INTERVIEW WITH JERI WESTERSON
I am delighted to welcome Jeri Westerson, the author of the popular Crispin Guest mysteries. Jeri’s newest, The Demon’s Parchment, will soon be published, and so I invited her to stop by and talk about it.
Sharon: While other authors writing medieval mysteries have opted for a gentle tone, frequently with a monk or nun protagonist, you have chosen to write “Medieval Noir,” with a former knight as the detective, a sub-genre you seem to have invented. How did you come up with this approach?
Jeri: I certainly enjoyed those medieval mysteries, particularly the mother of them all, Brother Cadfael (Brother of them all?) but when I sat down to write my medieval mystery, I didn’t want to write a monk or nun protagonist. I knew I wanted something more action-packed, more angsty. And I wanted a true detective, not someone who just stumbles on corpses or is asked as a favor to find out whodunit. I took my cue from the hardboiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett that I so loved and admired. After a lot of ruminating on it, I believed I could place a hardboiled detective with all the tropes—a femme fatale, disgruntled cops, tough-talking crooks—and place him in the Middle Ages while still keeping it true to the medieval time period. It’s fun, actually, making it work, and so I came up with my disgraced knight turned detective, Crispin Guest. The stories are darker and edgier than the average medieval mystery, with a twisting tale of dark secrets, dealing with a small circle of people that blossoms into a bigger, more complex plot. It’s actually more hardboiled than in the strictest sense of noir, but “Medieval Noir” sounded better than “Medieval Hardboiled.”
Sharon: When did you first meet your main character, Crispin Guest? Did he come to you all at once, or gradually?
Jeri: I wanted someone with fighting skills, experience on the battlefield, a facility with languages, and able to read and write. And then, following the trope of the hardboiled detective where he is somewhat down on his luck with chip on his shoulder, I knew he had to be someone who had it all and lost it. What better protagonist could there be but a disgraced knight? And once I decided on that, it all fell into place. So, a little like Athena, he sprang forth out of my forehead fully formed. I knew exactly who he was.
Sharon: Tell us about Crispin.
Jeri: Crispin is a dark and brooding man. He was the protégé of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, and lived in his household for a good part of his youth. The man was like a father to him. And so when Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) died, followed shortly by Edward III, the line of succession led to the Black Prince’s ten-year-old son Richard. But Crispin thought that his mentor the duke should take the throne and he joined with conspirators to make it happen. Unfortunately, all were discovered and executed. Except for Crispin. The duke begged for his life and Crispin ended up on the streets of London, devoid of his fortune, title, and status. He reinvents himself as the Tracker, finding lost objects, solving the occasional murder, all for sixpence a day plus expenses. Losing who he was naturally makes him a bit grouchy and offers some interesting angsty moments. Writing a male character is fascinating and fun. I get to be a handsome, swashbuckling, honorable-to-a-fault man for three hundred pages. That’s a far cry from the middle-aged, overweight Jewish mother I am.
Sharon: Whom do you picture as your ideal reader when you’re in the process of writing?
Jeri: Good question. I think the ideal reader would be someone who appreciates history with their mystery or vice versa. They’d also enjoy a good adventure because that’s how I think of these novels. I was terribly influenced by swashbuckling movies growing up and so I like a bit of that kind of action in my plots. Crispin is a bit Sam Spade, a bit Philip Marlowe and a bit Errol Flynn, rather a fun combination.
Sharon: You have quite a publishing story. Will you share?
Jeri: I started out in 1993 to pursue a writing career after having had a successful career as a graphic artist in Los Angeles. I wrote historical fiction that my agent just couldn’t place with publishers. It was later suggested to me that I switch to writing historical mysteries and once I got too tired of all the rejections I finally made the change. It turned around for me rather quickly. Now I have a hard time imagining writing anything else. In the interest of full disclosure, there was actually a Crispin book prior to my first published book, VEIL OF LIES, that got rejected all over town, including my publisher St. Martin’s. So my agent and I decided to put that one to bed and start working on selling Crispin number two, VEIL OF LIES which was already written. Just as I sent in that manuscript to my agent, an editor from St. Martin’s, who had rejected that first manuscript, called my agent and asked if I had anything else in that series as he “couldn’t get the characters out of his head.” Without even getting a chance to read it, my agent sent it off to St. Martin’s and two weeks later I had my first contract. And it only took fourteen years and two weeks. I am the poster child for persistence.
Sharon: How long ago did your interest in things medieval blossom?
Jeri: I was raised by parents who were rabid Anglophiles. So I grew up surrounded by English history and the love for it. We also had great historical fiction by all the big names: Thomas B. Costain, Anya Seton, Nora Lofts. I think what I liked about those books was that an historical setting offered just that bit of fantasy, taking the reader to a different place and time. The medieval period seems particularly romantic, in a sense. Arthurian legends, Robin Hood, the pageantry of a bygone era. It’s fun to fit your characters into that particular place, making them someone readers can relate to while grounding them in this foreign setting. And though it does offer a different sensibility of another time, it also affords the author the opportunity to comment on contemporary issues by couching it in the safe harbor of another era. The trick is to make sure it’s also historically accurate.
Sharon: You’ve described your books as “romantic with a twisty mystery thrown in for good measure.” Are you talking about the concept of romance as it was originally perceived?
Jeri: That’s exactly right. As you know, Sharon, the original “romance” was an adventure tale of some hero of chivalry, and that goes back to what I said before about thinking of these novels as “adventure tales.” It’s a quest for the character to fully realize their potential as a man and as that elusive creature, the hero. I’m also fascinated by this notion of the “band of brothers” that Shakespeare coined in Henry V in, ironically enough, his St. Crispin’s Day speech. I get to explore that aspect of masculinity that is unique to men, the mystique of cleaving together in these intense relationships.
Sharon: Putting heroes aside, do you have a favorite minor character?
Jeri: That would have to be Jack Tucker, who really is also a hero. He was only supposed to be a very minor character at first but then he would not go away! He’s Crispin’s apprentice. Crispin reluctantly takes him in. He’s a street urchin, a cut purse. Orphaned at eight, he’s lived on the streets of London all that time and still managed to keep his gentle heart. Crispin comes upon him when he’s eleven. He’s a combination of Huck Finn, the Artful Dodger, and Peter Pan rolled into one. For Crispin, he’s the son and squire he’ll never now have. There’s an interesting dynamic between them and they manage to teach each other important life lessons while racing through a ripping good yarn.
Sharon: There are relics involved in your stories.
Jeri: Yes. Each novel deals with some sort of relic or legend. I like to think of the relics as the McGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock coined that term and it means the unimportant thing that sets the plot in motion, whether it’s something everyone tries to get their hands on or something everyone is trying to get rid of. It’s the sort of Maltese Falcon in these stories. It’s an added twist that I wanted to include to complicate things. But it’s not by rote. Sometimes the relic is the most important thing in the story but sometimes it’s just a McGuffin.
Sharon: Was there one book that shaped you as a child?
Jeri: Several, probably. One I remember was the Big Golden Book of Fairy Tales with myths and legends from all over the world and all different eras. Some were really quite creepy and they had wonderful illustrations to go with them. I also still have the child’s version of The Canterbury Tales, also full of bazaar illustrations. I really like the fantasy aspect of these books, so it was little wonder that the Lord of the Rings saga enveloped me when I was in high school. The idea of that marvelous world building intrigued me as well as the whole heroes journey, the chivalry, the quest, and the suffering hero. That sensibility is definitely reflected in Crispin’s tales.
Sharon: Tell us about your newest, THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT.
Jeri: Crispin is hired by a Jewish physician from France to find some stolen parchments, parchments that may have to do with the gruesome serial murders of young boys. Is a heartless killer stalking the streets and alleys of London, or something far more sinister? This is the third book in the series and it’s scheduled for release October 12.
Sharon: What’s next for you?
Jeri: Next fall will see the release of Crispin number four, TROUBLED BONES, where Crispin and Jack are called to Canterbury to protect the bones of St. Thomas Beckett from the clutches of the Lollards, but they find murder instead and an old friend of Crispin’s who might be a killer.
I’m also working on a second medieval mystery series with all new characters that will be lighter in tone set to be a lusty, funny, fast-paced romp. But in the meantime, you can see the Crispin series book trailer, book discussion guides, my appearance schedule to see if I’ll be in your home town, and other fun stuff on my website www.JeriWesterson.com; you can see my 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 Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.
Sharon: Thank you for joining us, Jeri.
Jeri: Thanks so much for having me, Sharon
This was a wonderful interview and I am so sorry that I was unable to add the very striking image of The Demon’s Parchment book cover, but the evil Melusine, my computer, has gone over totally to the dark side and will no longer allow me to add photos to the blog. So please click onto Jeri’s links above to see what the book looks like. If you haven’t stopped by her website until now, you’re in for a treat.
September 26, 2010