whose characters talk to her), “The knife that created my voice came nowhere near my heart.” He wanted to find his love and his life’s companion as much as anyone. Surprisingly, my research agreed. Many of the historical castrati were considered great lovers by their contemporaries. The surgery destroyed their ability to father children, but not their potency, at least for some. Tales of scandals, concerning both sexes, abound. And even though the Catholic Church denied them the sacrament of marriage, some castrati moved to Protestant countries and married there. Tito’s marriage is unsanctioned. Since Liya holds to Italy’s old pagan religion, they merely “jumped the broom.”
Q. Speaking of research, I envision you writing in a room overflowing with history books, architectural drawings of Venice, illustrations of 18th century Italian clothing styles, and so on. Have you absorbed everything you need to know about the setting and era, or does each book require additional research? How much research did you do for the new book?
A. You’ve pretty much described my office, minus the dust, of course. When I begin a scene, I try to find a painting of the location, indoor or outdoor, or at least something similar. I prop the art book up by the computer, get a baroque opera CD going, and start writing. I make a binder for each book that contains helpful articles and news clippings, portraits of the main characters, maps, and photos of period-specific weapons and other implements, etc. I researched the basics—the theaters, modes of transportation, clothing, and so forth—at the beginning of the series. But each book presents at least one new avenue of research. For Her Deadly Mischief, I had to get up to speed on Murano glass as much of the action takes place at a glass maker’s fornace.
Q. Have you visited Venice? How much has it changed since Tito's time? Is the modern world becoming intrusive – do you see cell phone towers, for example, or TV satellite dishes?
A. My husband and I spent an idyllic eight days in Venice several years ago. It has probably changed less in the last 275 years than any other European city, but it is no longer Tito’s Venice. People have been living there the whole time, and they do tend to change things little by little. That’s just the way of the world. The two most glaring intrusions were the huge, totally out-of-scale cruise ships in the basin by the piazza and the awful graffiti defacing many of the old buildings. That graffiti just made me sick.
Q. Psychiatry and mystery writing may seem to be utterly different pursuits, but your work as a psychiatrist must have given you insights that are useful in writing about murder and other devious behavior. Do you take an analytical approach to your characters, tracing their behavior back to its roots, even if you don't include all the details in the story?
A. While plotting out a book, I do what psychiatrists call a detailed medical and psycho-social history on each major character. I pay especial attention to the villain—the motivation to kill has to be believable. Purposeless, random evil doesn’t work for me. I also include at least one character with what we would call a mental illness in each book. Tito’s youngest sister suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, for instance.
Q. Had you written fiction before you began writing about Tito? What led you to write mysteries?
A. Not one piece of fiction! The smart thing would have been to hone my craft with a few short stories, at least, but I’ve always been impatient. Why mysteries? Except for some non-fiction history and biography, mysteries are all that I read. To me, what is labeled as genre often rises to great literature.
Q. Would you tell us about your road to publication? Was it harder than you expected or easier?
A. I started the agent search as soon as I’d finished Interrupted Aria, the first Tito novel. I was extraordinarily fortunate to find a good agent with my first volley of queries. That set me up for unrealistic expectations. I thought connecting with a publisher would be just as easy. Boy, was I wrong. After many rejections, Tito found a publishing home at Poisoned Pen Press. Working with the folks at PPP has been a delight—it’s the perfect place for a series about a Venetian castrato singer/sleuth, not exactly mainstream material.
Q. Have you learned anything about the publishing business, or the life of a published writer, that has surprised you?
A. Like most writers, I had no idea the level of promotion required. I admit it’s not my strong suit. While I love to have one-on-one discussions with readers, most marketing techniques go against my southern upbringing. “A lady never toots her own horn” sort of thing.
Q. One thing I love about your writing is your attention to details – for example, the row of pins in the opera company costumer’s dress bodice. Are you the kind of writer who “sees” a scene fully, down to the smallest detail, before you begin writing, or the kind who does several drafts, further enriching the scene with each pass?
A. I probably “see” the scenes too fully. My challenge is to pare the details down to what the reader needs to “see” it—those small things that define time and place. So my revisions involve taking way rather than enriching.
Q. How long do you typically spend writing a novel? What is your writing routine like?
A. Each book in the Tito Amato series has consumed a year of my writing time, those golden four to five hours of the morning, five or six days a week. I’m slow and a bit of a perfectionist. I don’t like to go on if I’m not happy with the previous work, so I revise as I go. Then, when I reach the end, I just need to do one more quick run though before I send it to my editor.
Q. Who are your favorite writers and what do you most admire about their work?
A. There’s so many. Going way back, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers made me fall in love with mysteries. Over the years, Robert Barnard, Steven Saylor, Sarah Caudwell, P.D. James. All very different—the one similarity is that their books draw me into a fully realized world that I hate to leave. I literally cried when I read the last Sarah Caudwell, because I knew there would be no more. Just now I’m enjoying The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.
Q. Will we see Tito age as the series goes on? Historically, what became of the castrati as they aged? Did they continue to sing into middle age and beyond?
A. Something about the hormonal derangements graced the men with longer than average lives. I expect Tito to live to a ripe old age. When he is no longer able to thrill audiences, age fifty or so for most singers, he can always teach at one of Venice’s famous music schools, direct operas, or use his many artistic and governmental contacts to indulge his taste for sleuthing.
Q. Do you plan to write about Tito indefinitely, or do you want to explore different characters – and perhaps a different era – at some point?
A. Funny you should ask! While I haven’t abandoned Tito, I do feel the creative need to explore other times and places. An author friend (Joanne Dobson, author of the Karen Pelletier mysteries) and I are working on a suspense novel set in the 1940s.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who may feel discouraged by today’s tougher-than-ever book market?
A. Be persistent. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by rejection. It saddens me when I see a fellow writer consign a good book or short story to the drawer after a few turn-downs. Make sure your work is top notch, believe in it, and keep it circulating.
Beverle's books, in order, are Interrupted Aria, Painted Veil, Cruel Music, The Iron Tongue of Midnight, and Her Deadly Mischief. For more information, visit her web site at www.beverlegravesmyers.com.