Today we are featuring the author of literary mysteries Murder at Mansfield Park and The Solitary House–Lynn Shepherd! As a literature professor, I am (of course) quite the fan. Welcome Lynn, and thank you for sharing your thoughts about the writing life!
Lynn Shepherd live near Oxford, England and writes of ‘literary murder”. She started with Austen, in Murder at Mansfield Park, and is now offering Dickens a 200th birthday present in her new book, which is inspired by Bleak House.
Lynn studied English at Oxford in the 1980s, and went back to do a doctorate in 2003. By that time she had spent 15 years in business, first in the City, and later in PR. She always wanted to be a writer (and aren’t we glad she did!); going freelance in 2000 gave Lynn the time needed to make that dream into a reality. “Ten years and two and a half unpublished novels later,” says Lynn, and “it finally happened! I’ve been thrilled at the reception I’ve had for Murder at Mansfield Park, and it was especially nice to have so many die-hard Austen fans say they how much they enjoyed it. Looking forward to see what Dickens fans make of the next one!”
The Solitary House (US title) /Tom All Alones (UK title)
London, 1850. Fog in the air and filth in the streets, from the rat-infested graveyard of Tom-All-Alone’s to the elegant chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where the lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn has powerful clients to protect, and a deadly secret he will stop at nothing to conceal. Only that secret is now under threat from an unseen adversary – one who must be tracked down at all costs, before it’s too late.
Who better for such a task than Charles Maddox? Unfairly dismissed from the Metropolitan Police, Charles is struggling to establish himself as a private detective. Only business is slow and his one case a dead end, so when Tulkinghorn offers a handsome price for an apparently simple job Charles is unable to resist. But nothing, as he soon finds out, is what it seems…
Inspired by Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, this novel is a gripping murder mystery set in a grim London underworld Dickens could only hint at – a world where girls of ten work as prostitutes, unwanted babies are ruthlessly disposed of, and those who pose a threat to great men are eliminated without remorse.
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?
Like a lot of people I wrote a lot when I was a child, but once I was in my teens my love for words was channelled less into writing and more into reading. I read greedily and constantly, and ended up studying literature at Oxford. A marvellous experience, but both good and bad for anyone who might want to be a writer themselves: good because you learn how great writing works from a technical perspective, and you hone your own critical faculties; bad, because you’re exposed to the best the human race has managed to create, which can leave you feeling rather daunted!
As for my favourite work (sorry about the Brit spelling there!), well the list is so crowded that it’s hard to choose just one. So a few of my favourites – Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Dickens’ Bleak House, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and a much neglected 18th-century novel, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, which is an immensely long work written for a more leisurely age, but an absolute masterpiece.
2. Not unlike many an author, I am an academic where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves?
Funnily enough I have something of an academic background too! I went back and did a doctorate at Oxford in 2003 – on Samuel Richardson in fact – and during that time I was lucky enough to be asked to lecture on the 18th-century novel, and my own thesis was published a few years later. By that time I had already finished my first book, which was inspired by Jane Austen. All of my novels have some sort of literary inspiration, either a specific text – Mansfield Park for the first, and Bleak House for the second – or a specific writer. My third book, which is out next year, is another ‘literary mystery’ inspired by the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein.
I first found the time and space to start writing back in 2000, when I stopped working full-time as a PR director, and started working freelance as a copywriter. As any self-employed person will know, it’s always rather a case of feast or famine, so when I had quiet periods I was able to spend time developing the idea for Murder at Mansfield Park. I’m lucky that I’ve always had a lot of self-discipline, and you certainly need that if you’re going to be a freelancer, so I basically apply the same discipline to writing for myself as I do when I’m composing websites, or speeches, or annual reports.
3. On a related note, I would love to hear more about your take on literature; the fact that the new book is based on Bleak House (a favorite Dickens novel of mine second only to Our Mutual Friend) is very exciting to me!
Well I hope that anyone who loves Bleak House will see my own respect and fondness for it coming through on every page of The Solitary House! I think it’s far and away Dickens’ best novel – every aspect of his art is at its peak in that book, and he holds the myriad threads together with consummate skill. I think Our Mutual Friend is a fascinating work that doesn’t quite come off: I think if Dickens hadn’t died so young we’d now see it as a transitional novel – he’s clearly experimenting in places with a more ‘poetic’ approach, and I think that would have become more obvious in the later novels he never lived to write.
In my own first book I deliberately set out to ‘write like Jane Austen’, but I haven’t done that with The Solitary House. I decided instead to work within Dickens’ world, and recreate the sprawling, crowded, filthy London of 1850. My aim was to write a free-standing murder mystery that would run in parallel with Bleak House, and draw in characters that people who know that book will recognise, like Inspector Bucket or Mr Tulkinghorn. But I worked hard to ensure that it is a genuinely free-standing story, so if you haven’t read the Dickens, there’s no problem – it should work just as well on its own!
4. You have had a varied career (and this is common, I find, among successful authors). Do you find that your work in the City and in PR influence your writing? Or, rather, what have you taken away from those other positions?
My career hasn’t influenced my writing directly, in that I don’t take any of my experiences from that time into my books. Though some of the things I saw in the City would have made great copy! I think the one thing I’ve gained from being a copywriter as well as a novel-writer is the ability to just ’get on with it’. I work to deadlines all the time, so I’m used to knuckling down and producing what I’m being paid for, and I think that has helped create what you could call a ‘professional’ mind-set when it comes to writing my books. I rarely (touch wood) have complete writer’s block, and when I do I can always turn to the paying work temporarily instead. And because that side of my writing life exercises such a different part of my brain it can actually be a useful breather!
5. I also write mystery fiction (as well as YA) – and teach it, too. Certainly literature provides a wealth of material, going all the way back to French romance and Gothic literature; could you talk about what drew you to the genre?
I’ve said this before, but it’s absolutely true – whoever it was who said you should write what you love to read was absolutely right! My own tastes are very much for either classic English fiction, or modern mysteries, so I try to write the sort of book that gives the reader a combination of those two pleasures. I also think that mystery fiction – defining it as broadly as possible – requires a far greater discipline from the writer. You simply can’t leave a book like that hanging at the last chapter, or with careless loose ends. I find far too many contemporary novels end badly, or lazily, or barely ‘conclude’ at all – nothing gets me more irritated than that!
6. Every writer has a different writing strategy – or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
As I said, I’m very disciplined, so I start pretty much the same time every day – about 8.30 – and write through till about 5. I don’t write in the evenings as I’m not a night person and anything I write late in the day always has to be re-done the following morning. I also get paid to be an editor in my freelance life, so I’m pretty good at editing my own work – I can usually tell the next day when the writing’s gone flabby, or needs sharpening up. I do enjoy the process of working with a good editor – and my US editor is one of the best in the business – but what I value the most is the input they can give you in the earlier phases of a book’s development.
7. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?
I have three people who see my work at the first draft stage: my husband, my agent, and my former professor, who’s now become a great friend. They all bring something very different to the table, and can represent the views of different types of readers, which is important with books like mine because I want them to appeal to the broadest number of people, as well as the die-hard fans of the particular book or writer that the novel in question is inspired by. I don’t tend to share anything any earlier than first draft stage – other than synopses – because I find that I have to get the whole thing down, however roughly, before the shape of the book really settles.
8. I am inspired by your commitment and success (as anyone should be who spends many years attempting to find a market-often by squeezing their work between career and life demands). Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world?
Perseverance! Yes, you need talent, but boy, do you need luck too. So you just have to stick at it. Get yourself a good agent if you can, and do share what you write with other people before you get to that stage. We all need a thick skin in this game, so it’s important to get used to constructive criticism long before you send anything to a professional to read.
9. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
It’s hard to fix on one person for this one. I’m a big fan of AS Byatt’s earlier novels – like The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life – and I admire the rich density of her prose, and the fact that she’s an unashamedly intellectual writer who’s interested in ideas. The person who inspired me to write ‘clever’ crime was Joan Smith – I loved her Loretta Lawson novels. I was lucky enough to meet her recently and we had such a great chat about books and politics and contemporary culture, that I kept having to remind myself that I was in the presence of one of my heroes!
10. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
I think there’s a huge amount of helpful stuff out there now – one of the great advantages of the internet is the way it can bring people together with a shared interest, whether that’s writing or anything else. I don’t use any one forum or site on a consistent basis, but I am very active on Twitter and I’ve met a lot of my writer friends there. Twitter is also a great way to pick up references to good new blog posts or advice about writing – I’m always clicking on links and learning something new. But learning something new all the time rather sums up what it means to be a writer, doesn’t it?
Thank you, Lynn! The Solitary House is published in the US and Canada by Random House. It’s available in the UK from Corsair under the title Tom-All-Alone’s, the paperback of which is published on September 6th. Lynn’s first novel, Murder at Mansfield Park is available from St Martin’s Press in North America, and as an e-book from Corsair in the UK. Lynn’s website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd.