Interview With Historical Mystery Author Susanne Alleyn
Susanne Alleyn, acclaimed author of four historical mysteries set in Paris during the French Revolutionary period, as well as a non-mystery historical novel, apparently comes by her love of writing historical fiction naturally, being the granddaughter of Lillie V. Albrecht, who wrote a number of children's historical novels beginning back in the 1950s. As it notes on Susanne's website, though, Susanne "definitely doesn’t write for children, unless, like her, they have found guillotines, high drama, and the French Revolution fascinating since the age of ten or so."
I feel so lucky to have "discovered" Susanne's Aristide Ravel mystery novels a few years ago, first gobbling up Game of Patience and Treasury of Regrets, and then getting to know her a bit while nagging her to hurry up and finish the next one (TheCavalier of the Apocalypse) and after that to hurry up and write the next one (Palace of Justice, which, I am thrilled to be able to say, will be in bookstores November 23, 2010, just in time for the long Thanksgiving Day weekend in the U.S.).
Not long ago, while discussing with her when Palace would be published so I could get my next Ravel fix, we had a little chat, which went something like this:
Me: So your grandmother was a famous writer of children's books! Is that where your love of historical fiction came from?
Susanne: I don't know about "famous," but she definitely influence my love for historical fiction! She lived in a town called Westfield, Massachusetts, which has about 400 years of history. It was settled by the Puritans in the mid-17th century. She was just fascinated by the local history, so after doing quite a lot of local research and such (she was librarian there), she decided to write children’s books, set in the area. And she ended up writing five, and had them published, and became a local celebrity.
Me: Your Ravel mysteries are certainly not children's books, though I guess A Far Better Rest, which is a reimagining of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities from Sydney Carton’s viewpoint, could be appreciated by young teens. Where did you get the idea for writing it?
Susanne: Oh, dear, dear. Doesn’t every romantic, literary-minded teenaged girl fall in love with Sydney Carton at one time or another? Call me a case of arrested development, but apparently I never outgrew my teenaged infatuation with him (a progression, from the Classic Comics Tale at 8 or 9, to a somewhat abridged version of the novel at 13, to seeing the 1935 film with Ronald Colman ~ best Carton ever! ~ at 16, to reading the whole, unabridged novel for the first time soon afterward). A Tale of Two Cities, in turn, led to my fascination with the French Revolution.
During many re-readings, I had always wondered why Carton just dropped out of A Tale of Two Cities for such a large chunk of the narrative, while Dickens concentrated on the married life and then the revolutionary travails of Charles and Lucie, and how and why Carton then popped up again in Paris just when he was most needed. Dickens never, ever explains this (Did Mr. Lorry write, from Paris, to Carton or to Stryver, telling them of the Darnays’ plight? If so, why not say so?). No doubt it’s simply one of his famous coincidences, beloved of Victorian novelists; but I really wanted to know.
In 1995, I had the opportunity to spend a week in London before going on to Paris for two more weeks. And toward the end of my trip, one evening in the very bare room of a Parisian youth hostel (having no money to go out for evening activities), I idly began to ponder the fact that I had been in London and was now in Paris . . . the “two cities” of the novel. Once again I began to wonder why Carton had disappeared from the middle of A Tale of Two Cities and turned up in Paris many chapters and years later. And suddenly, perhaps thanks to the influence of Paris, I realized the solution was . . . obviously! . . . that he had been in Paris all the time (doing what? Hmm . . .).
I immediately knew that I had to write that story, from Carton’s perspective, and (being a history geek) with a fuller and more balanced look at the French Revolution. Dickens does provide a very sketchy timeline in the course of his narrative, but from a quick read, you would think that all the events of the Revolution, from the fall of the Bastille to the Terror, happen within about six months ~ film versions are even guiltier of this ~ and it was all blood and massacres and guillotines; nothing is ever mentioned of the first two “happy” years of the Revolution or of its many positive achievements.
Me: I can see how Tale could be such an influence. It was one of my favorite novels of childhood too. So romantic! By the way, I've heard there are plans afoot to reissue it in paperback.
Susanne: Yes, I'm so excited that it's being reprinted! It's just become available at Amazon in paperback and eBook, to coincide with the release of Palace of Justice.
Me: What then inspired you to write your first Aristide Ravel mystery, Game of Patience?
Susanne: Game was loosely inspired by a real-life female multiple murderer, Manette Bouhourt, whose killer career in early 1800s Paris was briefly outlined in a book about the Parisian executioners and crime in the 18th and 19th centuries. I knew I wanted to learn more about her, and I knew I wanted to write a story, play, or novel about her. Unfortunately I could find very, very little about the historical Manette, so I took the few facts I had and created a fictional character, first in the beginnings of a play, which didn’t work, and then in the beginnings of a novel with the young woman as the main character, which also didn’t work. Then it suddenly occurred to me that the story I had in mind would work as a mystery, with a new central character/sleuth (at which point Aristide Ravel appeared, almost fully formed); and finally the story worked!
Me: I know from reading your novels that you do meticulous research and then weave the historical details seamlessly into the stories. What was the most fascinating detail you learned while doing research?
Susanne: There are probably way too many fascinating details to count. It was interesting (and rather disturbing) to learn how the prerevolutionary French police and justice system worked; study a bit of this, and you understand why our own framers of our constitution wrote it as they did, because they knew about the horrific abuses and injustices that could sometimes happen under Europe’s absolute monarchies, where the whole system was designed to keep the subjects in line. The idea that it didn’t really matter who was punished (publicly and usually harshly) for a crime, because, it was theorized, the example would frighten other potential wrongdoers into not committing crimes, was typical and, to our modern American ears, simply appalling.
The most fascinating footnote character of the French Revolutionary period that I discovered has to be Fragonard, the mad scientist featured in The Cavalier of the Apocalypse. I’d known a little about him long before I even began writing the Ravel novels; but after visiting the museum containing his works, I knew I just had to include him in a future novel. (This was while I was just finishing Game of Patience; perceptive readers will notice a sneaky reference to him in Game, although I didn’t write Cavalier for another five years.)
Me: I’ve read that you can see Adrien Brody in the role of Aristide Ravel if Game of Patience were made into a movie (and wouldn't it make a wonderful film). Does your choice still hold? Who would you like to see play Inspector Brasseur and Rosalie Clement?
Susanne: Oh, yes, Adrien Brody is still my first choice for playing Ravel. He’s just so right for the character in both appearance and style. For Rosalie, I’ve thought of French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, or someone like her. Very French-looking and intense, though not conventionally pretty. Brasseur is definitely a character actor’s role and I keep thinking of Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies), although he’s too old for the part. I don’t see enough movies to be really aware of a lot of the current talent out there.
Me: Oh, my, yes, I agree ~ Adrien Brody would make a brilliant Ravel. In fact, I always picture Brody as Ravel when I'm reading one of the Ravel mysteries. Such a brooding yet sensitive character. *drool*
What? Oh, right, back to the books. The fourth Ravel mystery, Palace of Justice, will be hitting bookstores toward the end of November 2010. I read the first chapter (at your website) and wow! What a hook! Tell us what you can ~ without giving anything away, of course ~ about the plot and where it fits time-wise with respect to the first three.
Susanne: Palace of Justice takes place in October 1793, when the Terror was just beginning to heat up. Revolutionary politics and events will interfere with Ravel’s pursuit of a multiple murderer who seems bent on leaving as many headless corpses around Paris as the guillotine does. If you read the novels in the order of when the stories take place, it’s second in the series (between the TheCavalier of the Apocalypse and Game of Patience). (Blame the publishers for the crazy sequence! They asked for two particular books based on some very brief ideas I sent them, without paying any attention to the historical timeline.)
Me: Besides Ravel, which one of your fictional characters did you find most interesting to write?
Susanne: Am I cheating if I say the Sansons, father and son executioners? They were real people, so are not strictly “fictional”. (I am obsessed with the Sansons, a family trapped by social mores and customs in an intolerable position, and will be writing much more about them someday.)
Me: Not cheating at all! I find them fascinating too. And the way you've written them, so three-dimensional and sympathetic, for all they are engaged in a terrible and macabre job! It's hard to imagine how it must have been for them, trapped as you say by the social customs of the time.
Susanne: For totally fictional characters, the most interesting to write was probably Rosalie Clément in Game of Patience. A close second was the Marquis de Beaupréau in The Cavalier of the Apocalypse; he’ll be back in at least one future Ravel novel. He was vaguely inspired by a real revolutionary figure, Jean-Marie Hérault de Séchelles, a wealthy and influential aristocrat with liberal views, who became an extremely left-wing revolutionist and member of the Committee of Public Safety (while continuing to live like a wealthy and influential aristocrat). I see Beaupréau as being sort of a combination of Lafayette and Robespierre.
Me: Okay, so, as an aspiring writer, I've got to ask: What is an average writing day like for you?
Susanne: I have to confess I’m horribly lazy and undisciplined! But on a good day, I get up as early as possible, fortify myself with coffee, get to work, and produce a few pages’ worth of rough draft before lunchtime. I rarely can get much writing done in the afternoon or evening, although I can reread and do a bit of editing. When the rough draft is complete (hallelujah!) I can usually spend whole days rereading and rewriting. So much easier than writing the draft.
Me: Lazy? Undisciplined? I don't think so. Not with five published books under your belt. And, may I say, five excellently written published books. So, do you have any special writing rituals or totems to wake up your Muse?
Susanne: One word: Coffee. (Ravel and I share this trait.) Two of the most productive writers in history, Voltaire and Balzac, were also among the greatest coffee addicts in history. So far, caffeine hasn’t made me nearly that productive, but I can hope.
When I’m stuck in the middle of a paragraph or scene (“Where does this conversation go from here?” “What the heck happens next?”), I usually run the solitaire program and play a round or two of Freecell. Usually that little break allows the subconscious to figure out what comes next. Yep, that’s where Ravel’s solitaire habit comes from; I thought it would work well for him, too.
Me: Heh. You, Ravel, Voltaire, Balzac ~ and me! I can't live without my daily dose of coffee, the stronger the better, but my game of choice is Mah Jong. Although I just love it when Ravel pulls out his old deck of cards and starts laying them out. You just know something's going to percolate up out of the depths of his intellect. Anyway, one last question: I know you like to read. What are some of your favorite books?
Susanne: My tastes are pretty conventional. I’ve always liked mysteries, and read mostly the Golden Age authors ~ Christie, Sayers, Tey, and so on. I continually reread books, for pleasure and to half-consciously examine the writing style. I also like fantasy and science fiction, from time to time, and have read some of the classics, like The Lord of the Rings, many times. A Tale of Two Cities, of course. Historical fiction ~ depending on the period; aside from the French Revolutionary period, I like ancient Egypt and Rome. I’ve amassed quite a collection of fiction set in the French Revolution but a lot of it is pointless costume schlock (bodice-ripper romances, dull male-oriented “adventure” novels from the 1950s, and, ugh, the truly witless, historically ludicrous, and Francophobic Pimpernels). The best by far, both in historical fidelity and literary quality, is A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. She wrote the book I wanted to write (and she wrote it much better than I could have), but that sent me off in other directions which seem, so far, to have worked for me.
So, there you have it! I'd like to extend a big thank you to Susanne for sharing her thoughts with me so I could share them with you!