Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Jeri Westerson, best known for her Crispin Guest medieval “noir” mysteries.
SAT: Crispin Guest is such a wonderful character! Where did he come from?
JW: I think he probably came from a lot of places, but he mostly formed when I decided what kind of medieval mystery I wanted to write. Once I had come up with the idea of a hardboiled kind of detective on the order of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, he began to form more quickly. Following the tropes of the hardboiled detective, he had to be a loner, down on his luck, hard drinking, hard fighting, tough talking—and a sucker for a dame in trouble. I wanted a knight, because so many medieval mysteries were inhabited (pun intended) by clerical sleuths and I wanted someone completely different, someone who was used to fighting, to being his own man. And I wanted action and a bit of adventure. But I also wanted a sexier sort of detective, so a dark and brooding man, a little Mr. Darcy blended with a bit of Errol Flynn. But I have to say that a great deal of his character stems from his innate sense of honor and justice carved out by his present circumstances, because to make him that loner down on his luck, I had to take away everything that he used to define himself: his knighthood, his title, his lands, his wealth, his very place in such a codified society. And once I did that, he sprang forth pretty much fully formed.
SAT: I was excited to see that a new Crispin Guest novel, Cup of Blood, has just been released. Since Cup of Blood is billed as a prequel, should a reader who is new to the series now start with this book rather than Veil of Lies?
JW: I’ll tell you a secret. Cup of Blood was the first Crispin Guest book I ever wrote. At the time, its themes of the Holy Grail and Knights Templars failed to capture the imagination of editors, as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released around that time. So the book was put to bed and the second one, Veil of Lies, was published as the first book in the series. But I never forgot this first book. It’s where Crispin’s sidekick Jack Tucker comes into his life. So while I was between publishers, I decided to brush off the dust and spruce up the writing of Cup of Blood and release it myself as a prequel. So it is entirely appropriate for neophytes to read Cup of Blood first.
SAT: Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, have such a special relationship, and one of the joys of reading the series is watching the way their relationship unfolds. Where did Jack come from? Did you envision his becoming an apprentice from the first? Will Jack strike out on his own one day or do you see him growing into partnership with Crispin?
JW: Jack was going to be in the first book and that was pretty much going to be it for him. But my agent and editor alike both found him to be a very engaging character and so Jack got to stay. And it turned out to be a godsend, because we see Crispin’s stark life tempered by the presence of Jack, sort of the son Crispin never had. And as Jack grows up throughout the series, Crispin begins to see that his own chosen profession has an important place in London, and that he himself has earned his way back from the degradation that was visited upon him. So Jack has become very important to the series. He won’t leave Crispin, in fact, there is more to come on that front. But Jack will get a brief foray into a YA series of his own. At least three books worth.
SAT: A YA series with Jack—Yippee! When will the first one be released?
JW: Hold on there! I have to write the sucker first. And then it’s got to get a publisher, and on and on. But it’s next up on my list of things to write this year.
SAT: I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that you have two non-Crispin novels in the works. Your website describes Though Heaven Fall as “a quixotic tale of fantasy and faith, set in 13th-century England.” Is this the beginning of a new series? What sparked this new novel?
JW: I had such a pleasant experience self-publishing Cup of Blood that I decided to delve into my files of unpublished manuscripts and see what might be marketable. When I first started writing for publication, I wrote historical novels, but they weren’t the kind editors were jumping over themselves to publish. They were about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, with sometimes no crowned heads to be seen. This kind of book translated much better into medieval mystery, and that was where I was ultimately published. But all of those previous historical novels were one-offs, standalones. Though Heaven Fall is definitely a standalone. It’s styled a “Medieval Parable” and I suppose that’s exactly what it is.
SAT: “Fantasy and faith” as well as quixotic impulses also feature strongly in the Crispin Guest series. I love the way you balance the possibility that a relic such as the Crown of Thorns may, in fact, have mysterious and inexplicable properties. As Crispin, though a believer and a man of his times, is also a rather skeptical and analytical character it is especially interesting to view such possibilities through his eyes. What draws you so strongly to this theme, which threads through all of the novels in the series?
JW: Faith truly is in the eye of the beholder, and I think we have a sometimes stilted view of medievals, that they all followed blindly what the Church taught them. But there were many people who questioned those views. A character who believes all what he was taught of Heaven and Hell, but who is also well-traveled and well-educated forming his own ideas on the matter, can follow a logical progression through his experiences and philosophy to a certain amount of skepticism. And it’s fun to pit him against everyone around him and make him question his own beliefs. I always leave it to the reader to decide if mystical events have happened or not.
SAT: The second non-Crispin novel mentioned on your website, Booke of the Hidden, “a quirky-humorous yet edgy-romantic urban fantasy set in a small town in Maine,” is quite a new direction! I suspect from the lovely balancing act you perform with relics in the Crispin series that you have a longstanding interest in the paranormal. (The latest Crispin novel delves into the world of medieval alchemy, a continuation of this theme.) What drew you to finally write a novel in which paranormal happenings become overt?
JW: Well, an author has to diversify, especially when writing in such a niche market as medieval mystery. In order to try to break out, I went back to my roots, as it were, of writing about fantasy and sci fi. The Jack Tucker series will definitely fall into the fantasy category. It’s the sort of thing I read ravenously in high school and college. Booke of the Hidden is a hell of a fun series to write, and I’m hoping that a publisher will fall in love with it as much as I have. It’s sort of Buffy meets Sookie, if you can get your head around that. And there’s yet another series that I will be working on, a paranormal steampunk mystery series. So stay tuned!
SAT: I have my own theories about the crossover appeal between paranormal and historical novels, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the subject as both reader and writer. I love the idea that the two genres might intermingle in your forthcoming Though Heaven Fall.
JW: I love magical elements. I loved the Harry Potter series for its intermingling of magic and mundane and that they coexist. I like the idea of a perfectly normal person suddenly finding themselves falling into this world. I think we all do to an extent and as a reader I’ve enjoyed those sorts of stories for decades. As a writer, I am finally finding the courage to put my toe in the water. I know we tend to think of authors who write a series that we love to be one note players. But most authors have many different tales inside of them. I fully intend to complete the Crispin series many, many books from now, but I also want to meander into different places and see if I can’t reach some modest success there as well.
SAT: How was writing a book set in the present-day world different from writing historical novels?
JW: There’s a lot less research, though there still is research. The Crispin books are dense with prose. Perhaps it is the formality of the time period, of the way people think and talk, but I find the contemporary books move faster, and they are bit lighter in tone, though Booke of the Hidden certainly gets some heavy scenes.
SAT: You also publish the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, a LGBT series. Tell us a bit about those.
JW: Well, some years ago, I was reading some LGBT books that my gay friends recommended and I mentioned to them that I wasn’t too thrilled with the writing. And then the challenge began. “If you think you can do better, write one,” they said. And since I was in mystery mode and penning my very dark and heavy Crispin books, I decided, “why not!” But I wanted something more light with humor (I realize that one’s journey as a gay man or woman can be fraught with hardship, and lots of literature out there reflects that, but it can’t all be gloom and doom. There has to be some happy endings!) And so I created Skyler Foxe, a young, brand new high school English Lit teacher who is a bit of a player and who also stumbles into murder and becomes an amateur sleuth while juggling school, correcting papers, dealing with his students’ angst, his friends, and possible love interest. I wanted to write something more in the style of a sitcom with laughs, great three-dimensional characters, a murder puzzle, some erotica (I’m all about the fan service), and at the same time getting to say something about being an LGBT person in today’s world and get in some digs at the conservative area in which I live. A win-win. The series has been critically acclaimed and started with a sort of serial trilogy that I considered like a pilot to the series (FOXE TAIL, FOXE HUNT, and OUT-FOXED), where the first two books of the trilogy sort of end on a cliffhanger. I self-published a novella (FOXE DEN) that I called “DVD extras” with no mystery but plenty of heart…and erotica, then published with MLR Press again in the fourth standalone book FOXE FIRE, and I’m just finishing up the first draft of the next in the series, DESERT FOXE. After that is another novella to be self-published, FOXE DEN 2: SUMMER VACATION.
They are a hoot to write and it’s fun really working on writing humor. Though the last two are standalones, it really helps know who all the characters are by reading the series in order, but not an absolute. I try to make it possible to catch up if you are coming to it fresh. The Skyler series is my relief writing from the dense prose and piles of research necessary for the Crispin books. See more at http://skylerfoxemysteries.com/
SAT: What’s next for Crispin? Can we expect a sequel to Shadow of the Alchemist?
JW: Of course! I’m already working on Crispin #8, The Silence of Stones: When the Stone of Scone disappears from the throne of England during mass in Westminster Abbey, the populace takes it as a sign to side with King Richard’s rebellious barons. The last thing the king needs is for the mythical stone to be missing, further putting his authority in question, especially after his army suffers a crushing defeat against the Scottish forces. Desperate, Richard himself calls in Crispin to find the missing stone. And to insure that Crispin will do the deed, Richard imprisons Jack Tucker and orders Crispin to find the stone before Parliament convenes in two weeks or Jack will hang for treason.
This one has a lot of magic, with three witches and other mystical activity. Fun!
SAT: Three witches and the Scottish army, shades of Macbeth! Looking forward to it so much. Thanks for the interview!
Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes a brooding medieval detective, a feisty female demon-buster, and a gay high school teacher/sleuth. No, not all in the same book. She pens the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries, just began shopping her new urban fantasy series, Booke of The Hidden, and continues her LGBT mystery series, the Skyler Foxe Mysteries. When not writing, she dabbles in gourmet cooking, beekeeping, and herding two cats. See more, including her series book trailer, at www.JeriWesterson.com