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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Sharan Newman

I have been a long time fan of Sharan Newman, who wrote the Catherine LeVendeur series set in 12th Century France. She is now embarked on a new series set in 1868 Portland, Oregon, as well as writing non fiction. Her latest non fiction book is The Real History Behind the Templars. And of course, she is a frequent Aunt Agatha's visitor, as she will be again this Mother's Day.

Q: First of all, why did you choose this particular time period and this particular place?
A: The place came first. I grew up in Portland and recently realized how little I new about the history of the town. I picked the time after doing some research. Just after the Civil War, things were jumping in Portland.

Q: As you know, I've been an avid fan of yours for a long time. It's fun to see some of the same themes carried over from the Catherine books to this new series. One of them is a feminist - but still non-anachronistic - heroine. Is setting the book on the west coast in that time period a bit freeing as far as your main character is concerned?
A: The suffragist movement was already 20 years old in 1868. So Emily is a bit behind the curve. But certainly women were more likely to do non-traditional work in the "frontier" towns. If the series goes to several books, I'm bringing in Abigail Scott Duniway. A strong voice form women's rights in Oregon in the 1870's.

Q: Another similarity - I don't know if you planned this or not - is that both central characters are kind of insiders / outsiders. Catherine LeVendeur is an insider as a merchant's daughter, but as she later discovers, she is also a Jew, which makes her an outsider. Emily Stratton is also an insider - she is a partner in her dead husband's company - but she's an outsider too, having spent her life in China. Of course this is a useful set up for any mystery character, but in your case, the set up seems more detailed and thought out. Can you talk about that a little bit?
A: I am interested in people who are caught between cultures, or forced to adapt to different ones. But I think that in some way almost everyone feels that they are outsiders. The ones who don't tend to be terribly close minded towards the rest of humanity.

Q: How did you discover the tunnels under Portland? What a great set up for a mystery. I can't believe they are real.
A: There is an ongoing debate about what the tunnels were actually used for. I've toured them and you can too, if you like.

Q: Another thing I have always enjoyed about your books is that, while I always learn something while reading them, I never feel as though I am being "taught", and as though you have become so delighted with yout research that you feel compelled to share the information. In this book, I thought maybe there were some things you researched - shipping and sailing and China, for example, that you touch on but don't go into in depth. Is that something you might include in later installments?
A: First of all, thank you. It's hard not to put in really cool information turned up in research, but I try only to use what pertains to the story. Emily's experiences in China will be an ongoing theme. The next book will involve the coming of the railroad and the battle over who will control it. I'm learning more than I ever thought about the engineering side as well as the political side of the subject.

Q: It's also interesting to compare the 12th century Catherine with the 19th century Emily. In a way, Catherine almost has more freedom than Emily, and she doesn't have to wear such stupid clothes. Do you know who invented the hoop skirt, anyway?
A: I don't; it seems such a strange invention. Also at this time the trains on formal dresses were several feet long. People were always tripping on them but women continued to wear them. Catherine had a lot of freedom and rights that Emily didn't. Catherine could own property apart from her husband and she could run her own business and keep the money she made. Emily could do this only when she was widowed and for some women, not even then. I think that the women's rights movement began in the 19th century because it was one of the most oppressive times in history.

Q: There's also the different cultures at work in both series. In this novel I was fascinated by Emily's reliance on Chinese herbal medicines, for example. Eastern and Western ways of thinking are pretty different. Is that a difference you're going to continue to use?
A: Most definitely.

Q: What's next for Emily? Will she take over her husband's business? Don't give too much away!
A: Emily still has to contend with her husband's surviving partner but she does have 51% of the company. However she doesn't know much about running it and will probably make some mistakes. She'll also have to contend with a spiritualist in Portland who insists that she has a message for Emily from her late husband. Emily would rather not take it.

Q: Is it more fun for you to write fiction or history? Obviosuly there must be fewer constraints in fiction writing, but then you also have that pesky narrative and character thing to work out.
A: I love them both. When I do too much non-fiction, I get a yearning for dialogue. If I write only fiction, then I miss being able to tell the whole background. It's been wonderful to have the chance to do both.

Q: What do you start with, character, setting, or plot? I think you are incredibly strong as a narrative storyteller, but your characters are also wonderful.
A: I tend to start out with a situation and wonder how my characters would react to it. Of course, I have been known to start with a place just because I wanted to go there.

Q: For all the years I've known you, I've never asked you this - what mystery writers do you enjoy? Who do you consider an influence?
A: That's tough. From the classics, certainly Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton, I love his painterly style. Currently, there are so many: Elizabeth Peters, Charles Todd, Miriam Grace Monfredo, Jan Burke, Terence Faherty, Peter Robinson, Laurie King, Joan Hess, Rhys Bowen...I'll think of a dozen more after I've sent this. But the saddest thing about writing is that there is so much less time to read. I'm way behind on everyone.

And so, back to work! Thanks, Sharan.

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