Today I have the opportunity to share an interview with author Mary F. Burns, who is touring the blogosphere with her new novel, The Spoils of Avalon. It is described as a historical mystery bringing together two of the most unlikely sleuths. Check out the interview below to learn more!
Have you always wanted to be a writer? What has the process been like for you?
For a while, when I was growing up, I was torn between being an artist and a writer, until I realized I could be both. However, writing has pretty much taken over my artistic side, and my ‘art’ has mainly manifested itself in making stained glass windows and in creating book trailers for my books! I love to work with images and music, sound and color, and I think that my love of visual and aural beauty stands me in good stead for my writing as well. However, after a bit of college creative writing and poetry back in the 60’s, I was stuck writing what I now call “corporate fiction” while I earned a living in PR and Communication departments, and on my own as a consultant. I started writing real fiction seriously when I turned 50 and found myself free of the corporate shackles (i.e., laid off) but with plenty of consulting work. I wrote my first full-length novel after attending the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference (Northern California coast) in 2000—and although I’ve published several books since then, I’m still working on that first one! I think I’ve re-written it at least five times, but it’s almost there. It’s called “Ember Days”.
How did you decide to use John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget as sleuths in your mystery? I admit that I know of Sargent’s paintings but nothing about Paget, but that is about all I know.
I had written about the two of them in a previous novel, Portraits of an Artist, about the time in Sargent’s life when he was on the ascendancy in Paris, and about the spectacular disaster that unseated him—in the form of the scandalous Madame X. Violet was one of the primary narrators in the book, which presents the story as coming from several people whose portraits Sargent painted during that time. I came to know and love John and Violet, and when the book was done and published, I really missed them! I didn’t think I wanted to write another “serious” novel about them, so I decided to star them in their own mystery series. Violet wrote under the nom de plume of Vernon Lee (she thought, and probably rightly, that a man’s name would ensure that her books on culture, art, music and literature would be taken seriously. She wrote tons of essays and books, both fiction and non-fiction, and she became a kind of cult-figure for her ghost/spiritualist stories, which she wrote around the turn of the 19th century. Both Sargent and Paget were truly interesting people, given their Bohemian upbringings, exceptional talents, and energetic ambition to make a mark on the world.
What is one thing you would like readers to know about this novel that isn’t conveyed by the book blurb?
That this is a book about friendship and faith, seen from two world-views that are very, very different. Arthur the young monk, who is the lead character in the 1539 sections about Glastonbury, lives in a medieval world where every thought and action is inseparable from the belief that God loves and watches over you, and if you are called to be a soldier in His army, or sacrifice yourself for the Church, you do it without question—and it’s a beautiful, sacred way to live. By stark contrast, John and Violet live in a time when religion is only a set of moral precepts that are (often) given only lip-service, or is becoming irrelevant in a world that is besieged with the astounding discoveries of natural science and philosophic inquiry that is questioning everything. As I wrote this story, I became more and more intrigued by this contrast, and I can only hope that my readers will be able to discern the differences I tried to present through my characters.
Why write mysteries? Why a historical mystery over a contemporary mystery novel?
I love a good mystery, and I really love historical mysteries because in addition to solving a crime, you get to go to a different time and place. But more than that, placing a story in the past is intriguing because of the need for the characters to really rely on their own intelligence, perceptions and intuition without the use of cell phones, a CSI team, modern information systems, and the like. All my novels, the mysteries included, focus more on the “Character” of the characters than the actual plot. I mean, the plot is important, and it has to hold up and be a true mystery, but it’s how the people respond, how they think, what the circumstances do to them and how it makes them behave – you know, grace under pressure, honor under fire, that sort of thing – that really interests me. Of course contemporary mysteries can do that, too, but I’m much more intrigued by way people behaved in previous eras when there was a more widespread belief in and acceptance of certain kinds of standards: holding to one’s word, what it meant to be a “gentleman” or a “lady”, taking philosophical ideas seriously. Our modern world is far too cynical and existentialist for my liking, so I am happy to retreat to the past!
Do you intend for Sargent/Paget to be in more mystery novels?
Oh my, yes! The series begins when they are both only twenty-one years old, and I want to write about them as they grow and change, fall in and out of love, cause trouble (which they both did, at various times), have successes and failures—in short, be human in the best sense of the word: alive, curious, thoughtful, and self-aware. They travelled all the time and were always meeting up in one city or another—London, Paris, Rome, Venice—so there will be lots of great places to visit and have adventures.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of novel writing?
Getting started. Finding that nugget of an idea that turns into something big that just carries you through right to the end. I’ve had so many false starts with novels, sometimes writing up to sixty pages or so, and then the whole thing just peters out. But once that good idea shows up, as it did for The Spoils of Avalon, it’s often the case that I simply cannot stop writing until I’m all the way the first draft. I don’t mind editing and re-reading and re-writing—you learn so much that way!
Are you working on anything new right now? Anything you can share?
I have two tracks that I’m writing – one is Old Testament biblical historical. It started with my first book, J-The Woman Who Wrote the Bible, and is continuing now with what I’m calling a series, The Genesis Novels. The first one is Isaac and Ishmael, and is currently being published at the same time as The Spoils of Avalon. I hope to get started on the next one, Joseph in Egypt, very soon. The second track is, of course, my historical mystery series, and I’m already doing research and working on the plot of the next Sargent/Paget mystery, which is probably going to be set in Venice in about 1879, and involve a very interesting painting that Sargent was working on while he was there, as well as a book Violet was just finishing up at the same time—and of course, there will be links to a long-ago past to help solve the mystery.
Mary F. Burns is the author of PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST (Sand Hill Review Press, February 2013), a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. A novella-length book, ISAAC AND ISHMAEL, is also being published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2014. Ms. Burns’ debut historical novel J-THE WOMAN WHO WROTE THE BIBLE was published in July 2010 by O-Books (John Hunt Publishers, UK). She has also written two cozy-village mysteries in a series titled The West Portal Mysteries (The Lucky Dog Lottery and The Tarot Card Murders).
Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English, along with a high school teaching certificate. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she now lives with her husband Stuart in the West Portal neighborhood. Ms. Burns has a law degree from Golden Gate University, has been president of her neighborhood association and is active in citywide issues. During most of her working career she was employed as a director of employee communications, public relations and issues management at various San Francisco Bay Area corporations, was an editor and manager of the Books on Tape department for Ignatius Press, and has managed her own communications/PR consulting business, producing written communications, websites and video productions for numerous corporate and non-profit clients.
Ms. Burns may be contacted by email at email@example.com. For more information please visit Mary Burns’s website. You can also connect with Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or read her blog posts at:
"The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings—including the legendary Arthur—as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different—the industrialized, Darwinian, materialistic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.
First in a new series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends—beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.
Friends from the age of ten, Paget and Sargent frequently met in the popular European watering places and capitals, frequenting the same salons and drawing rooms in London, Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Vienna and Madrid. Both were possessed of keen minds and bohemian tendencies, unorthodox educations and outsized egos (especially Paget). Their instant, natural bonding led them to address each other as “Twin”, and they corresponded frequently when they were apart.
Henry James once described Violet Paget as having “the most formidable mind” of their times, and he was an active fan and patron of John Sargent, introducing him to London society and his own inner circles of literary and artistic genius."
You can follow along with the rest of the tour by visiting the HFVBT site or on Twitter with the following hashtag: #SpoilsofAvalonBlogTour.
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