Charles Finch was kind enough to agree to an interview. He’s one of my favorite authors and his first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list.
Q. You chose the Victorian Era as the foundational time frame to your novels because it serves as a reflection of contemporary issues in a literary framework. Notwithstanding the connection, given the opportunity, would you travel back in time to the Victorian Era? Would you want to live there, or just visit? Why or why not?
I would love to travel back in time to the Victoria period – briefly. One of the things I try to emphasize in my books is that no matter how civilized life was, it also had a brutal, unpleasant side, with widespread illness and poverty, early deaths, and every stripe of prejudice…and think of all the things you would miss from the modern era! Could I check Facebook? If not I think I’ll stick with our time and have fun daydreaming about theirs.
Q. At the end of The September Society, Charles Lenox agrees to run for Parliament with Lady Jane’s blessing as well as his brother, Edmund’s support. His dream of standing for Parliament finally comes true in book 3. Did you already know at the end of A Beautiful Blue Death that Lenox’s dream would come true? As for yourself are you politically inclined, and do you have any aspirations in that sphere?
From the start I really liked the idea of pulling Lenox away from his work as a detective, and I planted the seeds for him to enter politics in the first book, yes. But actually I wasn’t sure whether Lenox would win his election in Stirrington until the day when I wrote the chapter! I like to make big decisions like that one by feel.
I love politics, and I’ve worked in it before. But I’m happy writing.
Q. You’ve previously named Elizabeth Gaskell as a source of research for your work. Which of her novels did you rely on the most, and how do you feel about her writings? Did the underlying themes relating to the social and political strata of British society impact your writings?
Some time ago I read North and South, and I loved how astute it was about exactly the political and social calibrations you mention. She was much more sophisticated than Dickens, for instance, who wrote from a more emotional angle. Gaskell is definitely the writer I try to think of when I’m writing about class clashes…
Q. If the opportunity ever comes, would you sell the rights to the Lenox series for either television or film? How often have you “cast” it? Who’s your ultimate dream cast?
I would love to sell the Lenox rights, preferably for TV – I agree with the cliché that suspense novels work for film, mysteries for episodic TV. My friend and family love to cast the books, and on my Facebook fan page I think the fans ended up casting Jeremy Northam as Charles Lenox, Jennifer Ehle as Lady Jane, Andrew Lincoln as Graham, Matthew McFayden as McConnell, Aaron Johnson as Dallington, Imogen Poots as Toto, Kenneth Branagh as Edmund, and Stephen Fry as Shreve. Can’t argue with those picks!
Q. A couple of the books were written while you were a postgraduate student. How did you balance coursework and writing? Did your fellow course mates know? What was their reaction as well as that of the faculty?
I definitely tried to keep those two parts of my life segregated – the faculty didn’t know, and only my friends among the course people. I never found it hard to balance the two; in fact, if anything I’m happier when I have a couple of different projects to shift between.
Q. Do you see yourself ever writing a contemporary mystery book set in the present? How about writing other genres? Or can we anticipate a historical set in Renaissance England?
I actually have a non-Lenox book coming out in the winter of 2013, a contemporary novel called The Last Enchantments about a group of students at Oxford. In terms of mysteries, I’d love to shift eras…I’ve had thoughts about making one of Lenox’s ancestors (the Renaissance?) or heirs (World War Two?) also be a detective, of some sort anyway. We’ll see!
Q. What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Hm…well, I write a page when I wake up first thing in the morning, because I think that when I’m a little sleepy I’m more creative, less rational, and more open to ideas. I’d recommend it!
Q. Some authors listen to music while writing, others prefer a quiet space. Which is your preference? If you do listen to music, do you have a playlist? Care to share?
Usually I like silence, but sometimes I’ll listen to the violin and cello music on the Patrick O’Brian tribute CDs. Don’t know why, but it can help.
Q. What do you do to prepare yourself before writing? Do you listen to music? Do you look at visual aids from the Victorian Era?
Before I start writing a book, I do a lot of research, and definitely like to look at pictures. When I’m writing I usually don’t use those kinds of aids. Occasionally if I’m struggling with tone or dialogue I’ll read one of my favorite writers – for instance right now I’m looking into Dickens’s letters once in a while, and a word or phrase from him will spark me into action when I feel stuck.
Q. You’ve been given the task to host a last minute dinner party. Which authors are on your ultimate dinner invitation list? Alive or Dead.
Tough question! I’d choose: George Orwell, David Lodge, Patrick O’Brian, Jonathan Franzen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, and, out of sheer curiosity, Shakespeare. Dinner for eight, maybe Indian food.
Q. In recent years, a re-emergent interest in Sherlock Holmes has occurred with the films featuring Robert Downey Jr., BBC’s Sherlock and now Elementary on CBS. Why do you think Holmes has resonated with the public? What are your overall thoughts regarding the films and/or the television series?
I haven’t seen Elementary or Sherlock, but both are on my list. I thought the films were a bit unfortunate…
Q. As the grandson of American artist and writer Anne Truitt, do you have any hidden talents in the fine arts outside literature?
I wish – in fact I have terrible visual art skills. I like karaoke though.
Q. You’ve expressed an interest in traveling to Antarctica. Do you have any favorite polar explorers or plans to write about them?
One of my favorite subjects! I still intend to travel to Antarctica, and I’d love to write about it, a personal history combined with a history of the explorers. My favorite is Amundsen – like Sherlock Holmes he was so acute about details. For instance, he was the only explorer to bring black tents, so that they would be visible and relieve his mens’ eyes, unlike white tents. But my favorite quote is about Shackleton: “For swift and efficient travel, give me Amundsen; for scientific investigation, give me Scott; but when you are at your wits’ end and all else fails, go down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Q. A lot of self published (indie) authors are signing book deals for books that have sold pretty much via word of mouth. It seems some publishers are looking directly at profit (granted they are in the business for profit and in this electronic age are losing money). What are your overall thoughts regarding this and perhaps your thoughts on the use of fan fiction as a basis of a novel? Can you imagine the Lenox series surviving based on this model if you had do it?
I completely and totally welcome every kind of self-published and indie and fan fiction. I think it’s awesome. The idea that only the gatekeepers of publishing know what might find an audience is ludicrous. With that said, I don’t think that the cool aspects of self-publishing mean that everything self-published is good, which some proponents of that format don’t seem to believe. Personally I’m happy with my situation, but books are evolving so fast that I’m staying on my toes.
Q. And on an entirely different note: If you had the opportunity to confront the Boggart from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban what would it have turned into?
Yikes, tough question! I’d say some kind of snake, I hate snakes.
1. Which Hogwarts House would the sorting hat put you in?
Hmm…I’d like to think Gryffindor, but it might be Ravenclaw. Which is where Hermione should have been!
2. Which Crawley sister would you take on: Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Lady Sybil?
Lady Sybil! Mary is too crazy, Edith too spiteful.
3. Tie and jacket or bowtie and sweater?
Definitely tie and jacket.
4. Craziest thing in your fridge right now?
A bag of drastically price-reduced post-Halloween Laffy Taffy.
5. When you were a child, did you prefer Mister Rogers or Sesame Street?
Mr. Rogers by a long shot. It was important to hear that I would never go down the drain.
6. If you were not an author, what could you see yourself doing?
I’ve always loved politics, and I worked in it for a while. Might still be doing that.
7. Chicken or Fish?
My name is Charles Finch – welcome! I’m the author of the Charles Lenox series of historical mysteries, including the forthcoming AN OLD BETRAYAL. They’re all set in Victorian London, and have been translated into many languages and published all over the world. I also write book reviews for USA Today and essays in many different places. My first standalone contemporary novel, THE LAST ENCHANTMENTS, will come out on January 18, 2014.