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Ancient history is not a strong suit of mine. I enjoy it, especially when served up with mysterious mayhem and murder. Still, not having indulged in Mary Reed and Eric Mayer’s highly regarded series of John The Eunuch, I almost felt at a loss as to what questions I could ask. A little research into the books  helped, and the husband and wife writing duo’s detailed answers are filled with all the atmosphere, style, and  history one could possibly need to get started and delve into their work.

The series protagonist is John the Eunuch, Emperor Justinian’s Lord Chamberlain. Set in the Byzantine 6th century Roman Empire, real and fictional characters appear side by side and for those of us who know nothing about that period, an entire new world will open up! The series has received numerous starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, was a finalist for the IPPY Best Mystery Award, nominated for the Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award, the American Library Association’s Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series. and was nominated multiple times and won the Glyph Award from Arizona Book Publishing Association for Best Book Series. So, take a trip to another time and world with Mary and Eric.

1. Which of the two of you came up with the idea of a detective in the ancient times John is living, and who decided he would be a eunuch? Why is it hard for me to picture Eric imagining this particular protagonist, lol? Do either of you have a background in Byzantium and 6th century Roman Empire?

Answer:  Neither of us had a background in those specific topics, but Mary has always been keen on history in general and Eric had long taken a layman’s interest in the Byzantine period.

However, both our setting and protagonist came about almost by chance. It’s a convoluted tale (no surprise to anyone who’s read our books) but in brief, after we married we began to co-write short stories. The first to be published appeared in EQMM under the title The Obo Mystery and it marked the debut of our Mongolian detective Dorj.

Then one afternoon, clear out of the blue, we had a call from Mike Ashley, who was putting together an anthology.  He asked if we thought we could write an historical mystery short story to a tight deadline — about three weeks — and we said certainly! But after we rang off came the bigger question: what era and about whom? This was when Eric’s collection of books about Byzantium came to mind. OK, we would set in in Byzantine times since we had a fair bit of source material right to hand.

The story needed to be very short so we devised a simple, puzzle oriented plot which, as it turned out, required a detective who would be close to Emperor Justinian. The Lord Chamberlain, who served as advisor and confidante to the emperor, fit the job description. Historically speaking the position was usually filled by a eunuch so for accuracy, and to add a bit of color and characterization we named our protagonist John the Eunuch.

A Byzantine Mystery appeared in Mike’s Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives. It weighed in at around 2,000 words and it never occurred to us we might be asked to write further about our hastily

The writing team’s first full novel of John.

named hero. However, Mike requested another story, and others followed including another in EQMM, and before long we started thinking about a novel. One For Sorrow appeared six years almost to the month from the publication of the first short story Mike commissioned.

Only gradually, as we wrote at more length, did we begin to grapple with the ramifications of the condition we’d so carelessly inflicted on John. The writers are in the same position as their character, trying to deal as best they can with an accidental injury.

  2.  As a writing team, does one create the storyline, and the other do the actual writing, as was the case for the writing duo of Ellery Queen?

Answer:  We both do a bit of everything, although Mary definitely takes the lead with regards to the actual mystery puzzles and making sure clues are handled fairly, while Eric is the major contributor of atmosphere and of scenic descriptions.

Our method is to painfully thrash out a plot outline. Then we each take a chapter and draft it. The draft is passed to the other party for a second pass. If we’re both happy with the second version, as is almost always the case, it goes into the master document of the novel. In this fashion we can be working on two chapters at once. There was one occasion where we wrote the first and last chapters first and only had to write the bit in-between.

We have to be careful about keeping to the outline or fairly close to it on such points as what a character could know at a specific time or to make certain a person last seen in Constantinople in the morning is not to be observed in Rome by teatime. You might ask but what if one of us does not think a specific part of a chapter drafted by the other
works? Well, we have long since agreed whoever most strongly feels that a piece of action should or should not be included gets to decide. Though Eric has been known to hint it’s a good idea to lock up the knives and have strong hinges on the doors, generally it’s settled peaceably. There is no room for ego in writing, so the basic rule is whatever is best for the work in question is left in or out as the case may be.

3. As a team, you first published short stories of John, before turning them into novels. How did you become published in short story magazines such as Ellery Queen? Was it necessary to have an agent at that point, or did you submit directly? After publication in short story form, how difficult was it to find a publisher who would take a novel about John, if you didn’t already have one did you now need a literary agent?

Answer:  The short stories in Ellery Queen were submitted over the transom. At that point we had no agent, and it would have been exceedingly difficult to get one given few if any agree to represent short stories. We can’t blame them as their income is based on a percentage of the amount the writers receive, so for a short story it wouldn’t be too much compared to the time spent selling it. The first novel
about John was again unagented and in fact the series remains so, but we now have an agent who is currently working to place two new mysteries set in different eras and locations. One takes place (mostly) in Victorian London and the other in World War II Shropshire.

We had an unusual path to publication with the series. We saw in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter that what was then a new publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, had been nominated for an Edgar for a non fiction collection, A-Z Goes === , and when congratulating them we asked if they were also considering publishing fiction. Their reply was yes and here is where that dash of good fortune, in our opinion so often playing a part in publishing, showed up. As it turned out not long before we contacted the press editor Barbara Peters had noted the lack of mysteries set in the Byzantine period, and there on their doorstep we suddenly turned up, flourishing just that with hopeful grins.

4. Once published, how difficult was it to write the sophomore entry in the series, or did you, like some, already have the second book written and ready to be bought edited, and published?

Answer: We had not planned a second book, but when asked for one sat down and wrote one. Strangely enough, it was much easier to write than the first, probably because we had developed the main characters a fair bit by then, not just in the first novel but in the short stories published before that. It was edited at the press, as all our novels have been, and here we must pay tribute to Barbara’s sterling work in that line for as we often say, she does the editing work and we get the credit for it. There is no doubt that all the novels have been enhanced by her editorial comments and indeed we regard her as our toughest critic, so once she has given the nod we are happy indeed that the work is as good as we can make it.

5. I see that there are 9 entries in the series. Are there more on the way? How difficult is it to create a believable setting when it’s ancient history? How do you keep the stories fresh and accessible to those, like myself, who have no knowledge of the figures, customs, religion, of the time?

Answer:   It’s a strange thing but this year will be more or less book-ended between Nine For The Devil, the ninth in the series published by Poisoned Pen Press in March, and the British edition of the revised One For Sorrow will appear in December from Head of Zeus. The revised version is also available for Kindle in the US, and meantime we have just begun writing the tenth novel, which will go in a somewhat different direction than the others. All being well we anticipate another two after this one, but much depends on other variables. As for creating the setting. with such a colourful era we have an easier task than many, although sometimes the precise information needed for even just a passing mention can be difficult to find. It often seems the best sources to consult are written in German or Latin, which neither of us speaks.

We have found that gossiping scandal-monger Procopius a wonderful resource both for sparking plots and providing background material. Contemporary writings provide much of useful interest. These range from Justinian’s laws — what is illegal reveals much about a society — to works written by church historians, poetry, and literature. Mosaics can also provide information on for example court dress. Our research is not all solemn stuff however, since we had a lot of fun looking up magick appropriate for the time for the diminutive Egyptian Dedi to perform in Six For Gold, or working out how the sea could be set ablaze in XXX or how the mechanical whale and other automatons worked in Three For A Letter, since we always provide an explanation of how these things was done.

And then Constantinople is a character in itself, with squalor and luxury in uneasy proximity, the Great Palace, the city’s filthy slums, its beautiful buildings and magnificent churches, the squares, harbours, and other locations where events may take place.

6. How do you fact check? How much poetic license do you give yourselves when it comes to the story, and historical facts?

Answer:  As for fact checking, we check everything at least twice if the sources are there. If not, we extrapolate from what is known. Our theory is, providing what we say does not run afoul of the laws of the universe, we will use such extrapolations. Perhaps one of the most startling examples of this was when John flew for a short distance in Four For A Boy. This apparently impossible feat was based on three sources — a Victorian suicide attempt, an incident recorded in Turkish history, and the way leaves flutter to the ground — and a bit of extrapolation therefrom. Mind you, we do possess a poetic license but thus far we have not had to flourish it.

7. Not knowing a thing about 6th Century Constantinople, are some of the characters you create based on once live individuals, or are they all fictional creations?

Answer:  Most of our characters are fictional but real individuals such as Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora often play roles. The fictional characters are not based on particular people from history.

Examples of historical figures who have appeared in our books include the city prefect Theodotus. Nicknamed the Gourd, he was rumoured to practice magick and one of the most casually brutal men to take the stage in our fiction, and the famous charioteer Porphyrius who raced for both the Blue and Green teams. Then there’s the great general Belisaurius and his unfaithful wife Antonina, Narses, another of Justinian’s generals and incidentally a eunuch, the rapacious tax collector John the Cappadocian, and Emperor Justin, Justinian’s uncle and predecessor.

Some of these persons, like Belisarius, are well known and have had whole books written about them. Others, like the Gourd, were preserved for posterity in a few words and have required considerable embroidering.

8. You have a new publisher who is publishing the first in the series, One For Sorrow. Head of Zeus is not only new for you, but within the publishing world itself.  In this tough world of e-books and e-readers, how did a new publisher come to be created? Hypothesizing from the publisher’s name, are their main literary output to be historical novels?

And

9. Who are some of the fellow authors who have been signed by Head Of Zeus?

Answers:  Well, strangely enough we knew nothing about Head of Zeus until we heard they had purchased our series. It’s a major new British publisher and their list is nothing if not eclectic, describing their books as a mix of non fiction and general, genre, and literary fiction. Offerings include a Great Lives series of biographies, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, and literary works and an ambitious publishing schedule, featuring a number of instantly recognizable authors, ranging from Joyce Carol Oates and Fay Weldon to Dashiell Hammett, Joseph Wambaugh, and Thomas Cook.

As for Poisoned Pen Press authors, Head of Zeus’s current catalogue lists four historical mystery acquisitions from PPP, to wit, Priscilla Royal’s medieval series, Roman mysteries from Bruce Macbain and Jane Finnis, and a Byzantine series from M. E. Mayer, our latest identity.

10. Your stories encompass the religious, social, and political atmosphere of the times. Is there anything to be learned for present day society in regard to mistakes made in the past? Are there similarities to actions and figures from then? We all know about the fall of the Roman Empire–as a sort of catch phrase, but little else. Many times I’ve heard the U.S. described as heading in the same direction, naturally in a much shorter time frame than Rome had. Do you believe this to be true, and if so why or why not.

Answer:  Our series begins almost half a century after the “fall of Rome” in 476. (See–I did warn everyone I knew nothing about this historical time frame, lol)  By the time the former Roman capital had been overrun it was practically a ghost town anyway and the focus of the empire had long since shifted to the east and the capital of Constantinople. In fact, the Roman Empire did not fall but survived in the east for another millennium, until 1453. All of its institutions and culture remained intact, only gradually evolving over time, and its citizens knew themselves as Romans. If the U.S. survives for another 1,000 years we’ll be surprised.

So the dire warnings about the U.S. heading for a Romanesque “fall” are based on misinformation. Particularly wrongheaded are the warnings that we should learn from the fate of Rome what happens when a great empire becomes debauched and immoral. We’ve all heard that canard. In fact, Romans had mostly turned to Christianity by the time the Goths conquered Italy. The eastern Roman Empire in which our mysteries are set was officially Christian. Emperor Justinian, as God’s representative on earth, engaged in serious theology.

It’s a mistake to equate modern day political institutions too closely with ancient ones. Rome was never a country in the sense that the United States is. The borders were often vague, central control was not so pervasive, communication and travel were nothing like today, and so the population was not bound together as closely. The modern country-state was still far in the future. Obviously people remain much the same over time. Human greed, jealousy, lust for power, even love and decency at times, remain unchanged through the generations. If this weren’t the case we wouldn’t be interested in what they got up to many centuries ago.

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To buy copies of their books directly from Poisoned Press

Diane Plumley

Diane Plumley

Diane Plumley

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