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Charles Todd

April 22nd, 2010

Charles ToddThe author Charles Todd is really the son-and-mother writing team of Charles Todd and his mother, Caroline. Both will attend the 2010 JRW conference.

“The Red Door” is the most recent of their 11 mysteries in the series starring Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge. Last year, they launched a second mystery series featuring World War I British Army nurse Bess Crawford; the second installment, “An Impartial Witness,” appears in August. They also wrote a stand-alone novel, “The Murder Stone.”

As they do in their work, Charles and Caroline Todd speak with one voice in this April 2010 interview with Jann Malone, a former JRW board member.


QUESTION 1: What are the challenges facing a mother-son writing team?

Many author teams talk about conflicting ideas. If anything, our shared experiences over a lifetime (or two) are an asset. However, the family relationship is a source for old arguments and issues hindering the task at hand. We keep Ian Rutledge or Bess Crawford at the heart of our work. Petty differences that are not germane to the manuscript come second. It is important that our readers can read and enjoy our work as a seamless tapestry of fiction. Who wrote which sentence or had that idea is not important to our readers.

One personal benefit has been the evolution of our relationship from mother and son to professional equals who respect and admire each other’s abilities. As long as we have separate homes and hotel rooms when we travel all is well.

Working with publishers, etc., is not an issue. Charles comes from a career in financial and business management and Caroline understands publishing and marketing. The editorial process requires us to speak with one voice when working with our publishers. We resolve our issues internally with dictionaries, maps, references and swords at dawn.

QUESTION 2: Each book in your mystery series featuring Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge takes place over one month. The months run consecutively as the series progresses. Why did you adopt this timeline?

We developed Ian Rutledge as a character to explore the effects of war on a personal and social level. One month is enough time for Rutledge to absorb the lessons and experiences from the last case while remaining in the same historical setting. We did not want to wind up with a flawed protagonist from WWI solving crimes in the 1950s.

QUESTION 3: Last year you started a second mystery series, this one featuring World War I British Army Nurse Bess Crawford. Why did you decide to launch another series?

When we find a character that intrigues us we may take years to begin actually writing. Bess Crawford had that appeal we wanted to explore. Bess has an air of independence that came from her upbringing at various army outposts in places like India and not the finishing school that was typical of the Victorian period.

We had already done a man, so we thought a woman might give us a very different look at murder. You have to think of a book as something you want to write, but also something that will entertain the reader. Both of our series focus on psychologically complex stories. Rutledge’s books deal with the stress of trying to slog on despite suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, while much of Bess’ books will deal with trying to navigate the post-Victorian society. Standards and expectations in her world are changing as war rubs against tradition.

Bess wants to help in the war effort, but women of that time were raised to take care of family and home, not pursue outside interests. And while she adores her father, she’s not daddy’s little girl in the sense that everything is done to please him. She’s also keenly aware of the expectations that accompany a life lived according to Army rules.

QUESTION 4: You and your mother both read widely and deeply and immerse yourselves in diverse activities. How does this feed your writing?

If you want to become a writer we believe you must be a student of your craft. We may read books that are not typical of our tastes because it challenges our perspective and exposes us to different methods.

After Charles went off to college and Caroline had more time for her own interests, we began our journey of separate paths. Charles began a career and developed hobbies and interests that were based on his own choices and situations. Caroline was able to travel more extensively and continue her constant study and research including ornithology, languages.

QUESTION 5: How did your gift for storytelling develop?

Caroline and Charles share the southern tradition of storytelling. Caroline’s father told the best stories and recollections. Caroline and Charles spent many summer evenings on the screened in porch after dinner when the sun had set. We listened for hours to his voice in the dark harmonized by the tree frogs and crickets. It was not unusual for him to talk of his life experiences telling a story we had heard many times. We looked forward to hearing those favorite tales and would often ask him to retell them. It was not just the content but the way he spoke that made those places and people come alive. There are great storytellers from everywhere, but they don’t sip sweet tea and have fresh peach juice or peanut skins on their hands.

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William Henry Lewis

April 12th, 2010

William Henry Lewis (photo by Bernard Grant)William Henry Lewis, who goes by Hank, has a strong Virginia connection. He earned his MFA degree from the University of Virginia in 1994 and taught at what was then Mary Washington College.

William was Richmond’s 2006 author for Go Read, the city’s community reading program. For that, schools and book groups read and discussed his short-story collection, I Got Somebody in Staunton, a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction. He also taught creative writing at the University of Maryland.

Jann Malone, former JRW board member, interviewed William in April 2010.


QUESTION 1: The Virginia countryside plays a role in I Got Somebody in Staunton. How did you soak up your surroundings when you lived here?

The actual drive in that story was one I used to make quite often, from Fredericksburg to Charlottesville.  I never tired of the drive and I loved watching the seasons grow and develop.  But my love for the southeastern countryside was first born during my growing up years in eastern Tennessee.

As for the Virginia countryside, I drove a delivery truck out of Charlottesville when I was in graduate school and that took me to many spots around the state.  When you spend hours on the road, and you run out of the range of an NPR or good jazz station, you’re left with the land and the road.

QUESTION 2: How did you develop the skills you use in storytelling?

I think I’m still developing those skills, but I suppose it comes from the ritual of hearing and enjoying stories as a kid. Some stories are intentional, as when my Nana would put me to bed, and we’d take turns adding narrative elements and plot point to a never-ending story. Magic Carpet, she called it, starting off sailing from her back yard, telling me what we were flying over, and then she would ask me to add a detail.

Later on, I took in stories that were told at family gatherings.  These weren’t always meant to be storytelling moments, and I can’t say that I was aware of stories being told, but I remember being struck by how someone told a story, how others got involved, what got folks laughing and so on.  I suppose paying attention to how a story got carried on in others was where I came to value storytelling.

QUESTION 3: You’ve said that the most interesting part of writing a story is the part that comes after the inspiration. How so?

Inspiration, concept, device and conceit are the things that get you to the desk, but the things that make a story seem cool aren’t what get it written, not at least for me, anyway.

In his wonderful book, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo writes about how in writing a poem there are, among many aspects, two important values: 1) the triggering aspect and 2) the notion of writing about one’s “hometown,” or the realm of the familiar in one’s poem.

Though his advice is to poets, I have carried it as a fiction writer for close to two decades.  He argues that a piece should be developed beyond the idea that triggered it.  So, if I begin writing about a man who remembers a father figure from childhood who may have killed a woman long ago, I should be sure that the story is not simply focused on what seems to be the most dramatic idea.

For many years, In the Swamp remained a story simply about the possibility that Ty, the narrator’s childhood father figure, might have killed a woman and hidden her in a swamp.  But I realized that the story was stuck in being satisfied with a rather cliché story ending: Ty stuck in the swamp, years later, looking for something that might come back to haunt him.

Later, I realized that I wanted the story to deal more with how the narrator/protagonist would reconcile this story along with his own past, much of which he has buried and may not chose to share with his fiancée.

The other idea has to do with how a writer gains creative distance from what she or he knows or wants in a piece. Hugo suggests that to write about one’s hometown, it’s often best to discover it in another town.  By this, I believe he means that once you feel you know your story, try to understand it from another angle or approach, shifting time or place, characters or intentions, just as long as the function and objective you want — your hometown — remains intact.

There are so many aspects that go into writing a story, but these two ideas, along with having the faith to let a story guide you where it wants to go, have been what I use to push beyond inspiration to something more complete.

QUESTION 4: How much does a story change between the first draft and the finished version?

Considering what I mentioned above, and considering that my first few drafts are always very rough and choppy, my stories usually change a great deal.  Any story that I finally decide to share with others, has usually seen 15 to 20 drafts before I start sharing it.  Then there may be a dozen more.  Sometimes a story may see fewer drafts, but it may need time to grow.  I set it aside and then come back to it.

I’ve never been a very smart writer, only a plodding writer, inching ahead a bit each day, so some stories of mine might have been written in a few weeks, but they may not feel finished for years.

QUESTION 5:  What’s the most valuable thing you try to teach young writers?

Patience for the craft and focus on the writing more so than the publishing.  If writing, not your ego, has truly called you, then you are blessed and cursed to be doing this for the whole of your life. Why rush something that may take a lifetime to develop?

I have very much appreciated the work that has been published, but I love more those moments where I discover something fresh about the way a clause works, transplanting the cadence of verse to prose, the many tricks of the semicolon, or the gift of how else to describe the way water flows.

These are the small gems I dig for, and I feel that if I value them enough in the work, a reader may gain some pleasure in these small things as he or she takes on being captivated by the larger story. And that is the most important thing, the larger story, the whole story.

I see many young writers who are talented with language and device, but miss telling a good story, one that is complete.

Tell me a story, one that keeps me transfixed. That is the simplest and the hardest of disciplines. But also the truest I know.

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