A Conversation With Lyn Hamilton
by Claire E. WhiteAs a young girl, bestselling mystery novelist Lyn Hamilton
Using her vacations to travel to far-flung parts of the world, Lyn had just returned from the Yucatan when she had an idea for a mystery novel that revolved around the ancient Mayan calendar. She wrote at nights and on weekends, and finally finished the manuscript. The Xibalba Murders was purchased right away by Berkley Prime Crime in New York, and was nominated for the prestigious Arthur Ellis Awards for best first crime novel in Canada. The book features antiques dealer and amateur sleuth Lara McClintoch. Lara travels the world in search of the rare and beautiful for her store, finding more than a little murder and mayhem along the way. Each of the novels is set in a different, and exotic, location, and draws on the ancient past in a unique way. The Xibalba Murders was followed by The Maltese Goddess, The Moche Warrior, The Celtic Riddle, The African Quest, The Etruscan Chimera and The Thai Amulet. Her next mystery, The Magyar Venus will appear in hardcover for Berkley in May, 2004. Her books are known for their interesting plots, excellent writing and memorable characters. As the New York Times Book Review calls her writing "At once erudite and entertaining."
A long time student of archaeology and mythology, Lyn brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the series. She visits all of the exotic sites she writes about, and in 1999 led The Maltese Goddess mystery and archaeology tour to Malta to visit the scene of the crime. Lyn, like Lara, admits to being something of an antiques addict. She recently resigned from her position as the Director of Public Affairs for the Canadian Opera Company in order to write full-time.
Lyn's mysteries have been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and Russian, and will soon be available in Chinese. When she's not writing, you might find her traveling abroad to research her latest novel, whipping up a gourmet meal with recipes she's brought back from her travel or curled up with a good book. Lyn spoke with us about her latest book, The Thai Amulet, her love for archaeology and how she created her popular sleuth, Lara McClintoch.
What did you like to read when you were growing up?
I have read mysteries as long as I can remember. I read the usual when I was young: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. My mother, who also loves mysteries, belonged to a mystery book club, so I got to read whatever was sent each month. I read all of Agatha Christie while still quite young.
My favorite kind of novel was one set somewhere I'd never been, somewhere far away and terribly different from my day to day life. I particularly loved Mary Stewart and Alistair McLean for that reason. I think when I started writing my own series, I unconsciously chose to set all my books in exotic places. I like the idea of a stranger in a strange land, where it's necessary to understand the place before you can solve the crime.
I still like reading mysteries, although I'm careful to not read them when I'm in the midst of writing one. Doing so does strange things to your own prose! All of a sudden Lara sounds like Kinsey Milhone.
Was there anyone who really inspired you or encouraged you to write when you were growing up? or at university?
You know, I can't recall anyone encouraging me to write. I was often told I should be a lawyer. I'm not sure why. In fact, writing fiction was the last thing I ever thought I would do. I did well at English composition in school, but I think everyone was as surprised as I was when I started writing mysteries. I was in the PR/communications business for a number of years, and wrote more newsletters, speeches and press releases than I care to remember, so presumably people thought I could write. But writing fiction seems to me to be a very different kind of activity. (Although some wags of my acquaintance tell me that my many years of writing speeches for politicians demonstrate a clear inclination toward fiction!)
|"I have always thought that we can learn a lot from ancient civilizations. For example, many of them came to an end because of some environmental disaster, in some cases self-inflicted, or because they misjudged the social forces at work in their time. Others had a kinder, gentler way of dealing with the world around them than we do."|
What did you study at university? How did that affect your career?
I took a rather eclectic mix of courses in university. While I majored in English, with a psychology minor, I took anthropology, sociology, philosophy, East Asian studies, whatever piqued my interest. I had the idea when I graduated that I wanted to work in book publishing, hence the English major. There were no jobs that I could find in that rather rarified profession, so I took a job as an assistant in architect's offices in Los Angeles. I was traveling after university, and happened upon the job. It was with a Canadian firm setting up practice in L.A.
While I was there, a PR consultant was rather aggressively pitching the firm's business, telling the senior executives of the firm that to get their work into the L.A. Times -- the Sunday Times real estate section, -- they'd have to hire him.
The president of the company suggested that given I had studied English, and presumably could write (a big assumption I must say) he would like me to write an article about the firm's work and send it to the real estate editor of the L.A Times.
I talked the firm into renting me a car, drove to the Times, got into the editor's office and told him he should be featuring the architectural firm I worked for. My article ran the next Sunday. I have no idea why. Perhaps it was my mini-skirt and rather disingenuous manner. But I decided there and then that this PR business was a pretty easy way to make a living, and I should pursue it. I was in PR for the next twenty years or so. I'm not sure I was ever as successful as that first time.
How did you become interested in archaeology and anthropology?
As a child I used to pour over pictures of the pyramids in Egypt and the temples of Greece, and always wanted to see them, and understand all about them. I took physical and cultural anthropology courses at university, but I never saw archaeology or anthropology as a potential career option. I didn't think I had the patience for it -- it can be painstaking work, indeed. I have often regretted that decision, because I've discovered there are many areas of archaeology that would have suited me just fine. I continued to take university level courses after I graduated, just for my own interest. I studied Egyptian hieroglyphics for a year or so, often took mythology courses, and so on.
I also traveled to all the places I had dreamed about as a child -- Egypt, The Dead Sea, Greece, Rome, Carthage, the Yucatan in Mexico. Again I did this for no other reason than that I was fascinated by these places. I have always thought that we can learn a lot from ancient civilizations. For example, many of them came to an end because of some environmental disaster, in some cases self-inflicted, or because they misjudged the social forces at work in their time. Others had a kinder, gentler way of dealing with the world around them than we do.
I was working in the Ontario government in the PR field, and saw the job posted. It was the position responsible for licensing of all the archaeology in the province, as well as museum programs, and built heritage conservation programs. I thought it was something of a long shot, but I applied anyway. I was interviewed by a panel of fourteen people! That's the government hiring process for you! Much to my surprise, I got the job. One of the archaeologists told me I'd taken more archaeology courses than he had.
At first I couldn't believe anybody would pay me to do this job, it was just so interesting and exciting. It was not long, however, before I came to realize just how hard it is to preserve the past. We seem to be much more interested in building a new shopping plaza somewhere, than protecting the site of first contact between native peoples and Europeans that was on that site originally, for example. I worked for several governments of widely different political persuasion, the last of which had absolutely no interest in heritage whatsoever. Existing heritage legislation tends to be woefully inadequate. It was a constant battle to protect shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, or 19th century industrial buildings or whatever. If my books could persuade someone to look more carefully at heritage, and give even a minute of thought before destroying it, then I'd be a very happy person.
What led up to the publication of your first mystery novel, The Xibalba Murders? How did you balance your writing with your day job?
I had just returned from a trip to the Yucatan, and as always I had visited Maya sites. I was trying to decipher the Maya calendar, in which every day has a glyph and a meaning attached to it. For some reason I asked myself whether it might be possible to write a contemporary novel where the action in the present might parallel the kind of day it would have been for the ancient Maya. I chose a Maya day to start that would give me a happy ending, and just started writing. When there was a day of knowledge, my character, Lara McClintoch, learned something. When it was a death day, I killed somebody. Eventually I ended up with three murders and a happy ending, just by following the Maya calendar.
I found an agent right away, and she, in turn, found me a publisher within a reasonably short time period. I had thought that writing a book was a significant lifetime achievement, and so was rather surprised, if not taken aback, when the publisher, Berkley Prime Crime in New York, wanted three books in the series. I already had an idea for a second book, however, one set in Malta, so off I went.
I have written eight now, and have a contract for three more. No one is more surprised than I. I have always had rather demanding day jobs, so I wrote weekends, particularly Sundays. I would start early and write all day, then have the week to think about what would happen next. It wasn't ideal, but I didn't have a choice. Recently I have started writing full time. I don't yet have a new routine, it's that recent.
One aspect of this business that surprised me was the amount of time the writer has to put into the promotion of the books once they are published. Fortunately I have had tolerant employers who were kind enough to let me take a leave of absence for a week or two at a time to do book tours etc.
What was the inspiration for The Thai Amulet?
The story revolves around antiques dealer Lara McClintoch. How did you first create the character of Lara? Were there any characteristics that you were particularly trying to avoid when you first created her?
The antiques dealer part was reasonably simple. A number of years ago I decided I would open an antiques store. I did all the research, including finding sources for the kind of product I wanted, I looked for suitable space, and so on. In the end I couldn't afford to do it, but I put the files away, being a packrat at heart, and when I was looking for a protagonist, I just got out the files and created the antique store I always wanted to have. Cheaper that way.
As for Lara, I wanted her to be a normal person. I wanted her to be brave, certainly, and self-contained, but not blasé or tough, or someone who takes unusual risks -- just someone who is fiercely independent, and has an interest in people and the places she goes, loyal to her friends, with an instinctive need to see justice done. I also wanted her to be fortyish, so that she would have lived a little, and be able to draw on that experience.
Lara has a pretty complicated love life: she is now in business with her ex-husband, Clive Swain, her best friend is dating Clive, and she's now in a relationship with a policeman with a teenage daughter. What is the most challenging aspect of the relationship element of the books?
|"I worked for several governments of widely different political persuasion, the last of which had absolutely no interest in heritage whatsoever. Existing heritage legislation tends to be woefully inadequate. It was a constant battle to protect shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, or 19th century industrial buildings or whatever. If my books could persuade someone to look more carefully at heritage, and give even a minute of thought before destroying it, then I'd be a very happy person."|
The relationship between Lara and Rob Luczka is more difficult for me from a plot perspective. Readers often ask me if she is going to marry Rob, and I understand why they want to know, even if I don't know the answer. I like to use the device of the journey, sending Lara off somewhere different and exotic in every book, where she has to figure out what is happening in a place where she has no real grounding -- the stranger in a strange land device I talked about earlier. That essentially assumes she is on her own much of the time. If Rob and she married, and he always came with her, for example, or expected her to phone home every day, then she wouldn't really be on her own. I'm still working on this one, as you can see, and I don't know how the relationship will evolve beyond what happens in the next book. I like to think the issues they wrestle with, though, are real ones, and have some resonance for people -- like the wicked stepmother role Lara sees herself playing in Rob and Jennifer's life.
How would you say Lara has evolved since the first book?
I think she's a little more cynical in some ways -- who wouldn't be after seeing what she has seen? She has had to make some moral choices in the books, and she tends to worry about them to the point they affect her relationships. She has also had to take on the responsibility of a teenager, and it doesn't come naturally to her. She certainly hasn't become any less stubborn!
The book is set in Bangkok. Have you spent much time there? What interested you most about using Thailand as the setting for the book?
I have been to Bangkok twice and would love to go there again. Like Lara, I love the place, despite its deficiencies. For one thing, it almost defines exotic. For another, it has a really interesting history, with successive kingdoms from north to south. Thailand, or Siam, for whatever reason, managed to avoid subjugation by imperial powers, in part through extraordinary diplomacy, and so it seems to me relatively untainted, if you will.
For every book I've written so far, I've chosen a place I have been and loved, where I know enough about the place to see the fictional possibilities. Thailand had so many possibilities, I had trouble narrowing them down.
You travel to some pretty exotic locations. Have you found travel to be any more difficult or dangerous since the Iraq war began? How has travel changed?
Until two years ago, I, like Lara, thought I could go pretty much anywhere any time I wanted. It is not just the Iraq war that has changed travel for me. I live in Toronto, and last winter and spring, we found ourselves in the middle of the SARS outbreak. While media reports about all Torontonians wearing masks were exaggerated, and even occasionally ridiculous, there were several countries where I would have been turned back at the border, or at best put in quarantine for several days under conditions I'd rather not think about.
As well, there are a number of places on my list to write about, all fascinating from a historical and archaeological perspective, that people, particularly North American readers, would no longer find appealing because of September 11, and the war. Most of these places I would no longer consider safe for someone like me to travel to anyway, so perhaps this is academic. I've found I have to be much more cautious than I would like.
Traveling to research these mysteries has always been a little odd, though. Where others are looking for the perfect beach, or oohing and aahing over art in a museum, I am looking for dark, damp nasty places to stash bodies.
I saw the Chaiwongs as a family whose secrets have essentially corrupted them. I didn't see this as Thai, particularly, rather that they were people -- and you can find people like them anywhere -- who strove to protect their wealth and their status at any cost. I think they wanted their son to stay home and marry someone of their choosing, and again, Thailand would hardly be the only place that would happen.
What surprised me about Thailand, as it possibly would others from as similar background, were the profound contradictions in the society. For example, Thailand is devoutly Buddhist, in many ways a very gentle and religious society, yet the sex trade and the pornography are highly visible, indeed appalling, particularly in Bangkok. It has some of the most beautiful buildings and temples you can imagine, yet there is tremendous squalor. It is a very ancient culture, with ancient traditions, and yet it is so modern in many ways. I had a sense that there was so much beneath the surface that I didn't understand. But that is what makes it so fascinating!
In The Thai Amulet, Lara agrees to try to find antiques dealer William Beauchamp, who has disappeared from Bangkok without a trace. Although Beauchamp is missing, he's a very strong character in the book, nevertheless. His presence is felt quite strongly. How did you create the character of William?
I originally saw William as a mere excuse for Lara to go to Thailand. She travels to a different place in every book, and has to have a reason to go, and not always just because she wants to get something for the store. Lara has a highly developed moral code that is easily offended, so I sent her off to Thailand to find a dead beat Dad who had left behind a wife and disabled child. That man was William Beauchamp.
For some reason, when I was in Thailand researching the book, the idea of
|"Traveling to research these mysteries has always been a little odd, though. Where others are looking for the perfect beach, or oohing and aahing over art in a museum, I am looking for dark, damp nasty places to stash bodies."|
The book alternates between present-day mystery and a fascinating parallel story from the past. What went into your decision to structure the book in this way?
I find that so much of my writing is intuitive rather than planned. As I mentioned earlier, I found the reference to the ancient story, a very obscure reference to a Queen Regent and a usurper, and was certain there was a story there if only I could find it. It took me months to do so, but once found, it was such a compelling story it drove the narrative in the present-day mystery as well as the past, to the point that the two stories almost parallel each other. In fact, if the present day mystery deviated too far from the ancient story, I couldn't write it. Scary, I know.
Can you give us a sneak peek into the next book in the series?
The eighth book in the series is called The Magyar Venus, and it should be out next April or May. It is set in Budapest and Northern Hungary, and the archaeological underpinning is a 25,000 year old mammoth ivory carving of a woman that is called The Magyar Venus. There are questions as to its authenticity, however, so for reasons I will not reveal, Lara heads to Hungary to try to prove it one way or the other.
The book I am writing now is set on Easter Island with those magnificent statues, and all the archaeological debate that goes along with them.
Let's talk about the creative process of writing. When starting a new book do you outline the plot first? Do you always know who the murderer is when you start the book?
I start with a place and an ancient culture I am interested in and know at least something about it. Usually I've taken a course in that culture, and with the exception of the book set in Hungary, I have traveled there previously. In other words, I know it well enough to know the murderous possibilities.
I spend about five months researching the archaeology before I really get into the writing. At some point in that research, something strikes me -- at least it has so far -- as a sort of umbrella concept for the book, something in the prehistory of the place that will inform the action in the present For example, in The Maltese Goddess it was goddess worship in the ancient Mediterranean; in The African Quest it was the story of a siege in Carthage. Only then do I start to write.
I do not outline. I simply take Lara, a person I have come to know well, and put her in the place, and in a situation that has come out of my research, and to a certain extent, wait to see what happens. It's not that simple, of course, but there is a certain element of that in my writing. I almost never know who the murderer is when I start. Fortunately, Lara is a better sleuth than I am, and so far has always managed to figure it out.
I am being slightly facetious here, but I do believe that writers tend to fall into one of two categories: those who write detailed outlines, and those who just start writing and work it through as they go. I think you have to know which of those categories you fit into, and just go with it. My attempts to write an outline, something I thought I should do, were very frustrating, and thoroughly unsuccessful.
What is your writing process like? Please take us through a typical writing day for you?
How would you say that you have changed as a writer since your first book was published?
You learn about writing books by writing them. I don't mean that to be cute. In genre fiction, there is not much in the way of editing done by publishers. If you've done something really glaring they will tell you. Otherwise, you just learn by doing. So every book is a learning experience, and I think I've learned a lot about pacing, and building character through action rather than description, for example, as I've gone along. Readers talk to you about the books, and their perceptions, and you learn from that too. You also learn from reviews, good and bad. I confess I still wonder, at some point in every book, if I can finish it.
One of the greatest challenges in writing a series is keeping the stories and characters fresh: something with which you never seem to have a problem. Are there any tips or tricks you can share about keeping it new?
Thank you for the compliment. I am fortunate to have happened upon an idea for a series where every book is set in a different place, and where the ancient history is, for me at least, endlessly fascinating. Varying the setting, introducing new secondary characters, throwing a curveball into the protagonist's life, are all devices that help. I have a sense, though, that as long as the author is interested in the characters and the stories they will stay fresh. We can probably all point to series that got stale. On the other hand, we can also point to many a series that seemed to get stale, but then revived, sometimes with the best book of all.
I think in writing a series, as in many activities in life, it's important to know when to stop, and for me that would be when I ceased to care about Lara and her adventures. I hope it never comes to that, but if it does, I hope I'll know enough to quit.
I understand that you will be the Writer-in-residence at the North Toronto Central Library this fall. What will this involve? Will you be critiquing manuscripts for aspiring writers.
I have just started my stint at the library, and I am really loving it. There is something called the Blue Pencil Room where authors can send twenty pages of their manuscripts to me for a critique. I've done a fair amount of this in the past and enjoy it. (It's always easier to see what needs to be done in someone else's work rather than your own, I'm afraid.) I will be meeting with each of the authors for a chat about their manuscripts. We expect to receive about 80 of them.
I am also going to be working with a small writer's group, and will give three public talks -- one on getting published in the mystery genre, one on research and the third on the history of the mystery genre.
When you're not writing, what are some of your favorite ways to relax and have fun?
Because I've always had a day job while I've written a book a year, I haven't had much spare time. Fortunately I love travel, mysteries, and archaeology, all of which were at one time my hobbies, so I don't feel deprived now that I'm writing about them. I dabble in photography, and I love music, especially opera. (Until a few weeks ago, I was Director of Public Affairs for the Canadian Opera Company, so I got to mix work and fun there too.) I also like to cook. All that food in my books isn't there by chance! When I start a new book, I get cookbooks from the country I'm writing about and try the recipes out on my friends. Some of these meals are more successful than others. Fortunately, I have adventurous and tolerant friends.
What is your advice to aspiring mystery authors?
When I was writing my first mystery, I sent my sister chapters as I finished them. All she ever said was "It's fine. Keep going." I think that was good advice. You just have to keep writing, and not give up, even though it can be really discouraging. You learn to write mysteries by writing them.