WRITERS TELL ALL
A Belated Date With Someone From Our Past--and Our Future: Lyndsay Faye on Writing Historical Mysteries
Matthew Turbeville: Lyndsay, it is so nice to talk with you about one of your more recent books, Jane Steele. This book was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The first question I’m most interested in asking is this: where did you get the idea for Jane Steele? Were you reading Jane Eyreat the time? How long had this novel been in the works?
Lyndsay Faye: Thank you very much for chatting, I’ve been looking forward to it!
I’m a big proponent of re-reading. Which for some reason appears to be a more “literary” and dignified practice when it’s men’sfiction we’re talking about. Jane Eyre is absolutely in the canon of great Western literature, but it’s also a romance, so it’s perceived as more self-indulgent to revisit it periodically than it is for a dude with frameless glasses and a flannel shirt to say, “Yeah, every year I head up to the cabin to do some fishing and make my way through all of Hemingway’s short stories.” Which is especially ironic because I also re-read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” every six months or so, because I was in the restaurant business for ten years, and I’m no stranger to addiction, and it’s hands down my favorite short story.
Wherever you are in life, you’re going to get different impressions from the same book. And this last time re-reading Jane Eyre, I had a lot of concerns and questions. Specifically, when I was younger, I was totally on board with Mr. Rochester being swoony, and now I think, did you seriously just say to Jane that if she won’t listen to reason, you’ll try violence? Thank you, next. Why did Jane flee Thornfield without a penny to her name and then wander around in the wilderness without considering, I dunno, a little dumpster diving perhaps? Or maybe think to bring a map?
I want to be clear: I loveCharlotte Bronte andJane Eyre. I’ve been to the Brontes’ house and stared at the desk where she wrote it. But it occurred to me when re-reading as an adult, how did Jane, however precocious, have the agency to say to every grown-up in her life, you claim I’m immoral, but I know I have my own compass and I find you hypocritical? Isn’t it more usual that a girl would believe her authority figures?
So I then imagined, what if another Jane, a Jane lacking that confidence, bought the idea that she was evil—in what ways would that actually be freeing? I don’t think that Jane Steele is any braver than Jane Eyre, but I do think that she’s less constrained by some of the religious aspects of her time period, because she already thinks she’s lost her soul. That train has sailed, if you will. The horse has flown.
MT: I am always impressed by reading your writing at how, on one level, you tend to somehow grow with the language of the time period, while also incorporating your own style into the language of the book. How do you go about doing both of those things?
LF: Oh, thank you! Well, I think that while it might admittedly be the pinnacle of hubris to say this—screw it, I’ll say it anyway. People talk about setting as a major character quite often. In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, for instance, London is there, London is present, even though Holmes and Watson are constantly going to the countryside to protect young women from nefarious snakes, you really live and breathe London. But I think that in my books, a major character is the English language. I’m obsessed with English. The slang, the organic nature of language, syntax, finding the very real dictionary written by George Washington Matsell that I used to write the Timothy Wilde trilogy, the nuances of it, ways language fails us, et cetera. So there are definitely linguistic flourishes I like—rhythmically, alliteratively, the way words sound, the cadence of them, the poetry, emphasis through repetition, where the commas live, etc. But I heavilyresearch the slang of any given era.
MT: One of the things I feel is most important about Jane Steele, the titular character of the novel, is that she’s so strong, independent, and frankly murderous at times. She is a woman who functions without needing a man by her side, whether that’s to love her or take care of her. How did you establish this sort of woman given the time period work without completely changing how the time in which Jane Steeletakes place?
LF: Ah, well, that’s an interesting question, and I love that you asked it, because women have been functioning without men since women have existed, when they need to. The subsection of women who were compelled to be completely dependent socially was wealthywomen. So we’re not really talking about women, we’re talking about an idealized Downtown Abbey top 10% of women. I’m not saying that only poor women had agency, that would be ridiculous, but the human instinct to stay alive is very powerful, and a lot of women did exactly that—whatever they had to do to survive.
What I changed wasn’t the women, it was the specific woman whose story is being told. Did she exist in the 19thcentury? Sure. Were novels about her published? Certainly not as often, and when they were, they mostly fell under either porn or cautionary tales. My Jane would have scandalized everyone. I mean, look at Anna Kareninaor Moll Flanders, which were both controversial, both written by men—we’re talking about a time period when even the idea of reading novels, even the idea of educating women, were both controversial.
Once the public knew that “Currer Bell” was actually a minister’s daughter, the tone surrounding the book changed significantly. As moral and occasionally even prim as Jane Eyrewas, it had very vocal detractors, which made Charlotte Bronte utterly furious. So I was specific about saying that Jane Steele is reading the second edition, which contained a blistering critique of its critics and in which Bronte flat out said, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” You can picture her replying to all of her one-star Amazon reviews, or getting into Twitter flame wars. It’s fantastic. That’s the woman who wrote Jane Eyre, and that’s the spirit I was trying to channel.
MT: This brings me to my next question. Well, really, it’s something to discuss: Intersectional Feminism. Jane, as well as certain other characters I won’t name due to spoilers, seem to embody the idea of intersectional feminism. I know you’re an advocate for all sorts of rights of many marginalized groups. How have you become so successful while speaking out against sexism, racism, bigotry, etc?
LF: For me, on some level, I think that your books will find their audience if you write them genuinely. Note that I don’t say earnestly, because those can be a mess. But there’s a difference between J. R. R. Tolkien saying, “I’m absolutely preoccupied by both language and British mythology,” and someone else coming along and saying, well that was a successful model when he did it, so I’ll try that and maybe make a buck. Jane Eyreworked because Charlotte Bronte put everything she knew and loved into that novel, and so even when it’s ridiculous, it’s still very effective.
I try to do the same, every time. It’s very personal for me. With Dust and Shadow, that was bringing the female victims of Jack the Ripper into the spotlight as truly human, instead of the more usual voyeuristic approach. With the Timothy Wilde trilogy, same deal--The Gods of Gothamhighlights religious bigotry because people were frothing about Muslims building a community center near Ground Zero and I was angry, Seven for a Secrethighlights African American struggles because people were losing their minds about a black POTUS and I was angry, and The Fatal Flamehighlights working women because there was a very calculated culture war against feminism. And I was angry. That all sounds very angry, but I’d like to assure anyone who hasn’t read my work that it also features true love, bravery, self-sacrifice, and jokes, because those things are also square in my wheelhouse of avid interests.
Ultimately, I really have to include marginalized groups in my writing, because in many respects we areour writing, and these Venn circles are my family, my friends, myself. I would not be capable of writing a novel about tricksy Wall Street high finance crimes. I know nothing about that. But you want a crime novel involving feminism, sexuality, race, creed, addiction, religion? I’m all in.
MT: What qualities of Jane Steele do you feel make her a proper representation of where feminism is or should be today? While your book could resort to being a novel of “white feminism,” it also avoids that subject by being intersectional. Would you be willing to talk about how you crafted Jane’s character?
LF: Sure, absolutely. I crafted a lot of Jane Steele by playing opposites out in my head. Suppose that she essentially has the same life experiences as Jane Eyre, but at every crossroads, she makes a different choice? She kills the abusive cousin character. She escapes to London and blazes her own trail. A great example of this would be the structure of the slow burn angst bonfire my Jane shares with Charles Thornfield. She is absolutely the pursuer; he’s literally wearing protective gloves, suffering from PTSD, running away from her. Whereas Mr. Rochester makes some pretty bold forays when it comes to winning his Jane, I wanted mine to have a sex drive (women do, shh, don’t tell), and I wanted her to see who she wanted and just gofor him.
Regarding the whiteness aspect, I refuse to write books that are just about white people, although I make a point of never writing first person POV inhabiting a person of color. I’m not about cultural appropriation. So in Jane Steeleyou have this whole plot line about Sikh culture and the Khalsa and the Punjab, and that’s all amazing to me because there weren’t only white people in 19thcentury England, obviously! The East India Company had their fingers in every pie imaginable. Let’s write about those people, make them visible. I knew the year needed to be the year the Jane Eyre second edition came out, and then it was a matter of just choosing which foreign war my characters were going to get embroiled in. I’m making it sound less involved than it was, because I spent six months researching the Second Sikh War and the Khalsa, but I had an embarrassment of wars to choose from.
MT: How close did you want to follow in the path of Jane Eyre. In making Jane Steele a real-life human being (or, for readers, it seems to be), what did you have to “correct’ about Jane Eyrein an effort to make her a more realized human being and incredibly strong woman?
LF: Mmm, I only had to eliminate a few of the more melodramatic Gothic conventions, or at least poke gentle and loving fun at them. Horrible sadistic headmaster? Check. Disembodied voice crying out “Jane” from many miles away? No. And then there were the elements I turned upside down. Crazy wife in the attic? No. Corpses in the cellar? Absolutely. So I’m always grateful when people think she’s a realized human being, because while I made every effort to draw her three dimensionally, there’s a satirical aspect to the novel that battled me on that front.
And to the extent that Jane is three dimensional, every one of my narrators expresses at least a few aspects of me personally that are entirely genuine. I’m highly, highly self-critical and so is Jane. I’m also much more willing to defend a friend or even a stranger than I am to pay attention to self-care. In the Timothy Wilde trilogy, a big aspect of his effectiveness as a cop is that people love spilling their secrets to him, and that’s also autobiographical.
MT: How long did it take you to write this book? What is your writing process like? I’ve seen you note that you’ve written anywhere from 3,000 words to 6,000 words at one time. How do you manage to be so productive and also live a happy, healthy, wonderful life?
LF: Oh god, so please understand: 6,000 was my absolute record of all time, ever. 3,000 words is a very solid workday for me. Then there are the days where 0 words happen, and I want to make a point about this: I decided a long time ago that’s also work. And hard work, because you have nothing to show for it. It’s only wasted time if you quit. Because if you quit working on the manuscript, that time spent staring at a blank screen was admittedly wasted. But if you persevere, then that time was hard work, because if you hadn’t stared at it for that long, you’d never have figured it out at all.
But the second part of the answer to this question is actually—and thank you for giving me a reason to talk about this—I actually struggle with depression and am medicated for it, I am a trying-very-hard-to-recover alcoholic, and it’s a tough road sometimes. When I write characters who have mental health problems, unfortunately I write them effectively for a very good reason. I’m trying to actively be more honest about that.
MT: When did you decide you were a writer, and when did you decide you’d like to focus on crime fiction primarily, even if your work does usually transcend genre!
LF: Weirdly, I never actually did decideI was a writer at all. Dust and Shadowexists because I am obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and I threw one too many Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper incarnations at the wall and then looked in the mirror and thought, why not try it yourself? Nobody ever told me I couldn’tdo such a thing, after all. My parents are insanely supportive, so is my husband, and when I told Markt Restaurant, where I’d been working, that now I was going to write a novel despite never having taken a creative writing class, zero people laughed. They said of course you are, and showed up to my first book launch with a bottle of Dom. So much of my career I owe to how much positivity surrounded my early efforts.
MT: How long did it take you to get published, and at what age was your first book released? Do you have any advice for new writers who are struggling to get into the world of crime fiction?
LF: I was 28, and it took me about six months from finished manuscript and agency submissions to Simon & Schuster. But that dovetails very nicely into my advice: the reason Dust and Shadowgot snapped up like that is because I wrote my passion, and I did my job. Write the book you want to read, and then edit the daylights out of it. I did seven drafts of Dust and Shadowbefore sending out a single query letter. Do not assume you deserve a book deal because you finished a manuscript. That’s already amazing, by the way, and you should go have a champagne dinner about it. But editing is the real work of writing, and it’s work I happen to love.
MT: Can you describe to readers what your next book is about? And when will it be coming out? (P.S. to readers: I’ve had a chance to take a look at this novel and it’s notsomething to be missed—you will regret not buying it!)
LF: My next novel, The Paragon Hotel, takes place in 1921, and let me tell you, all the stereotypes about gangster dialect, they really talked like that. It’s enough to charm the skin off a tomato. And it follows “Nobody” Alice James, a white gun moll who’s fleeing the Mafia with a bullet wound and $50,000 in cash, as she’s rescued by a black Pullman train porter named Max and ends up in Portland, Oregon’s only black hotel. Who shot her and why? What role did she play in Harlem, where she grew up, and when did the trouble start? When a mixed-race child disappears, and the local Ku Klux Klan escalates their threats of violence, Alice throws her lot in with the Paragon’s residents, using her chameleonlike skills in every way she can.
The Paragon Hotelis pretty personal—I was born in San Jose, California, but I grew up in Longview, Washington, which is about 40 minutes by car away from Portland, Oregon. And I sort of famously asked my mom at age six what had happened to “all the tan people,” by which I meant all the people of color I was used to seeing and hanging out with. My mother basically had to tell me, well, I don’t think that tan people live here…? And after I started investigating this, it turns out that Oregon is the onlystate out of the 50 to write an exclusionary “Negro and Mulattto Clause” into their constitution, which forbade people of color to enter the state, do work, buy property, etc.
MT: You’re also a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and a writer who has written lots of stories dealing with Mr. Holmes (including a fabulous collection of Sherlock Holmes stories)! Going back to how you adapt to language of a time period, how did you develop a voice similar to Arthur Conan Doyle?
LF: Oh, thank you! I credit 100% of my ability to channel Holmes and Watson to my actor training. I read those short stories (and four novels, of course) obsessively when I was a kid. And I’m trained to be able to mimic voices, accents, et cetera. But the key to any effective Sherlockian pastiche is the Holmes and Watson relationship. They infuriate each other, they delight each other, they’d take a bullet for each other. It’s gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want an unconditional relationship like that? Who wouldn’t want that one friend who’d do anything for you?
MT: Do you have a book you dream of writing? I know that this line isn’t entirely Toni Morrison’s own, that it’s been said many times before she said it herself, but Morrison once wrote “Write the book you’d want to read yourself.” Do you feel like you’ve already done that, and if not, what might this book be about?
LF: Actually, this is an excellent question, because I have never written a book for any other reason than that I wanted to read it and it didn’t exist. I don’t know how to write any other way. There’s a reader itch I need to scratch, and if I need to scratch it, well…maybe there are others like me who might want to read the same thing, if I can do my job effectively enough, and really spill my guts on the page. If I hold nothing back, then maybe it will answer someone who needs the same story.
MT: While I’ve heard other literary luminaries than yourself, like Megan Abbott, state that crime is now a woman’s genre—written by women, produced for women—what do you feel are the major issues you and other women have had to deal with in making crime a “woman’s genre”?
LF: Oh lord, I feel nothing like luminous, but thank you! Well, I’ve seen both sides of this coin. On the one hand, women have tremendous buying power in the mystery genre, and there isn’t really any paucity of choice—we can find what we want, generally, read what we like, suss out the sort of books that really blow our hair back, and that’s great. And it’s also amazing that so many female crime writers (like Megan Abbott, naturally, Laura Lippman, Gillian Flynn, dozens of others) are respected, prolific, award-winning, and able to work in multiple media ouvres.
On the other hand, I was teaching an adult learning class featuring the Timothy Wilde trilogy one day and this older fellow, having read the back of The Gods of Gotham, raised his hand and said, “So this is supposed to be narrated in the first person by a male cop in the nineteenth century. Then I look at youand I have to ask—who was this book even written for?” So we’re not exactly batting a thousand yet.
MT: Would you ever write a sequel to Jane Steele, or maybe another modernization of a novel from that time period like Wuthering Heights, etc? And I have to ask—which piece of writing, book or stories, have you been most proud of? Which is most dear to your heart?
LF: Absolutely I would. I think it’s probably more safe to say that I’d be shocked if I didn’t! As to the other question, I wish I could answer it cleanly and say here’s my favorite, and it’s for these reasons, and have done with it. But I can definitely tell you my favorite character, and that’s Valentine Wilde. He started as a concept and became a self-portrait, he’s a complete wild card, he’s the moral compass of the whole trilogy, he’s unbearably obnoxious, he’s an incurably romantic bisexual, he loves fiercely, hates showing it, can’t escape his own brain, is overfond of toxic remedies for that condition, cooks to show affection, I could go on forever.
MT: Would you ever write a more “modern” novel? If so, which issues might you tackle? And of all the books you’ve written, which one would you give to the President of the U.S., for any reason you feel he needs it?
LF: I’m actually working on a modern novel right now! So not another word will I say on that subject. As for the President, I suspect I might be above his reading level. We could set him up with an audiobook, but that generally requires a certain amount of concentration to retain. So I fear we’re at an impasse there.
MT: Who are your favorite crime writers (especially of minorities or marginalized groups) and you can include fiction or non-fiction, stories, YA, etc. I want to hear your recommendations!
LF: This is one of my favorite questions. I blurbed a book recently that totally captured me: The Best Bad Thingsby Katrina Carrasco, which comes out on November 6th. Set in 1887 Washington Territory, a bisexual female protagonist who got booted from the Pinkertons and prefers to present as a man, plenty of fistfights, plenty of sex, immaculate historical detail. It’s marvelous. I’m also fully on board with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse’s superb Mycroft Holmes novels, and the sequel, Mycroft and Sherlock, was released a couple weeks ago. Found a fabulous queer YA fantasy recently called Of Fire and Starsby Audrey Coulthurst—I’m cool with princes coming to the rescue on occasion, but how much more fun is it when two princesses rescue each other? Especially when one is brilliant with horses and the other one is magic. Could that beany better?
MT: Lyndsay, you are one of my absolute favorite writers, it’s a wonderful privilege to be your friend, and just a marvel to read whatever book you come out with next! We love having you over at WritersTellAll, and look forward to seeing where you go with your own writing, and how you transform the genre single-handedly or with the other powerful women writers who work so hard to produce the best work possible. Thanks again.
LF: It is always absolutely my pleasure, and thank you very much for your kindness and support!