Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sarah Stewart Taylor and the Art of Death

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of O’ Artful Death, Mansions of the Dead, Judgment of the Grave, and Still as Death, featuring art history professor Sweeney St. George. Sweeney’s specialty, funerary art, tends to lead her into the path of murder and mayhem. Sarah lives on a farm in Vermont with her husband and son, and when she isn’t writing she teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Q. How far back does your love of mysteries go? Did you always know you would write mysteries one day?

A. I loved mystery and adventure stories when I was a child -- Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Kidnapped, The Borrowers, all of those great books. Then I discovered Agatha Christie when I was about ten and fell in love. I read every single one at our public library and then moved on to Patricia Wentworth and Ngaio Marsh in my teens. I didn't read Dorothy Sayers until college somehow, but I was completely hooked. I studied creative writing in college and I never thought I would write mysteries, but everything I wrote seemed to have a body in it, so finally I let myself go in the direction in which I really wanted to go.

Q. Was your first published novel also the first you completed?

A. Sort of. I had a couple of unfinished books, but I guess O' Artful Death was the first book I actually finished and took through the revision process.

Q.Tell us about your path to publication. Was it easier than you expected, or did you hit some bumps along the way?

A. It took me a while to find an agent, largely because I started sending the book out way before it was really ready. I used the submission process, which took a couple of years, as a way to revise and improve the book. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this!

Q. How did you develop Sweeney, your memorable protagonist? Did you sit down and carefully work out her personality, psychology, and background, or did she take shape as you wrote the first book? Is there anything you wish you’d done, or not done, with Sweeney that it’s too late to change now?

A. I came up with Sweeney soon after I came up with her profession -- she's an art historian who specializes in funerary art. I wanted a young woman protagonist and I thought a lot about what kind of young woman would choose to study gravestones and mourning jewelry. A lot of Sweeney's personality traits come from that process. I'm pretty happy with her, though I'm struggling with her a little right now. She needs to stop drinking and I'm having trouble getting her to see this . . .

Q. What aspect of the writing craft have you worked hardest on? What have you learned about writing from reading your favorite authors?

A. Characterization. It all starts with character. That's where plot comes from, that's where theme comes from, that's where suspense comes from, everything. When I think about the books I love the most, they're the ones with those characters who won't let go of you after you close the book.

Q. How long does it take you to write a novel, while balancing the writing with book promotion, family and your day job?

A. Before I had my son, who's now two-and-a-half, I could write a book in nine months or so. Now, it's a bit longer than that . . . sometimes much longer. When he was a baby, I got a lot done. I perfected the art of typing-while-breastfeeding. But no one told me that two-year-olds want your attention all the time . . .

Q. Speaking of your day job, what is the Center for Cartoon Studies and what do you teach there?

A. It's this great college in White River Junction, VT for cartoonists and graphic novelists. I can't draw to save my life, but I teach fiction writing and literature there and I actually just wrote a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart that will be out next year. It's an MFA program and our students are so talented. I love working with them. You can see some of their work at

Q. Is your farm in Vermont a working farm? Shall we add farming to the list of demands on your time?

A. It's a working farm in the sense that we work really hard, but we don't make a living -- or even a profit, I'm afraid -- from it. We raise chickens -- meat birds and layers -- and lambs, mostly for our own consumption. I love it -- there's something so concrete about farm chores that's a great antidote to writing. I'm really into my hens -- I love going out in the morning and collecting eggs. Chickens are really charming and smart. I even have one who comes when I call her name.

Q. In your fourth book a piece of ancient Egyptian funerary art plays a role. In my opinion, nobody has ever done death quite as spectacularly as the ancient Egyptian royals. Have you studied their customs?

A. I loved doing the research for Still as Death. The inspiration for the book was the original King Tut exhibit. I was seven when my Mom went and brought me back the catalog. I loved looking at those pictures of the riches found in the tomb and the supposed curse.

Q. Is there any other culture you feel rivals that one for burial ceremony? Do you have a particular favorite?

A. I'm really interested in Victorian attitudes to death. They were pretty intense about it, those Victorians . . .

Q. I’m sure all your fans join me in hoping you’ll be around for a long time, but have you planned ahead? What kind of tombstone do you want on your grave?

A. I know this sounds strange, but I might not have one at all. A lot of my husband's family members' ashes are buried under a tree in our back yard and I might decide to just hang out with them . . .Either that or I would want something very simple. Although I just read that Merv Griffin's gravestone says, "I will not be back right after this message." Ha ha! I love that. Maybe I'll put a joke on mine.

Q. What’s next for you and Sweeney? Do you plan to continue the series, or do you have something different in mind? What do you want to be doing as a writer in 10 years?

A. I know what happens to Sweeney next and I'm working on her next adventure, but I'm also working on some other stuff. In ten years, I hope I'm still writing the kinds of stories that really interest me and that people will still want to read them.

Q. In parting, what advice can you give aspiring writers who are struggling to complete a book or find an agent and publisher?

A. Write, write, write. Read, read, read. Write some more. In my experience, most people put the cart before the horse and start thinking too much about publication before they've really perfected their craft. You may have to rewrite your first book 20 times before it's ready for submission. It may never be ready. You have to enjoy the whole process. Read good literature. That's the only way to really learn to write. See how the masters do it. And develop a thick skin. This biz is full of rejection, but it's a pretty great thing to be allowed to do for a living.

Visit the author's web site at


Felicia Donovan said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah at one of her readings and she held her audience completely captive with her tales of Sweeney.

So glad to see you here. Sarah, I'm just wondering with all your delving into funerary art if you've ever had any paranormal experiences?

Felicia Donovan

Joyce Tremel said...

Hi Sarah! Nice to see you here!

I thought of you recently when I read an interview in Civil War Times with Drew Gilpin Faust (president of Harvard). She wrote a book called "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War." She talks about what was called "a good death," which was important to not only the survivors, but those who died. I think you'd find it very interesting.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lovely interview, Sarah and Sandy. :) Sarah, if Sweeney needs help to stop drinking, you can send her to me. ;) Death Will Get You Sober--but, as you said about revising through agent rejections (been there, done that), I don't necessarily recommend the method!

Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks.

Theresa de Valence

Sarah Stewart Taylor said...

Hi everyone:

Thanks for the comments and to the Dedaly Daughters for hosting me. I haven't had any paranormal experiences, Felicia. Well, maybe one . . . but it was related to real estate hunting rather than graveyard hunting . . .Elizabeth, I may need your help. She's being stubborn. And Joyce, I've been wanting to read that book. Doesn't it look fascinating?

Anonymous said...

Sarah! I enjoy your books so much -- and I miss your blog! I suppose it was just too much to ask, but boy oh boy! I really do miss it.
Marina McIntire -- who won two copies of your last book for two friends!