The mother-son writing team known as Charles Todd discuss their books and their lives.
For a while your partnership was a big secret. What made the change to
"coming out" as a mother-son writing team?
Caroline: It was a great relief. Shortly before we'd started all this, I'd been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. That was just as the Gulf War started, and I became an expert on it, watching CNN constantly while we tried to figure out what caused my condition. Then we had to search for a cure that didn't aggravate my allergies. That took a while, and I really couldn't add the pressure and stress of a tour until we were sure the problem was under control.
Charles: I don't often talk about any of this, but it was a scary time, and when I was cleared for action, it was a wonderful feeling. For all I knew it could have been a permanent exclusion: I would have stayed in the shadows if necessary. I think this is why I really enjoy meeting fans and going to mystery conventionsI came close to missing all that.
It was a great relief to me too. I'd been out there carrying the banner and worrying about Caroline, and was very glad when we could work together. It has been fun, and interesting. I never know what she's going to say on a panel, and she has no idea what I'm going to come up with. Keeps life exciting.
You've said before that your travels to Europe became the heart of your Ian Rutledge series. Do you still get to England? Do you do your research traveling together?
Caroline: I love to travel, any excuse will do. I'd been to the battlefields in France, I'd seen those fields of white crosses out in the middle of nowhere, lonely and yet so green and carefully tended. I think that stuck, as emotional experiences often do. Charles and I had traveled all over England as well, and we still go together on research tripsit is important to see and react to the settings both individually and together. Charles gets more out of pubs and chance encounters. I talk to rectors and policemen and women in the shops.
Charles: I love to travel too, but I shudder to think of some of the places Caroline has been and I don't even want to think about what she's eaten. I'll take a ship anywhere or sit on a sunny beach anytime. But when we take a research trip, it is always full of surprises that somehow wind up in the books. One of my favorite things to do when we travel is to pack a lunch of cider, apple slices, pickles, good bread and cheese that you carry to a churchyard or a river bank or a hillside and just sit and absorb the feeling of the place.
Caroline, your educational background is in international relations. How has that played into your writing career?
Caroline: I have an undergraduate degree in History and English Literature, and a master's in international relations. People always tell you to "write what you know," and I took that advice in the broadest sense. If you look at World War I, historically, you see how it has affected the entire twentieth centuryand is still affecting the problems in the Middle East. That has given me a fresh viewpoint of the period, rather then looking at it as nearly a hundred years in the past.
How has the current situation in the Middle East and our involvement overseas affected your writing, if at all?
Charles: We are non-political on this issue. I am a member of the Men's Auxiliary of the VFW, American Legion and AM Vets. My focus is the care of the troops when they return home. I often speak to returning service people about their experiences while serving. Whether in 1915 or 2005, the core issue of facing death on a daily basis remains.
Caroline: I agree with Charles. Shell shock or today's post traumatic stress disorder is still a problem for returning vets. Our hope is that through Rutledge we can offer today's vets and their families to get help for war damage to the mind and spirit as well as to the body. We receive so many e-mails from vets of many wars and the stories they tell help us to capture the combat experience.
As for the Middle East, I've an excellent background in the history of the area, and I've traveled to many of the countries there. It has given me a personal feeling for what is happening in the headlines. The politics, the people and the history still have lethal consequences. It is rather terrifying to think that events and decisions made nearly a hundred years ago have ramifications in WWII, today's Middle East, in Kosovo and in Afghanistan. We do reap what we sow. WWI isn't that long ago, it is in our newspapers and on TV and radio every day, in some fashion. It gives immediacy to what we write about in the Rutledge series.
In numerous reviews you are praised for your "psychological insight" and in particular your ability to describe what the ravages of war can do to the human mind, where does this insight come from?
Charles: Time spent listening to service people, their wives and widows. During high school I worked in a retirement home. I spent many wonderful hours hearing from service men and their widows about WWI. My great uncle fought in WWI. His stories fascinated me. I firmly believe as an author you have to go out in life and hear the stories of people. In pubs in the UK or a retirement home in the US it is the stories of others that bring a book to life.
Caroline: I come from a long southern tradition of storytelling. Charles and I spent many summer evenings on my father's porch sitting quietly as he told the stories of his life experience. A writer has to have an interest in people. You never know which part of an over heard conversation is going to be a gem for a book. But most importantly, we write about ordinary people being driven to the brink of control by a stress in their lives that has no other solution than someone's death. Murder lurks in all of us, and we try to draw out of our characters a sense of reality where what they do would have been done in real life, not just on a page at an author's whim.
Charles, your background is in business trouble-shooting. Your clients were often not glad to see you, since it meant they hit bottom. You've said this helps you to see from Rutledge's point of view?
Charles: I was a corporate trouble-shooter for many years, and I know what it is like to walk very carefully into a hostile environment. This has given me good insight into what Rutledge goes through, and I've found that useful. You can't barge in and take over, you have to feel your way through the situation and get a grip on what's happening. And I think I've learned patience from him.
How is Rutledge changing in your minds? Is he becoming the person you thought he'd be, or has he grown in ways you haven't anticipated?
Caroline: You know how it is when you hit your thumb with a hammer then the rest of the week, you bump that thumb over and over again when you least expect it? Life is like that tooyou do your best to survive against the odds and aren't always successful. Intriguingly, Rutledge has a better grasp of that than we do, and he's always surprising us and his cases always surprise us. It's a voyage of discovery, which is probably what keeps the series fresh for us and for readers. He has a knack for giving us insights into situations we hadn't intended to raise, and then finding a way to deal with them.
When a character is as "real" as Rutledge and starts to act independently, you know you're on the right track. You listen to him/her and learn where the plot is going and how it is going to be played out.
Charles, you have put so much time and energy into Mystery Writers of America: Board member, Chairman of the Edgars Committee, now as Secretary. You must believe in the organization strongly to offer so much to it.
Charles: I do. It's run by writers for writers, and it needs the time and energy of its membership to be the resource and the support system we all need to survive in the business of writing. Even in the ten years we've been published, there have been enormous changes in the publishing industry, and the individual writer is a lonely figure in the wilderness of agents, editors, chain bookstores, and dwindling numbers of independents. The stronger MWA can be, the better it can serve us, and the more respect it can bring to bear in dealing with the problems most of us face every day. Where else are we going to turn?
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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