Mary Reed & Eric Mayer

(Interview at the Writer’s e-Source Directory)

January 2003

This interview with Deborah O'Toole (http://www.deborahotoole.com) originally appeared on the Writer's Resource Directory website. Our thanks to Deborah for permission to reproduce it here.

How did the two of you meet?

ERIC: We met through our writing, actually. We were both active in amateur publishing for years and knew each other via seeing each other's letters and articles and zines. Which might seem a sort of peculiar introduction, but not for writers.

Are your backgrounds similar, or completely opposite?

MARY: Completely opposite and in fact about as far apart as you could be without leaving the room. For example, I was raised in a British inner city area and since I did not attend college, became a working schmoe in my teens. So we certainly bring different perspectives to any given set of circumstances, which is not a bad thing for writers of fiction. We do of course also have a lot in common!

ERIC: I fear that unlike Mary I had a suburban rather than urban upbringing and after completing high school dallied in college for some time. Not long enough to manage to get a story in the college literary magazine, however. I majored in Fine Arts then switched to English Lit. It never occurred to me to learn anything that might be useful in the working world. So I guess I was an artsy schmoe.

When you wrote your first book together, One for Sorrow, what was the experience like? Did you find it easy to work together? Or were there irritabilities?

MARY: It wasn't as fraught as it could have been, given that by the time we wrote Onefer we'd already co-written short stories and so had got used to each other's different writing styles and habits. I tend to leap in and write away for dear life, generally calling unnamed characters X, Y and Z for the nonce and leaving gaps in the narration with little notes saying things like "Add description of Great Palace garden here" as I gallop along. Eric is more organized and has all the information lined up before he begins writing. The strange thing is that the result is a seamless writing style that has its own distinct nature. In fact, it's pretty hard for most people to tell who wrote which parts -- although our editor is pretty good at it!

Such irritabilities as there still may be are usually overcome easily because we have long since agreed that if there's a scene one of us strongly feels should or should not be included, instead of carrying on about it, the other is amenable to leaving it in (or not). However as characters become more familiar, disagreements such as this have become much less common. In fact, we often find ourselves making observations such as "We better change that because Anatolius would never do any such thing..."

ERIC: We find that locking up the sharper cutlery keeps the irritabilities more manageable.

And not to be difficult, but actually by my count most of Mary's characters start off being called "Fred"!

MARY: He's right!

ERIC: I really need to know a character's name before getting started. I can waste hours cogitating about what a character should be named. Then, not infrequently, the name ends up being changed near the end of the writing process because we discover everyone's name begins with "A" or some such.

Do you both like the same sort of setting in which to write?

ERIC: I'm not sure exactly what Mary's favorite setting might be. I suspect we agree that the setting should be somewhat exotic and a leading "character" in the writing. Aside from historical mysteries we've written a few stories about Inspector Dorj, which are set in modern day Mongolia, so thus far we have not co-authored any stories with either a non-historical or non-foreign setting. We both have a lot of background reading fantasy and science fiction and the past, to us, is sort of an alien world.

What made you decide to choose writing the John the Eunuch Mysteries? Was this inspired by something in particular?

ERIC: More than ten years ago we were asked by Mike Ashley to contribute to an anthology of historical mysteries he was putting together. We chose a Byzantine Roman setting because we figured it hadn't been done and I already had a bit of interest and a vague familiarity with the era. I had toyed around with the script for a comic book, believe it or not, set during the sixth century. The Byzantine, or more correctly, Eastern Roman Empire, has always intrigued me representing, as it does, a direct continuation of the Roman Empire right up through much of the medieval period.

When the two of you sit down to write together, do you start with an outline or jump right in? Do either of you choose what parts of the book to write, or is it a completely joint effort?

ERIC: We start off by trading ideas back and forth. We'll each jot down notes, start discussing possible plot lines, characters, murder methods. It is amazing how fast some of the stories have taken shape. The two heads are better than one effect, I guess. One of us might come up with an idea and the other will see different ramifications in it.

Next we develop a detailed, scene by scene outline. I'm not sure we'd do this were we working singly, but working together, it's necessary. For each scene we indicate what characters will appear in it, where it takes place and what is going to happen, roughly speaking.

Once that's done we each begin to write scenes. We choose them based on personal preference, who was more responsible for inventing the outline of the scene, or maybe our individual strengths as writers. I'll tend to write the more visual scenes, while Mary takes most of the dialog-heavy ones because we feel I'm good at description while Mary is good with conversation. (Having said that, the wonderful bit of description at the beginning of Four For A Boy is Mary's doing!)

When one of us "finishes" a scene we hand it to the other, who rewrites, a little or a lot, and hands it back for further rewrite, or not. This helps smooth out the style, I believe. When we're both happy with the scene, it's finished.

When you write projects separate from one another, do you still commiserate during the process?

ERIC: We haven't done very much in the way of individual projects while we've been working on the John the Eunuch books. In the past when we worked individually we have each tended to take advice from the other, but it was confined more to pre-writing discussion, getting extra ideas, and then after the initial writing less to rewriting and more to copyediting, thus preserving our individual styles.

Has either of you ever suffered from writer's block?

MARY: I am fortunate in that I never have. In fact, some days we have to beat off story ideas with a large stick, although we do note them down in case we should find time to write them one day. Mind you, I am a wordy person. If not working on a writing project, I'm just as likely to be writing ten page letters in what a friend once described as my "economical" handwriting. As indeed it can be, given the ghastly cost of airmail postage.

ERIC: The nearest I ever come to writer's block is maybe having a bit of indecision about how to approach some project that's in the planning stage and isn't being written to a deadline. I might stall around deciding whether it'd be best told from first or third person, for example. But this is when I'm planning for something that isn't very near fruition. It is less actual "writer's block" than "writer's preliminary outlining block." With regard to projects for which an editor is waiting, it's amazing how much more easily and quickly such decisions can be made! When there's a deadline involved I always seem to be able to get some words down.

I can honestly say that although I have, over the years, occasionally found it difficult to come to grips with some particular piece of writing, I have never found myself unable to write anything. My problem is less writer's block than finding a block of time to write.

How did the Inspector Dorj Short Stories come about?

ERIC: At least fifteen years ago I was browsing the library shelves and a book about Mongolia caught my eye, because I knew nothing about Mongolia. The point of the book (the name of which I can't recall) was, in fact, that no one knew anything about Mongolia, or at least hadn't until recently. The place was so isolated that when Molotov disappeared after Nikita Kruschev ousted him everyone figured he was dead, so years later the author of this book was surprised to discover that Molotov wasn't dead but just about the nearest thing -- serving as Russian ambassador to Mongolia!

So Mongolia was my kind of place. Alien, isolated, mysterious, desolate. And people lived in yurts or gers -- big moveable circular tent-houses. Talking to Mary, who was writing mysteries even then, I mentioned I had this vague idea about an "open" as opposed to a "locked" room mystery. She nagged me to write it, but since I didn't know much about writing mysteries I didn't. Then we were married some years later and The Obo Mystery, based on the idea I just mentioned, was the first co-authored story we wrote and the first such we sold. For the setting and some of the characters we cannibalized a science fiction story I'd written involving a dinosaur dig in Mongolia.

What sort of story is Chosen of the Nile in The Mammoth Book of Egyptian Whodunnits?

MARY: We both love locked room mysteries and have had a lot of fun inventing outrageous solutions to these "impossible crime" stories. Chosen of the Nile is a locked temple mystery narrated by Herodotus, who solves the mystery of what happened to one of the female worshippers. We're hoping to get more stories written with Herodotus as protagonist. His colorful commentaries on contemporary society and his extensive travels around his known world are wonderfully interesting and full of oddities. He would have been a marvelous mystery writer.

ERIC: The story was a challenge to write because we came to it without much knowledge of Egypt, at least not the sort of knowledge you need to write a story, whereas, by now, we have quite a lot of information about the Byzantine period stored away in our heads, not to mention on the hard drive. Since we both like plenty of local color and historical accuracy, we had to be pretty quick studies and, we hope, absorbed enough information about the time of Herodotus to keep things convincing for a few thousand words.

What projects do the two of you have coming up?

ERIC: Our next project is the fifth mystery about John, Five for Silver. I think that's the first time I've actually mentioned the title! One of the advantages of using a folk rhyme for titles is that, at the very least, we already have the first seven titles, which is a start. As Mary mentioned earlier, we have tons of ideas awaiting time to do them, including some mysteries with modern settings.

What do you do to relax?

MARY: Read <grin>. Subjects of interest include history, British comedies, archaeology, the arts, Golden Age mysteries, Victorian paintings, folk customs, classic ghost stories and a lot more besides so there's always something to read!

ERIC: Apart from reading I peruse the baseball box scores in minute detail during the season. I've recently dabbled with programming/writing some text based computer games but find my time for that limited right now. Even the most basic of coding takes a long time for someone who's not really a programmer. I enjoy orienteering, a sport where you navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint through the woods using a map and compass. I am less than mediocre, but it gives me a chance to wander around off-trail and enjoy the scenery. Not to mention it can be pretty exciting. Every park and every course presents a new challenge.

What kind of advice would you offer a writer just starting the publishing route?

MARY: Don't take criticism personally and keep your sense of humor well sharpened. Write something every day. But above all, persist! It will not be easy, but you can accomplish your dream if you don't give up.

ERIC: Sounds like advice I ought to take! I always tell people to marry a talented co-author. Actually, though, persistence is vital. You read about overnight successes mostly because they're so rare that it's news.

I admit I find it very hard not to take criticism personally, but nevertheless, you do have to open to advice. The writer has to maintain a fine balance, having enough faith in his or her work to keep going but still recognizing shortcomings that need to be corrected. If you have too little confidence in your work, you're liable to be pulled this way and that by every critic and teacher and lose your own voice and vision. But if you convince yourself your writing is perfect and you're better than everyone on the bestseller list, then you can't learn.

What is your favorite book?

MARY: If I had to name but one it would be Little Women. Jo March is the only fictional character with whom I've ever identified, and it's interesting that more than one writer has said the same.

ERIC: Over the years I have been enthralled by many different sorts of books for different reasons, but I have to say that my favorite book is the first one I was enthralled by, that opened up the whole world of books, the book my grandmother read to me, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.

MARY: This might be a good place to mention that a year or so ago we were honored by a request from the Kaubisch Memorial Public Library in Fostoria, Ohio, to write essays about our favorite book for their Children's Book Week programme. These essays, if of interest, are now on our web site at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/favorite.htm

MARY AND ERIC: In closing, let us add we appreciate your interest in our writing and hope that we've provided something useful and encouraging to pass along to your readers!