I have great pleasure in welcoming Lynn Shepherd to Jera’s Jamboree today.
“I write what I like to call ‘literary mysteries’. In other words one part literary fiction to one part mystery, and each time inspired either by a classic book, or – in the case of my new novel – the lives of famous literary figures.
I started with Murder at Mansfield Park, which was ‘Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie’, then I moved to Charles Dickens with Tom-All-Alone’s (UK)/The Solitary House (North America). That was inspired by Bleak House as my birthday present on his bicentenary.
My latest book takes as its inspiration the dark and tangled lives of the Shelleys – the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who drowned at the age of 29, and his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein. Their history is one of love and death, of secrets and betrayal, but it is also one full of strange silences and inexplicable gaps. My novel is an attempt to weave a story that can explain those silences. It’s called A Treacherous Likeness in the UK, and A Fatal Likeness in the US.
I can’t remember who it was who said you should write the sort of books you enjoy reading, but they were right – both my books combine my two great literary loves: classic English novels, and good detective fiction. I studied English at university (and have a doctorate in it too).
My other loves include cats (I have two), the English countryside (which I’m lucky enough to live in), Renaissance art (which I’m sadly not lucky enough to own), Palladian architecture, and America’s finest police shows (Law & Order, Without a Trace, need I go on). Pet hates include wasps, monkeys, The Simpsons (just can’t deal with the yellow faces), and the lazy use of the word “solutions” (I write for businesses as my day job, so that’s the corporate copywriter creeping in).
Having read and loved two of Lynn’s novels (Tom-All-Alone’s and recently A Treacherous Likeness, I was intrigued to find out more about Lynn and her writing so I was more than delighted when she agreed to be interviewed.
When did the idea first come to you of creating ‘literary’ mysteries? What was behind the inspiration?
It was a bit of a case of retro-fitting actually! When I had the idea of Murder at Mansfield Park back in 2008 I had no idea that it would become a niche for me, far less a series. But so many people responded positively to the character of Charles Maddox (the elder Maddox in Tom-All-Alone’s and A Treacherous Likeness) and so many asked if I would bring him back, that I started to wonder whether I wasn’t looking a gift horse in the mouth not using him again. And then I started to think about a book that could have another, different literary angle, and having worked with Jane Austen, Charles Dickens was the obvious next choice.
Charles Maddox (the younger) is a wonderful character. Despite his quirks, for me, he epitomizes the etiquette and manners of the Victorian era. What was your inspiration behind his creation?
He has certainly grown in my mind since I first thought of him. He’s been in two books now, and I’m writing a third, and each time I find new layers to his character and new complexities in his past. When I set out to write Tom-All-Alone’s I knew I wanted to keep the character of old Maddox, but obviously by 1850 he was too old to take a major part in detection work, so it occurred to me that it would be interesting to have a relationship between the older man and a younger one, and so young Charles was ‘born’. I’m particularly pleased that many readers have said to me that the way their relationship is portrayed is one of the most poignant things in the book.
The vivid descriptions of the 1850’s allowed me to hear, see and smell! alongside Charles. How did you research this time period?
I did spend a lot of time researching London in the mid-19th century and fascinating it was. One aspect that I particularly enjoyed was reading about the different ‘villages’ of London, from the cut-throat ‘rookeries’ of Seven Dials (which now, of course, is such a chic shopping quarter), to a district like Bermondsey which was then the centre of the leather trade, one of the grimmest and dirtiest industries of the time. I read a lot of contemporary accounts of London (the website www.victorianlondon.org is a great source for this sort of material), and some great modern histories of the city like Jerry White’s London in the 19th Century.
In A Treacherous Likeness, as each clue is solved, another one takes the reader deeper into the intrigue. Do you have all the twists and turns set out in advance? Or do they reveal themselves as the story takes on a life of its own? (panster or plotter!)
I’ve never heard the term panster before, but I can safely say I am not one of those! With all my books I have a really detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis in advance (up to about 15 pages long), and then I work from that. Sometimes I go ‘off piste’, and I’m always open to doing that because your characters will always surprise you at one point or other, but I’d say the finished books are about 90% the same as the original synopsis. It was even more vital to have a worked-out structure for A Treacherous Likeness, because there I’m working with real historical events, so I couldn’t afford to play fast and loose with chronology, or make stupid mistakes. It’s really important to me to ‘do it properly’, because I want my books to work just as well for people who know a great deal about the Shelleys (or Dickens for that matter), as well as for readers who are coming to the novels with no prior knowledge at all.
How does writing fit into the schedule of your day?
My day job is as a corporate copywriter so I’m always writing, whether for other people or for myself. I have a pretty well-worn routine – I do a workout or gym session first thing, then I’m at my desk by 9 and work through to about 5. I can’t do much after that – I’m definitely not a night-owl when it comes to writing.
Which authors have influenced you?
Having read English at university I’ve read a lot of classic fiction, including Austen and Dickens (who inspired my own books) but also George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and one of my own literary heroes, the 18th century ‘father of the novel’, Samuel Richardson. As for more modern writers I love John Fowles (as anyone will know who’s read the notes at the back of Tom-All-Alone’s), and also AS Byatt.
What has been the most enjoyable part of your writing journey so far?
The first publishing deal – though I think most writers would say the same! The other marvellous moment for me personally is when people who are serious experts say that I’ve done a good job. I had a wonderful endorsement for Tom-All-Alone’s from John Carey (who is among many other things a Dickens expert), and Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley’s biographer, has given me a fantastic quote for A Treacherous Likeness. I am immensely pleased and proud about that!
Has there has been a negative experience? If so, how did you deal with this?
My first publisher in the UK went out of business, so that was a bit tough, not least because I thought it would mean Murder at Mansfield Park would go out of print and disappear. But by the time that happened I already had a new contract with Corsair for Tom-All-Alone’s and A Treacherous Likeness, so I just had to focus on the future. And as it turned out it Corsair took on Murder at Mansfield Park and have published it as an e-book, which is wonderful and means it hasn’t disappeared after all.
What are you reading now?
Nicholas Roe’s biography of John Keats, and very good it is too.
I know you are working on your next novel in which Charles Maddox will be leading us on another mystery, are you able to share which literary novel/figure is involved (or any teaser/snippet)?
I’m being a bit of a tease about book four at the moment, because I want to be absolutely sure it’s going to work before I go out in public and talk about it! But I can say that the Maddoxes are back, and the book has another literary angle, though this time I’ve gone back to working with a text, rather than biographical material.
Thank you Lynn.
I’m wondering if there is a clue in your current read … guess I’ll just have to wait!
I will leave you with this video in which Lynn talks about A Treacherous Likeness: