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Interview: January 19, 2007

January 19, 2007

Deanna Raybourn's debut novel SILENT IN THE GRAVE is a historical mystery thriller set in Victorian England, and is the first installment of an intended trilogy. In this interview with's Norah Piehl, Raybourn recalls what initially inspired the book's plot and explains why she chose to infuse an otherwise dark story with humor and quirky characters. She also describes the best and worst part of 14 years' worth of rejection letters, shares some of the classic novels that have influenced her, and discusses what she hopes readers will learn from her protagonist, Lady Julia Grey. SILENT IN THE GRAVE is set in Victorian England. Why did you pick that particular place and time period during which to set your first mystery?

Deanna Raybourn: This book started to germinate one cold winter's night as I sat propped up in bed, reading a book on poisons. A single sentence, relating the events of a case in 17th century France caught my attention, and I began to ask the "what if" questions that come at the start of every story. What if I changed the victim from a woman to a man? What if the death was mistaken for natural? And what if the sleuth was the victim's wife? Each question led to a dozen more, and within days I had built the bones of the story into a recognizable shape. It took two years and a research trip to London to add the flesh, but at last I had a novel, and characters I adored.

BRC: Your novel is filled with fascinating details about Victorian life --- mourning customs, etiquette, the relationship between servants and employers, and even Gypsy culture. What kind of research did you conduct to flesh out these details?

DR: Before I begin a book, I make a big collage board of images relating to visual images within the book, settings, clothes, etc. The pictures I found to represent parts of Grey House all had a very coldly perfect, uninhabited feel to them, exactly like a beautiful stage set after the curtain has fallen and the audience has gone home.

BRC: Lady Julia is a fascinating character, both convincingly Victorian and yet modern enough to connect with readers today. How did you create her distinctive personality?

DR: Like many Victorian ladies, Julia Grey is trying to find her place within the rigid order of aristocratic society, or rather, she's trying not to find it. Julia is the daughter of the eccentric Earl March, and with her family's blessing, she embarks upon an expedition to unearth the real woman she has buried for so long. Trying on independence with her widow's weeds, Julia is at last becoming the reckless, headstrong March she was always afraid to be.

BRC: Lady Julia's story is not just about the search for her husband's killer; it also explores how Julia grows to trust and value herself as an individual. What messages does her self-discovery offer for modern readers, especially women?

DR: The process of self-discovery can be long and arduous. Sometimes, you don't even know you are looking for meaning in your life until you find it. I think this was the case with Julia. She had come to accept her situation in life, but when a set of circumstances presented itself, she knew enough to be brave and bold and fearless even though she didn't actually know how things would turn out. I think this may be a lesson for all of us. Take that opportunity you weren't even looking for and follow it. You never know what might happen.

BRC: Nicholas Brisbane is also a fascinating, mysterious (and really sexy) character. Did his character evolve as you were writing him, or did you see him as we see him now right from the start?

DR: Nicholas Brisbane was a delicious character to write. Where Julia simply appeared, fully-formed and bristling with self-determination, Nicholas stood in the shadows, waiting to be understood. Secretive and dangerous, he is completely unlike anyone Julia has ever met, and their attraction to each other adds a spice of intrigue to their investigation.

BRC: One of the pleasant surprises about your novel is the humor that pervades it. Why did you decide to include humor in what could have been a very serious mystery?

DR: I think a sense of humor is a very telling human characteristic that allows me to fully realize a character. It can also relieve tension in a scene and provide transition between scenes. So, for me, using humor is a natural thing as well as a useful structural tool.

BRC: The quirky, eccentric March family is definitely one of the aspects that contributes to the novel's humor. What did you most enjoy about creating this large cast of unusual supporting characters?

DR: The whole process of coming up with this large family gave me free rein to be outrageous and extravagant. The more I write these kinds of characters, the more fun I have. It is total creative freedom.

BRC: We felt there were parallels between your work and that of Jacqueline Winspear, especially in your handling of detailed historic references. Do you read a lot of mystery novels? Who are some of your favorite authors, whether or not they influenced your own work?

DR: Life is too short to read books you don't like, so any book I finish is one I wanted to read in the first place. Each of them has shaped me and, by extension, my work in some way. If I read gorgeous fiction, I try to figure out what makes it so appealing and how I can extend that technique into my own writing. If it is a nonfiction book, and I read lots of those, I try to incorporate what I've learned into my life, whether it's a new meditation or a philosophy that broadens what I believe. Every new book is an invitation down a new path. My favorite authors or books:

*Anything by Jane Austen. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and PERSUASION are my favorites, but really, they're all genius. I am continually astonished by Jane Austen. There is a precision about her writing that most authors can only aspire to.

*Anything by Elizabeth Peters, written under any of her pseudonyms. You cannot beat Peters for witty, fun mysteries that never stray into silliness.

*Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar mysteries. They are deliciously cerebral and very cleverly done. As a fan, I miss her terribly.

*TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, MARIANA, FOREVER AMBER, LONESOME DOVE, THE KING MUST DIE and I CAPTURE THE CASTLE --- wildly different books, but all have such perfectly rendered voices. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and LONESOME DOVE speak to my Southern roots. There are truths there that resonate with anyone raised in the South. MARIANA and I CAPTURE THE CASTLE manage to be both funny and heart-wrenching. There is a certain timelessness about them both. And they would say different things to a 20-year-old reader than a 40-year-old reader. I love that. FOREVER AMBER is larger than life. I read it 20 years ago, and I can still see so many of the scenes perfectly in my mind's eye. And THE KING MUST DIE is just glorious. Mary Renault did a superb job of grounding mythology in such a way that it becomes entirely believable. Her powers of description were unrivaled. That's really what ties all of these books together: a sense of place and a unique voice. There is an immediacy about great writing that puts you in the heart of the scene, and all of these books do that.

*WUTHERING HEIGHTS, because Emily Brontë was ruthless. Great writers are not afraid to break a reader's heart.

BRC: In the acknowledgments section of your novel, you mention that finding a publisher was a long process. Can you tell us, especially any aspiring writers, a little bit about how you came to find a publisher?

DR: I am about as far from an overnight success as you can get. I wrote my first novel when I was 23. It took several more manuscripts and 14 years' worth of rejection letters before I got published. The worst --- and best --- part of those rejection letters was that almost all of them contained some seed of hope. Almost every editor found something to compliment, and many of them read whole manuscripts before they decided to reject them. I was tantalizingly close to getting published for years before it actually happened.

Do not ever give up. Keep writing, write every day, and refuse rejection. If there is anything useful in the rejection letters, and there often is, use it and move on. Rejection is not always "no." Sometimes it is just "not right now."

BRC: The novel's ending hints at a sequel. What can you tell us about what's next for Lady Julia?

DR: I am putting the finishing touches on SILENT IN THE SANCTUARY, the second book in the Silent series. Then it's on to book three!

SILENT IN THE GRAVE (first in series) - January 2007
SILENT IN THE SANCTUARY (second in series) - January 2008
SILENT ON THE MOOR (third in series) - January 2009