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Morlands and Mysteries with Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

by Wendy Zollo

I was tremendously excited when Cynthia agreed to do this interview; I've been following the Morlands for as long as she's been writing about them. It was a joy to take out my series and spread them around me, clasp and cuddle each one and frantically attempt to prevent myself from rereading the series yet again! Predictably, half the pleasure was re-visiting favourite characters and finding just the 'right' questions.

Bill Slider, I admit is still in the treasured TBR, though after reading of Cynthia's devotion to him and her accurate research, I can't imagine this staunch enthusiast of crime mysteries is going to allow him to linger there much longer!

Cynthia, who lives in Shepard's Bush in London, won the Young Writers' Award for her first novel, The Waiting Game in 1972. This year she was shortlisted for The Parker Award for her contemporary novel, Julia.

Which brought about my first question: There is quite a crevice between writing historical fiction and biographical mysteries, (throw in her contemporary novels and Harrod-Eagles is incredibly writing in three different genres!), is it easy to make such a tremendous leap and do so, so successfully?

Cynthia responded fairly naturally, (as if all writers, well, write in different genres on a regular basis). "It didn't seem like a leap to me. You see, I don't see myself as an historical writer or a mystery writer or even both, but simply as a writer. My business is to build with words. Just as an architect can design you a house or a factory or a church, so I can design you a book in any genre. The principles are the same: rounded characters, realistic dialogue, accurate language and an internal logic holding the action together.

That said there is a detective element in historicals: historical research aims to uncover the truth, to resolve the difference between what people said they did, what other people said they did - and what they actually did, as revealed by physical records. Having researched for historicals certainly helped me when it came to writing mysteries."

After she had mentioned mysteries, I asked her: Is Bill, very 'dear' to you? Is he based on anyone in particular or is he an amalgam of many?

"Yes, he is very dear to me. I have no idea where he came from. He walked into my head the day I began ORCHESTRATED DEATH, complete and whole in every respect. I knew everything about him, looks, tastes, past history. I suppose he must be an amalgam, but it is such a subconscious one it's hard to believe I made him up at all. He seems like a real person to me. Maybe he's a ghost, trying to be heard?"

That, I can completely understand since so many 'ghosts' reside inside this skull!

I recognize the value of research; yet researching crime has to be a pole apart from delving into historical fiction-what kind of research extends into the Slider series?

"Do you mean what sort of research do I do for Slider? I spend time with police detectives, getting to know their attitudes, concerns and language. I read police in-house magazines. I do a certain amount of legal research. And I do a great deal of forensic research, though that's mainly from books. I walk about Shepherd's Bush and environs. And I read up the newspaper reports of real crimes."

Having covered Harrod-Eagles' mysteries to my satisfaction and having, until now, held back on my animated enthusiasm to stab into any and all aspect of the Morland Series, I did just that: I know you appreciate the new jackets on The Dynasty Series, yet, in some measure, mine are in are in the original covers and I wouldn't part with them for the world - I do like the new look, but my nostalgia breaks through occasionally over the former ones. I suppose you don't feel this wistfulness? I found Cynthia didn't agree with me. Smiley

"I'm afraid not. I always disliked the early covers. I suggested the 'fine art' option, with an illustration from the appropriate period, right at the beginning, but it was laughed down. I am just glad they have gone that way at last, and given the books a little dignity."

It is very evident in your writing (your enthusiasm truly shines through) that you enjoy writing The Morland Series. Does it ever overwhelm you?

"At the beginning of researching for each book I realise how much there is to do and fall into an abject panic. How will I ever get through it all? How will I retain it? I feel as if my head is already full, and trying to stuff any more in will only result in something else slopping out. But once I'm in, the fascination takes over and I am too absorbed to be afraid."

I guess that would make two of us given that I'm too 'absorbed' to stop reading! It makes for some especially long nights and dreadfully early mornings!

One thing I've always found specifically interesting is that the Morlands choose to remain Catholic through out the religious upheaval in England. It creates some stimulating situations-was this a conscious choice?

Cynthia gave an obvious answer, one I'd never thought about, being to involved with the entire saga. "No, it wasn't a choice of mine, but of theirs. Yorkshire was a Catholic stronghold, and families of that kind did remain loyal."

O, favorite characters! (Some of us are forever debating this.) Clearly I've been bracing myself to ask, ask, ask, first and foremost, about Annunciata, Countess of Chelmsford, who has always been my ideal! The snarled mishaps that woman created or that were created for her, <g> and her 'near' impossible escapes, O, she was a lovely impossible creature! You must have one character that is dear to you?

"I loved Annunciata-she was such fun to write about! I always had a soft spot for Lucy, too - such a tough little person, so determined, so gruffly unsentimental. I thought her relationship with Parslow was very touching; and I was always glad for her sake that Danby persevered. He was another of my favourites. And - I know I may be on my own here - I liked James. I never fully understood him, but complex, difficult people can be so rewarding (at least from an author's point of view)."

I was quite in my element now and steadfast in getting as much satisfaction for this meddlesome mind of mine (and I genuinely treasured this answer). So, do your characters find themselves in these situations, or are they planned? Please tell me you can't control them!

"I never have had the least control over any of my characters. Writing for me is like watching a movie and writing down what I see. I sometimes try to exert discipline over my people, but if I try to make them do anything they don't want to, they just freeze up, and I find myself staring at a blank screen. I've only once forced the issue and that was in the very first book, when Eleanor's husband Robert was supposed to die and didn't. As the publisher had made me submit a synopsis beforehand, I just had to grit my teeth and kill him, but I always felt bad about it. Since then I have always refused to submit synopses."

(Not a word about gritting teeth and 'offing' husbands from me!!)

Here's a question only a devoted reader of the series is going to 'get' but 'I' had to ask. Are we 'ever' going to discover that secreted treasure, hidden during the height of the Reformation?

"I'm sure it will be discovered, but I have no idea when. I never know what's going to happen until I write it."

What we (the obsessed) have noted is how strong the Morland women are. It is quite noticeable (and we LOVE it!). Is this an objective you've always had in mind?

"It was in the original specification from the publishers (but it is a long time since they worried about the spec. I pretty well write what I like now.) Of course, strong female characters work from a fiction point of view, but I try to be realistic in the books, and it is a fact that some families in real life had a tradition of allowing their women members to develop themselves, rather than keeping them in subjugation. So I think having educated, assertive Morland women are all right, provided it is kept in the historical context. What the Morlands do is governed by two things: their own character and family history, and the times they live in. I hope I manage to convey this interaction believably."

(Works for me!)

You previously mentioned Lucy, I've found that though she was quite the scoundrel in her youth, at this point she seems to be the last of the domineering Morland matriarchs. Can we hope for more like her? (I found Harrod-Eagles answer to this question vastly worthy of noting.)

"Family life is getting more mobile and more fragmented all the time, so I think the same sort of matriarch is unlikely. But the First World War is coming up and a lot of men will be absent and/or killed, leaving an opening for a female controller. Let's wait and see!"

Do you prefer the earlier sagas or do you enjoy each one as it's written?

"The earlier ones were easier to write in some ways, life being simpler and the research not so complicated. But I love every period when I come to it, and I have no preferences among the books."

Enough about books, though I certainly could discuss this perpetually, picking and burrowing into each book in the series. I'm certain your readers would like to know more about you. What are your personal interests?

"I love horse riding and walking. I love England, its history, old houses and churches, ancient villages, everything about this fabulous country. I love music, and playing in amateur orchestras. I like good food and fine wine and eating out. I spend a lot of time in my garden, creating my own little bit of Eden. I like to travel - and I like to come home!"

Do you have a favorite place in Britain to escape to?

"Dorset was always my bolt hole, with its rolling downs, chalk cliffs and wonderful seashore. But since I've lived in the Chilterns, I've come to think of them as 'my' hills. And I love the North York Moors. It's always hills and high places for me. I like being on the top of the world with green, patchwork England spread out beneath me and nothing but sky between me and the rest of the universe."

(Sounds like a piece of heave to me <g>)

What do you read for pleasure?

"I have so much reading to do for my profession (including keeping up with a wide range of newly-published fiction) that I don't have much time to read for pleasure. But I love any book that's well written. I love style. Recently I've read new books by Jasper Foorde, Stephen King, (Ahh, another Stephen King fan, seems all the best writers are? J) Ben Elton, Nick Hornby, Carl Hiaasen, John Lescroart and Bill Bryson which have given me pleasure. The sort of book I would choose for pleasure would be written in beautiful English, would involve some fantastic twist to everyday life that would really get my imagination going, and preferably would be very funny. Jasper Foorde and Douglas Adams come nearest. They and Stephen King (if he would leave out the squishy stuff) could never write enough for me."

(Should I say, I like 'the squishy stuff?')

Do you have a beloved period in history that you'd care to write about?

"I always loved the Tudor and Stuart periods. But since I've 'done' it, I've become more interested in the early nineteenth century. I'd like to do a series set in the Napoleonic wars."

What makes you laugh, (films, television, good company?)

"Wit - the manipulation of language - is what I like best. Some old comedies, like Porridge, the early series of Cheers and Mash, some of the early Frasiers used language that way. I love The Simpsons - I think the sly allusions and satire are incomparable, allied with the brilliant way it uses the drawing like a camera. Jasper Foorde's book The Eyre Affair made me laugh out loud. So did the movie Monsters Inc. And, in my orchestra, my second trumpet has a dry wit and droll delivery that makes me snigger aloud during tacit passages, to the conductor's annoyance."

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles website: www.cynthiaharrodeagles.com

Her Dynasty Series can now be found in the US at both:

www.poisonedpen.com & A Common Reader, NY, NY.

© Wendy Zollo/2003

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