Please welcome mystery writer Erin Hart, whose latest book is The Book of Killowen.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Let’s see… It would have to be a morning of productive writing (ideally, where I solve some knotty plot problem), then an afternoon spent reading a ripping good mystery, followed by dinner with my husband Paddy or my whole extended family, and then a baseball game or a movie.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
Truth to tell, I am really quite fashion-impaired, so accessory, color, and fragrance are probably automatically out! (Unless black counts as a color…) But because I’ve always been rather slow and deliberative about every undertaking, long ago I created a personal coat of arms with the image of a snail couchant (how else?) and featuring the motto, “L’escargot, c’est moi!”
Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
I’ve always been inspired by the wonderful writing of P.D. James, and not just for her skilled use of language, but also for the deep compassion she has for all of the characters in her novels, heroes and villains alike. I studied her books, really picking them apart to understand how a really fine crime novel is built. My husband and all of my artist and writer and musician friends inspire me, through their commitment to their own work and vision. I think I’ve also been deeply inspired by the work of playwrights Brian Friel and August Wilson, and theater directors Garland Wright and Bain Boehlke, for all of the layers of meaning and humanity and culture they’re able to reveal in their work. Okay, I realize that’s a lot more than three people…
Do you listen to music when you write?
Not usually. I can’t listen to singing in English, which I find too distracting when I’m trying to concentrate on words. But instrumental music, or songs in a language other than English are okay. My husband is an Irish musician, so he’s often downstairs playing the accordion as I write. I love that, and hearing him play does inspire me—it helps me get into the story, especially when I’m writing scenes that include traditional music. There have been particular songs or tunes that I’ve listened to while writing because they’re somehow connected to the story I’m working on, and they help put me in the mood. When working on Haunted Ground, whenever I needed inspiration, I would put on a recording of our good friend James Kelly playing “The Dear Irish Boy,” on the fiddle. It’s a gorgeous, absolutely heart-rending air, perfect for writing about a beautiful young woman whose severed head was buried in a bog for 350 years… While writing False Mermaid, I often listened to “An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid),” a lovely sad song in Irish about a mermaid who has left her husband and children and returned to the sea.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
The Book of Killowen would be a lovely bar of dark chocolate studded with dried currants and berries and hazelnuts, because it begins with a scribe from the 9th century, and those were the sorts of foods that medieval monks would find in the woods that surrounded their little huts and monasteries.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
All of my novels are inspired by real artifacts (and occasionally people) that have turned up in the bogs of Ireland. The Book of Killowen began when I heard about a 9th-century book of psalms that was discovered at Faddan More bog in County Tipperary. I began to wonder how such a wonderful illuminated manuscript had ended up in a bog, of all places. Evidently the Irish countryside was teeming with monasteries back in the 9th century, places where the monks spent a lot of time copying old manuscripts and creating beautiful books. Then I remembered being in the National Museum of Ireland lab at Collins Barracks, the place where ancient artifacts are brought for conservation, way back in 1999. On the day I was there, someone had brought in a leather satchel from the 9th century that had just turned up in a bog. It was perfectly preserved. And as it turned out, that satchel had also come from Faddan More, the same bog where the book turned up seven years later. Leather satchels were used by medieval monks to carry and store their books. So the juxtaposition of the two finds from the same place really began to fire my imagination. Archaeologists had recovered a book, and a satchel from the same bog, so where was the man who’d been carrying them? Perhaps he would be found in the bog as well… So that’s where The Book of Killowen starts, with that what if?. And the story about ancient manuscripts allowed me to wax philosophical about written language as code, about the transmission of knowledge, the danger of ideas, and also to pose questions we’re still asking today: what is a book, is it an artifact, or a collection of words and ideas that may be transmitted in many different forms?
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The main idea (some would say obsession) that runs through my stories, is that the past is not dead, and it’s not even really past, and that’s it’s always with us, always underfoot. I can’t get over the idea that we are all connected in very fundamental ways to those who have come before us. Things from the past, whether they are ideas, rituals, or artifacts, survive in the present. I’m fascinated by the ways in which knowledge and culture are passed down through generations, whether it’s the way that ancient poets or traditional musicians like my husband can keep so many notes and stories in their heads, or whether it’s through the amazing legacy of the scribes who copied out thousands of books so that the knowledge contained in them could be preserved and shared. I mean, just imagine living in a time when every single book in the world had been written out by hand! Artifacts and people from the past let me explore ideas of interconnectedness, and the ripples and repercussions of things that happened hundreds of years ago that are still being felt today.
Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
I really have two main characters in my series. Pathologist Nora Gavin, is the daughter of two doctors, born in Ireland, but raised in Minnesota. She’s straightforward, curious, empathetic, slightly impulsive, and perhaps a bit gun-shy when it comes to relationships. Nora remains deeply affected by the murder of her only sister, which turned her whole world upside down. Cormac Maguire, Nora’s archaeologist beau, is thoughtful and a bit shy, but doesn’t think twice about putting himself in danger to help someone else. His life was shaped by his father’s abandonment when he was a child, so he’s also a bit leery of marriage; in that way, he and Nora are made for each other. Without realizing it, Cormac also carries his father’s deep commitment to human rights: Joseph Maguire left his family because he became deeply involved in the plight of the The Disappeared in Chile, and Cormac has made use of his skills as an archaeologist to recover remains and help identify victims of war and genocide in the Balkans.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Nora Gavin would probably be an amalgam of various qualities from fictional characters, maybe Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs for bravery in spite of her fear. She also shares a certain academic level-headedness with Dorothy Sayers’ sleuth Harriet Vane, and the dogged tenacity of Paula LaPlante’s police detective Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect. And I confess that I’ve always seen Cormac Maguire as a mashup of a modern-day Mr. Darcy, Horatio Hornblower, and Indiana Jones.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Sounds like great fun! My guest list would include P.D. James, of course. Maybe A.S. Byatt (I maintain that her novel Possession is a mystery—although no one is murdered, there is plenty of skulduggery and literary mystery). I’d have to invite Charles Dickens (his novels Bleak House and Edwin Drood are both mysteries), and Arthur Conan Doyle (I’ve always been a HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan), plus some of my current faves, maybe Martin Cruz Smith, and Minette Walters.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new novel set in the Burren region of northwest County Clare in Ireland. It’s about a man who has gone missing, and how a whole village can keep the secret of a disappearance (or even a murder) for years. The working title of this novel is “A Strange Field,” a place that actually shows up on maps of the Burren. It’s a fascinating region, a moonscape of karst limestone, where archaeologists have discovered all sorts of Neolithic portal tombs and gold artifacts from the Bronze Age, and under the mountains are large networks of caves and underground rivers. A place like that is like catnip to a mystery writer. And I’m continuing to promote my previous books with my husband. Paddy’s memoir, The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music, came out here in the U.S. about the same time as The Book of Killowen, so we’re doing a lot of events together, combining traditional music and songs with readings and images from our stories. We’re a whole multimedia extravaganza!
Erin Hart writes archaeological crime novels set in the mysterious boglands of Ireland. Before a wayward detour into crime fiction, she worked as an arts administrator, editor, copywriter, journalist and theater critic. Her debut novel, Haunted Ground (Scribner, 2003) won the Friends of American Writers award and Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards, and was named by Book-Of-The-Month Club and Booklist as one of the best crime novels of 2003. Lake of Sorrows (Scribner, 2004) was shortlisted for a Minnesota Book Award, and False Mermaid (Scribner, 2010) was named by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Crime Novels of 2010. Her latest, The Book of Killowen, was published by Scribner in March 2013. Erin lives in Saint Paul with her husband, Irish button accordion player Paddy O’Brien, with whom she frequently travels to Ireland, to carry out essential research in bogs and cow pastures and castles and pubs. Visit her website at www.erinhart.com.