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Author Interview: Sarah Stewart Taylor

See Aunt Agatha's American Cozy review page for reviews of Sarah Stewart Taylor's books, featuring art historian Sweeney St. George.

Q: The introductory chapters to each of your books, which are set in the past, are really effective. Have you ever thought about writing a straight historical?
A: Yes, definitely. I like historicals a lot and when I was working on O' Artful Death, I found that I really enjoyed writing about characters in the past, so I've kind of made the historical prologue a feature of the series. I like writing them because they get at one of the things that I love best about mysteries - the way in which they're so often about the past reaching up into the present with a cold clammy hand.

Q: I like how Sweeney's backstory is slowly emerging - will we learn more about her mother in later books? I really liked the character of the aunt in Mansions of the Dead - it made me want to know more.
A: Yes, poor Sweeney has a very complicated (and presently nonexistent) relationship with her mother, but the lovely and wild Ivy Williston-Mount will definitely be taking on a bigger role in future Sweeney St. George mysteries. Sweeney's Aunt Anna was kind of a surprise to me - I meant to make her a very small character and in spite of me she asserted herself and became a fairly important one. I like her no nonsense way of looking at the world and I like how she handles Sweeney's quirks and neuroses. She's an important link to Sweeney's father, too, and he'll be showing up in future books as a kind of ghost out of Sweeney's past, a ghost who will demand that she face up to the facts (and the outstanding questions) about his suicide in Mexico when Sweeney was 13.

Q:Are there any actual professors who teach courses in gravestone iconography? It's SO perfect for a mystery heroine, but it seems slightly limited in reality.
A: It's a small field, but there are people who specialize in it. Some are art historians, some are anthropologists or archeologists and some are historians. There are also a lot of non-academics who have become experts in gravestone art - hobbyists, genealogists, and people who serve on their town's cemetery committee or whatever. I got the idea for the series when a wonderful exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London called "The Art of Death". It was curated, I believe, by a Sussex University Professor named Nigel Llewellyn. There are some Americans who are experts in American gravestones - Allan Ludwig is one. This stuff is just so fascinating to me. Mansions of the Dead focuses on gravestones and the history of the Mount Auburn cemetery, and on hairwork mourning jewelry. I loved learning more about this somehow touching (though admittedly creepy) mourning tradition.

Q: Any comments on what "The Byzantine Colony" in O' Artful Death is based on? As I read the book it seemed so real and I wished it was!
A: Byzantium is loosely based on the Cornish Arts Colony in Cornish, NH, as well as come other New England arts colonies. My great-grandmother, a concert pianist, was a member of the Cornish Colony (which included Maxfield Parrish and Augustus Saint-Gaudens as members) and I grew up hearing amazing stories about the artists, their parties and their work. I knew I had to set a mystery in an arts colony.

Q: I loved your use of both red herrings and the "locked room" in each book - are you a big fan of "golden age" mysteries?
A: Absolutely. Huge fan. I had never read a contemporary mystery writer until I was about 25. I grew up just devouring the golden age writers. When I was about 9 or 10, my family took a trip to Britain and while staying in a B&B in the Cotswolds, I discovered Agatha Christie. The B&B had a little library and I took a Christie down (it was Sparkling Cyanide - I still remember) and started reading. I don't remember anything about the Cotswolds because I was hunched down in the back of the rental car reading the whole time. If you knew how carsick I get, you'd know how much I loved that book! I made my way through the public library's entire collection, then moved on to Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Josephine Tey. The thing about those Golden Age writers is that they were much better writers than they're given credit for. And they're much more subversive than most readers would suspect. There's a lot about class and gender in those books. Very subversive stuff.

Q: I think Sweeney is such a fabulous character - even her youth is an advantage, as she's sometimes naive in an effective way. I also like how she's of the upper crust but also set apart from it. How do you see her character arc progressing? And what about her relationship with Toby?
A: Sweeney is still in the process of confronting some pretty painful personal history - the death of her fiancé and her father's suicide - and I really like playing with the idea of someone who is intellectually very well-developed but still figuring out who she is as a person, still trying to attain emotional balance. I started writing O' Artful Death in my late twenties and I made Sweeney the same age as myself because I think so much happens in those years - for most of my friends and for myself it was when we were figuring out careers, heading toward marriage or permanent relationships, trying to figure out how to become an adult without compromising too much or giving up too much of the things we always thought we'd do. Over the course of the series, Sweeney will grow up in many ways, and she'll find love (I won't say with whom!) And find that it's very different from what she thought she'd find.

Q: Skip this if you want but it seems to me that American female writers aren't granted the same kind of literary heft that we give to British writers like Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid, or P.D. James. And yet I think there are some new American writers - (including yourself) Karin Slaughter, Deborah Crombie, and Julia Spencer-Fleming to name a few - who are writing novels that are every bit as psychologically adept as their British counterparts. Any comment on that? I'd hate for there to be another "lost generation" of American women - I think there were some wonderful writers in the 40's and 50's who aren't read much today. Charlotte Armstrong, Mabel Seeley, Elizabeth Daley and others come to mind and that drives me nuts. People are always so glad to discover them.
A: I completely agree! I'm a big fan of both Deborah Crombie and Julia Spencer-Fleming (I haven't yet read Karin Slaughter, but I can't wait to discover her books) and I think they're starting to get the attention they deserve which makes me very happy. But I think you're right that there's an odd way in which serious American women writers can get pegged as cozy (which isn't a bad thing - I love some cozy series. But there seems to be a lot of contempt for traditional mysteries among some reviewers and bigwigs in the mystery world right now). In Britain, nobody wonders about how to categorize P.D. James, but here there is this obsession with subgenres. It's interesting, though, because I think that if you take James and Rendell out of the equation and look at who the more prominent British women writers are, they're writing grittier, more hardboiled, more "American" books. And if you look at some of the really prominent American women writers, such as Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George, they're writing traditional Scotland Yard mysteries. I'm not sure what that means, but it's interesting to me.

Q: What are your influences, mystery wise? Have you always wanted to write one? Have you always read them?
A: I always wanted to write novels, but I came to mystery writing a bit later. I majored in creative writing and always wrote fiction - I have three or four half finished novels in a drawer. At some point, though, I started noticing that everything I wrote had a family secret in it, or a body. The bodies just kept turning up. I couldn't stop them. It got so I was afraid to start a new chapter because I knew someone would open a drawer or a cupboard somewhere and find a corpse. I've always been interested in the ways in which characters reveal themselves under the strain of unnatural death. I guess at some point I just decided that I was a mystery writer and I ought to come out of the closet.

Q: Want to talk a bit about where the series is going next?
A: I'm working on a third one right now. Sweeney and Tim Quinn get thrown together again when he's investigating the disappearance of a history professor who was writing a biography of a Revolutionary War-era stonecutter (gravestone maker) who was executed for spying for the British. Sweeney and Quinn (along with one of the other men in Sweeney's life) wind up in Concord, Mass., looking into old mysteries and new ones. The theme of the book is betrayal - betrayal of country and those we love.

I've got a germ of an idea for the fourth one, but I'm not talking yet!

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