The celebrated author of the Inspector Lynley series of mysteries talks about her latest book.
January 12, 2012 12:35 p.m.
Guest: Elizabeth George
Related Story: Elizabeth George Tells All About Inspector Lynley
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Elizabeth George, the American author of a best-selling series of English mysteries is out with her 17th inspect or Lynley novel, and viewers of the KPBS television have seen the characters jump off the printed page in the highly successful inspector Lynley mysteries. Readers have followed these two compelling characters over the years through spats, love affairs, tragedies, and numerous bad hair days. Ms. George will be in San Diego tomorrow to promote her latest book, believing the lie. Welcome to Midday Edition.
GEORGE: Thank you very much. I love the reference to Barbara Havers' bad hair days.
CAVANAUGH: I think readers really loved that compelling tension between those two characters. And I want to talk a little bit more about that as well. But first of all, Elizabeth, you grew up in California. You're an American. So I'm wondering, why did you decide to set your mystery novels in Britain?
GEORGE: I have a long-time interest in Britain that really started in the '60s, right when pop culture was beginning to reference things English. If you think about the '60s, that was when the beetles came over to the United States. That was when fashion was imported from swinging London, and a number of movie stars who at this point are quite well known, but at that point were totally unknown, came over as well, like Michael cane, and the Redgraves, and Julie Christi, and Terrence stamp. So I was quite taken with England. And that interest that I had in the country went on and on throughout the years. So it was really a logical place for me to place my series.
CAVANAUGH: It's one thing to be enamored of another country. It's another to be to get so, dare I say it, spot on with English dialogue. How do you do that?
GEORGE: Well, I'm not really sure. I think to a certain extent, it's some kind of channeling that goes on, especially when I'm talking about writing in the voices of my continuing characters am but also, I spent a lot of time in England. And I have over the years travelled there many, many times. And for a number of years I kept a flat in London as well. And when you add to that reading copious numbers of British books and watching British television, it becomes a little bit easier to figure out how an American could do it. I'm exposed to it a lot.
CAVANAUGH: I think some viewers of public television probably feel that way as well.
GEORGE: Absolutely, yes, yes!
CAVANAUGH: There's another touchy British subject that's handled masterfully in your books. Class distinctions. That's that tension generated between aristocrat, Thomas Lynley, and working class Barbara Havers. How did you get that dynamic right?
GEORGE: Well, you know, who knows if I really did, to tell you the honest to God truth? But I'm sure that there are people from all walks of life in England who move very easily between classes, and other people who don't at all. As a matter of fact, one time being on the underground because we couldn't find a taxi with my editor in London, my former editor, God rest his soul. And he was a man who had been educated at British public schools and then went to Cambridge, and he wasn't used to rubbing elbows with the middle class and lower classes. And so we were forced to take an underground train, and I don't think he ever got over it. You could just see all over him he was total he appalled by the experience. And I think that has a lot to do with getting -- you know, trying to get it right has a lot to do with listening and reading newspapers and just being aware of what's going on around you. The British tend to make their feelings known toward members of other classes.
CAVANAUGH: Public transport?
GEORGE: Oh, yeah, exactly! As a matter of fact, I went to the theatre one night, and I was meeting another British editor this, and my publisher, and somebody else on my -- on the team, and I arrived in a taxi. And my editor was so surprised. She said I was so surprised to see you arrive by taxi because I know how devoted you are to public transport. Because I ride around on buses and things. It's a great way to really learn the city, actually, is to take public transport. And it's a great way to be exposed to different levels of society.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with writer, Elizabeth George, we're talking about her novels, and of course, believing the lie, her latest, is the 17th inspector Lynley novel. How have Lynley and Havers changed over the years?
GEORGE: Well, I would say that the -- probably the major way that certainly that Lynley has changed is with the advent of terrible tragedy in his life. He was always a very compassionate character. And as a matter of fact, in the very first book, that's why Barbara Havers is assigned to work with him, although she doesn't realize it at first. Her superior officer says there's a lot you might learn from working with Lynley. And she can't imagine who it would be because she can't stand the guy. But she learns by the end of the book that that's what it was, it was compassion. And but I think with the will advent into Lynley's life of terrible tragedy, he has had to apply some of that compassion toward himself as well as other characters. And barb radio Havers, her life has judicious expanded with the entrance into it of the Pakistani family who live near here in chalk farm in London, with her growing relationship with them, and particularly with her relationship with the little girl. And that broadened her world as well. I think additionally, of course, those two characters have become closer and much more comfortable with each other than they were in the initial book two.
CAVANAUGH: What is Lynley up to in your newest novel?
GEORGE: He is sent up to Cumbria in the north of England on a special assignment. He's sent there by the assistant commissioner at Scotland yard, sir David Hilliard, who never knew a title he couldn't bow to. He is visited by a member of his club, a man named Bernard Fairclaw, who is a baron. And that, of course, is something that tickles Hilliard's fancy greatly. And Fairclaw asks him to -- if he would do him a favor to lend him an officer who could check into the drowning of his nephew. His nephew's drowning was declared an accident. But he's not really -- he's not entirely satisfied with that conclusion. He wants to make sure that his their do well son Nicholas was not involved. And that sets the ball in motion. And Lynley heads up there to check out the circumstances, the crime, as well as the various forensic reports. He takes with him his friend, Simon St. James, who is a special. And Simon's wife, Deborah, to work another angle which requires a civilian.
CAVANAUGH: An old flame of inspector Lynley.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I just really have to mention this, if you'll allow me, the book that caused the most uproar among your fans is the one in which inspector Lynley's wife was killed. And that was also in an episode that was in the inspector Lynley mysteries on TV. It took so much to get them together, many fans were outraged. Why did you want the series to take that turn?
GEORGE: Well, one of the things that you always have to be aware of as a writer in writing a series is to keep opening up the possibilities in your story. And you have to be very, very careful not to do anything that all of a sudden shuts a story down. Having put Lynley in the position of finally winning Helen's heart, because I certainly wasn't going to, you know, create book after book in which they had this dance of will you, won't you, yes, I will, no, I won't. So having won her heart and setting out on a life together, I effectively shut Lynley's story down to a certain degree. So when you're starting to see that a story is closing down, your options are to either bring in a new character or do something with the characters that you already have. So the decision that I made, the one that I thought would cause the most interesting possibilities to occur later on, was the elimination of Lynley's wife. But the elimination of Lynley's wife in a very devastating way, and that is indeed what happened in an earlier book. And it was enormously controversial. I think in part because people didn't expect me to eliminate a continuing character, nor did they expect the continuing character to be eliminated in such a brutal way. And yet, the manner in which she was eliminated is something that happens all the time on the streets of London now.
CAVANAUGH: How closely have the inspector Lynley mysteries on TV been true to your novels?
GEORGE: The thing about television is -- or film, is that you pretty much have to kiss your story goodbye if you decide to sell it to anyone. And -- I've had -- I've been approached by number of different times by film companies, and they were not able to get it off the ground. When the BBC approached me, I said they have a pretty good track record. So let me give them a chance. And they early on made a decision to reduce the novels down to the crime novel itself. In other words, for example, in the new book, believing the lie, there is this crime being investigated, and a mysterious death. Then there's also these tangential stories going on, that to me make the book more interesting. Well, it was all those tangential stories that got eliminated. So for me, as the writer, of course, that was a bit of a disappointment. I think the production values were pretty good, and the performances of the two main people were good. They didn't look like my characters, but I don't think you can ever really expect actors and actresses to be chosen who look exactly like your characters. But I felt their performances were okay. In the best of all worlds, it would have been a really great situation where a novel was adapted for television, and it took them six hours of television time to tell the full story. That would have been a dream situation. It was not however what they decided to do.
CAVANAUGH: They don't quite do that for anyone examine.
>> Not very often, no.
CAVANAUGH: Your new book, believing the lie, as many of your other books, is quite big. This is over 600 pages. I'm wondering what kind of advance work you do before you sit down and write a novel of this size.
GEORGE: There's the location work first, that is deciding where this book is going to take place by looking at a number of locations, choosing one or two, reading about those location, and actually going to look at the locations themselves, and deciding while I'm there, what particular areas might be suggestive of story. So I do that. For this particular book, there were also additional books that I needed to read because of some of the subject matter that I'm covering in it, which is, of course, one of the -- you know, buried within some of the tangential stories of -- so there's that as well. Usually there are interview ares to be conducted, and that generally goes on in England too. Sometimes I have other people that I interview in the United States. And there are, you know, photographs to be taken and notes to be. Typed up. So there's a pretty good amount of advance work that goes into understanding how I'm going to use the location and understanding what particular elements of the evoked past information that I've gathered are going to appear in the book. And then I go through all of the processes of creating the characters, developing the characters, beginning to create a stepped plot so that I can see scene by scene how the story is going to play out. There's amount of things I do before I get to writing the rough draft. And that's the fun part.
CAVANAUGH: And of course, after the writing is over, you do the tour. And I want to let everyone know that Elizabeth George will be in San Diego tomorrow to promote her latest book, called believing the lie. She'll be at an event sponsored by mysterious galaxy book store in La Mesa, and a book signing at war wick's book store in La Jolla at 7:00 PM. Thanks so much for taking the time and speaking with us today.
GEORGE: Thank you very much.