I know you graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in Greek (Greek what? -- I can't recall). Where did you attend law school?
My undergraduate degree was in ancient Greek -- language and literature. I went to Yale Law School.
Why study Greek? Why study law?
I studied Greek because I fell in love with it. When I was a child, I read Greek myths as if they were fairy tales. In my freshman year of college, I intended to major in English, but I took a course in Greek drama in translation, and after that nothing would do for me but to read Euripides in the original. I was able to do that by my senior year. My father worried that I would never find a practical use for Greek, but that isn't entirely true: the five lines of Euripides that close my third book, WHOM THE GODS LOVE, were translated by me.
As to why I studied law, it's a great refuge for people with humanities degrees and no very good idea what to do with them. For me, the great blessing of studying law was that in my third year I was able to take courses with Douglas Hay, a visiting professor from Canada who specialized in the legal and social history of 18th- and early 19th-century England. It was then that I first got interested in the police (or rather, the lack of police) in Regency England. That was the germ of my mystery series.
What type of law do you practice?
I'm a trial lawyer. I wish I could say that I dealt with dramatic criminal cases, but in fact I handle mostly business disputes between companies. Not exactly a hotbed of violence, but a good place to study greed.
If you could write full time, would you give up the law practice?
There's no denying my life would be much easier. It's very hectic right now. On the other hand, I would miss my friends. And my two careers balance well: when I've been concentrating too long on writing, it's nice to have something else as a "palate cleanser".
Why are you writing? Did something drive you to write?
There came a point in my life when I grew disillusioned with reality. I realized it would never live up to my dreams -- that the world would consistently let me down, and nothing that really happened could be as exciting or wonderful as what I could make up in my head. In spite of all this, I eventually made it through kindergarten. But the feeling remained with me. I have always believed that there is no problem too tough, no challenge too great, that you can't escape from it into a fantasy world.
To be quite serious, I've always enjoyed working with words. And I've always loved to read, which is a hallmark of a budding writer. Finally, inventing people comes easily to me -- I've done it as long as I can remember, without really thinking about it. The greatest thing about being a professional writer is that people give you money for having imaginary friends. And I would have them anyway!
How would you describe your writing process (compulsive manic, right?). How much pre-planning or thought do you go through before you start putting words to paper?
As you guessed, I am compulsive. I plan everything that is to happen in a book before I begin writing it. I keep computer files of plot questions, research questions, story notes, chronology of events. If a scene comes vividly to mine while I'm still in the planning stage of the book, I jot it down on a piece of scrap paper. The last thing I do before sitting down to write the book is to organize all the little scraps in the order I'll be using them. NOTHING is left to chance.
How much time do you spend on research? Do you consider it an important part of your novels?
Research is extremely important to a period piece. I find that, no matter how much material I gather about 1820s England, each book requires in-depth research on particular topics (for the book I'm working on now, these have included printing, political radicals, romantic poets, stealing lead off rooftops, and several crimes that it would be a spoiler to disclose). Also, I am always reading period books, letters, diaries, &c. just to expand my knowledge base. Reading at random can really pay off -- I get plot ideas this way. Moreover, it's work I can do at odd moments -- in the evening, on my lunch hour, on the subway. This is useful for a writer with a day job.
But research should never be the tail wagging the dog. My books are mysteries, which means that plot and character are always paramount. I do exhaustive research for a particular novel, then I use about 10% of it. I love period detail, as I'm sure all historical mystery writers do, so there's always the temptation to splash it in all directions. All the same, I ruthlessly cut out any description that doesn't further my story-telling but merely shows how much research I did. I don't think readers want to hear exhaustive descriptions of the characters' curtains (unless somebody is hiding behind them!).
Why Julian Kestrel(as opposed to John Smith)? Webster defines "kestrel" as a small European falcon. Is that significant?
The name "Kestrel" came to me as soon as I conceived of Julian as a character. I didn't know much about kestrels, except that they were falcons. The name just sounded right to me. But before I used it, I read up on kestrels. I was particularly charmed by the following archaic references in the Oxford English Dictionary:
In 1577 a man named Googe wrote, "There is a kinde of Hauke that naturally is terrible to other Haukes, and preserveth the Pigion: the common people call it Castrell."
In 1726 someone translated an author named Leoni: "If in one corner you enclose a Kastrel, it will secure your Dove-house from birds of prey."
What could be more appropriate for a hero and sleuth than a falcon that protects gentle little birds from dangerous birds of prey?
Is Julian a personification of any person or persons?
No. He has many of the traits I find most admirable in people in general and men in particular, but he is not based on anyone I've known or read about. As a Regency dandy, he of course has surface qualities in common with George "Beau" Brummell: elegance, wit, coolness under fire. But by all accounts Brummell was selfish, egotistical, and sometimes malicious, while Julian is none of those things.
Is Julian your ideal man? Or do you consider him to be a man of pluses and minuses?
As I said above, Julian has many traits I admire. He is gentleman in the fullest sense of the word. He is able to feel at ease in any setting and to put others at their ease. He is truthful about the important things and tactful about the trivial ones. He is witty, but not at the expense of the weak or the genuinely good. He has a keen sense of beauty and is a talented musician. He is extremely compassionate, but his natural kindness is tempered by knowledge of the world. He has a good sense of humor and, however famous and admired he becomes, he never takes himself too seriously. As a sleuth, he is brave, resourceful, smart, and observant. Though level-headed, he is also highly imaginative.
On the minus side, Julian carries a great deal of emotional baggage. As we gradually learn in the books, his early life was very hard. He acquired a good deal of protective coloring, which has now become second-nature to him. Despite his fame as a man of fashion, he is an intensely private person. In The Devil In Music, a woman tells him: "You are one of the clever cowards, who see into everyone, and let no one see into you. You can be hurt, but nobody will ever see it. You only know how to bleed inwardly, though those wounds take much longer to heal -- if they ever heal at all."
Why a male protagonist and not a female?
Part of the reason I decided to set my books in early 19th-century England was that I thought the dandy of the period -- sharp-witted, observant, unflappable -- would make an ideal sleuth. But that meant he had to be male. Beyond that, it would be hard to create a female character in Regency England who could visit as many places and meet as many people as a man could. A respectable woman couldn't frequent gin-shops and prize fights; a "nymph of the pavement" (to use an expression of the period) would be _persona non grata_ in drawing rooms. A gentleman could go anywhere. That is sexist, but it is also a fact of Regency life.
Julian does sometimes have female sidekicks. In A Broken Vessel, much of the sleuthing is done by Sally Stokes, the lively, streetwise sister of Julian's manservant, Dipper.