Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
Liz: Let’s start with your new release: please tell us about the latest in your long-running Rutledge series.
C&C: A LONELY DEATH was a complex and interesting book to write. After three ex-soldiers are garroted in a small Sussex village near Hastings, Scotland Yard is called in to find the murderer. But this killer is clever and elusive, always thinking one step ahead. Rutledge must first discover why these men are victims—and then work out who is behind such vicious attacks. All is not what it seems, and before the inquiry is concluded, Rutledge’s personal life and his professional reputation are at stake. It’s exciting and a page-turner. If you haven’t met Rutledge before, this New York Times best seller is a great place to begin.
Liz: You now have a second series. Tell us about Bess Crawford and when the next installment of her story will come out?
Caroline: There are two Bess Crawford books out now—A DUTY TO THE DEAD and AN IMPARTIAL WITNESS. The more we learn about Bess as a character—she’s a young battlefield nurse from an Army family and grew up outside the straitjacket of a Victorian upbringing—the more we find her exciting and interesting to write about. She can drive a motorcar, she knows weapons, and she doesn’t faint at the sight of a corpse. She’s also level-headed, bright, and persistent. Great characteristics for a good sleuth.
Charles: We’ve just turned in A BITTER TRUTH, the third Bess Crawford, and it’s already in production for next summer’s pub date. And we can see about 6 books ahead, which will take her through the Great War and into the peace that follows. It’s going to be fun to write these. It’s possible she could go back to India, where she spent her childhood. And there’s a wedding in Ireland as well to look forward to—but not hers.
Liz: With two successful series, you have to produce a book every six months. Does this mean the two of you are now working as hard as one one-book-a-year author? Kidding aside, how are you managing with such a grueling schedule?
Caroline: Even though we had had Bess in mind for some time, we waited until we could be sure we could successfully handle two books a year without hurting the Rutledge series. And since A MATTER OF JUSTICE hit the NY Times best seller list, THE RED DOOR seemed to be on everyone’s list of best books of 2010, and A LONELY DEATH is back on the best seller list, I think we got it right! It’s a grueling schedule indeed, because it includes touring and interviews and signings, not to mention research. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Charles: We have a good grounding in the history of the period and of the war, and we have a good feeling for England and English settings. This is a tremendous help in working on both series, and so far we haven’t had Bess talking to Hamish or Rutledge nursing the wounded. Which means we’re still functioning under all the pressure. We enjoy a challenge, and this has certainly been one all the way. But Bess was ready to come forward, and we’re very glad she has. We still have a lot to say about Rutledge and his world, and we’re just finishing the next one, due in January 2012.
Liz: Looking back on Charles’s childhood, would either of you have predicted that one day you’d write novels together?
Caroline: I don’t think it ever occurred to either of us. It happened that Charles loved many of the same things I did—movies, books, history, mysteries. My daughter was more like her engineer Dad, and grew up to be a financial advisor. She has a gift for languages, like her Mom and is a talented musician, like her aunt. Charles loves working with his hands like his Dad, and all three are good golfers. Charles and I enjoy painting. He loves the sea as much as he loves battlefields, and I’m sea sick in a bathtub. It wasn’t until Charles was an adult that his interest in words and writing showed up. If you’d asked me what the future held when he was ten, I’d have said he’d become a lawyer.
Charles: I never intended to work with my mother. What I wound up doing was working with someone I knew well and respected, and someone who found history as intriguing as I did. I think the main thing that has come of this collaboration is getting to know each other as adults. We can argue, we can discuss the books, we can even yell at each other, and it isn’t personal, it’s professional. What’s helpful is that our minds work a lot alike. But it could just as easily have been my sister who inherited that sort of mind. Since she didn’t and I did, I’m here working a 12 hour day, and she’s having a great time telling people how to invest their money.
Liz: Whose idea was it to collaborate? Were there any problems that had to be solved at the beginning?
Caroline: I think I brought it up first, after a visit to a battlefield where we had fun reconstructing the action and talking about what ifs. Charles wasn’t particularly interested just then, and I was busy with other things. But then he found himself on the road with his day job, and that meant time on his hands. Even so, nothing would have happened if we hadn’t both had computers. That made long-distance collaboration possible.
Charles: I was busy with my own life and my family, so another project seemed to be out of the question. But once I was on the road as a corporate troubleshooter, I was glad of something to do in the evenings beside watching TV or running up the phone bills calling home. I think the biggest problem we have is that we can’t work in the same room. I don’t know whether this is because we didn’t start out that way or because we get more done when we are not together. When I’m at home, or Caroline is visiting me, we work in different rooms, on the computer or the phone. My Dad finds that amusing.
Liz: What is your collaborative process like? Did it evolve over time, and if so, how?
C&C: We never had a manual to help us learn how to collaborate. We sort of worked it out along the way. And what made the most sense was, of all things, consensus. We talk out the first chapter, who’s in it, what it has to say, where it will take us. And we write that down. Next we face the second chapter, who’s going to be there, what it has to say, and where it’s going. It’s the way we began, and we discovered that it worked, so we have used that as our method ever since. Remember, we both do research and share it, we both go to England and explore, and we both know our characters well, so it isn’t so surprising that consensus works better than outlining or swapping chapters.
Liz: One of the advantages of collaboration may be that you can take advantage of complementary strengths and minimize weaknesses. What are Charles’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a writer? What are Caroline’s?
Caroline: I think our real strength comes from having so much in common—trips to England, reading the same books, seeing the same films, liking suspense so much. That matters, because we can see eye to eye even when we disagree. I’d have thought that being male and female might have made a difference, that I’d see women better and Charles would see men more clearly. But when it comes to characters, we both seem to visualize them equally well. I expected Charles to write action scenes for the books while I’d work on motives. As it turned out, we both had an equally good grip on action and motive. I do spell better than Charles, while he’s far more computer savvy.
Charles: I think the main gift of collaboration is the way we sort of spur each other on. I think the main weakness may be that we’re so much alike. So it’s what we do when we aren’t collaborating that is important in keeping a fresh eye. Caroline loves to travel. She and my Dad have enjoyed seeing the world together. I like the beach, sitting there watching the waves and an occasional skimmer passing by. The list goes on, and from these differences come threads for storylines that expand a plot or characters we might not have created otherwise. Caroline and I both have a sense of humor, which is important. But we also have a sense of the ridiculous and that keeps us on an even keel. And we’ve always argued over trivia. I love it when I’m right and she’s wrong.
Liz: What impact has your writing partnership had on the rest of the family?
C&C: It’s turned into a family business, actually. John/my Dad has driven us all over England because he’s great at driving on the other side of the road. He takes overview pictures, while we take particular shots. He has been a terrific proofreader, because he’s an engineer. He’s even been known to cook dinner or do the laundry when deadlines start pressing. Linda pitches in wherever she’s needed. Looking after the menagerie while we travel, helping keep Mom’s garden from turning into a jungle when she’s busy, acting as personal shopper. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a family to keep two writers going. What do they get out of it? The pleasure of knowing that we’re doing what we love, just as they are in their own careers.
Liz: Does the collective Charles Todd have a personality independent of the individual Charles’s and Caroline’s? If so, what is he like, and does that question require one answer or two?
Caroline: Yes, I think he does. We both sign as Charles Todd. Not because he’s one of us but because he’s both of us. He’s the creator of Rutledge and Bess Crawford. We represent him, sometimes together and sometimes separately. And it’s easier to have a professional and a personal life that way. For instance, I don’t shop for groceries or spend an afternoon with a friend, as Charles Todd. But the minute I’m on a tour, I switch to the business side of my world.
Charles: We went with Charles Todd on the book jackets because that took up less space than Charles and Caroline Todd. You can spot “Charles Todd” on the shelf from across the room. And Charles takes up less space than Caroline. A marketing decision, for the most part. But it has turned out to be a very smart decision to have one personality rather than two. It also gives us a chance to be ourselves when we aren’t on tour. I like being by myself. I like kicking back and watching a game with a friend. Still, I always have an ear to the ground about the business of the book world. You have to.
Liz: How do you handle promotion? Do you attend the same events or cover twice the ground by appearing separately? Was the fact that Charles Todd is both of you ever kept secret from the public?
C&C: It’s nice to do things together. We can also use the time to talk and work whether in an airport or a hotel dining room. But sometimes we have to tour or appear separately, Whatever works best, especially when we’re really busy. It also means we can get to more places and see more fans. Two things we never expected when all this started. That we’d meet the authors that we’d admired so much. And that we’d meet our own fans and get to hear what they have to say about the books. There was a time when Caroline didn’t travel. She was diagnosed with a heart problem just before we sold TEST. And we weren’t sure she’d be able to travel at all. Touring is tough physically. Luckily her condition was treatable by medication and she’s had a great time ever since. But we played it safe and kept her out of it until we were sure.
Liz: The Rutledge books are very slightly woo-woo, since Rutledge has the dead Hamish’s voice inside his head. What prompted you to include Hamish? Have you ever regretted it? What do you hear from readers about this element in the series?
C&C: Hamish isn’t slightly woo-woo. He’s a manifestation of guilt, an attempt by a tormented man to escape from what he carries on his conscience. As an officer Rutledge had to do what he did there on the Somme, but it doesn’t mean he’s able to live with the fact that he led hundreds of young men to their deaths, that every time he ordered a charge across No Man’s Land, he would see more die. Hamish is all of them—and one man among them. Rutledge isn’t the only returning soldier who talks to his dead buddies. It’s called survivor’s guilt. Shellshock—post-traumatic stress disorder—is something that many soldiers suffer from. And not only soldiers. People can suffer from PSTD after any unbearable trauma. 9/11, Katrina, Haiti, they’re all beyond imagining for the people caught up in them. We couldn’t bring Rutledge back from four years in the trenches without a scratch on him. Yet if he’d been severely wounded, he couldn’t go back to Scotland Yard. The only choice was a wound of the spirit. And that can take many forms, not just a Hamish. Do we regret using PTSD? No. And how do fans respond to it? Hamish has his own fan club. That means people have understood what he represents.
Liz: In the books, it’s indicated that Rutledge doesn’t think Hamish’s presence can be defined as being haunted. I didn’t get it, and now I do. :)
C&C: Rutledge didn’t have access to a psychologist to explain all this to him. He has to find answers himself. He knows full well that Hamish is dead. That he’s buried in France. And yet if Rutledge accepts emotionally that Hamish is dead, then he must face himself as a murderer. At least in his own eyes. It’s a dilemma that tears Rutledge apart. There are many forms of haunting—and not all of them require a spirit dragging chains behind him, like Marley’s ghost. The men who survived PTSD in WWI did so by fighting hard to keep their sanity. Those who failed often went out into the back garden and shot themselves. Every war has produced such victims. They’re coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan too. Not all of them hear voices—shellshock takes many different forms--but Rutledge speaks for every generation of soldiers, in his own way.
Liz: What prompted you to begin a second series? How did you decide on Bess Crawford as the protagonist?
Caroline: We wanted to show the woman’s point of view in the war. And she seemed to be the most interesting way to go about it. We talked about her for a long time, discussing all the possibilities, and I think we hit on the right ones. If you are about to introduce a second series, you must create someone who can hold her own, not find herself in the shadow of the first series. And Bess has a very strong and devoted following already.
Charles: Bess represents many things—she was educated at home, not in a Victorian environment. She learned at an early age what duty was. She was accustomed to weapons, seeing them every day because her father was a soldier. She can drive. And she is still very feminine, in spite of her harsh experiences as a nurse. She’s also very smart, so it’s believable that she can solve murders. Bess is not a modern woman—she wasn’t intended to be, she’s a character of her own times—but readers can relate to her good qualities and appreciate her struggle to do the right thing, because she’s very human and very believable. That was what we were reaching for, that bridge of generations.
Liz: Do you find that gender issues are a factor in your work? For example, does Caroline have more input into Bess’s voice?
C&C: We had strong women in the Rutledge series, so we had no qualms about creating a strong woman for a second series. And we find that writing either sex comes naturally to both of us. Just as it does to other authors, male or female. Sometimes one of us will have stronger insight into a character, but that’s because we see him or her more clearly, not because we’re the same gender. Good writing is a question of craftsmanship and experience and intuition, whether you’re Sue Grafton or Michael Connolly.
Liz: Do you ever write separately? If so, how do your individual voices differ from that of the collective Charles? How important is voice to your writing?
C&C: We’ve done separate things for fun, just playing with them. They never get beyond that stage. But voice is important to any book, and you learn to look for and identify it. It gives life to a character, and makes a series work. If we ever struck out separately, I think the training we’ve had with Rutledge and Bess Crawford would stand us in good stead individually. At the moment, two series and the short stories we write keep us too busy to envisage taking on much more.
Liz: Where do you think the collective Charles will be ten years from now?
C&C: In 1992 we couldn’t have foreseen a collaboration, much less a successful one. In 2002, we couldn’t have dreamed how lucky we’d be with one series, much less two. And here we are, already working on manuscripts that will see the light of day in 2012, and planning to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Great War in 2014! It’s been a remarkable run, truly amazing. So what will the next ten years hold for Charles Todd? We could make a safe prediction, that we’ll still be here with Bess and Rutledge, or someone equally challenging to write about. But who knows? What’s out there in the next ten years could be just as fascinating as what we’re doing now. We might completely reinvent Charles Todd in ways we haven’t even considered yet and surprise ourselves and our fans. That’s what makes life so exciting, you don’t know what’s ahead. Come back in ten years’ time and we’ll find out.