Interview with Anne Perry
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If there is a mystery writer today who can pick up where John Dickson-Carr, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle left off, it would certainly be Anne Perry. Her books have sold more than ten million copies worldwide, earning her a reputation as one of the most popular writers today. Unlike most fiction bestsellers over the last 25 years, which have been driven by formulaic and sensational plots, Anne Perry’s books are unique for their timeless narrative style and suspenseful story lines.
Whether set during the general election of 1892, the U.S. Civil War, or The Great War, Anne Perry’s historical novels (unlike many of that genre) are infused with period voice. It permeates her narrative, dialogue, and descriptions. She is one of the few practitioners of the historical novel whose work has a genuine period atmosphere and feel. Although she had been writing for several years, Anne Perry’s writing career didn’t officially take off until 1979 with the publication of The Cater Street Hangman-a Victorian-era mystery that first introduced readers to Inspector Thomas Pitt and Charlotte Ellison, the independent-minded middle daughter of a wealthy family who later becomes Pitt’s wife, marrying beneath her class. It was the first in an immensely popular series of bestselling books featuring the husband and wife team of Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. The latest Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mystery, The Seven Dials, was published in 2003.
In 1990 Anne
Perry began another Victorian-era mystery series, this one featuring London Police Detective William Monk. In the first book, Face of a Stranger, Monk wakes up after a near fatal accident without a trace of memory. While still attempting to piece together his past, he is assigned to investigate a brutal murder. As the series progresses and Monk is assigned to different cases, he struggles to come to terms with a past he is slowly uncovering-a theme that makes the series more contemplative and psychological than the Pitt series. Perry explains, “I began the Monk series in order to explore a different, darker character and to raise questions about responsibility, particularly that of a person for acts he cannot remember. How much of a person’s identity is bound up in memory?” Her latest Monk novel, The Shifting Tide, was released by Ballantine Books this past spring.
Throughout all of her books, Anne Perry tackles social issues in a thought-provoking manner, addressing timeless questions of ethics and morality. Her most recent novel, Shoulder the Sky (2004), the second book in a series set during The Great War, is no different, addressing the questions that moral men and women must deal with during a time of war. It is due out this autumn.
AFG: I’ve enjoyed your books for a very long time so it’s nice to speak to you in person. What books do you have coming up this year?
AP: Well, you’ve got The Shifting Tide, which I think is one of my better efforts, really. It is a Monk story. He has a real shift in life pattern and-bearing in mind my New York agent’s advice to put people in the worst situation that you can imagine for them and then make it even worse-poor Hester has to live through my worst nightmare. I can’t think of anything more appalling [that could happen to her] unless she was going to die. I wouldn’t have anything terminal happen to Hester or Monk but I’ve really pulled out all the stops with this one. It’s set mostly on the Thames and there’s a gorgeous cover for it; I believe it’s a Monet painting. It’s a river scene with a wharf going out across the river.
AFG: I don’t know if you know this but there is a television series in the United States called Monk.
AP: Yes, I know. We’ve got it over here. He’s a very, very different character than mine. I could wish they hadn’t used the same name. When it’s on, I watch it. Their relationship is quite entertaining. I actually watch more far American television than I do British.
AFG: I find that increasingly I end up watching mostly old films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I like some of the British period pieces, Masterpiece Theatre, some of the A&E mysteries.
AP: Well they did do The Cater Street Hangman, but I just wish we could get them to do Monk. We’ve got a very good script by Julian Fellowes-who did Gosford Park and got the Oscar for it. It’s the first Monk story. We just need a little more money put into it.
AFG: Are you trying to have that produced by the BBC?
AP: No. I would be looking on the other side of the Atlantic-not necessarily for actors, but for the production.
AFG: Yes, they should do this. Your books are bestsellers on our website.
AP: Oh, you mean with you? Oh, well, how very nice. Thank you so much for telling me. We do well in Spain and France and Germany as well, and it’s one of our ambitions to get to do as well in my own patch, but if it had to be here or America then I’m very happy to settle for America.
AFG: How do you explain the fact that you are more popular in the United States than in England? This is something I find true with our publication as well.
AP: Without being flippant and saying it’s because you’ve better taste than we have, I really don’t know. I think I just do appeal to American taste a bit more than to British taste. We seem to have a darker view over here. I lived in America for several years and I do think I have a middle of the Atlantic view of things-not that that’s where I want to be dropped off! You know, I’m English to the bone but Americans tend to have a more optimistic view about things, which I like. Okay, there’s a problem, so how do we address it? Not oh dear, there’s a problem, and we can’t do it.
AFG: I think that in England they like more of the noir and hard-boiled genres.
AP: Yes, really quite edgy, and that’s not how I am, because my life experience has been that most people are pretty decent. I honestly believe that, for most people, at the time they do something, it seems to them to be reasonable. They might just gather afterwards that it was stupid and selfish, but at the time they did it, it seemed to be the thing to do to solve their problems. And then, of course, we can all be selfish and short-sighted and impulsive at times, but I’ve met very few people in whom I couldn’t find something to like. I like or adore all my own characters or I’d drop them. I get bored with them if I can’t see something I can identify with.
AFG: Are any of your characters similar to you in a way?
AP: Well, lots of them have bits of me. I don’t know that there’s [any character] that is really close to me. There are those I would like to think I was like, but there’s usually one character who speaks for me to some extent. Pitt speaks for me probably more than Charlotte does. Hester probably speaks for me quite a bit. And have you come across my World War I stories yet?
AFG: Yes. You know, I just found a copy. It’s on my bedside table and I’m getting ready to read it. I’m especially interested because I know that you and I share an admiration for G.K. Chesterton.
AP: Oh yes.
AFG: No Graves as Yet is the title of the book. It’s a line from one of his poems?
AP: It’s actually the very last line. He’s speaking about how the soldiers who died for England lie buried in foreign fields and the people who laboured and worked for England lie buried in the local churchyard, but the politicians who govern in England-unfortunately, they don’t have any graves yet. “Alas, alas for England/They have no graves as yet.” In his day politicians were much like some of ours, I should think.
AFG: Tell us about your admiration for Chesterton. I think that he’s one of the greatest writers; he was almost a visionary.
AP: I think he’s brilliant in his use of the language, but where I loved him really has to do with his love of life, his love of human beings. He wrote one poem-it’s called “Gold Leaves.” I can’t quote the whole thing to you because Chesterton is one I haven’t bothered to commit to memory-because that’s the one book I cart around with me-but he was saying that when he was young he sought the golden flower in wood or wold, but then when he comes to the autumn of life, all the trees are gold. And he speaks: “But now a great thing in the street/Seems any human nod,/Where in a strange democracy/The million masks of God.”
And he has such a love, an appetite, a gusto and joy for life that I can’t help loving him for that. Are you familiar with The Ballad of the White Horse?
AFG: Yes. I have an autographed copy of that. It’s one of my most prized possessions. I found it at Magg’s Brothers and I was very quick to snatch that up.
AP: You fortunate man! An autographed copy! I love that poem. I find quite often, because I’m in the Highlands of Scotland that, you know, people think of the romantic Highland heritage. And I think, well I’m just plain ordinary English. There isn’t any colour in that. But then I read The Ballad of the White Horse and I wouldn’t give anything on earth to be anything other than English. He was a brilliant man. (You know, I need more lives. I need another one in which to read as opposed to writing.) But his description of the sunset at the very beginning in The Man Who Was Thursday . . . his descriptions of the music in The Ballad of the White Horse, that’s quoted far more often than I think people realise.
AFG: “The Donkey.” That’s another great one.
AP: “With monstrous head and sickening cry/And ears like errant wings/The devil’s walking parody/On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,/Of ancient crooked will;/Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,/I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;/ One far fierce hour and sweet:/There was a shout about my ears,/And palms before my feet.”
Oh well, I could talk about Chesterton permanently, but I suppose I’d better tell you that the second of the World War I novels will be out in the fall and it’s called Shoulder the Sky. I’m thinking of great poets. How about Housman?
AFG: He was a great poet but very pessimistic and very dark.
AP: Oh yes. Very dark. The title, Shoulder the Sky, comes from “The Chestnut Casts His Flambeaux” The last few stanzas are: “If here to-day the cloud of thunder lours/ To-morrow it will hie on far behests;/The flesh will grieve on other bones than ours/ Soon, and the soul will mourn in other breasts.
The troubles of our proud and angry dust/ Are from eternity, and shall not fail./Bear them we can, and if we can we must./Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.”
AFG: I remember “Is My Team Ploughing?” That had a real twist in the last line.
AP: Oh yes. “Never ask me whose.” But I chose him because, apart from the fact that I think those two stanzas which I quoted to you form one of the finest pieces of poetry in the English language, this book is set in 1915 and it’s mostly in the trenches. When those men were in the trenches, about the only thing they could see other than mud and corpses was the sky. They carried the sky for the western world for the first two or three years in World War I and the toll was unbelievable.
AFG: What’s the crime part of the novel about?
AP: Joseph is serving as a chaplain in the trenches of Ypres when a young journalist comes who is a very ambitious young man. He has a prurient interest in other peoples’ pain and he wants to make his name by writing up what he sees. Chance offers him the opportunity to be there at the first poison gas attack. There’s a dreadful death and he sees the pain and the fear of these young men. So he is going to write it up and go home. He cannot publish it in the main newspapers because there’s a government prohibition on that, but he can find a little provincial one or he can put it in a pamphlet. At that time, most of the British expeditionary force was wiped out, dead, or injured and Kitchener needed, almost immediately, to raise a million more men-volunteers, nobody was conscripted-pretty much to save us from invasion. And if this young man had published what it was like to die by poison gas and the real details of trench life such as the rats and lice, the freezing cold, and the drowning in the shell holes, Kitchener wouldn’t have had much chance. People tried to persuade him not to [publish his story] but he wouldn’t listen and several other things happen which are ugly, implicating him, including moral blackmail. Then he’s found dead, drowned in no man’s land in a shell hole, facedown. Joseph brings back the body and when he’s getting it ready to send home he realizes the man’s been murdered-and not by a German.
AFG: When did you first decide to become a writer?
AP: You don’t become a writer. You’re born one, I think. It’s when you first succeed in getting everybody else to believe you are. Oh, I must add, did you know I did a Christmas novella?
AFG: Yes, I was going to ask you about that.
AP: It is finished and done and it’s called “A Christmas Visitor.” It’s set in the Lake District which is, you know, the lakes in the northwest of England, and I had a lot of fun doing that. The main character is Henry Rathbone, Oliver Rathbone’s father. The option is one for this year and one for the following as well, so I want to see if I can make it a habit.
AFG: A lot of your novels have a social message.
AP: You know, I’m a great admirer of Chesterton. I’m trying to follow in his footsteps-not exactly fill his shoes, but follow in his footsteps. Nobody could fill his shoes, but we can surely try following behind him.
AFG: Well, I like your books a lot. People like you and Harry Keating and Michael Gilbert are bringing back the style of the Golden Age detective story writers.
AP: Well, thank you very much.
AFG: Now, do you come up with the plot first and then end up infusing your message, or do you start with having something to say?
AP: I think the two have to be part of the same thing. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and I think the desire to say what you want to say in the form of a story is probably part of my blood. My grandfather’s name was Joseph Reavley. The main character in the World War I novels is named after him. I can’t say that he’s modeled after him, because I didn’t actually know my grandfather; he died before my parents even met. But I think the strong belief and the desire to do something about it probably comes down a bit so you think of a story that presents a delicate and powerful moral dilemma.
You see, what must Joseph do when he realizes this man has been murdered? First of all, he’s 35 or 36, as opposed to seventeen, eighteen, or nineteen which many of the men are, and they look to him for a moral lead. They see a chaplain who professes to believe in God-it was a more innocent age then-and if he does not do the right thing and stand up for the right thing no matter what, if his morals are capable of being bent to suit the situation, then what is it we’re fighting for? He has to. He’s holding the light for all of them. That’s an awful burden. So if he does not stand up for the right regardless, then he is betraying them in a way that would be unlivable. So he has to work out the right thing to do, and yet if this wretched young man had got back, he could have cost the country its victory, or even its survival. And the problem gets worse when he discovers who it was who did it. Joseph eventually ends up on the beaches of Gallipoli where he meets another journalist who is going to write up what a fiasco Gallipoli was. And now Joseph is facing the same situation. How do I stop this man from doing this? I can’t let him do it, but I can’t kill him. And obviously Joseph is a very decent man, so what do you do? These are the dilemmas that make a story strong. There isn’t any easy answer and yet you’ve got to do something. You can’t let it go by default.