Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Interviewed by Doris Ann Norris for Bookbrowser
(November 2000)

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer are a writing couple. Mary, born in England, and Eric, a native of the U.S., have been free lance writers. Their collaboration in marriage has brought about another kind of partnership as they have written an historical mystery series set in 6th century Constantinople featuring John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian. ONE FOR SORROW was published last year and TWO FOR JOY is being released in December of this year. BookBrowser has a few questions to ask this talented duo.

BB: It seems to me that writing is essentially a solitary profession even though there have been some great collaborations. Writing a book can hardly be subdivided the way music and lyrics are. Just how does your collaboration work?

MR&EM: We collaborate on all aspects of the books so it's not been the case, as it sometimes is, where one co-author researches while the other supplies the plot! But we do have our strengths. For example, Mary is better at designing the mystery puzzles (she says it is because she has a devious mind) so those owe perhaps a little more to her, while Eric likes writing descriptions so it's more likely he'll do the first draft of a chapter where the scenery is particularly important.

Our method is to begin by tossing ideas around. Some of them, being rather wild, get sneered at and kicked out of contention fairly quickly, but after a while something suggests itself as a possible starting point, and we take off from there, bouncing thoughts back and forth. Then one of us is stuck with the job of putting down an outline of what we have sketched out. This outline will run to perhaps fifteen or twenty pages, with each scene roughed out. It usually takes a few weeks to develop the outline, with lots of discussion, additions, subtractions and waving about of arms until we finally have the story line pinned down somewhat. Then we begin writing by selecting scenes to which we feel drawn, perhaps because of some relevant personal experience or a particular affinity for the characters involved, or else we decide one or the other will write a scene because of its particular content. We do not always write the scenes in chronological order and usually we'll both be writing different scenes at the same time. Once a scene is drafted, we hand it off to the other for a rewrite that will sometimes be light and sometimes heavy. We keep trading the scene back and forth until we both agree it's finished, usually after two rewrites. It is an odd method, certainly, but it works for us!

BB: And it certainly works well for the reader. How did you decide on Justinian's court as a setting for your novels? And why a eunuch as a hero?

MR&EM: When British editor Mike Ashley asked us to contribute to an anthology of historical mysteries several years ago, we wanted to choose an era that hadn't been done to death, no pun intended. Eric had always been interested in the Eastern Roman Empire, the part that didn't fall in 476, and since we couldn't think of any mysteries (or for that matter a great number of non-mysteries) set during the Eastern Empire's early period, it fit the bill nicely. Of course, neither of us knew too much about the period but then the story was only four pages long. That first story, A Byzantine Mystery, wasn't character-driven being more of a little puzzle with a twist. We needed a character whom the emperor might conceivably send on a very delicate mission, and the Lord Chamberlain, who served as a personal advisor to the emperor, qualified. Historically, many holders of the office were eunuchs, including Narses, Justinian's Lord Chamberlain. So to add a bit of color we named our character John the Eunuch. The fact that our Lord Chamberlain was a pagan did have something to do with the story, but that he was a eunuch was irrelevant!

Then some months later Mike asked us for a second story about John. Looking back, we must confess that at that point we could have spared John a lot of grief by explaining in passing that he'd picked up his uncomplimentary nickname of "the Eunuch" because he didn't have a heavy beard or something along those lines. However, we just plunged ahead regardless, and so John remained what he was and is. Not that we've ever found ourselves saying "Oh no! We've lumbered ourselves with a eunuch! No continuing love interest!" There was some love interest in the first book and there will be more in future novels, but under the circumstances it would be unrealistic for us to emphasize that aspect of the plot line. So John was not created in a calculated way but rather more by accident and so, like Popeye, he is what he is. This is not, however, a bad thing because although there's some downside to having a eunuch protagonist, his affliction gives his character more depth. Then, too, this irreversible tragedy he's suffered makes him more sympathetic than a man in his very powerful position might otherwise be to those who are suffering through no fault of their own.

BB: When reading ONE FOR SORROW and TWO FOR JOY, one is quickly immersed in the culture, sounds, mind set and even the smells of the 6th century Byzantine Empire. Just how much research was required to achieve such marvelous results? Do you feel as if you are living in Constantinople while you are writing?

MR&EM: At the beginning, a great many of even the most everyday items had to be heavily researched, but fortunately there are many wonderful resources available to us, including numerous libraries and university departments overflowing with helpful folks, not to mention all manner of at-large experts, who are happy to provide information on the most arcane of topics.

Even better, in resolving questions, we have often stumbled over the most fascinating facts that we have naturally immediately noted down for future use. St. Michael's shrine in TWO FOR JOY was something that we discovered that way. Although we took a few liberties with it in the book, it was a real shrine, and the faithful did indeed journey there to practice incubation, that is, dream cures for their ailments -- just as pagans had done before them at shrines dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius.

Being now somewhat more familiar with 6th century Constantinople than we were when we wrote the first story about John, it's become much easier to slip into it when writing -- the action and images projected on our mental screens are more colorful, more crowded, more detailed. Attending to those details down on paper as best as one can using words rather than being able to transfer them to videotape becomes less difficult the more we immerse ourselves in the city and its culture. Familiarity in this case hopefully breeds better description!

Two excellent sites, which we pop over and visit quite often, are The Byzantine Studies Page, full of interesting resources, web site links and amazing amounts of information. Then there's the Constantinople Home Page providing information on recent developments concerning the Byzantine antiquities of Istanbul, based on personal observations, information from Turkish colleagues, newspaper accounts and recent publications -- and there's lots of photos of city sites. They're both marvelous places to browse for those interested in the era but, alas, very difficult to stop reading!

BB: Empress Theodora seems to be, if not the main villain in both books, at least John's main threat of a continued existence as Lord Chamberlain to Justinian. Will this conflict of interest continue throughout the series?

MR&EM: Because of her nature, it's hard to be certain there can any resolution where Theodora and John are concerned. However, if one should not arrive, TWO FOR JOY is set in 537, only eleven years before she died, so perhaps time will resolve the conflict, as is so often the way. John, as Lord Chamberlain, holds such a very high position in the court hierarchy that he does not have too many enemies who can strike at him, which is another reason why Theodora suggested herself as a continuing baleful influence on his life. She was certainly a very strong woman at a time when women were rarely powerful and a very interesting character in her own right -- and a woman a careful man would not wish to cross. Unfortunately, sometimes John has to do just that in order to accomplish what he has set out to achieve.

BB: One of the truly fascinating aspects of the series is the importance of religion or spiritual beliefs on the politics of the time with the State, in the person of Justinian, ruling on what was orthodox. It seems that "orthodoxy" was, for the ruling classes and the pragmatists among the population, more a matter of politics and who had the most power than actual religious sensibilities. Is this the correct slant on things, not only in the Eastern Empire, but also in Western Europe?

MR&EM: The intertwining of religion and politics during this era not only fascinates but also tends to give us headaches! John's time is right on the cusp of the medieval world where, it seems, religion was politics. But as to who believed what and to what extent, as opposed to the various shadings of religion being simply political, this seems largely unknowable. Sadly, we see a bloody mix of the two affecting life in more than one country even today. There is some historical evidence that Justinian and Theodora sometimes worked at cross-purposes in religious matters, or at least appeared to - or could this have been designed to confuse enemies or political opponents? Theodora was a champion of the monophysites, who were regarded as heretics, even though her husband as emperor was the head of the Orthodox Church. It would be interesting to have heard some of their theological discussions when they were cloistered in their private rooms!

Christians of the Byzantine era do seem to have had violent arguments about particularly obscure points of theology, and many today might have a hard time understanding why debates about, for example, the nature of Christ, which modern philosophers might dismiss as semantic misunderstandings or futile attempts to frame the unknowable in language, could have been worth spilling blood over. But as mentioned above, so it continues to our time. It's also possible that some of the doctrinal arguments were used as an excuse to further their proponents' political ends. But there's no doubt that it would be hard to get ahead in a Christian empire if you weren't a Christian, so being orthodox, or at least giving the appearance of being such, was pragmatic.

When writing, however, we do keep reminding ourselves that John's world was not ours and that people in that pre-scientific, pre-technological era would not have thought about everything as we do. Our guess is that more people in John's era believed much more deeply than many do nowadays, whatever faith they followed, and these beliefs we treat with respect.

BB: Because of your evenhanded descriptions of the various religions by which one looks no more or less creditable than the next, have you had complaints about your depiction of Christianity as one of many viable religions instead of the "one true faith"?

MR&EM: Not yet, although we've been expecting it! Eric has been known to suggest that only pagans read historical mysteries, but of course our view of the era about which we're writing is somewhat skewed by the fact that our protagonist, John, is a Mithran. Mithraism's virtues -- chastity, obedience, and loyalty -- are certainly admirable in themselves. but it also means that John's friends -- Anatolius, Felix, and Isis -- tend to be non-Christians of various persuasions. So the proportion of pagans in our books is somewhat larger than you'd be likely to find in the general population of the time.

Even so, paganism was still, as it were, in the air because although the Eastern Empire was Christian, the educated class, ironically, were raised on Greek and Roman classics whose authors and attitudes were pagan. On the other hand, there's John's elderly cook Peter, a good example of a humble Christian doing his best to follow his religion's teachings. Although scandalized and worried about John's paganism, Peter has grown quite fond of him and still hopes to see him one day convert to his own religion.

BB: The two of you write another series set in modern Mongolia, featuring Inspector Dorj. Are there any plans for a book length case for the inspector?

MR&EM: We've discussed the plot for an Inspector Dorj novel, having been inspired with what we see as a good idea three or four years ago, but Eric, at least, is somewhat wary about it, due to the fact that while neither of us has traveled to Mongolia -- not yet, at least -- quite a few adventurous souls have been there, including one of the subscribers to our newsletter! When it comes to what Constantinople looked like in 537 our view might not be quite the same as that of a professional historian or archaeologist, but even their views are, we understand, often based largely on conjecture since so little of the city has been excavated. However, writing about modern Mongolia at novel-length would pit us, so to speak, against actual eyewitnesses! On the other hand, Mary is of the opinion that this makes it much easier to get first hand descriptions of those small but important items hard to locate in the usual sources, and she did in fact exchange correspondence with a Mongolian gentleman quizzing him about railways when we were writing "Death On The Trans-Mongolian Railway." But the main reason that Dorj has not yet appeared in a novel length detection is sheer lack of time, the constant complaint of the writer.

BB: John first appeared in short stories. How can we find these stories as well as the ones with Inspector Dorj?

MR&EM: There's a list of our short stories on our web site at: http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/fiction.htm

BB: What is "THREE" going to be "FOR" and when can we expect it?

MR&EM: Following the variant version of the nursery rhyme with which Mary grew up, it'll be THREE FOR A LETTER, and we're working on it right now. All going well, we hope to see it out next fall.

BB: Do you have any plans for a contemporary mystery set in either the U.S. or England?

MR&EM: Our first co-written mystery novel was a contemporary written in humorous vein. It takes place at an orienteering meet, where competitors race through the woods with map and compass. It's a traditional "body in the library" mystery with a couple of amateur sleuths surrounded by eccentric characters, but set at a girl scout camp rather than an English manor house.

Eric has also written 10,000 words and an outline for a book featuring another amateur detective, a professional runner/motivational speaker who, thanks to a well-developed sense of justice (he's a John the Eunuch type character), finds himself involved in some controversial goings-on after an old friend runs afoul of the family court system and some corrupt local politicians. If Mary ever finds the manuscript again, she intends to write a longer version of a 250-page mystery she wrote several years ago. It's set in her native Newcastle, England, but since the time period is the l950s, it isn't a contemporary. Unfortunately!

BB: Well, to some of us the 1950s is considered contemporary. Since you have been the subject of a few interviews along with sojourns into mystery chat rooms with fan participation, is there any question that you would like to be asked that hasn't been brought up?

MR&EM: Strangely, one question that hasn't been asked is how much (if anything) of either of us is in any given character. To which we'd reply there's a lot of both of us in John. Having ourselves suffered the loss of nearly everything that most people take for granted, when John speaks about his capture by the Persians and how he was treated with no regard for his rights or dignity as a human being, we're writing from our hearts. Yet still, as gritty as our lives are, like John we try to be kind because we're all in this together.

BB: Thank you for your most enlightening and entertaining answers. We hope that all the readers of this interview will feel compelled to go out and buy ONE FOR SORROW and TWO FOR JOY.


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