Monday, October 02, 2006

In Conversation with Elizabeth George

Patty here...

Elizabeth George is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels featuring aristocratic Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley and his working class partner Barbara Havers. Her books have been nominated for the Macavity and the Edgar and have won the Anthony, the Agatha, France’s Le Grand Prix de Literature Policiere, and Germany’s MIMI award. Her books have been filmed for television by the BBC and can be seen in the United States on PBS’s “Mystery.”

Ms. George agreed to speak with NakedAuthors about her new novel, What Came Before He Shot Her, which was released on October 1, 2006.

Q: In your novel With No One As Witness you did something that few authors have the courage to do. You killed off one of your series characters. What led to your decision? Did you stop in the middle of a chapter and say Helen must die or have you been plotting her demise for a long time?

EG: I had known for quite some time that Helen was going to die, but I wasn't sure what novel it would take place in because I wanted her death to be thematically unified with the rest of the book. As I was writing With No One As Witness I saw that the death would fit into the story well. This plan—to kill off a major character—was an artistic decision. Writing a series instead of writing stand-alone novels requires the author to keep opening up the story of the lives of the continuing characters, not closing down the story of their lives. Killing off Helen Lynley effectively dropped a hand grenade into the characters' lives in that it created a situation in which I can now pick up any one of a number of threads to use in an ongoing story. With Helen alive, I would have been reduced to recounting the story of their growing family, which did not interest me. Helen dead allows me to examine Lynley in extremis and in recovery, which does interest me.

Q: When fans read of Helen’s death many went through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and now, hopefully, acceptance. How does it feel when the prose you write touches readers so deeply?

EG: I've long believed that it's the responsibility of the writer to make the reader feel something. I'm trying to do this with every novel I write. John Steinbeck describes novel-writing as a trinity, which only exists when the writer, the work, and the reader are present together. I subscribe to this philosophy in that I wish to engage the reader's emotions. I wish the reader to care deeply about all of the characters. So the fact that people reacted as they did told me I was successful.

Q: Your books are considered works of psychological suspense. What in your background and/or training compels you to delve so deeply into the human psyche?

EG: I've always been interested in the human psyche and in why people do what they do. I also have a master's degree in counseling, grounded in psychology.

Q: The settings in your novels are as evocative and deeply rendered as your human characters. What is your process for researching the locales in your novels and do you ever use the settings as a metaphor for the crimes committed there?

EG: Getting the setting right is a huge endeavor for me, and I frequently feel as if I haven't done the job I would like to do, especially when I compare what I'm doing with what Martin Cruz Smith does so consistently well in his books. I love novels with evocative settings. I may, however, have to resign myself to being a character writer instead of a setting writer. That said, I appreciate it when someone thinks I've done a good job with setting. My process of researching a setting is to go there and be there: taking photos, walking, taking notes, writing descriptions when I can, speaking into my tape recorder. I try to discover the telling details of a setting and I also try to discover what makes that setting different from other settings. In Cornwall, it's all about the mining industry and the fascinating geology.

Q: How far in advance do you plot your novels? Book to book? Or have you looked into the future and seen where they might end?

When I'm working on an individual novel, I plot out ten scenes at a time, which is generally as far as I can go. I know who the killer is, but I don't always know how my detectives are going to figure it out. I also don't know how the subplots are going to work out until I get into the rough draft. Sometimes I know what the next book is going to be (I was in the lucky position of knowing what the next two novels were going to be when I was writing With No One As Witness) but often I haven't the slightest idea.

Q: Many book titles these days are based on clich├ęs. What is the process you use to come up with your unique titles?

EG: I usually start with a single word that has something to do with the plot, like deception. Then I play around with it in different phrases until I come up with one that makes a statement about the novel and also has a metric flow to it. In my latest book that I'm working on, Careless in Red, I actually used that phrase to describe a character in the character analysis and as soon as I saw it, I knew it was the title of the novel.

Q: You have outlined your unique writing process in the book, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. At the beginning of each chapter you include excerpts from your daily journal. In one entry you state: “I received such an outstanding review for Deception on His Mind yesterday that it made me really nervous. Several reviewers have talked about the fact that they can’t wait to read my novels and that they’re a little scared before they read them that I won’t be able to maintain the quality I’ve had in them so far. Gee. They should be on this end of things if they’re feeling scared.” So after writing fourteen Lynley novels, numerous short stories, and a nonfiction book, is the fear still there?

EG: Absolutely. I expect that for any honest writer, the fear is always there. If someone isn't just churning out the same novel over and over again (changing the names to protect the innocent, as it were), then this has to be a scary process. As PD James once said, "When I finish one of these novels, I don't know how I did it and I don't know if I'll ever be able to do it again."

Q: You have long ago passed the stage in your career where you have to do anything but write novels. Why do you continue to teach aspiring authors?

EG: I see that as part of the great tradition of writing in the US. Here we have always passed knowledge of the craft along, which is why writing is alive and well in the US and moribund in some other countries.

Q: I once heard you challenge the notion that authors should write what they know by stating that if you had taken that advice you would be writing about a high school English teacher in Orange County. What is your advice today? What should writers write?

EG: I still adhere to the same philosophy. I believe writers should write about that which excites them. If they're just writing to get published or if they're writing in order to fulfill a reader's expectation, then so frequently their writing lies there inertly, neither engaging nor challenging the reader. People who are writing about something that interests them deeply or that they care about deeply usually turn out wonderful novels. The Constant Gardener is a good example of this. Wonderful book, big passion on the part of the writer, the incomparable John LeCarre.

Q: It’s becoming more and more difficult these days to get published and stay published. What are the qualities that turn a writer into a published author? And what must they then do to sustain a career over the long haul?

EG: At one time I would have said that the qualities of a writer that will get that writer published are talent, passion and discipline. But that was in the days when publishers were interested in sponsoring the career of a writer, which they knew would take some time to get off the ground. Now, however, there seem to be a lot of one-time wonders out there who get published because they have a groovy high concept that has Hollywood written all over it and Massive Sales written all over it as well. The writing is at best sophomoric and at worst ghastly but who cares because the pages keep turning and the pace is fast and people are buying the book like hotcakes because they don't have to think when they're reading it; they just have to go along for the ride. Thus for so many writers, what's required for a onetime publishing experience is a bang-up story that can be reduced to a single sentence, fast pace, and a motion-picture style.

However, this is not to say excellent writing, passion about the process, commitment to stay the course, and discipline do not get a person published because they do. Excellent writing will find a publisher eventually.

Staying the course and making a career out of it...I think this requires an enormous commitment on the part of the artist. The writer has to be willing to suit up and show up at the computer or the typewriter or the legal pad every working day and to stay there until the work gets done. It involves being willing to engage in publicity tours (which are exhausting, let me tell you), listen to criticism from editors, write and rewrite, and continue to challenge yourself and grow.

Q: It seems as if the trend these days for many authors is to take a break between series books and write a stand-alone novel. Have you any plans to do that as well?

I suppose many people will consider What Came Before He Shot Her a stand-alone novel. Right now I have no plans to do another because I have so much else going on.

Q: What is the title of your next Lynley novel and what if anything can you tell your fans about it?

EG: The book I'm working on right now is called Careless in Red and it takes place in Cornwall, in a surfing community. Lynley is featured in it, as is Havers. It takes place several months after Helen's death.

Q: What is the question you've always wanted to be asked in an interview but never have been?

EG: Why is the dachshund your choice of dog? Well, every human companion to a dachshund knows the answer to that!


  1. Wonderful interview but being a former student of Elizabeth, I am not surprised by her insight or her dedication to craft. If I had not taken a workshop with her, I would not be working on my fifth book nor would I have found an editor like the kind I have--one who is willing to stick with me and develop my career (despite the covers, I really don't write chick lit, just stories that apparently needed a marketiing tool). This interview is the Elizabeth George I came to know in class. She has vision, commitment and she is brave--things she asked us to also be in her class.

  2. Congratulations on your fifth book, Leann! Way to go. I often look back and reflect on all those teachers who inspired me. Makes me feel like a lucky duck.

  3. Patty,
    great interview, and what fun it must have been to pull this off. It's always refreshing when such a hugely successful author stays connected enough to the rest of the writing world that her comments ring true no matter what your own level of success is. Thanks to both you and Elizabeth for sharing.

  4. What I find so comforting about what she said is that at the end of the day, we writers all face the same insecurities. I find that very comforting.

  5. Hi, Patty -- this is a wonderful interview and I can't wait to discover how Lynley grows as a result of confronting Helen's death. Notice I am taking the advice you gave me when we met at B'con -- just jump in and comment! (You were with Louise and we were all exiting a funny session)

  6. Hi, Patty -- this is a wonderful interview and I can't wait to discover how Lynley grows as a result of confronting Helen's death. Notice I am taking the advice you gave me when we met at B'con -- just jump in and comment! (You were with Louise and we were all exiting a funny session)

  7. Liz! Yay! Welcome, welcome, welcome. It was great meeting you at Bcon. I don't know about you, but it was one of the funnest (is that a word?) times I've had at a conference. Hope to meet again at the next one.

  8. I have to admit that I found the comment about not wishing to write about Lynley's children interesting. Part of what I found intriguing about Inspector lynley was that I identified with him so closely. Well, beyond the British, titled, wealthy, blond and handsome type of minutiae, anyway. ;)

    We're both tall, okay?

    But I have to admit that I was happy for Lynley in his romance with Helen...though she may not have been "perfect" for him, Helen was still his consuming happiness.

    And as I identified so closely, I could see this loss being entirely devastating to him. It could take him years, even decades to work free of the loss. Retreating to isolation. I'm not going to mention how completely I could empathize.

    Of course, then I think "it's her character"...and laugh at myself a little.

    There is a reason that I have enjoyed the series so much, after all.

  9. Quiet, you've just uncovered decades of plot ideas. Maybe Lynley will find somebody on the rebound, somebody totally opposite of Helen, somebody who will make that stiff British upper lip tremble a bit. The possibilities are delicious.

  10. I couldn't help it. They were in my recycling bin. :(

  11. Patty, thanks so much for this terrific interview! I have been keeping Elizabeth's WRITE AWAY on my nightstand for a year now & refer to it often. It's always inspiring. But her remarks here about keeping a series alive by opening up the lives of the characters---I want to fax it to my editor!

  12. Nancy, thanks for stopping by! I'm right now reading Have Your Cake. Also, delicious.

  13. George is one of my favorite authors. Thanks for posting this interview.

  14. I am wondering if we find out what happens to the boy that is accused of shooting Helen. I felt so sorry for him

  15. Great interview, and I'm also quite glad I got it right about Helen's death - I KNEW you had a plan in mind! On behalf of all the UK fans (especially the Yahoo! Discussion Groups) well done Elizabeth, and we're all looking forward to reading "Careless in Red"!