I’d always written stories ever since I could pick up a crayon, but I didn’t come to the conclusion that I wanted to have a career as a writer until I was about thirty and had already had a graphic design career under my belt. My son was just a toddler and I thought I’d get back into design, but in my two-year hiatus the whole graphics industry had turned to computers and I, alas, had not. So I had to think about what I could do at home and still raise my son. I was kicking around the idea of becoming a novelist of historical fiction. How hard could it be? HA! Pretty hard, as I found out. Oh, the writing part was easy, it was the selling part that became problematic. The kind of historicals I liked to write weren’t the kind editors were scrambling to publish. And they still wouldn’t today. I like writing about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but all they wanted and still do are books about the royalty. Write about Anne Boleyn and you’re in! After a good ten years of struggling (and doing a variety of careers to feed my writing habit, like reporter, tasting host and tour guide for a winery, choir director, office assistant) a former agent suggested I take all that medievally goodness and create a medieval mystery series. So the kind of thing I liked to write translated very well into the mystery genre, where a fictional detective solves fictional murders amid the real backdrop and people of the era. And it only took a few years to get published after I had established my Crispin Guest character and had a few books in the series penned. Once the series was on its way, I thought I’d pull some of my standalone historicals out of my “vault,” those books that either never sold or that I didn’t even try to sell, rewrite them a bit to bring them up to snuff, and publish them myself.
2. What sparked your interest in the Tudors?
I think I’ve always been interested in the Tudors. There are many periods of English history that fascinate me but you can’t really beat the Tudors for drama. I was raised in a household of rabid Anglophiles, and so I was already surrounded by people who knew history and stocked our bookshelves with both fiction and non-fiction on the subject. I certainly grew up knowing more British monarchs than American presidents.
I’m not sure how the discussion started, but I remember talking to a family friend who I think got me a book about old abbeys in England, and we started talking about the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and she wondered aloud, “I wonder what happened to all those poor nuns?”
Well, it started me to thinking that there was perhaps a story there. I’m not quite sure how I picked that particular priory in Brewood, but it turned out to be very serendipitous. The more I researched it, the more interesting the backstory became. This was way back in 2001 and all my research was done either in libraries or on the internet talking to folks in archives across the pond (come to think of it, I still do it that way, but there is a LOT more on the internet than there was in those early days—scanned documents and the like, for instance). I got a hold of one of the locals who literally wrote the book on the history of the area and not only did he send me a copy of his book but all sorts of notes pertinent to my research. He got me connected with the people who owned the priory-turned-manor house and they were not only generous with their time but took photos and sketched out the original plan of the place, which I turned into a frontis piece for the novel.
Piecing together the priory’s history and their close relationship to the local lord in the area—the Giffards—I began to see a tapestry of a story unfolding before me. And though the heart of the tale, the chaste love story between the two protagonists was my own fancy, I don’t think it might be too far off from reality based on my research. It was all very exciting as the story came together because I really wasn’t sure how I was going to tell the story of Henry VIII’s cat fight with Rome through the eyes of the people most affected by it.
4. Share a favourite quote.
Here’s one I can think of offhand. The nuns are discussing the oaths they will be obliged to take before the king’s commissioners, declaring Henry the head of the Church, and one of the more strident nuns speaks: “I hope Cromwell himself comes,” boomed Dame Felicia. “I will have an oath to give him.”
5. What three new skills would you like to learn?
Glass blowing, blacksmithing, proper embroidery (I am self-taught and have no patience for it. Plus I’m pants at it.)
6. What are your favourite holiday destinations?
My husband and I do a lot of camping and we love the Mammoth area of California, high in the sierras, right by a creek so my husband can fly fish while I settle in my chair to read.
7. What is something surprising that you learnt about the Tudors during your research?
I don’t think anything surprises me about the Tudors anymore. Though I am contemplating a mystery series set at that time and at court, so be on the look-out for that.
8. Do you use social media?
Extensively. Mostly Facebook so please friend me there. I have friends from all over the world and it is ever a joy to me to chat with readers far flung in Australia and Europe (I live in southern California).
9. Describe a day in your life when you are writing. Do you follow any rituals?
I get up around 7 am and immediately look through my emails (my agent is in New York and I am in California so the time difference means I had better check that first). I login to Facebook and do other sorts of work-related things, like updating my website appearance schedule, seeing if I have email interviews to do like this one, and any other business. And around 9 I start the actual writing. I read over what I wrote the day before, editing as I go, and then begin. It might involve stopping to chase down a bit of research (I also like to keep the words I use within the time period so I have to check the Oxford English Dictionary for word origins and usage. Sometimes I cheat just a bit—give or take a hundred years—as some words just can’t be replaced). Somewhere in there I will actually shower and dress and I write—fooling around here and there checking email and Facebook, going down a rabbit hole of research, watching an old movie to clear my mind—and finish around 3 pm. I go for writing ten pages a day because I have two to three books to finish a year, all in different genres (I also write a GLBT mystery series, the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, under the pen name Haley Walsh) so I have to get them done. Each book can really take no more than four months to complete. This year, for instance, if all goes well, I will have written three novels and one novella. Right now I am in the throes of research for my ninth novel in my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series.
10. What women in history do you most admire?
Queen Elizabeth I. She had a lot on her plate and took the brave and rather intelligent move not to marry.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, because she was quite the kick-ass lady.
11. What does your writing space look like?
A mess. But an organized one. I have my home office that was designed just for me (my husband built the desk and shelves) and the shelves are full of research books and my little knick-knacks I like to be surrounded with. I have full scale battles going on with toy medieval knights, while the Tardis, a Dalek, a bobble head Shakespeare, a few skulls and a few snowmen look on. It’s a blood bath.
12. What motivates you?
Having a career. It’s no secret that midlist authors like me make so little money at all the hard work of writing and promotion that we do and still can’t make a living. So why do we bother? Well, we have stories to tell, and we are addicted to the creative process. And it’s a bit of hope over experience that one of our books just might hit it big and we can make that elusive living. But I’m not holding my breath.
13. What is something most people don’t know about you?
They don’t know I can sing. I was a soloist and choir director for a local church at a long time ago. And I really do miss choral singing sometimes but not the politics involved.
14. Do you have a favourite book?
My favorite book changes with the seasons of my life. But there are a few that endure. I grew up with the Canterbury Tales. And the Lord of the Rings showed me when I was a teen that fantastic worlds could be built with words alone. But one of my go-to books when I’m bored is The Maltese Falcon, so as you can see, my tastes are eclectic.
15. Earliest childhood memory.
Hiding under the bed while playing and looking at the dust bunnies.
16. What characteristic do you admire most in others?
Patience and calm.
17. Name five books you’d like to read this year.
Any new Arturo Perez-Reverte novel that might be out, and some should-reads that I never got around to before like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and Harlan Cobin.
18. Do you have any hidden talents?
I’m a wood carver, but haven’t done any in years.
19. What do you like to do outside of writing?
Travel, eat in fine restaurants, take long drives to explore the scenery.
20. Do you believe in past lives?
Nope. Isn’t one enough?
Visit Jeri Westerson’s official website: http://www.jeriwesterson.com