"Bloody History: Dissecting Life and Death"

## Where did it all begin for you in regards to historical mysteries, both as a reader and a writer?  

D.M.—I am steeped in all the great writers of the Nineteenth Century. I did a degree in English and I’ve read masses of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad. I still can’t get enough of these guys. They have so much to teach writers in any genre. I have just re-read “Heart of Darkness” – a masterpiece of pace, melodrama and just general creepiness. It’s wild. I also loved a book by Andrew Taylor called “The American Boy” and if I could be 1% as good as him, I’d die a happy woman. In terms of writing Hatton and Roumande, it was interestingly non-fiction which got me tapping at the keyboard. I read a massive tome on Darwin and it blew my mind and quickly led me on to eating up a biography of the “other” Darwin, a man called Alfred Russel Wallace and his incredible travelogue, “The Malay Archipelago.” That’s what really made me think, “A ha! There’s a novel here and I want to write it.”

## When did you decide to write novels, and were you envisioning a series right from the start?

D.M.—I started writing in 2007 because there were builders in the house, I was between contracts and was basically time filling. I certainly didn’t envisage becoming a writer for a living. I had no ambitions to be a novelist and I certainly didn’t see it as a series idea. That was my publisher’s idea and the whole thing took on a life of its own. Five years later, and I am working on my next novel. I’ve got the bug. No going back, now!  

## What are the difficulties and biggest challenges when doing research about early forensics? And what’s your favourite aspect of that science?

D.M.—The forensic detail was really hard. There was barely anything available, precisely because it was so early and informal. I scavenged for bits of information in books about anatomists, and other modes of Science like Nineteenth Century chemists and I went to the Hunterian Museum in London and the Wellcome Trust. I learnt a lot about pathology but forensics. Eeesh. I had to play detective. I had to think OK, so they knew this chemical reaction, so could they have done that? I met a Forensics Historian at a party last summer and I was delighted when he told me I was on the nose with what I’d written. That anyone working in the 1850s would have likely strayed into all sorts of areas, detection being one of them, and that roles weren’t firmly fixed, as they are now. And also the fact that Hatton and Roumande would have attempted things, just to see if they worked.  There are lots of things they can’t do, because Victorians didn’t understand what we know now. There was no DNA testing, no ability to tell the difference between a smear of human blood verses animal, for example.  Some of it just had to be hunches and plain detective work. They were feeling their way in the dark, back then to a great extent.

As to favourite bits. I love the body preserving element of Roumande’s job and I’ve learnt a huge amount about their methods during the course of writing my books. I also think Roumande’s attempts to pull off finger printing in THE DEVIL’S RIBBON is fun (as well as historically accurate). He’s nothing, if not determined.

## You’ve studied and worked in different fields; what’s useful now in your writing from these studies and experiences?

D.M.—I know a lot about pain, in-humanity and death from working in war zones.  I’ve met some heroes in my time (in Kabul for example, where prosthetic  experts were fitting  artificial legs on mine victims, as the city was shelled) and I wanted to bring a sense of “Just Do The Right Thing” to the development of Hatton and Roumande. Fighting a good fight no matter how hard it is. Hatton and Roumande are, above all, Men of Honour who are sickened by the corruption all around them. I relate to that. I’ve stared evil in the face. I’ve looked real killers in the eye. I’ve heard children screaming in terror and in agony and you never forget that. I use this in my work.

My work has been called “emotional, dark, gory” but to me, I just write what I think Hatton and Roumande would be looking at, and what they would be feeling at that time. I saw people decapitated in Afghanistan by a mortar attack and stood in a pool of dead bodies and blood. I was shocked and afraid but also angry, and this memory of war, and its hopelessness, appears in the scene outside the factory gates in THE DEVIL’S RIBBON when Hatton goes to where their Irish are trying to storm the bread factory. He just rolls up his sleeves and gets on with it. This is what people do during war, when people are dying all around them. They get on with the next thing. They get on with living.

## You’ve seen terrible things, but what exactly were you doing in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan? Do you have a sense of accomplishment, in having helped in some ways, or do you feel like it’s to be constantly done all over again?

D.M.—Yes, I saw terrible things but I also saw countries at pivotal moments in their history. I saw people show great courage and I feel very lucky to have worked for the Red Cross, where I ran the press office in London for six years. I developed media strategies, ran campaigns to ban landmines, travelled to war zones with the press to tell people’s stories. Did we make a difference? Yes, I think we did. I know there’s a lot of cynicism about the aid world but when the bottom line is do you help reunite a child with their family who’s survived a genocide or not? Do you help this person walk by fitting a prosthetic limb after they’ve been blown up by a landmine or not? Do you try and ban terrible weapons of war which can cause irreversible blindness? Do you try and save this starving mother who has six children to support? Then, the answer is yes and yes, again. I get the geo political arguments, I get the corruption in aid delivery, I know war will happen again and again, that’s it’s like a horrible, grotesque cycle but people matter and without humanity we are nothing. Nothing at all.

## Are Hatton and Roumande based on real individuals from that era?

D.M.—Hatton and Roumande are entirely made up. I just went with the flow, where they were concerned but other characters are real historical figures. For example, Alfred Russel Wallace makes an appearance in DEVOURED and I make reference to many political figures of the day in relation to the Irish question, in THE DEVIL’S RIBBON.  There is one figure based on a real life person but I am not saying who he is! I’ll get into too much trouble, though he is vain and would probably be flattered – enough said. Writers like to mix it up.

## Were you at all inspired by Darwin, for the natural science side of “Devoured”?

D.M.—Absolutely, but mainly by Alfred Russel Wallace and his “Malay Archipelago”. I urge you all to read it. It’s not a crime novel but it’s great. It’s an adventure set in Borneo where you learn, amongst other things, how trappers caught wild animals, how they did taxidermy in the middle of a steaming jungle. What Victorians understood about botany, evolutionary theories pre-Darwin, entomology etc. What’s not to love?

## There are very gruesome murders in the books; did you go to a special place in your head to create them?

D.M.—I went to the File in my head labeled G for “Gothic”! Hatton and Roumande are moving in a Gothic, Victorian landscape. It was important for me, writing in a tradition, for each murder to be macabre. Matthew Pearl does this brilliantly in The Dante Club.  Stephen King does it and we call it “Horror”. Lots of readers are tagging my novels as “horror” and I often write those scenes to make the reader wince but I’m also fascinated by anatomical details so I add them in.

One day, I might have someone sip some chamomile tea from a dainty china cup and keel over, but I think that’s unlikely. I love writing gruesome, and Hatton and Roumande are anatomists in the Nineteenth Century, after all! It wasn’t pretty.

## Can you tell us about your Irish background? Did you live in Ireland at all and are you fluent in the Irish language?

D.M.—From the age dot, I spent every summer on my Gran dad’s farm in Ireland. I adopted an Irish accent to fit in with my cousins and even went to school for a week but that was a horrible experience. I jumped over the wall and ran home, crying.

During that time, I went hay making, collected eggs, helped with the milking (by hand!), dug potatoes. I did the lot. I had a fantastic childhood. I don’t speak Irish but my cousins do, so Lorna McPhearson helped me with the Gaelic. So a big thank you to Lorna!

## You use the clash between religion and science in Devoured, and religion is influential in the Irish rebellion in The Devil’s Ribbon; is there a deeper well of inspiration than religion for historical mysteries?

D.M.—Religion is kind of the clash in THE DEVIL’S RIBBON but it’s also the oppression of one group of people over another. That’s what I’m interested in. Power struggles so I guess, the deeper wells for historical fiction will often be the political impacting on the personal and in THE DEVIL’S RIBBON (without giving too much away) the driving force is ultimately, a personal story.  Love is something that novelists can draw on of course in any period, and that will be central to my next novel. Love and loss.

## Your detectives reflect the reality of that time as far as police corruption is concerned, and they’re not always on the good side of the law. In fact, aside from Hatton & Roumande, readers can never entirely trust most of your characters.  Is the use of these characters a tool for deepening the mystery and keeping the reader guessing?

D.M.—Yes, it’s a tool to keep people guessing but it’s also because I don’t think you can trust many people in authority. I never have and I never will. There are good apples and bad apples but only a few months ago, yet another massive scandal has been outed in the UK:

I am an ex-NGO campaigner. Trust no-one used to be my watch word! I’m a bit less paranoid now it’s not my job to be suspicious, as it was when I was trying to expose dirty oil companies or arms’ manufacturers!

## I’ve read somewhere that you imagined Hatton as looking like Ed Norton; have you seen the movie “The Painted Veil” in which he plays a British doctor?

D.M.—Yes!  Just like Ed Norton in The Painted Veil. I love that film (made me weep buckets) and that’s exactly what I had in mind.  Handsome, uptight and English, dedicated, work obsessed, repressed but really rather sexy. Many female readers have told me they find Hatton strangely alluring! Male readers interestingly, haven’t. It’s a girl thing. We love men who need saving from themselves. Hatton would also be played well by Ryan Gosling. It has to be someone who’s svelte, angular, intense and unconventionally handsome.

## Speaking of movies, would you prefer seeing one of your books as a big screen movie, or a TV series with Hatton & Roumande?

D.M.—Either will do nicely, thank you very much! But seriously, I think some of those forest scenes in Borneo in DEVOURED would make a nice film, maybe?

## With so many other books and writers vying for their share of the market, what are the big challenges for you as a fairly recent published writer?

D.M.—I try not to think about market but it’s difficult to get noticed, sure. I tweet because it’s fun and I’ve met lots of lovely writers and reviewers via twitter and we are a very supportive community. We have a lot in common (like spending too much time on twitter when we should be writing our novels). I do Facebook to talk to some of my friends who are scattered all over the place. I do as much PR around my books as is on offer because I want to reach new readers but mainly I want to write good books, so that’s my ultimate focus. When I am not around book launch periods, I try to keep my head down, write what I believe in and what I’m passionate about and hope people will enjoy what I do and come back for more.

## How different is the publishing world from the way you imagined it before being published?

D.M.—I had no pre-conceptions so it’s all been a massive learning curve. I didn’t realize how important your Editor was or what they even did (other than out red lines through your prose!). Now I know they are the single most important person on the book, other than the author.

They shape what you become.

I also didn’t realize how much work is involved in getting a book to market. If you are not prepared to put in twelve hours a day, six, sometimes seven days a week and dedicate yourself to the written word, then walk away now! This is not a job for the feint hearted. You have to be tough and deal with rejection, a lot.

## You live in an area, St. Margaret’s (near London) that seems to have an interesting past; my favourite painter, William Turner, has lived there in early 19th century at his Sandycombe Lodge (which is becoming a museum soon, right?). What inspires you from that history, and do you have any plans of including Turner in one of your future books? 

D.M.—Yes, a museum. How lovely, will that be. I’ll let you know when they open it. I love Turner, too. So does my art mad, fifteen year old son. Turner was an iconoclast, a rebel  and a Romantic, as well as a brilliant painter. His paintings seethe with colour and passion. An old University friend of mine is writing a book about Turner.  I’d love to include Turner in one of my books but he was dead by 1851, so he wouldn’t work for Hatton and Roumande unless it was about those he left behind and his legacy, which would be an interesting slant.  In fact, dead or not by 1851, it’s a great idea.

## My last question is one I ask every writer I interview; so, if there’s a crime novel written with you as central character, what would be the first sentence of the book, and how would your character die?

D.M.—“The call when it came, was from somewhere in Brussels and my heart sank hearing his voice, thinking twenty years had passed but Jesus, he still sounded the same which was a bad omen.”

My character would kill herself having done what she needed to do. The sun would be low, glinting on the water and she’d take off her shoes, slip off her thin summer dress but after a moment’s hesitation decide to keep on the little bracelet made of red and black beads. She’d walk through the marshes, her feet squelching through the mud till she reached the Kagera River, seeing lime green snakes slithering away, as she waded into the water, her body at ease with the pull and the swell of the current.  She’d catch sight of a log hurtling towards her just before it hit her and down she’d go, sucked under the tumult of the water, where in the last few seconds of her life she’d see bubbles, weeds twisting around her, maybe a fish or two, silver flicks and the only sound she’d hear would be some animal noise, deep in her belly, gasping for air and a voice saying, “Come, come  to me.”

Visit D. E. Meredith on her website, on Twitter @de_meredith and Facebook
She's published by Minotaur Books/US Macmillan, and starting this coming August, also by Allison & Busby in the UK.

March 2012

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