With her new book due out in a few weeks, award-winning author Rhys Bowen took the time to appear at the Velma Teague Library in Glendale, AZ. She had an appreciative audience, eager to hear about her mysteries that have won Agatha and Anthony Awards.
Rhys said she normally starts a talk by saying that she kills people for a living. Her Royal Spyness is the first book in her third mystery series.
She said she wrote for the BBC in London. She decided to write mysteries, but didn't know where to set them. She appreciates the settings in mysteries. She's a huge fan of Tony Hillerman and his settings. She said the first time she and her husband were in the Southwest, she didn't need a map, thanks to his books. She couldn't decide where to set her books until she was telling a friend about her childhood visits to family in Wales. They really had a mailman who read everyone's mail. There were two Methodist chapels across from each other. The ministers were nice to each other, but they had a billboard war. Constable Evan Evans then appeared, her first mystery character. The series is about a little village in Wales with a community policeman. However, Evans is a little too polite for Rhys. Sometimes he annoyed her. She wanted to write about someone who didn't shut up and stood up for herself.
Rhys' visit to Ellis Island was the start of her second series. Immigrants coming in at Ellis Island either experienced great joy or great despair. There was a great feeling of despair there. There was a great deal of corruption at Ellis Island. She said she realized Ellis Island was the scene for the ultimate locked room mystery. Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy mysteries are about an Irish immigrant who fled from Ireland after she killed a man who tried to rape her. Molly knew that there would be no justice, since she had killed the landowner's son. She took a false name, and fled. While at Ellis Island, someone was killed, and the identity Molly took was on the list of suspects. Molly became a detective.
Rhys said that New York City was not the melting pot everyone thinks it was. In fact, it was broken into the Sicilian section, the Irish section, etc. It wasn't until the next generation went to school together that New York started to become a melting pot. Her new book, Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, is due out in March. Molly's detective agency has become successful. She has too many cases, and wants her ex-cop boyfriend, Daniel, to join her. One winter night, they walk in Central Park, and find the body of a young woman. While Molly waits with the body, the woman regains consciousness.. She survives, but she's lost the power of speech and no one knows who she is. In each Molly book, Rhys can dig into some of New York's story. This book is about New York theater and the lives of the chorus girls.
Rhy's agent at St. Martin's told her that she needed a standalone to break her out as a bestseller. Rhys didn't want to do dark thrillers with serial killers, the type of books that make the listss. She didn't want to live with those characters for six months. Instead, she suggested Her Royal Spyness, and other people loved it as much as her agent did. Recently, on DorothyL, a listserv for mystery readers, there were 1700 books submitted as the ones people enjoyed most in 2007. Her Royal Spyness was the third most popular on the list with readers. It has also been nominated for a Dilys Award for the mystery booksellers most enjoyed selling in 2007.
Georgie, the heroine in Her Royal Spyness, is thirty-fourth in line to the British throne. She's a minor member of the Windsor family, living in poverty, with no way to make a living. She's expected to marry some member of a European royal family. Queen Mary is the character that asks Georgie to be a spy for her. Rhys said she met Queen Mary when she was quite elderly. She was still a formidable woman, with a rigid posture. In this book, Queen Mary wants Georgie to spy on her son, David.
Churchill once said that they should erect a statue to Mrs. Simpson because if David had become king, he would have invited Hitler into England.
Rhys said Queen Mary collected antiques, and was known to comment when she visited people, so they were obliged to present her with the antique she had admired. Rhys was born in Bath, and there were a number of antique stores there. Queen Mary had been known to raid antique stores, so the owners hid their better items if they knew she was coming.
She said that Her Royal Spyness was her most autobiographical book. There's a scene with Georgie going to tea with the Queen, when Georgie was living on very little food. It was a gorgeous spread, however, guests could only eat what the Queen ate. Rhys said she once went to tea with Queen Elizabeth II, who was always watching her figure. Since she only had one piece of brown bread, that was all her guests had. She said she's often thought that Elizabeth didn't know about that because she was a very kind woman, who would have wanted her guests to enjoy the food.
Rhys said, like Georgie, she had a brief and disastrous career as a model, and Georgie's scene is from Rhys' experience.
She said she married into an upper-class family, and there were lots of servants at the houses they visited. She said there is still very much a class system in England. Rhys went to a sherry party in the Cotswolds, and the talk of the party was that a grocer bought the house across the way. Upper-class families feel they are there by the grace of God, and everyone else is there to serve them. Among aristocracy, you are one of us or not one of us. That's still the way it is.
The second book in the Royal Spyness series is due out in July, and it's called A Royal Pain. The Queen is still trying to get her son away from Mrs. Simpson, so she invites an eighteen-year-old Bavarian princess to visit. She then tells Georgie that the princess will stay with her. The problem? Gerogie is living by herself in her family's London house without any servants. How can she explain that when the princess arrives with her retinue?
The setting is the 30s, a time of turmoil in Europe. Germany had strong Communists as well as the Nazis, fighting to take over the vacuum in Germany's government. There were Communist marches in England. Then there was Oswald Mosley, a fascist leader with a group of Black Shirts who skirmished with the Communists in London.
When asked about using real people in her books, Rhys said she uses suitably dead people, but she does try to be true to who the people were. In one Molly book, Mark Twain supported women's suffrage. She thought that was appropriate because he had made a speech about it, in the same time period as the Molly book. She said the Royal Family is fair game to use in books.
Rhys was asked about her books being published in England, and she said cozier mysteries are virtually dead in England. They publish dark, psychological mysteries such as those by Val McDermid and Minette Walters. She said she hasn't sold Her Royal Spyness in England.
She said she's a glutton for punishment, and wrote ten books in the Evan series. She didn't chose to end it, but the backlist went out of print, so she saw no reason to continue. Tell Me, Pretty Maiden is the seventh in the Molly series, and she's signed for two more. She's glad she moved on. The only problem with a series is you're tied to the same set of characters. She has a whole new scope of crime in her new series, with interesting crimes.
Rhys said her problem is she has too many ideas. She tells people if they have writer's block, then you're trying to make your characters do something they don't want to do. Her characters go in different directions than she expects. For instance, her next Molly book will be called In a Gilded Cage. In that one, she had no idea what would happen. Molly was participating in a march, but Rhys had no idea that a woman would be dragged out of the march, and a fight would ensue.
She said she can't outline because she likes to be surprised. She wants her sleuths to be believable. Her sleuths don't know where they're going, just as she doesn't know where they're going.
Rhys writes two books a year. She writes every day. She starts the day with her email, and then works. She writes five pages a day in her first draft. She gives first drafts to certain people, and then she polishes them.
She's polished up Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, and that next Molly book will be released March 4. I'm grateful she took time to talk to the audience at the Velma Teague Library before she goes on tour for her new mystery.
Watch for my contest featuring autographed copies of the first Molly book. I'll be holding it in a couple weeks.