In September, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Emilia Bernhard, whose book “Death in Paris” I had reviewed not long before (see my review here). We spoke about inspiration, creating characters, and future plans for Rachel and Magda. Ms Bernhard hails from the US, but is now living and teaching in the UK.
Stop and Smell the Pages: So, how did you end up in the UK?
Emilia Bernhard: The simple answer is, I just wanted to be here. I had some connections at Cambridge, so I got a job teaching writing there, and that was enough to live on until I got a real job teaching English Literature.
SSTP: You’re living in Bristol now, right?
EB: Actually, I live in Exeter.
SSTP: Oh, right! Did your cat move there with you or did you get him later? I noticed you named him after a son of the city (English poet Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate for 30 years. He wrote a children’s story, The Story of the Three Bears, which served as inspiration for Goldilocks)
EB: Robert Southey, who is indeed a Bristolian, really, really, really loved cats; he was a huge lover of cats. He’s a terrible poet, really terrible, but I’ve always been fond of him because of his love of cats. So when I knew I was going to get a cat, I decided to call him Robert Southey – he’s just called Bob, actually.
And now he’s got a companion cat who’s named Humphry Davy. Humphry Davy was a scientist of the same era as Robert Southey, so I thought I’d keep it in the family. (Humphry Davy invented, among other things, electrochemistry, and nitrous oxide owes its nickname, Laughing Gas, to him. While living in Bristol, he became friends with Southey)
SSTP: I like that! So, one interesting thing about your novel is that as an American living in England, you chose Paris as the setting for the book. How did that happen?
EB: I have hypothesis that everybody has another country that’s not the country they were born in and not the country that they live in, and when I went to Paris, I was just very comfortable there. I used to spend a lot of time there; in the summers, when I would come to England for research, I would stop over in Paris for a couple of days. So I knew enough when I started writing the novel to set the novel there, but I did have to go back and spend more time there.
SSTP: I think you mention in the back of the book that you had to go and do a lot of research for the street layouts and those kinds of things.
EB: (laughs) I did! I have zero geographical sense; I always tell people I could get lost walking around the block! I would go to Paris and I’d walk, like I walked the First Arrondissement. When I got home, I’d be able to tell you where I had walked and the whole path, but I had no idea what the street names were, so I had to use Google Satellite. That thing is an author’s gift! It’s weird, you can get so close. It’s not like you forget you’re not there, but you can get so close that it’s weird that you’re not there.
SSTP: Another thing I liked about the novel was that your protagonists are just two regular women. There’s not the usual cop with a chip on his shoulder or anything like that. How did that come about?
EB: That was a conscious choice. I’m 50 and I wanted the people in the book to be an age that I could write with some understanding, but also an age you almost never see in books. You see women who are fifty and above, and you see women who are maybe in their thirties, but you don’t see women who are in their forties. There aren’t a lot of women in books, generally, who don’t have children. I don’t have children, and so I wanted them not to have children. They are based very loosely on me and my best friend. I knew I wanted the heroine to be married, to have somebody to kind of balance her out, but I also knew that I wanted her to have a very specific kind of equal marriage. I didn’t want her to have his last name, I wanted to show a kind of woman that, at least at the time, which was three years ago, and I think still now, you just didn’t see very much of in books.
SSTP: Yes, that is true. I was also happy to see that you kind of hinted at possibly writing a continuation of your Death in Paris series. Are they going to be the same people in a similar setting?
EB: Oh yes! It’s planned as a whole series of books, at least three, and I would hope more. It’s planned , for example, that Rachel’s husband, who only comes in and out in the first one, plays a larger role in the second one, and people who appear in this first book will also appear in later ones. The idea is to build a kind of a world, like Agatha Christie with Hastings. It’s not just Poirot, he also comes with various other characters.
A very big part of that is, when I got an agent and it looked like the book was going to be a real thing, I decided that throughout the series every person who was in a position of power would be female. With the exception of the police detective- it was too late to change that- in this mystery and all forthcoming mysteries, anybody that they have to deal with who has a power role will also be a woman.
SSTP: That was another point I really enjoyed, a lot of strong women characters who aren’t bystanders to the whole plot.
EB: You know, just recently in England a couple of women, I think it was newspaper critics, got together and started offering an award for Best Mystery in which no woman is killed or raped or assaulted, because they felt that the women that you see in mysteries, that’s basically what they do, they’re the victim.
SSTP: You kind of hinted at where the idea for the murder came from. It isn’t, as Law and Order used to say, “ripped from the headlines,” but it is based on a real instance, isn’t it?
EB: Sort of. Not the specificity of the murder, but that murder just seemed so weird. I understand why you would kill someone if you weren’t in their will, you’d be overcome with rage and then you’d do that, but if you were thinking at all rationally, it just seems like a weird choice. I’m working on the second novel right now, and in both cases, the solution to the mystery has been about emotion.
SSTP: How did you come up with the means of your murder, though? Chucking someone off a balcony may not be that unusual, but drowning in a vichyssoise certainly is.
EB: That happened because I wanted to make the joke! That he’d died in his sleep, when he’d actually died in his soup. The real difficulty was figuring out how someone could actually die in their soup, so the joke kind of forced all the rest of it. [One of the other murders], I just wanted to write a scene where someone had been bashed over the head. I’d read an article about different kinds of mysteries: cozy, light, thriller, suspense, there’s all these different categories. And it said that in the cozy mystery, they never really describe the body, so I was like, “well, mine is not a cozy mystery, so I will describe the body!” As a writer, there’s just some things that you want to write. And the soup thing just made me laugh every time I read it.
There was an episode of CSI where a woman dry-drowns. And that is why there is a scene in the novel where Rachel calculates how much soup is in the bowl.
SSTP: I’m assuming you probably did more research on this than going back to old television shows.
EB: Well, I did a lot of research at various points, things like, how deep is a soup bowl. I actually measured soup bowls. I took a deliberate trip to Paris to figure out the area. But I did a lot of research backwards. For example, when I was in Paris, I didn’t know there’d be a scene where they take a taxi cab. When I got home and wrote that scene, I had no idea what a cab in Paris looked like. The internet was my best friend. I don’t think I could have written this without the internet.
SSTP: For your police inspector, did you have anyone you talked to about police work? Or was he going to be a minor character so that you could just say ‘we’ll have him come in when we need him to’?
EB: Basically! To be honest, I’m pretty sure I got some stuff wrong. I just have to hope that nobody who actually knows anything about French police work reads the book. I’ll have to try and get that right in future. He’s just a generic policeman in this book. And also, the women are very excitable. They can’t believe their luck, having watched all those true crime shows, that something strolls along. I needed to have somebody who sort of knew what was actually plausible, and somebody who was just very calm, and he was designed to do that.
I really love the scene where he makes Rachel another cup of tea, because up until that point, I was like “I don’t really know what this guy is here for”, and then he was there to kind of take her seriously in a way that maybe she doesn’t even take herself seriously.
SSTP: Now that we’ve talked about it, it’s more noticeable that there aren’t many male characters in there that have much of a role, but it still feels like a very balanced book. Alan being there to ground Rachel a bit and perhaps to stifle her enthusiasm about the murder, and the policeman coming in and saying “this isn’t really how we can go about things,” I think that worked out really well in the novel.
EB: Well, thank you, first of all. And second of all, that’s partially down to my editor because she noticed that in the unrevised version, Alan is actually a lot more unpleasant. That’s odd, because in life, I socialize more with men than women, but apparently, on paper I have trouble capturing men. I could really only make them sort of patronizing. If it weren’t for my editor, I don’t think Alan would be a calming influence. There’s not much to him, but he’d be even less rounded. He comes into more prominence in the next book, he takes a more active role, so he gets a little more fleshed out there. I need to write a lot more men to get used to writing men.
SSTP: Since you are teaching at the moment, I would imagine that for a good chunk of the year you’re fairly busy anyway; how do make sure you have time for writing? Do you have a routine or do you just try to fit it in whenever you can?
EB: A bit of both. As I said, I don’t have any children and I don’t have a partner, and I think it’s important to recognize how much free time that leaves you with. I don’t want people to think that I have some fantastically organized schedule because I don’t; I just don’t have anything else to do. But at the same time, you make a good point because when I’m teaching, I can’t do writing. So what I try to do, and I’m trying to do even more this time, is complete a first draft during the summer. Then while I teach, I can revise.
What also makes it easy is, I try to write 1000 words a day. Graham Greene did this, he did it all in one sitting. You just sit down and then you don’t get up until you’ve finished. That I cannot do, but I try to write a thousand words a day. I try to do a rolling outline, meaning I know where a story’s going to go up to a certain point, and that makes it much easier to write it. I’ll write up to the point that I know, then I’ll take two days off and have an idea for the next part and I’ll write that. I think Julian Barnes once said that the only things writers like better than writing is finding excuses not to write, and in my case that’s certainly true. Up until adulthood, I never really stuck at anything, so this is a change for me. I really do stick at this, and I think it’s because it’s the thing I’ve always wanted to do.
SSTP: How long was “Death in Paris” in the making?
EB: As Mr Monk would say: here’s what happened… I got dumped. Right before I got dumped, I had this novel that I had been holding on to for years and years, and I sent it out to every agent in England. Then I went to America – I was there visiting- and when I returned to England, I got broken up with. A couple of days later I got this email from the woman who would become my agent, Laura MacDougall, and the email said ‘this novel is good enough to make me want to see whatever it is you’re working on now.’ I wrote to her and I said, ‘here’s ten pages (which was all that I had) of this mystery that I’ve just started to write.’ She wrote back and said ‘I would like to see the rest of this.’ And I said… ‘there is no rest of this.’ Then I thought to myself, well, I just got broken up with, it hasn’t destroyed my life, but it’s not something I really want to think about, so I could just focus on writing the rest of this book. So, I wrote back to her and said, if you give me six weeks, I’ll give you a first draft. That’s how long the first draft took. But after that… it was not a good first draft. I feel like anybody who is a writer should know that: all first drafts are terrible. In my experience, all you’re doing is to write the first draft so you can finish the first draft and revise it. It’s the revision where all the fun stuff happens. So after that, it took basically two to two-and-a-half years to revise it. I’ve never been good with plot. I’m really good with characters and description, but the long bit in the middle where stuff has to happen, I’ve never been good at that. I’m still not good at it! There was a period where we sent it out and nobody wanted it. I said to Laura, send me all the comments, which she did, and everybody said ‘it really doesn’t have much plot.’ That was pretty close to the end of the two-and-a-half years. For a while, it seemed to be done, and then it needed to be revised. They still sit around and talk an awful lot.
SSTP: I felt that it still had a very good pace, though. Even if they sit around and talk, the reader gets to know the characters, and now that you’ve said you’re working on the next book, the reader will already know what these people are about before you get there.
EB: That is a good point. If it wasn’t billed as a mystery, it wouldn’t be such a big deal that they talk so much. But when something’s a mystery, people have certain expectations. Publisher’s Weekly called it ‘a comedy of manners’.
SSTP: For future books, should we eventually expect one of those this-time-it’s-personal novels, or is that a road you don’t necessarily want to go down? Even though, since Rachel used to know Edgar quite intimately, that has already happened in a way.
EB: I think of it this way: like you’ve said, these are just two ordinary women, there is no earthly reason why they should get involved in detection if it wasn’t someone that they knew. Now that they’re involved, they really like it. In the next one, they do get involved accidentally, but it’s not because they know someone. Essentially, Rachel just happens along right as there’s been a murder. In the third one, I’m not really sure, but I know that I want to have a firm base in which they progress as detectives, and then maybe bring it back to something more personal. It’s difficult. Are you familiar with “Midsomer Murders”?
EB: You’ve probably thought to yourself, the streets of that town must just be littered with corpses! I don’t want it to be that every friend Rachel ever had is murdered!
SSTP: Now that you’re published and you’ve started on the second novel, are you on a schedule when it should be finished?
EB: It should be finished by February, but the whole process takes much longer than anybody thinks. It will be out next October, I know that for sure. The first one is out in October of this year, the second one is out in October of 2019. You learn all sorts of fascinating things; my agent told me that there is this whole timetable for publishing. It just so happened that my book was accepted at a time that meant it would be published in autumn, and then they wanted a quick follow-up. And then of course when they have an author, they want to grow a following, so they like to get the first and the second [book] out quickly, and then there’s a breather.
SSTP: Are they going to send you on a reading tour?
EB: I would love that! I’ve always yearned to be a celebrity, so I would adore a reading tour. The difficulty is, if you’re a first-time author, you get two people in a bookstore as your audience. I don’t have the self-confidence to do that. The way the world of publishing has changed, there’s a lot more stuff online. They might want me to do some online publicity.
SSTP: How important IS a well-made cup of tea in the writing process?
EB: Extremely important! I would say a well-made cup of tea is essential to the living process. Not only that, but I’ll tell you how to make it, because I know that a lot of your readers will be American. Here’s the first thing: I’m sorry, America, but you’re getting it wrong. Bag first, then the water. I don’t know why, but that’s all that works. Ideally, the water should be boiling; you don’t put it in the microwave, you didn’t get it out of one those little spigots. Put the bag in the cup, add the water, leave it for ideally five minutes, although three minutes is good. Then add milk, if you happen to be a milk person. Ideally, you would add whole milk. In the UK, everywhere they’ve started using semi-skimmed, because people are fooling themselves into believing that that way they’re losing weight – so, whole milk, and you want it to turn a kind of fawn color. And you want to sit down with it and drink it slowly!
SSTP: How do you feel about lemon in the tea, though?
EB: I’m pro lemon! You obviously don’t want lemon AND milk, but it is especially good with Earl Grey.
SSTP: Thank you very much, I really enjoyed talking with you today!
EB: Oh, it was a joy!