Words of wisdom from a master of the English mystery
It seems New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth George can do it all. She’s written 23 books, many of them novels of psychological suspense featuring Scotland Yard and the now-iconic Inspector Lynley, and she’s won the Anthony Award, the Agatha Award and France’s Le Grand Prix de Literature Policiere for her first novel, The Great Deliverance. Her latest Lynley novel, This Body of Death, is on sale this month.
George took time out of her busy touring schedule to answer a few questions from BookPage.
Is there a specific writing exercise you find particularly helpful in getting your creative juices flowing?
For many years now, I have kept a Journal of a Novel for each book that I write. I do this in advance of my writing each day. Each day I also begin by reading a day in the novel’s Journal of a Novel to remind myself that anything I’m going through now is something I’ve gone through and survived before.
You’ve been publishing for well over 20 years now—how would you say your approach to writing has changed over the years?
After my third novel, I had developed an approach that really worked for me, involving an enormous amount of advance work prior to sitting down to begin the rough draft. This approach allowed me to turn in finished manuscripts that were close to perfect in the eyes of my editors, thus obviating the necessity for revisions. Because of this, I’ve not amended that approach since the creation of my third novel.
You’ve spoken about how you believe the division between crime/mystery fiction and literature is superfluous and superficial, but do you believe that there are specific talents that are called into play when creating a mystery series that is often overlooked by those who dismiss the genre?
My guess is that anyone who dismisses the genre hasn’t spent a lot of time reading within it. Anyone who’s read Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, A Dark Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell or any one of a number of authors on a list that could go on and on knows that crime writers call upon strengths in the area of characterization, plotting and narrative that are often unmatched by anyone else writing.
You teach a five-day writing seminar annually in California, yet you consider yourself to be self-taught. In your mind, is writing an art that can be taught? What do think are the ultimate goals of these types of courses?
Actually, to clarify your question, I have not taught my writing seminar in California for a number of years. However, a few years ago I put all of my lectures and all of the examples that I used in this course into a book on writing called Write Away, which is now actually used in creative writing classes in various programs in the United States. I’ve never claimed that any art form can be taught, nor do I make this claim in Write Away, nor did I ever attempt to teach an art form. What I taught was the craft of novel writing, which is entirely different from the art. Art is how the artist interprets the craft itself. If you have no foundation in craft, you have nothing to interpret.
Do you find that British fans of the Inspector Lynley series respond differently to your work than North American readers?
No. They respond identically.
Often times, mystery writers who have long-standing series wind up feeling tired and limited by their characters. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes out of frustration, and Dame Agatha Christie found Hercule Poirot insufferable near the end of his run. Do you ever feel this could happen for you with Lynley?
Both Conan Doyle and Christie froze their characters in time, place and circumstance, forcing themselves to deal continually with an unchanging character in unchanging times. I didn’t do that, and it was a deliberate choice on my part so that I would not tire of the characters.
Many authors claim that when they write, they start with few preconceived notions and just see where the characters take them. It seems that with mysteries, this would be problematic since precision and careful planning is critical to success. Do you ever find yourself writing yourself into a corner, or surprised by your characters, or do you view yourself as a puppet-master, always in control behind the scenes?
Writing a crime novel by letting oneself see where the characters will go is an exercise in creating a plot with holes through which a Mack truck could drive. What I know in advance is the arc of the main plot: the killer, the victim, the motive, the means and the opportunity. What I don’t know is what will constitute the subplots. What I also don’t know is how the detectives will solve the case. When I create the characters, I begin to learn from them what the subplots will be in that they tell me how they relate to each other and to the story as a whole. I don’t create a plot and force my characters through it. Characters who are well drawn and executed are going to be true to themselves and not necessarily true to what a writer “wants” them to be and to do.
For authors, books are like children and they’re not meant to have favorites, but which of your books are you proudest of? Least satisfied?
I’m proudest of Missing Joseph. As largely a meditation on motherhood set inside a crime novel, it was a huge stretch for me since I myself have no children. The book ended just as I wanted it to end, and numerous readers told me that they felt devastated by the ending, which was how I wanted them to feel since that was how Lynley felt. So I was quite pleased that my stretch paid off. I am least please with a short story I wrote called “The Evidence Exposed,” which was originally published in Volume II of Sisters in Crime. Even when I reworked it and rewrote it for my short story collection called I, Richard, I was not entirely happy with it.
Interview with Elizabeth George about What Came Before He Shot Her