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 determination.
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 Peabody mysteries?
There is something there, but I'm not telling. You'll just have to wait and see....
Are any of the main characters in the Amelia Peabody mysteries based on real people?
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).
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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