An Interview with Barbara Mertz, also known as Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters
What made you want to be a writer?
I didn't want to be a writer. I wanted to be an archaeologist. My parents
wanted me to be a teacher; it was a nice practical career for a woman. When they
discovered, somewhat belatedly, that I had changed my major (I had been at the
Oriental Institute for six months), they were bewildered, but bless them, they
didn't try to make me change my mind. I still believe, with all my heart, that
young people should be allowed to follow their own aspirations and inclinations,
however impractical these may seem. If they don't try, they will never know
whether or not they might have succeeded; and who's to say what is practical?
Egyptology was an impractical career, especially for a young married woman forty
years ago. Writing was, and still is, an impractical career, because so few
people succeed in earning a living that way. I was one of the lucky ones; and if
I hadn't been so obsessed with ancient Egypt (as I still am) I might have
noticed that I did enjoy writing, and that some people thought I was pretty good
at it. But I've never regretted studying Egyptology even though I was unable to
make it my career.
So how did you become a writer?
Luck, accident, or Fate! I had always been a compulsive reader. Sooner or
later every compulsive reader finds herself thinking, "This isn't a very
good book. I'll bet I could do better." So I tried. My first book, an
espionage thriller, was written in collaboration with my then-husband. He
provided the plot outline, I wrote the book. It was AWFUL, partly because I was
just learning how to write and partly because it wasn't my kind of book. I wrote
two more novels, solo, before I began to get a sense of what I wanted to write.
Unfortunately nobody wanted to publish that kind of book. It wasn't until Mary
Stewart and Victoria Holt hit the best seller lists that publishers realized
mysteries written by women, about women protagonists, could make money. (This
despite the fact that authors like Phyllis Whitney had been doing it for years!)
I finally sold my first mystery during this period. I'm not particularly proud
of The Master of Blacktower, but I was able to sell it because it was what
publishers were looking for just then. By that time I had learned that I loved
to write, and I kept at it, learning with every book, and finally developing
what I like to think of as my own style. Or is it styles?
How did you sell your first book?
The first book I sold wasn't a mystery. I had despatched my early
unappreciated mss. to every publisher in New York, every one of whom promptly
returned them. When the third ms. made the rounds an editor at one of the
publishing houses liked it. She couldn't persuade her boss to buy it, but she
recommended an agent. He couldn't sell that book either, but without him I
probably could not have sold the next, which was a non-fiction book on
Egyptology. (See above for how I sold my first mystery.) These days it is much
more difficult to sell a book without an agent, and much more difficult to get a
good agent. But it can be done.
Where do you get your ideas?
I am sorry to say that this question has become something of a bad joke among
writers. The only possible answer is: "Everywhere." You don't get
ideas; you see them, recognize them, greet them familiarly when they amble up to
you. A few examples from my own experience: reading Arthurian legends and
articles about the Cadbury excavations inspired "The Camelot Caper."
An oddly shaped bag of trash some lout had tossed onto the shoulder of a country
road make me think about bodies in trash bags and led eventually to the skeleton
on the road, in "Be Buried in the Rain." Like all skills this one can
be honed with practice, but if you have to ask the question you probably
shouldn't try to write a novel or short story. And if you ask a writer who has
heard that same question dozens of times, she may come back with some snappy
answer like "There's a drugstore in North Dakota where I order mine."
Do you have a schedule?
No. I am not an organized person. However, when a deadline looms I can work
like a demon, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Set schedules work for some
people, not for others; but any writer who waits for "inspiration" to
strike will never finish a book.
Inspiration is all very well, but it will never replace sheer dogged
How long does it take you to write a book?
One is tempted to reply, "As long as it takes." The actual writing
process is only the final step. You ought to have some idea of what you are
going to write about before you put your fingers on the keyboard or clutch the
pen, and that part of the process can take weeks or months or even years, as you
mull over an elusive idea and try to develop it into a workable plot. Sometimes
I start writing with only a vague outline in mind, and have to go back to insert
useful clues, develop characters, or even change the identity of the murderer!
Naturally it takes longer to write this kind of book. On rare and blissful
occasions the book just flows along, without the necessity of major revisions.
That happened to me with The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog. I wrote it in a
little over two months. (Day and night, weekdays and weekends.) However, I had
already done most of the research, I had a very clear idea as to what would
happen and when it would happen -- the sequence, in other words -- and I was
intimately acquainted with most of the characters. I know Amelia and Emerson so
well by now that all I have to do is set up a situation and describe how they
will inevitably react. It takes much longer for me to write a book about people
I don't know. I learn to know them as I write, and they have a nasty habit of
developing in ways I didn't anticipate. That's when I have to go back and
rewrite. I was half-way through Vanish With the Rose before I realized that the
person I had picked to be the murderer was obdurately refusing to kill anybody.
What is the connection between the Vicky Bliss mysteries and the Amelia
There is something there, but I'm not telling. You'll just have to wait
Are any of the main characters in the Amelia Peabody mysteries based on
The only main characters which which were inspired by real people are Amelia
Peabody (based on Victorian amateur Egyptologist Amelia B. Edwards) and Emerson
(whose methodology has been attributed to William Flinders Petrie).
How can I get in touch with you?
You can write to MPM, PO Box 180, Libertytown MD 21762-0180.
Copyright mpmbooks.com 2004, used with permission.
(BookBrowse note: Because Barbara Mertz writes under her own name and two
pseudonyms (Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels) she is often referred to as
MPM - i.e. Mertz-Peters-Michaels).