I live not far from Winchester, so I know how passionate the fans of Jane Austen can be when they’re doing the tourist trail and taking in the sites associated with the great lady.
Elizabeth Blake’s PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND POISON launches the reader straight into an encounter with the group of strong-minded characters that make up the local branch of the Jane Austen society.
Blake took some time out of her busy schedule this month to talk to me about her new cozy mystery for The Big Thrill.
Your research for the story left you surprised at the depth of feeling of Jane Austen fans. Is there a writer whose works you feel so passionately about they become real to you? Have you ever been a member of any sort of fan club?
I’ve felt that way about so many writers…as a reader, I think you form an emotional bond with characters you love. One of the first fictional characters I felt that way about was Sherlock Holmes. I wasn’t surprised to learn Conan Doyle got fan mail from people who believed Holmes was real. I had an enormous crush on him. I still do. I’ve never belonged to a fan club, though. I don’t think I have the fan personality.
The setting—in this case Yorkshire—clearly plays an important part in the book. How do you make sure the setting adds to, rather than impedes, the story?
I love writing setting! It’s one of my favourite elements in fiction, and I love books where the setting is so important it influences the whole story. House of the Seven Gables comes to mind, as do all the Thomas Hardy books. And, of course, Conan Doyle—I think when you take Holmes and Watson out of late Victorian London, you lose half the fun.
For me, travel is the greatest inspiration for stories—I wrote Edinburgh Twilight after visiting that city, and when I first saw Yorkshire I was similarly inspired. Some landscapes just speak to me. However, I’m not sure I’ve ever worried about setting impeding the story—my main concern is to portray it well enough that it comes alive. I think if you do that, your story is more vivid. It’s a thread that’s woven through every moment of a well-told tale.
Which one of the fictional members of the Jane Austen society was most fun to write? Did any of them make you want to thump them?
I suppose Farnsworth was the most fun, because she kept surprising me. She is very loosely based on a friend of my mother’s, but soon took on a life of her own. She ended up being more saucy than I expected. I also had a blast writing the snippy exchanges between Prudence and Hetty. I know people like that, who care about each other yet are constantly sniping, trying to get the upper hand. I certainly thought Sylvia was obnoxious, but that was kind of the point. The thing about writing is that you come to feel for all of your characters, even the wicked ones.
And, of course, I liked writing Detective Inspector Hemming. I always like writing sexy men.
He’s a striking character. If you had to nominate one of Inspector Hemming or his sidekick Sergeant Jarral to stand up for you in a fight—verbal or fist—which would it be?
I think Sergeant Jarral could take just about anybody in a physical fight, but Peter Hemming would die defending you. The tables would turn in a verbal fight, because Hemming would be more willing to fight dirty. Jarral is very polite and a little naive.
Do you create your characters fully before you start writing or do you let them surprise you? In which case, who has surprised you most?
I sort of follow them around and see what they do. I find having preconceptions about characters can make them wooden or boring. I think recently I was most intrigued and surprised by Farnsworth Appleby in PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND POISON. She kept morphing and changing, and in the end I was surprised she turned out so cheeky. She’s the kind of person I’d like as a friend—loyal but a little wicked.
Reading about what your characters are wearing creates a strong mental image for the reader. Does the characters’ style give a clue to their personalities?
Erin likes to hang out in yoga tights and whatever is close at hand in her closet. I’m like that as well. In her case it indicates a lack of vanity, but in my case it’s just laziness. I’m actually quite vain. And, of course, Hetty does the Full Cougar, with elaborate makeup, expensive clothing and uncomfortable high heels. I am always amazed by women like her, who are willing to give up their comfort in order to display someone’s version of sexuality. On the other hand, I sort of admire her tenacity. Her way of dressing is an expression of her obsession with men as well as her vanity. I can relate to both of those.
I don’t take as much time with what the men wear, but certainly Owen’s signature cap represents his devotion to tradition and his predictability – and it may also be a clue! Or is it…?
When I read that you’re a self-confessed science geek, I went, “Girl after my own heart!” What excites you as much as glyptodonts and planarian worms excite me?
I’ve always had a deep connection to nature—I grew up in the country and my playground was the woods and Lake Erie (our modest little home had its own private beach). I took up mushroom hunting after attending a meeting of the New Jersey Mycological Society with some dear friends some years ago. I bought the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and read it for hours every night, like a good novel. Then I started hunting and eating wild mushrooms. So far, none of my friends are dead. But I have killed off a few characters using my knowledge of toxins.
I got really excited about physics a few years back, after watching a show on the BBC called Parallel Universes, about a train trip in which three physicists came up with a new theory about the Big Bang. After consulting two of them, Paul Steinhardt and Bert Ovrut, I wrote a play inspired by that trip, called Strings. It was produced in NYC starring Keir Dullea and Mia Dillon (Keir is best known for playing the astronaut Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Paul is currently the Albert Einstein Professor in science at Princeton University and Burt teaches at the University of Pennsylvania: they both came to the play’s opening night, doing a Q&A afterwards. Strings has been subsequently performed at The Kennedy Center and is currently in development with The Pulse Theatre Company.
You write several series: which is your favourite and why?
Agh! That’s like asking who your favourite child is. I think for me the answer has to be the series I’m writing at the time. I do have a fondness for my early novels, but hopefully my writing has grown with experience.
Elizabeth Blake (C. E. Lawrence, Carole Bugge, Carole Lawrence) is the author of twelve published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction. Her most recent novel is the historical thriller Edinburgh Dusk, the second book in the Ian Hamilton Mysteries series. Her “Silent” series (Silent Screams and its sequels) follows NYPD profiler Lee Campbell in his pursuit of serial killers. PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND POISON, under the pen name Elizabeth Blake, will be released in August, followed by Edinburgh Midnight in June of 2020. Her most recent musical is Murder on Bond Street, based on a true story. A self-described science geek, she likes to hunt wild mushrooms.
To learn more, please visit her website.