I Start Knowing Nothing: An Interview with Rhys Bowen
1. Murphy’s Law starts with a wonderful first sentence: “That mouth of yours will be getting you into big trouble one day.” In fact, all of your books start with a super first line. Any hints about how you make that happen?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the first line. I think it’s so important where you come into a story. Murphy’s Law doesn’t start with a high drama scene. It starts where she’s poised between two worlds. Getting a fast start is more important now than ever because so many people are buying books online. If you don’t come up with a good first line you’ve lost those readers.
Today’s readers are not going to wade through pages and pages of details like they would in the past. No one has the time for that anymore. Everyone has been raised on TV, and that comes in 90-second bites. So deciding where to come into a story is important.
2. Tell us about your process. You do a terrific job of giving backstory while in the midst of an action scene. How do you do that?
It’s going to sound awful, but I start knowing nothing, or the least little thing. For example, I’ll think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have Lady Georgie going to a wedding in Transylvania?” Then I plot maybe 20 pages at a time. But that’s all. I’m not a puppet master making my sleuth do this or that; I’m following my sleuth and seeing where she goes.
I’ve tried working from an outline, but it doesn’t work for me. When I finish the outline, I think, Oh, I’ve finished with that book. I’m terrified for the first half of every book, and I’m writing scared. When I get to the middle and I start to see how things are taking shape, I start to relax a little.
3. How do you plug in the backstory?
Giving the reader a big dump of backstory is the mark of a beginning writer. It’s more fun to give people hints. For example, at the start of Murphy’s Law, you know Molly is out of breath and her bodice is ripped but you don’t know why. Really it’s like when you are watching a movie and you see a hint of something dashing across the screen. You stop and think, “Oh! What is that?”
So the trick is to keep filling people in, while at the same time you are moving them forward, and not slowing them down. Less is always more with writing, so give the reader the least hint possible you can. My writing is quite spare. I don’t add a lot of description.
4. Both Molly and Georgie, your two protagonists in your two series, recognize that being financially dependent on anyone is the absolute pits. Where does that come from? Is there something in your life that makes that resonate with you? I’ve been lucky enough to have a husband who is good with money, but I’ve had friends who are not so fortunate. Writing historicals, I’ve noticed that when women had no money, they were completely at the mercy of a man. That’s the way the laws worked, and that was not only true in the 1900s, but you can look at the I Love Lucy episodes and see it. There’s that one where Lucy was terribly afraid to tell Ricky she’d bought a new hat!
My own mother worked as a school principal. She had her own bank account. She made her own decisions, and I learned from her that having your own money allows you to be independent. So I guess that’s my own life coming through.
It’s funny. I’ve written a lot of books but these are the first characters, Molly and Georgie, that I’ve seen myself in, although I didn’t start out with that intention.
5. Speaking of women and their roles, tell us more about Sid and Gus. Were they modeled after Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein? Are they lesbians? Alice and Gertrude–I didn’t even think of that until you suggested it. I could have a lot of fun with that, but no, they weren’t. Sid and Gus are the epitome of what free women can undertake, what sorts of life they can live, when they have no financial restrictions. And, yes, they are lesbians. You can imagine what might happen to a lesbian couple if they weren’t financially independent. However, in Victorian times, a romantic relationship between women wasn’t frowned upon at all. In fact, it was considered rather sweet for two women to walk down the street holding hands. It was thought that women would grow out of their attachment to each other. And I wanted to portray Sid and Gus as a true Bohemian couple of the times. (And I would have liked them as my next door neighbors.)
6. You’ve collected tons of awards. Tell us what these mean to you.
One thing I can tell you is that it never gets old. Some people get terribly blas