Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Yves Fey, author of Floats the Dark Shadow, an atmospheric historical mystery that absolutely knocked my socks off. Before proceeding to the interview proper, here’s a little introduction to the author and her work:
FLOATS THE DARK SHADOW is Yves Fey’s first historical mystery, set in the dynamic and decadent world of Belle Époque Paris. Yves Fey has an MFA in Creative Writing from Eugene Oregon, and a BA in Pictorial Arts from UCLA. She has read, written, and created art from childhood. A chocolate connoisseur, she’s won prizes for her desserts. Her current fascination is creating perfumes. She’s traveled to many countries in Europe and lived for two years in Indonesia. She currently lives in the San Francisco area with her husband and three cats. Writing as Gayle Feyrer and Taylor Chase, she previously published unusually dark and mysterious historical romances.
SAT: Welcome to the blog! When did you first become interested in Paris? I don’t mean writing about Paris, particularly, but what drew you to Paris as a place you might like to read about or visit?
YF: I’ve been a movie addict since kidhood. My love affair with Paris began with An American In Paris, which I saw when premiered. What’s very hokey about it now wouldn’t have bothered me then, and even now the Art inspired ballet at the end is amazing, with Lautrec, Renoir, and Dufy etc. Apparently it was filmed in the studio, but in my mind I’ve added the real Paris backdrops when I think of it. And then the Belle Époque romance of Gigi…
SAT: Given that, what led you to set a story in Paris?
YF: I used to write historical romance, but switched to mystery because my sensibility was too dark. Although Paris is my favorite city, I was also enamored of the beauty of Venice and wanted to set my first romance there. I couldn’t find a historical event that pulled me, so I set it in Florence during the conflict between the Borgias and Savonarola. Next book, I planned to do something à l à Colette, set in Paris. I was told that Paris wasn’t romantic to romance readers. Couldn’t I do Scotland?
Paris continued to claw at my brain to have a novel. When I decided to do an historical mystery, it was at the top of the list for setting, with not much in second place. But finding the right story for the setting took some time.
SAT: What do you like about writing historical fiction?
YF: I’m not all that fond of the present, though I do worship at the altar of my big screen TV. I like reading and writing about history so I can live there vicariously.
SAT: Why fin-de-siècle Paris in particular, the post-Baudelairean Paris of the Symbolist poets and décadents, rather than some other period of French history?
YF: Before I knew who my villain was, I considered a wider time frame, though the 80s and 90s had the edge. I wanted an American artist heroine who was a student of Impressionism or one of the other movements of that era. While there were many artists working in early post-1900 Paris that I love, I do prefer the works of the latter half of the 19th century to the modernists, so that was a big factor. But edging it toward the 20th century also offered a lot of interesting artistic turmoil for the heroine to encounter throughout the series. I didn’t want the shadow of the Civil War hanging over my heroine, so that excluded the 1860s. I was interested in referencing the Commune, but I didn’t want the bleakness of 1870s Paris. I also hoped to have Oscar Wilde as a character at some point (I’d planned a scene where he met the Revenants in Floats the Dark Shadow, but there wasn’t room for it, so he’s just referenced and is an alibi for one crime). I also had hopes of doing Hugo’s funeral in flashback, but that didn’t work out. Those things were all part of the decision, as I looked at who was alive and working in Paris from 1860-1900, and what events I might include.
Somewhere in here, when my first plot wasn’t coming to life, I decided on a Gilles de Rais copycat for my villain. Huysmans book about Gilles de Rais, La Bàs, was published in 1891, so I focused my research on the 90s. In my reading, I found the story of the Bazar de la Charité, and decided it was a wonderful dramatic scene. I love having a big historic event in my books, even if it’s not one that’s well remembered now, so that was the deciding factor for the year 1897. I’d even thought Michel and Theo might meet at the Bazar, but that chapter kept moving toward the center and I wanted them to have some contact about the murders before that. Somewhat later, I found the story of the midnight concert in the catacombs, and was overjoyed that it happened earlier that year. Those were my historic lynch pins. I hadn’t paid a huge amount of attention to the dates of the Commune at first, as it was going to be dealt with in Michel’s memory, but then I saw that it framed the events of the novel as well. As for the poets, the greatest of the era were all mostly dead—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine—but they were still the main influences on the Revenants.
SAT: Where did Theo come from? Do you have any background as an artist yourself?
YF: I do have a degree in art, and when I decided to write a mystery set in Paris, I absolutely wanted an artist heroine because I felt I could bring her to life vividly, and have her see Paris in a unique way. Theo and I share a lot of opinions—but not all, and she’s much braver and more direct and emotional than I am.
I had a completely different character at first, but she refused to be an artist, she wanted to be a journalist. I struggled for months with that character and plot, and had all but given up when my copycat killer idea came up and flipped everything around. Theo and Michel had actually been characters in an abandoned historical romance, an Elizabethan La Femme Nikita. When the cop took on new importance to track down my copycat killer, I seized upon them, but had to really reimagine their backstories, since the spy framework put totally different pressures on them that vanished with the fin de siècle Paris setting.
SAT: Tell us how you went about researching the details of 19th-century police work in Paris that are so essential to your portrayal of Michel and to the plot of your story?
YF: That was and is one of the hardest aspects, as my French is nowhere near good enough to use original sources. I hunted the whole time I was working for more and better information in English. I had a book called Crime Scene Stories that was very useful. And I had a great find in a book of the period, with lots of etchings, called The Paris Law Courts, which had great information on how prisoners were booked and what the interior of the jails was like.
I’ve made Michel a member of the Special Brigade, which was quite real, and let him play a bit fast and loose with the hideously bureaucratic French police and law system. There is lots of information available on Bertillon’s complex system of anthropometry which was in use all over the world at the time, before being supplanted by fingerprints. So I could play around with that. There were a lot of big changes happening, so information on historic cases and changes in practices are relatively easy to find, but basics are elusive.
I have visited parts of the old prison, and the Police Museum in Paris.
SAT: I love your website, and it’s even more remarkable to me that you did it all yourself. Tell us how you went about the process of learning the techniques and designing the site.
YF: It was achieved with much floundering and flailing. I did read up on WordPress, but not nearly enough to be confident. The language was too confusing, even though I’d done a little programming in MOO, I’d mostly forgotten it—I was never good at it. I felt overwhelmed, so I decided to do one thing at a time. But one thing would lead to another, and another…arrgh.
I tried a couple of different themes with pretty colors, but they were too limited. Then I found Weaver, which promised to let me do pretty much whatever I wanted in terms of color (very important for an artist) and layout. And, I was able to do just about everything that I did want to do, but I would often look for the explanation in the wrong place and spends days or even weeks getting the wrong advice for things that turned out to be relatively simple if you knew where to look. The biggest of these happened pretty early on. I knew I wanted to have different images at the top of different pages. This is easy to do with what they call the Featured Image. But I misunderstood and thought that the Featured Image was a picture included in the text of the blog or page. So I asked around on the forums and got the wrong advice, or too difficult advice, or advice that worked but limited something else. Weeks later, someone asked, Why don’t you just use the Featured Image? So I got my different banners to introduce my different topics. There were several other things that drove me insane because they required so much hunting to figure out, or find the right widget to make work. It’s very crazy-making when you think something will take 2 hours and it takes 2 weeks!
Some of the things were easy from the start, like doing my own backdrop and picking font colors, but still took a long time just because I fiddle endlessly. Just recently I changed my background because so many people have trouble reading light text on black. I love black and find it easy to read light on dark. It suited the dark feel of the book, but I caved since it was really a big issue where some people could not read the text. But I sort of sigh when I land on glaring white pages. I find them really boring. The new background is a teal and I do like it, even if it’s not as Gothic in feel as the black. It’s a huge site, but I did ask friends who had old cranky computers if it would load, and it would, so I’ve gone with what I wanted. It will probably be in progress forever, as far as adding text goes, but all the pages have wonderful art to look at. I’ve done most of it myself, but I did get some help with some of the lettering and with frames on the art. The fun part was hunting the art, though that took ages as well. I knew many of the artists, of course, but I kept finding more and more wonderful relevant art I wanted to include.
SAT: Your current passion is creating perfumes. A most unusual hobby! Tell us how that came about.
YF: My best friend and I had done some perfume quests in the past, and we had a couple of favorite perfumers, Serge Lutens and Les Parfums de Rosine, who were based in Paris. On a research trip, I’d already spent my allotted perfume money on Arabie and Rose d’Éte. It was pretty much time to leave when I happened on a shop in the Marais where you could design your own perfume. I thought that would be great fun, but I’d bought my perfume and was running around trying to finish my research, so I didn’t go in. It wasn’t until after I left that I got the idea to design a perfume for one of the characters. Back home, I began to play around a little without much success. On my next trip, I did design a perfume for my courtesan, Lilias. It came out really well. I thought I could use some to promo the book—but the book took longer to write than expected, and I used up the perfume myself. I began doing more experiments at home, and being an obsessive personality, was soon pretty much lost in my creations. It’s really difficult! I’ve ruined more things than I’ve succeeded at, but I do love it. Theo has been totally elusive. I’ve got a fun spicy rose for Carmine, a dreamy absinthe inspired scent, and a yummy Paris Patisserie.
SAT: Thank you so much, Yves! I’m sure I’m not the only one who eagerly awaits the next installment of Theo’s adventures.
Floats the Dark Shadow has already been listed for a number of awards. For more information, and/or to order a copy, visit the author’s website at: http://yvesfey.com