Eric Reed is the pen name of the historical mystery team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. Their Grace Baxter World War II series is set in rural Shropshire, and their Lord Chamberlain series is set in and around the sixth century court of Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. They also write as M.E. Mayer for the British editions of their Lord Chamberlain series. Today they sit down with us for an interview. Learn more about Mary and Eric at their website and blog.
When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
It was not a sit down and consider the idea decision. Rather the notion crept up on us gradually. Our original co-written fiction was in the form of short stories with various protagonists, and after several featuring John were published, it suddenly occurred to us it might be an idea to write a full-length adventure about him. So we did and the result was One For Sorrow, the first entry in the Lord Chamberlain series.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
Not long, as far as novels go. We sold One For Sorrow to Poisoned Pen Press within a year of finishing it. We were very, very lucky. On the other hand we had both spent a lifetime writing, and selling, first nonfiction of various sorts and then short fiction. So we weren't exactly overnight successes or child prodigies.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author?
Where do you write?
In an upstairs room we share as an office and general living quarters. Fortunately we get along quite well despite the cramped space. Also the knives are all downstairs in the kitchen.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
We usually don't listen to music when writing fiction. For his part Eric has a hard time pushing music into the background. It engages his attention and takes his mind off the writing. However, we often play music when we're researching, or tossing ideas around, or jotting down ideas. We listen to just about everything but grand opera and rap, unless you consider Twenty-One Pilots rap. So one day it might be Frederick Delius, the next Lady Gaga or Phil Ochs. Lately we've been
playing brand new albums from Blondie and former members of the Kinks Ray and Dave Davies.
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular?
Ruined Stones is set in an area of Newcastle close to the one in which Mary grew up -- close enough in fact to be able to take a detour when walking to school to visit the scanty ruins of the Roman temple playing a large part in the plot. So a great deal of the background of the novel, including dialect, societal norms, and locations, is based upon her memories of living in the city as a youngster.
The local inhabitants are not based on real persons but rather on the sort of personalities found in all large industrial cities. As local minister Mr. Elliott puts it when talking to Grace, who hails from a rural area of Wiltshire, "...I think you’ll be impressed how my parishioners help out neighbours in need without being asked. You’ll find they have rough tongues and tend to be judgmental, but when misfortune strikes, they’re around unasked with kind words, bringing food and offering help in any fashion they can, from loaning baptismal gowns for the new baby to laying out the dead.”
Describe your process for naming your character?
For our Byzantine novels we consult lists of Roman names that were popular during the sixth century, drawn from histories, literary texts, inscriptions, and miscellaneous written sources. Some of the names for characters in the Lord Chamberlain mystery we are currently writing, set in Rome, come from inscriptions recorded in a late Victorian book about the catacombs.
To avoid confusion we try not to use too many names starting with the same letter, or which sound similar. It's amazing how many Roman names ended in "us" or "a".
For the same reason we mostly avoid the Romans' complicated three part naming system and just identify characters by one of their names. By the sixth century this system was, in fact, beginning to break down and many Christian names familiar to us today were in use. We prefer shorter to longer ones, although we might give minor characters one of the alphabet soup type just for historical flavor.
For our books set in Newcastle Mary avoided names of people she knew.
Real settings or fictional towns?
The Lord Chamberlain novels are based upon research into sixth century Constantinople plus a dash of imagination for the locations and descriptions of various buildings required for the plot, both on and off the large area occupied by the court. Some structures from that time such as the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) are still to be seen so are easy to integrate.
Mary grew up in Newcastle and Eric spent four years going to school in New York so we are both familiar with the ambience of big cities. The dangerous dark alleys of Constantinople down which John ventures are not unlike the dim, deserted corridors of the Port Authority Eric passed through during his time in New York.
In the case of Ruined Stones, some of the novel takes place in real locations in the city, but the two streets of terraced houses in which much of the action takes place are inventions of our own, albeit based upon the housing in which Mary's family lived. The reason for this is explained in our afterword: easily accessible census records list everyone in every house in every area, and by placing our characters in an actual location there was a chance we would press-gang real city residents into service on the fictional ship Ruined Stones.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has?
Helias, maker and repairer of water clocks, appears in Seven For A Secret. He also offers a good line in sundials, but is afraid of shadows. Thus his emporium is underground and as far as possible he avoids being outside because, as he tells John, shadows "... trip you up. Nasty things, they are. They move fast." Helias is so afraid of shadows that one scene depicts his agonized attempt to cross a sunny courtyard by walking backwards with his eyes shut.
What’s your quirkiest quirk?
We're both extremely private people who don't like to discuss things like our quirkiest quirks. :)
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
EM: This is a puzzler. The obvious, crass, answer is that I'd love to have written this or that bestseller because then we'd be free to do whatever we wanted. The slightly less crass answer is that it would be great to have written some classic of
literature because, hey, being hailed as a literary genius must be pretty neat.
And, sure, I've often finished a book and immediately thought, wow, I wish I'd written that. But what I really meant was that I wish I possessed the level of skill to write that because then I could apply that skill to writing my own book, that no one else could have written but me.
MR: A difficult question! Today I would say Ethel Lina White's Wax, in which the waxworks plays an unexpected part and which features one of the most ironic endings I've read in recent years.
Everyone at some point wishes for a do-over. What’s yours?
We are agreed it might have been a good idea to adopt Eric Reed as our pen name first time out, although in that case we would have to choose a different name for the Grace Baxter series. Which might have been difficult as Mary Mayer suggests a different kind of fiction -- although there's a certain ring to it.
Eric wishes we had chosen a more popular era for our mysteries. We both find the early Byzantine period fascinating but it doesn't catch the public imagination the way many other historical settings do.
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Eric claims to have a whole menagerie of peeves. And they escape and run wild too often. Better just to leave them alone.
For Mary it's people who are unkind.
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves?
MR: a solar-driven desalination machine, the Oxford English Dictionary for reading matter, and a large box of tinned food with a tin opener.
EM: Mary, Mary, and Mary.
What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
Mary recalls her first job with less than affection. She was in a typing pool and confesses she was really glad to climb out of it when promoted to secretary in another office.
Eric worked for thirteen years as an editor/writer for a large legal publisher, which shall go unnamed. The atmosphere was poisonous enough to corrode a person's soul and it often did. The place was run by backbiters, all trying to scramble over each other to the top. It was a branch of the corporate flow chart of Dante's Inferno. Being caught in a downsizing and cast out into the freelance world was the best thing that ever happened to me.
What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
MR: The title will naturally vary from day to day but currently it's Mary Roberts Rinehart's Locked Doors. The denouement is startling and yet it fits as to why children are locked in their bedroom at night, the reason all the carpets and most of the furniture in the house have been removed, what led to all the servants being dismissed, and more.
EM: Each book is unique so there's no real way to compare them to say which is the "best." If I were forced to choose I would pick J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It's an epic that I first read as a teenager and loved just as much when I re-read it last year a lifetime later.
Ocean or mountains?
MR: If I must choose, it would be the ocean. It's been years since I saw the sea. When I still lived in Newcastle we used to take the train to go down to the coast on sunny Sundays. And what memories of those trips! Brisk breezes off the North Sea, gathering shells and seaweed from rock pools, paper cones of winkles eaten with pins, older relatives paddling in the water with their skirts hitched up or trousers rolled up to the knees, etc.
EM: If Mary insists on living by the sea what choice do I have?
City girl/guy or country girl/guy?
MR: City girl originally, now a country girl undergoing a crash course in such rural arcana as septic systems and wells.
EM: I grew up in the suburbs so I'm neither here nor there. There was still a scrubby little undeveloped patch of trees my friends and I grandiloquently called "the woods" which would probably count as country these days. My family eventually moved farther out to a house at the base of a wooded mountain and I loved hiking around alone with my own thoughts except for an occasional passing fox. On the other hand, I loved the excitement of the city when I lived in New York. There was something new around every corner. But I hated the noise that went with the excitement even then and it would probably kill me now.
What’s on the horizon for you?
We have just begun writing the next Lord Chamberlain novel, set in a besieged and largely deserted Rome, although there are still enough villains to go around, both inside and outside what remains of its walls. Thus the horizon is still a bit hazy as to details but hopefully it'll clear up soon!
In 1941 policeman's daughter Grace Baxter, now a member of the Women's Auxiliary Police Corps, moves from her home village in Shropshire to Newcastle-on-Tyne, northeast England.
Grace is eager to explore city life. And she's turned professional with an official job in the city's constabulary. The war means women can find work, even if most men on the job discount if not actively resent her.
Grace's arrival coincides with the discovery of the body of a young woman, curiously difficult to identify, at the scanty ruins of a Roman temple situated across from a church. The bone-numbing cold, the fogs, and enemy bombing, not to mention the peculiar behavior of some of the citizens, test Grace's resolve to be an effective officer. There are many potential leads, and much suspicious behavior to sort through. What role do ancient rituals play in the murder and what follows? What current misbehavior or crimes is someone desperate to cover up? The investigation, carried out through fog and blackout and fear as well as the hostility of her colleagues, tests Grace's resolve to be an effective officer. Will it also endanger her life?