Rhys Bowen has racked up numerous award nominations and wins for her novels since launching her first mystery series following Welsh policeman Constable Evan Evans in the late 1990s. She writes the Molly Murphy and Her Royal Spyness mysteries, comprising 28 books together, and has published two stand-alone novels in the last year, In Farleigh Field and The Tuscan Child. In Farleigh Field has been nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award in the Best Paperback Original category, the Malice Domestic Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery Novel and is also the winner of the Left Coast Crime Lefty Award (Bruce Alexander Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery). Her next novel, Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding (a Royal Spyness mystery), will be released August 7, 2018.
Since finding out about Ms. Bowen’s work in November of last year, I have binged the entire Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness series and In Farleigh Field, and I’m in the middle of The Tuscan Child now. Finding an author with so many wonderful novels to read is a rarity, and I wanted to know more about the woman whose worlds have sucked me in so completely. I asked if she would give us a little peek behind the scenes of her process before she heads to Tuscany to teach a writing workshop in a wish-you-were-here setting, and happily she said yes. (Warning: some spoilers ahead!)
Leona Laurie: How do you manage all of the different moments in time that you’re juggling? You’ve got Molly Murphy living through the first decade of the 1900s, you’ve got the Royal Spyness novels in the mid 1930s, you’ve got In Farleigh Field happening in 1941 for the most part, and now The Tuscan Child is split between 1944 and 1973– and you produce multiple books per year. How are you not completely confused all the time about who’s where and what they’re supposed to be doing?
Rhys Bowen: Well people have asked me in the past whether I get Molly and Georgie mixed up ever, and the answer is I really don’t, because once I enter one of those worlds, I’m completely in it. I’m very focused on where I am. I find it very hard to switch off, to be honest with you. And when I’m writing that first draft, I will wake up in the middle of the night and think, “No, no I don’t think she would have done that,” and then I have to go and write it. So I’m in that world very clearly all the time and usually I’ve done my research ahead of time.
Before the World War II books, I did all the readings for In Farleigh Field. I went to Bletchly Park; I did everything about MI5 and the war rooms. I pretty much knew the world I was going to go into.
And I don’t dabble. I don’t sort of think, “Oh, I’ll write a few chapters of Molly now,” or else I really would go crazy. I have to be focused in one book, get that first draft done, and then I can sort of breathe a sigh of relief thinking, “Okay, well that’s a first draft, good.”
I write one book, and then I give myself a month or so to completely decompress. Then I go to another era, another series and another time I’m writing about. I’ve actually just finished a book now that takes place in World War I, which again was different for me. I’m kind of enjoying jumping around in the first half of the 20th century.
LL: Do you have help with the research, or do you do it all yourself?
RB: I do it all myself. There’s no way I could have help with the research, because I don’t know what I’m looking for until I look for it. And also I need the physical — like when I went to Bletchly Park, I needed to be there. I need to feel “what did it feel like in this hut?” because it’s cold and drafty and very dark, and the telephone is ringing at the far end and the floorboards creak. What does that feel like?
No one else could do that for me. They could say, “Oh, I went to it. It’s really cold and drafty,” but that’s not the same.
For The Tuscan Child, I read the books on the Italian Campaign. I read all the details of when the Allies advanced and where the Gothic Line was and all that sort of thing. But as I’m going along, I will read it and I will find some things… In the small town called so and so, the Germans accused them of helping the Allies and they rounded up the whole town and machine-gunned the whole town in the town square. I read things like that, which I wouldn’t have picked up on or I wouldn’t have got the full force of if someone had done it for me.
And actually I love the research. I love reading all those sort of background books, and especially going to the places. For The Tuscan Child, I taught a writing course in Tuscany two years ago, and I’m going to go back and do it again this summer.
LL: I know, and I’m crushed I found out about it so late in the game. It sounds like so much fun. I want to go!
RB: It was a lot of fun before, and it’s a lovely, lovely situation because it’s an old farmhouse converted into a nice modern hotel with proper bathrooms and a swimming pool and lovely grounds. I knew I wanted to write this book while I was there so I was able to just get the feel for the sounds and the sights and the smells. “What’s the jasmine smell like when it’s spilling over that wall, and all the poppies blooming down the center of the park? And what does it feel like when the old men are having an animated conversation and it echoes back from the tall buildings?” No one else could do that for me.
That’s how I bring things to life– because I’ve experienced them.
LL: So does that mean that you’ve spent time in New York walking the different places that Molly would go?
RB: Absolutely. For the first few books I went to New York before I wrote each book, and I’ve had people who wrote to me and said: “You had Molly walk from A to B. That’s just impossible.”
And I write back and say, “I did it.”
I would be on the same street, and I’d think, “Okay can you get the breeze from the Hudson from here? Can you smell the salt in the water? Can you hear the tugboats on the East River from here? Do you get a glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge as you come around here?” So I would do all those things.
And of course, New York has got so many useful other things. You’ve got the Tenement Museum, the New York Police Museum, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York– all those things where I can go and ask people questions and see things. Now I’ve got to book 17. I know (Molly’s) environment really well. I probably don’t need to go back there each time.
I did choose a real house for Molly on a really nice little backwater street. It’s not much bigger than an alleyway, it only has 10 houses on either side and it’s still got the original cobbles. I thought I’d like her to live there, and I had a letter a few years ago from a man who said, “I want you to know I’m living in Molly’s house.” He sent me pictures of the interior, which he was redoing, and the garden and everything, and then they invited me to their block Christmas party, so that was very cool.
LL: Going back to the workshop in Tuscany, which came first, the first workshop you taught there in 2016 or the idea for The Tuscan Child?
RB: Well, it was sort of serendipitous really, because this was right around the time when I’d started working with Lake Union, and I realized that I would have the freedom to pretty much write what I wanted. This had been a story I had been toying with for a long time: wouldn’t it be great if you had this story that took place in two time periods and a daughter trying to find out what happened to her father? I had that in my mind, and when I knew I was going to be invited to Tuscany, I thought, “Well now I can really sort of frame it in reality.” So I went there knowing that I wanted to do all my research.
LL: How did the workshop come about?
RB: They approached me. The interesting thing is (the couple who organize the workshop are) both professors from Arizona State University, and he used to be in charge of their Florence year abroad program. He’s from that part of Tuscany, from a very distinguished family in Florence. She is a big fan of mine, so she approached me and said, “Would you possibly consider teaching the workshop in Tuscany? And we’ll take care of all your expenses and it’s this lovely old hotel.”
She got about half a sentence in, and I said, “Yes I think I might fit that in.”
I was really flattered that they asked me to come back, because they haven’t asked anybody else to come back yet. So I think that was really quite good.
The one I’m doing this year I’ve entitled “Novel in a Week,” for those who sort of half-started a novel or have an idea for a novel and really don’t know where to go from there. In that 10 days of the conference, we build up a framework so they can go back and say, “Now I can tackle this.”
LL: Tuscany is sort of in your wheelhouse for locations, isn’t it? You live in the Bay Area, but your characters, to the best of my knowledge, have only visited San Francisco the one time when Molly came and got caught in the 1906 earthquake.
RB: Not at the best time.
LL: Is there a reason you haven’t done more with this city you’ve got the most immediate access to?
RB: I think I enjoy writing about mainly England– England and Europe, because when I’m there, I’m an observer. San Francisco I know pretty well, and also there have been so many good mysteries set around San Francisco. To try and do something that’s different and unique and interesting to me would be harder, I think.
When I go to England, if I’m sitting amid a group of people and they’re talking, I’m the observer. I’m the outsider. I’m listening. When they say something that I think is really funny, because the British upper-class is still so incredibly snobby, and they do say such silly things sometimes: “She’s not one of us, is she?” I listen and I go back to the room and scribble it down.
I think that’s why Georgie and Molly both work so well, too, because they’re outsiders. Therefore they’re aware of things in a way that you’re not when you grow up in a place.
LL: Let’s talk about something that you’ve done with both of them more than one time, which is destroy their entire wardrobe. Why do you keep setting their wardrobes on fire?
RB: That’s an interesting question, and that’s funny because I have. I’m sure someone will write their Ph.D thesis on this: Rhys Bowen and the light motif of fire.
LL: So in order to maintain this outsider status, Molly and Georgie can never have the security of a wardrobe that suits any occasion for longer than one novel?
RB: Well I suppose. I mean, especially for Georgie, it’s a fun thing to do because part of the whole concept of Georgie is that she’s penniless in a world of rich people, so she always feels slightly awkward and “not right” because she only has two evening dresses, and her maid insists on ironing the velvet the wrong way.
They say if you love your main character, you make them suffer. And I do make both of my main characters suffer.
I keep taking away their clothes and their houses and everything else that they like. That’s interesting. Until you pointed it out, I hadn’t realized it, but you’re absolutely right. I’ve burned both their wardrobes.
LL: I get attached to the clothes you’ve described, and now when you introduce something lovely I’m like: “No! Don’t set this one on fire!”
RB: “Give her back her pajamas, please, they were very nice.”
LL: “Don’t bomb this evening dress. Don’t abandon it in an earthquake zone. Don’t have it sink on a ship. I want her to be able to wear it again.”
RB: I think things are going to be better in the future.
LL: Oh, good, at least for the clothes.
RB: At least for the clothes, yeah.
LL: You do such a good job too of weaving Georgie and Molly’s gender and classes into why it makes sense for them to be trying to solve these mysteries. The gender is a barrier at times, but also, I love the way you present the advantages of having access to areas that a man or a policeman, or a person of a different class wouldn’t necessarily even think to go.
RB: (Yes. In) one of the Molly books, For the Love of Mike, she’s able to go undercover in a sweatshop. She becomes one of the sweatshop girls, which obviously a man could never do. There are advantages. One of my characters, Mrs. Goodwin, who was a real-life police detective at that time, says: “Women are invisible. You walk down the street with a basket over your arm, nobody looks at you twice.”
I think Georgie’s advantage is that she straddles two classes. She’s part of the upper class, and therefore she can be in the highest of society. But her grandfather comes from a very humble, working class background, so she can use him or be with him, too.
LL: What else do you want to explore through your writing?
RB: I’ve just finished a book about World War I. One of the things I wanted to tackle, which I do in this book, is that the number of men killed in World War I was so horrendous. It was many, many more than World War II, because they fought as if it was the old cavalry charge. They would send the men over the top, and 5,000 men would be killed just like that. It was horrendous.
So I wanted to tackle a book about what happens in a small town when the men are never going to come home. Who will become the blacksmith? Who will own the pub? Who will drive the carts? Women are going to have to step up and say, “These things have to be done, and no one else is going to do it.” So this is a book about women supporting each other in roles that they would never have taken on before.
LL: Any of your books would be ripe for adaptation for television or a movie. Is that something that you’ve been approached about?
RB: They’ve come and gone. The first book, Her Royal Spyness, was not only optioned for a movie, they actually bought it. They actually paid me serious money for it, and then it never happened and they ran out of time. CBS optioned my Constable Evans series, and then that option expired again. I would love to see In Farleigh Field or The Tuscan Child made into TV or a movie, because I think they’re both neat. Particularly, In Farleigh Field would go very well on a BBC thing, so I’d like to see that. We’ll try and chivvy my agent into getting that working.
LL: I know I’m not the first to ask you this, but are you thinking about serializing In Farleigh Field and doing more with that group of characters?
RB: I wasn’t until I got billions of letters saying, “Is there going to be a sequel? I want to know more about Pamela and Ben,” so maybe sometime. I deliberately did leave doors open at the end. I’ve left directions we could go from there, and I liked them. I really liked all those characters. I’d like to see little Phoebe growing up a bit, I’d like to see what happens to Dido, if she has a chance to use her considerable energy in a positive way, rather than a negative way. And will Margot be training to be a special operative? There’s lots of things I can do. But I also have other ideas.
This summer, after teaching the course in Tuscany, I’m going to be spending a few weeks just outside Niece. Something I would love to write about in the future is the fact that Queen Victoria used to come every winter when she was about 80 to a big hotel in Niece, and she brought a hundred people with her, and they would just take over this whole hotel every winter. I could have some really good stories with that, so I will probably be doing some research when I’m there and finding out what were her favorite things to do and eat.
Find all of Rhys Bowen’s novels on Amazon, request them from your local bookseller or library or download them to your eReader. They’re wonderful.
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