by Julia Buckley
G.M. Malliet is the author of the Agatha Award-winning DEATH OF A COZY WRITER, the first book in the DCI St. Just mystery series, chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Books of 2008. The second book in the series is DEATH AND THE LIT CHICK and third is DEATH AT THE ALMA MATER, which came out recently. She is currently working on a new mystery series starring Max Tudor (former MI5 agent, now vicar of a small English village) for Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books.
G.M, You attended Oxford University and have a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. What was your major?
My major was psychology. Not the kind where you ask people about their childhoods: I was studying (reading, as the British would have it) learning and memory. How we acquire and store language and memories, how we learn to read and write, and how the brain processes all this. I’m still fascinated by this subject.
Did you ever consider living in England permanently?
Oh, yes! But it was hard, then as now, to get a work permit. And there were just too many things calling me back to the US at the time.
When you did live in England, what were the primary differences you noted between the English and the Americans?
The Americans seemed so loud to me, with a tendency to “over-share.” I’m sure they weren’t that bad and in fact the friendliness of Americans is much admired. But I was like a teenager, constantly embarrassed by his or her parents—I felt and feel that blending in is the goal when you’re in a different culture.
Did living in England alter any of your own Americanisms—the way you spell or pronounce words, for example, or your accent?
For my studies, I had to relearn spelling entirely, and unlearn it when I came back to the US. But I always thought it was a bit affected when Americans said things like “con-TRA-versy” instead of CON-tra-versy—so I avoided that.
Was it nostalgia which made you set your novels (all of them so far) in England?
Yes. I call it my version of time travel. I get to go back and remember and see all the sights in my head—without the jet lag! But I also visit the UK in person whenever I can, because so much gets forgotten.
How did you come up with the names of your detective, St. Just, and his sidekick, Sergeant Fear? (Great names, indeed!)
There really is a Sergeant Fear. I have never met this person, but seeing the name in a newspaper story, I felt I had to appropriate a name so perfect.
There is a village called St. Just in Cornwall that my mother’s family has ties to. I thought that was also a perfect name for an honest, fair cop. So I borrowed the name and gave him Cornish roots.
You are now working on a new mystery series. Had this idea been percolating for a long time, or did you have to come up with it quickly?
There is a little English village that has been inside my head for ages. I started drawing a map of it just to exorcise it, because it had nothing to do with St. Just. Then all these characters came along and wanted to live there. And of course they had a story to tell.
By the way, the name of my village is Nether Monkslip, which is really quite “ordinary” when you start looking at the wonderful, lovely, completely crazy names the British have for some of their villages. One of the best is Chipping Sodbury, which of course the natives have rechristened Sodding Chipbury. It so happens J K Rowling was born there, a fact so wonderful you could not make it up.
If you went back to England now, where would you want to go?
Glastonbury is where King Arthur is either buried, or awaiting his return. Arthur, by the way, is St. Just's first name. ;-)
Ah. Do you keep in touch with friends in England?
I do keep in touch by email, and meet up with them here and there. They are all good enough to provide answers to my more esoteric questions about British life—the kind of thing you can’t find on Google.
What’s a place that a tourist should visit in the U.K. simply because it is NOT a tourist site?
I would have to say just drop into a local pub, any pub. Sit in a corner with your beer and eavesdrop. That is where life is lived, although the pubs are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Why are the pubs disappearing?
The pubs are in trouble because of the recession, but I think it began before that and I can't tell you why, exactly. See
How, if at all, has being a successful mystery writer affected your everyday life?
You mean the new Jaguar I bought with my first royalty check? That was a joke.
Actually, the real change is that I am always on deadline. Before I was published, I was on a highly movable deadline. No one cared if I finished the book or short story, or not. It is a subtle but huge difference.
Have you always enjoyed reading mysteries? Whose books have influenced you the most?
I have always loved mysteries above all. I think Daughter of Time made a huge impression, as well as Rebecca. There were too many others to mention!
Ward Just wrote, of writing, that writing novels was not what he considered hard work; it had instead “to do with desire—translating desire into prose—and a temperament that accepts concentration over the long haul.” Would you agree? And if so, do you have this temperament?
I am not sure I know what he means by accepting concentration! There is no question that the long haul of a novel is not for anyone unwilling to go and live in a made-up world for the year or more required to write a book. You have to really stay focused on what you’re doing, and be able to keep a bunch of apparently unrelated “stuff” in your head at once.
But I love the phrase, “translating desire into prose”—which takes us back to why I write about the UK. It’s my desire to return there, translated.
Finally, in honor of the season, I ask you: what is your favorite sign of spring? Have you seen it yet?
My trees and shrubs “springing” back, after having been flattened by so much snow this year. It’s a miracle, truly.
Thanks so much for chatting with me, GM!