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Interview with Author Jeri Westerson

Jeri Westerson is the Author of the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Series, which includes Veil Of Lies,Serpent in the Thorns, The Demon’s Parchment, and her newest book, Troubled Bones, due for release in October 2011. Thank you very much Jeri Westerson for providing us with this interview!

And a very special thank you to Jerelyn H. (I-F-Letty) for doing this interview with Jeri Westerson for us!

 

 

Jerelyn: I would like to thank historical mystery writer Jeri Westerson, who has graciously agreed to be interviewed for our own PBS blog, and for also agreeing to participate in the discussion of her book Veil of Lies which will be our June read-along book in the Historical Fiction Discussion Forum.

You have coined the term “Medieval Noir” to describe your work. Would you tell us about this?

Jeri: When I set out to write this series, I knew that I would have to have a different kind of hook for the medieval mystery. What was going to set mine apart from the others out there? So I took a look at the kind of books I liked to read, and besides historical, I liked the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy Hughes. The stilted prose, the tough guy dialogue, the hard-hitting action. It all sounded like a lot of fun to put into a medieval setting. Now THAT was a book I wanted to read. So I set about figuring out how to do it so it wouldn’t be anachronistic. And then I had to come up with a catchy name to call this hybrid, and “Medieval Noir” fit the bill.

Jerelyn:  Is there any particular reason you chose late 14th century London as your canvas for this book?

Jeri:  There were a lot of interesting things going on at this time. First, there was the boy king, Richard II. He came to the throne at ten years old. His father, the Black Prince, would have been the king but he died before he could achieve the crown. So we have a monarch who succeeded to the throne with a lot of promise. But as is the case with many a king who was crowned as a boy, the reign does not go well. In 1399, Richard was deposed and murdered. An unhappy end to an unremarkable career. But during the time of his reign, is the ongoing hundred years war, knights jousting, the amazing statesman the duke of Lancaster on his campaigns, and the age of Geoffrey Chaucer where English is spoken not only by the common man but by the nobility, a language flowering into its own. So in the background of Crispin’s life on those mean streets of London is all these other events that get to creep into the plots.

Jerelyn:  Who Is Crispin Guest and how did he reveal himself to you?

Jeri:  As soon as I decided I was going to write a “Medieval Noir,” essentially hard-boiled detective fiction set in the Middle Ages, I knew I needed a strong protagonist that would take the reader through many books in the series. I was looking at the tropes of the hard-boiled detective: a tough-talking loner often down on his luck, good with his fists, and a sucker for a dame in trouble. So I knew I needed a fellow like that. I also wanted a man who could read and write, had a facility with languages, could fight with the best of them, and always fell for the wrong kind of woman. The idea of a knight seemed perfect, but to give him enough angst, he needed to be a knight who had lost it all, who had to re-invent himself in the poorer end of town. And then I started researching John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. Here was a man eminently qualified to lead a kingdom but who didn’t seem to have any ambitions to jump the line of succession. But there were certainly rumors about him doing just that. And when I read that, I knew I had my man Crispin and his reason for losing his wealth, status, and knighthood. He will have been caught up in a conspiracy to put his beloved mentor John of Gaunt on the throne and convicted of treason. Once all that fell into place I knew exactly who he was.

Jerelyn:  Your books often deal with religious relics and medieval prejudices and superstitions. Why is this?

Jeri:  It seemed like a fun thing to do. When I started writing this series, I had come off of about ten years of writing historical fiction that editors didn’t want to buy. I was writing the stories I wanted to read, and I didn’t want to read about the Tudors ONE MORE TIME. After a few years of this, a former agent recommended I switch to writing medieval mysteries as the mystery market was much bigger than the historical fiction market. I had never written a mystery and didn’t have a clue (pardon the pun) on how to write one. So I went to one of my favorite hard-boiled books, THE MALTESE FALCON, and literally took it apart scene by scene, arc by arc, to see what made it work. And I liked the idea of what Alfred Hitchcock called the “McGuffin,” the object that propels the plot, that everyone wants to get their hands on. And it seemed to me that if I added a “McGuffin” to the books, not only would it give me focus, but it could serve as an interesting side note to the plot. Because sometimes the relic or venerable object is vitally important to the plot, and sometimes it isn’t. I didn’t want to fall into something formulaic. This way it can generate all sorts of plot angles.

And let us not forget that this was the age of faith where religion was an intimate part of a medieval person’s everyday life. They are surrounded by the sounds of church bells calling monks and nuns to prayer. The bells marked the hours. Religious festivals marked the seasons. Superstitions went along with all this and so it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone to take communion one moment and consult their astrologer the next. It makes for interesting ways to bend a plot and for commenting on contemporary issued while couching it in a medieval setting.

Jerelyn:  I love Jack Tucker. Did you always see Crispin with a side kick?

Jeri:  No. As a matter of fact, Jack was going to be in the first book and then sort of show up occasionally and that was it. But my agent really liked him as a character and readers did, too, so he gets more to do. And he has become important to the arc of the stories. He provides someone that Crispin can bounce ideas off of and occasionally rescue from peril. And we get to see him grow up throughout the series offering a balance to Crispin, which shows Crispin internally growing right alongside him. You see, for me, the books are all about the characters whose lives get interrupted with a murder mystery. I’m far more interested in them than I am in the mystery.

Jerelyn:  What are the unique challenges you face writing about crime-solving in a medieval setting?

Jeri:  Well, I don’t have to worry about forensics. And in a way, it’s far easier. It takes time. He can’t just pick up a cell phone and call someone. He has to walk all over London and Westminster if he wants to find out something or ask a question. And instead of pulling guns, people pull daggers, so there is more intimate encounters when it comes to choosing violence or not. Crispin has to rely on his wits far more than he would have to if a lab gave him the answers. And there is no police force either so he is essentially on his own, going into places he doesn’t belong. He gets beaten up a lot for it. But he often gives as good as he gets.

Jerelyn:  What are the challenges you have when interweaving real historical people into your plots?

Jeri:  You have to make sure that the history is first. That is, you can’t be changing the history to suit the plot, and so if real people make an appearance in your book it’s a good idea to know where they are at any given time. The duke of Lancaster, for instance, was only supposed to be a walk-on character in the first book and that’s it. But he wouldn’t go away and subsequently shows up in all the books. But I’m writing number five right now which is set in 1386 and he is out of the country until 1389. His presence is important to Crispin’s conscience and his whole reason for being a detective, the Tracker, as he is called. I can’t have letters from Lancaster in Spain to Crispin in London—that wouldn’t be emotionally dramatic enough—but that means we move his son Henry Bolingbroke into the role Lancaster would have played. It always makes the plots more interesting when you must follow the history.

Jerelyn:  Your fourth Crispin Guest book Troubled Bones is due for release in October. What is up after that?

I’m working on number five, called BLOOD LANCE, which will involve a bit of jousting, which I love. That book should come out in 2012. And then after a brief break, I’ll be working on Crispin number six, called SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, which should be released in 2013. (Are you loving these titles? I hope so!) In the meantime, my agent has my manuscript for a brand new medieval series about thieves and con men called OSWALD THE THIEF, a much more light-hearted fun and funny series, a sort of Ocean’s 11 in the Middle Ages. I hope to sell that to my publisher so we’ll have two medieval series out there. Ideally, they’d be released six months of each other so readers can have one fun read while waiting for the other.

Jerelyn:  As a member of PBS I love the community of readers I found here, what are your impressions of PBS?  Do you see a book trading site as helpful to you?

Jeri:  I was briefly a part of another group called Bookcrossing that left books around on park benches and in other public places for strangers to pick up and enjoy, so I get the concept. I think book trading and libraries are all a good idea in any economy. How else are most people to learn about new authors? I’ve found authors I like to read, too, that way. That being said,  there does come a point where I hope readers will buy NEW copies of their favorite author’s books, because that is the only way for authors to get paid for their work and for publishers to see profits. If publishers don’t see profits from authors then they don’t offer them contracts. So I’ve always seen libraries and book sharing sites as advertisements and enticements to readers to find and love new authors, but certainly not the end all.

Jerelyn:  Do you think social media is having a positive effect on getting your work spotlighted?

Jeri:  It’s very hard to quantify blogging, and going to libraries to speak, or social media sites. How many books does one sell from any of these outlets? You can’t tell because it’s not necessarily about impulse buying. These things have a cumulative effect. But, I do know of specific sales I have made by using social media sites like Facebook (Crispin has a page there so go ahead and “friend” him www.facebook.com/crispin.guest). I also know of sales made by those viewing my book trailer. Book trailers, ads, my character’s blog, all of these things provide added value to readers so they see they are getting far more than merely the novel-reading experience. That is important to some readers, not important to others. But I did learn from one book group I visited, that the more there was out there for readers to learn about me and my characters (like the book discussion guides I offer on my website), the better. I try to provide that.

Jerelyn: How do you feel about e-readers, do you think they will be the death of printed books?

Jeri:  No, I don’t. Readers still like the tactile feel of a book. They like to see them on their bookshelves at home. They like to get books signed by authors. By the same token, the convenience of an e-reader can’t be beat, especially if you travel or have difficulty holding a book because of physical ailments. I think they’re keen, though I don’t yet own one. There is room for both. I know people who own e-readers but they still buy print books. Libraries like print books (and that’s where the money is for publishers—sales to libraries). We still use pens and pencils even though we have tons of ways digitally to write. There’s room for both.

JerelynI always wonder about how a writer becomes a writer.  Is there an author or book that made you think “I have got to do this!”

Jeri:  It was more a case of “How can I make a living and stay at home with my toddler?” The arts were all I was interested in. I could do three things well: perform, draw, and write. I wanted to be an actress and aimed all my energy in that direction while in school. But I also always drew and I also always wrote stories for my own enjoyment. I never pictured a career in art or in writing. True, in high school I did write for the school newspaper and even became news editor, but I did that because it was way more fun than taking English Comp!

After being in plays in college I set out for real world auditions and decided that this often humiliating endeavor was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I switched majors to art, because I realized designing all those programs and posters over the years had a name: graphic artist. I got my degree and freelanced in Los Angles for the next fifteen years or so and semi-retired to have a baby. After my son was about two I thought I’d get back into design but during my retirement the whole industry had turned to computer graphics and I couldn’t afford the computers or the lessons. I thought I’d become a novelist, the other and last thing I knew how to do. My husband was surprised because he never knew I wrote novels (it was something I did in secret), but I showed him the pile I had written and started researching the industry and set to work. Naively I thought, “How hard could this be?” Fourteen years later, I knew. That’s when I finally got a publishing contract. In between those years that I wrote novel after novel without a contract, I also became a reporter (so that journalism thing paid off). And that performing thing paid off, too, because I became a soloist and choir director for a local church for a number of years as well. You just never know what you are going to need along the way in life!

Jerelyn:  What was your favorite book as a child?

Jeri:  I had several. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE because I loved good and interesting illustrations; THE CANTERBURY TALES (the child’s version) because I loved the Middle Ages; MY FATHER’S DRAGON series by Ruth Stiles, because of the fantasy (while other little girls were collecting unicorns I was collecting dragons!) Later, when I was a teenager, it was THE LORD OF THE RINGS series because I never knew there were such books out there, this whole world-building experience that joined Celtic and Norse myths with a magical world. The first novel I ever finished when I was sixteen was a Tolkien-esque quest fantasy.

Jerelyn:  Do you have an author that is an “auto-buy” for you?

Jeri:  Arturo Perez-Reverte. He writes literary fiction with all kinds of twists, supernatural or something else. Prose is to die for.

Jerelyn:  I would again like to thank Jeri Westerson for taking the time to be interviewed for the PBS blog,  To read more from Jeri please go to.  www.jeriwesterson.com; you can see her blog of history and mystery at www.getting-medieval.com; and you can read Crispin’s blog at www.crispinguest.com. You can also friend Crispin on his Face book page or follow her on Twitter.

I would also like to tell the members about the read-along of Ms. Westerson’s book Veil of Lies on the Historical Fiction Discussion Forum in June.  Ms Westerson has agreed to join us to answer your questions.  So watch the forum for details.


Please add your comments! We will choose from the comments to award a lucky winner a autographed copy of Jeri Westerson’s book, The Demon’s Parchment. A winner will be chosen at random.

There are also 2 additional prizes from Ms. Westerson for 2 more lucky members who comment. Good luck to all!

 


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25 Responses to “Interview with Author Jeri Westerson”

  1. Deb B. (bookzealot) says:

    Great interview. Love the phrase “medieval noir.” Looking forward to the HF read-along. Have Veil of Lies sitting on my night-stand. (Please, oh, please, pick me for the giveaway!)

  2. Valli says:

    Letty, this was a fabulous interview! I read “Veil of Lies” a while back and really enjoyed the character Crispin. I can’t wait to see what he is up to in the next book. 😉

  3. Aubree T. (notyourstar) , says:

    Great interview Letty! I can’t wait for the read-along, this book sounds right up my alley!

  4. Christa H. (flchris) Denham Spgs, LA says:

    Awesome interview. I can’t wait for the June Read-Along! Pick me (instead of Deb) for the giveaway!

  5. Christa H. (flchris) Denham Spgs, LA says:

    P.S. I LOVE the picture of Jeri with the dagger. So appropriate!

  6. Elizabeth B. (Cattriona) says:

    Really fascinating — thank you Ms. Westerson and Letty! Am off to buy a copy of “Veil of Lies” for the read-along.

  7. R E K. (bigstone) , says:

    What do you plan to write beyond the Crispin series?

  8. ANNA S. (SanJoseCa) says:

    I enjoyed the interview! Great insight into Ms. Westerson’s writing. Looking forward to reading her books!

  9. Jerelyn H. (I-F-Letty) says:

    R E K. Jeri says…
    In the meantime, my agent has my manuscript for a brand new medieval series about thieves and con men called OSWALD THE THIEF, a much more light-hearted fun and funny series, a sort of Ocean’s 11 in the Middle Ages. I hope to sell that to my publisher so we’ll have two medieval series out there. Ideally, they’d be released six months of each other so readers can have one fun read while waiting for the other.

  10. Lori L. (loralei) says:

    Great interview Letti! The book sounds wonderful and I love the idea surrounding “medieval noir”. Can’t wait for the read a-long.

  11. Thank you, Jerelyn and th blog team for asking for this interview. I appreciate your interest and support. And I can’t wait till we all get together again in June for our chat.

    REK, I was going to answer your question, but Jerelyn beat me to it. Though for the next Crispin, you will have to wait till October 11 when that is released, called TROUBLED BONES. I am currently working on Crispin #5, BLOOD LANCE.

    Cheers!

  12. Diane G. (icesk8tr) , says:

    Interesting interview, I have never read her books, but I will be going to check them out now! I love discovering new authors!

  13. Kelly P. (KellyP) , says:

    Great interview, Letty. I (Linda) have already read Veil of Lies, and really enjoyed it. Kelly plans to read it for the June read-along, and I will follow the discussion. I’ve also read book two, and book three is on the wish list. I love Crispin and Jack.

  14. Stephanie G. (thestephanieloves) says:

    Great interview! I’ve never read any of your books, Jeri, but I can’t wait to 🙂

  15. Jeanne L. (bkydbirder) , says:

    This interview was wonderful! Since I have read all of the Crispin Guest books to date, I feel as though I know his character very well . After this interview, I feel like I know Jeri Westersen much better now too! Keep up the great work, Jeri! I will be looking forward to the forthcoming books!
    Thank you so much for sharing your time with us!

  16. Hey guys, my pleasure. I love meeting new people, either in person or in the ether!

  17. Bonnie (LoveNE) , says:

    Jerelyn great job! You asked everything I wanted to know. I will definitely be joining the read along for this one! I look forward to meeting Crispin.

  18. Jerelyn H. (I-F-Letty) says:

    I am excited for the read along.

  19. Sheila M. (Page5) says:

    Sounds like a great series which combines two of my favorite genres – historical and mystery!

  20. Jill F. (GAmomJill) says:

    Great interview! I’ve never heard of, or read any of your books, but now my interest is piqued! I’ll be on the lookout for your books and putting them on my wishlist.

  21. Vicky T. (VickyJo) says:

    Wonderful interview! I bought books one and two and I’m ready for June! I’m so glad to hear that the series is continuing on. Good job Letty! Thank you, Jeri, for taking the time to be interviewed, and for joining us in our read-along. It’s going to be fun!

  22. Colleen J. (shukween) says:

    Well done, Letty! I’ve not read or heard of her books, but think I will go off to investigate! Great interview.

  23. Jill and Colleen, that’s why authors do these things, so more people will get to know us and our books. It’s tough out there when there are so many things competeing for a reader’s time. I hope you will enjoy the books and my characters.

    And Vicki, thanks for having me. This will be fun.

  24. Kelly E. (rainfall) says:

    Great interview! I’m so excited she’s going to join us on the read-along for questions! I’m new to Westerson and very excited to get Veil of Lies for the read-along now! 🙂

  25. Sianeka N Hollywood, CA says:

    I love a good historical mystery and checking out new intriguing plot angles, so I will have to look up some of your Medieval Noir books and check them out! (I’ve enjoyed Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa books and Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro books and would like to read some mysteries set in Medieval England!)

    I’m looking forward to meeting Crispin Guest soon! (going off to search for Veil of Lies now to start…)

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