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October 12, 2016

“My stories always surprise me”: An interview with Annamaria Alfieri

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Annamaria Alfieri is the author of five historical mysteries, including The Idol of Mombasa, now available from Felony & Mayhem Press. The Idol of Mombasa is the second in a series set in British East Africa, a projected ten-novel series featuring an idealistic English colonial policeman and his wife, a Scottish missionary’s daughter, who was born and raised in Africa. We asked Alfieri a few questions about this novel, the series, and her writing in general.

Felony & Mayhem: Where did the “British East Africa” mystery series begin for you? Was it an image, an idea, a character?

Annamaria Alfieri: All my stories have started with the place and its history. In a sense, British East Africa embedded itself in my imagination when I read Out of Africa as a teenager. That book gave rise to my longing to see the African wilderness for myself and fed my already pre-existing wanderlust. Once I went to Africa twelve years ago, I was completely infatuated with the experience of being there. Setting a book in British East Africa seemed a natural. Then, while I was contemplating the series and beginning some preliminary research, in an unrelated task – I was going through some memorabilia of my father’s – I came upon a leather bookmark that he had had inscribed with the Ten Commandments. BAM! There was an idea fully formed, that the series would follow the Commandments. I had already learned that the Protectorate of British East Africa became the Colony of Kenya in 1920, and it seemed only natural to begin with 1911 and count the Commandments through to 1920. So the series will end when BEA becomes the colony of Kenya.

F&M: You have now written five historical mysteries, books set in different locales and different time periods. How do you go about researching a time and place so far removed from your personal experience?

Alfieri: I have the enormous privilege of being a writer in residence at the splendid New York Public Library. What I want most, in addition to a small smattering of historians’ opinions, is memoirs of people who had feet on the ground in the place and at the time I am writing about. People who are writing about what happened to them — AND what they wore and what they ate, what they did in their free time! They also reveal their own attitudes and opinions about what they saw and experienced. This gives me such insight into the life of ordinary (or extraordinary) people, what they were feeling and thinking about the historical events that were swirling around them. Fortunately, the NYPL has an extensive collection of such books. An embarrassment of riches. With early twentieth century characters, I can also look at photos of what they saw. Sometimes I have to remind myself that their world was not sepia tinted.

F&M: What is it like to recreate the way people speak in those different time periods?

Alfieri: This is a technique that all historical novelists develop on an individual basis. For me the most important thing is to sound neither too modern nor too arcane. With the South American novels, I dropped in a Spanish word once in while, to remind the reader that she is not in twenty-first century USA, but only in a way that made its meaning obvious. And, depending on the period, I might or might not use contractions. 1945: Contractions work very well. 1650: no contractions at all. With the Africa series, I have the added issue of writing dialogue for English and Scottish people. So my goal, without being too precious about it, is to throw in a typically English expression. One character, in a moment of exasperation, shouted “Poppycock!” It worked because he’s a blowhard. Or I might have a tony upper-level administrator say, “Whilst you were away…” On the other hand, even if an expression was in common use in 1912, if it sounds too modern, I can’t use it. “Got the drop on me,” for instance, shows up in the writing of a real 1909 BEA policeman. But I can’t let Justin Tolliver say or even think that expression, or the reader will think I have used an anachronism, which would pull the reader out of the story. Nothing I do in the way of technique should ever do that. The story is the most important thing.

F&M: What are your favorite things about your characters, and what do you see as their flaws? And how, if at all, is the plot of your mystery novels connected to either their best qualities or their flaws?

Alfieri: My favorite thing about them is that they all have a foot in two worlds. Vera is African-born, so she is not really Scottish, but she is not really African either. Not 100% grounded in either culture, she can be impetuous, a bit overly self-reliant. Tolliver is an English aristocrat, but he is too in love with Africa and Vera to adopt the line of thinking of the King’s loyal empire builders. He was brought up to follow the rules of his class but is too intelligent and good-hearted not to prickle at the flaws in British attitudes towards the Africans. He is treading a thin line, and can overcompensate when he strays what feels to him to be too far in either direction. Ah, and Kwai Libazo. I love Kwai. He isn’t exactly flawless, but nearly so. His loyalties are his problem: he’s neither Maasai, nor Kikuyu. He’s also not British, but he serves the ideal of justice that he is learning from Tolliver. He follows his heart and his intelligence, but sometimes the two are in conflict, and he can paint himself into a corner on such an occasion.

F&M: You have said in the past that, when it comes to plotting, you are a “pantser,” which is to say, instead of writing from a plot outline, you construct the story as you go along. In writing The Idol of Mombasa, were you at all surprised by where the events took you? What discoveries did you make along the way?

Alfieri: My stories aways surprise me as they unfold. I did not know the murderer in Idol of Mombasa would even be in the story until that person showed up unexpectedly. Just last month, at dinner with the organizer of a famous British Mystery/Thriller conference, I got into a friendly debate about this. (He is not a writer of fiction, by the way.) He insisted that the writer must always know what’s going to happen, otherwise he or she would never be able to write the story. I could not convince him. But there are many like me. My friend Charles Salzberg, a fine mystery/thriller writer and teacher of fiction writing described his and my attitude best: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d be bored with the story.” My sentiments exactly. And If I get bored, what chance would the reader have of staying intrigued? For pantsers like me, once the characters take on a life of their own, we know they are “alive” enough to seem real to the reader. Then I let the characters tell me the story. I will do here what I did at that dinner table. I refer any doubters to Chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. He describes the experience of writing a novel better than I ever could. The great E. L. Doctorow said, “It’s like driving a car at night in a heavy fog with the headlights on. You can’t see very far ahead, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Also by Annamaria Alfieri: Strange Gods and City of Silver

April 8, 2016

Edition and Subtraction

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The Amazon review went something like this:

I am outraged, and I am never going to buy from Felony & Mayhem Press again! They had the nerve to edit Ngaio Marsh, one of the most beloved writers in the history of mystery fiction, and actually remove entire blocks of text! Avoid this publishing house.

Not surprisingly, our hearts hit the floor. We knew we had not deliberately changed a word, not an apostrophe, of Dame Ngaio’s prose. But maybe gremlins had snuck in during the night? And, ummmm…deleted stuff? This is publishing: Stranger things have happened.

Quick like bunnies, we checked the digital edition against the tattered pages of the book from which we had taken the text. And they were…identical. Was the reviewer crazy? Were we crazy?

No. We were American. And so was the edition from which we had taken our text. But that American edition, we soon realized, was in fact somewhat different from the earlier, British edition. And it was that British edition to which the Amazon reviewer was referring. She was hollering at us, but it was actually some long-gone publisher from the 1940s to whom her anger was really directed.

Was her anger justified? The truth is, when a book goes into a new edition, text is often changed. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of correcting proofreading errors that weren’t caught on the first go-round.Then there’s the fact that “vintage” novels (written prior to the 1960s, say) frequently contain language that contemporary readers would find offensive in the extreme. That might be ok if the speaker is a villain, but what happens when the protagonist, a character you’re supposed to like, casually mentions that he was talking to a ________ earlier in the day, or that he bought something from a __________, or that the butler is a ______ _______ _______? What do you do then?

If you’re us, you change the language. To our mind, the sanctity of Ngaio Marsh’s prose – or Margery Allingham’s, or Elizabeth Daly’s, or any of the old-school writers we publish – is not worth stopping a reader dead in her tracks, unable to enjoy the rest of the book. We work hard to come up with phrasing that preserves the meaning of the original and the sense of period, but is less likely to cause the reader to throw the book across the room. (There is, of course, an argument that the original, repellent language should be preserved, as a sort of museum-exhibit of the bad old days. To our mind, this argument has some merit, but is outweighed by our belief that few readers pick up our books as historical documents; they are seeking entertainment, and we seek to provide it with as few impediments as possible.)

The switch from a British to an American edition often gives rise to editorial changes – U.S. publishers routinely dump lifts and lorries in favor of elevators and trucks, for instance, or clarify slang. I can’t swear to it, but I suspect a similar system prevails in the other direction.

And then we come to the world of more subjective changes. We made a big one, when Felony was still wearing training wheels. We published a book called Missing, by Karin Alvtegen, in a translation (from the original Swedish) that had first been published in the UK. But before we went to press, I emailed the author. As published, the book opened with a crazed religious rant in the mind of a serial killer, followed by a scene in which the novel’s protagonist, a homeless woman, pulls an intriguing scam in the dining room of a fancy hotel.

I wanted to change the order of those two scenes.

At first, Ms. Alvtegen was very distressed: Why did I ask for such a change? Well, I thought the hotel-scene was a much stronger opener. Additionally, the success of The Da Vinci Code had flooded the market with Vatican thrillers, many of them featuring crazed religious serial killers. I didn’t want this subtle, quirky Swedish mystery lumped in with the Catholic Conspiracy brigade.

With some reluctance, Ms. Alvtegen agreed to the change. And a few months later, the book was shortlisted for an Edgar award for Best Mystery of the Year. Coincidence? I couldn’t possibly comment.

At the moment, we’re dealing with a challenge that requires us to make almost all the sorts of changes I’ve discussed – or at least consider them. We’re getting ready to print the last four novels in the Marsh line-up, and in one of them the differences between the various editions are the most significant we’ve come across. Our default decision is to use the earliest edition (which is typically, though not always, the British), but in this instance, we felt that the editors of the first American editions had made some very worthwhile changes. Some scenes had been made clearer, some transitions smoother. Did we really want to discard these worthwhile changes? We did not. So we made the unusual decision to go with the American edition.

And that’s when things got interesting.

As we went through the book, we discovered that the original American editors hadn’t only made additions: They had deleted text as well. And after going through both versions with a couple of fine-tooth combs, we determined that, really, we liked some of the deleted scenes, thank you very much. So we restored some of the British text.

The result is essentially a first: A Ngiao Marsh novel that, we believe, combines the best of the original British and the original American edits. Is this the definitive version? Absolutely not, but it is our stab at it.

We would like nothing more than for you to take your own stabs (hey, we publish murder mysteries; we’re all about the stabbing). Compare our version to the crumbling paperbacks that we know are on your shelves, and tell us which text you like better and why. One of the cool things about the new publishing technology is that it is now relatively simple to make changes, even after a book has been printed. So give us some great changes – with some great reasoning to back things up – and we’ll not only make them, we’ll acknowledge your contribution.

Which book exactly are we talking about? We’ll dribble some clues out in the next few weeks. But if you want the answer, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. We think you might have a knack for that.

February 16, 2016

Singing in the Shrouds printing error

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It has come to our attention that the paperback edition of Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds contains a serious printing error: namely, toward the end of the book, pages from Death of a Fool, another Ngaio Marsh title, replace pages from Singing in the Shrouds. We are very sorry for this error, which occurred during the printing of the book (a press error caused by using the wrong plates during printing) and which our printer assures us they have never had before. When we heard from irate readers with defective copies, we combed through our existing inventory, opening every single copy of the book, and found 261 misprinted copies. We destroyed all of these copies, and everything that has left our warehouse since January has been error-free. Unfortunately, an unknown number of erroneous copies were shipped to book sellers, and then sold, and we have no way to identify these copies and recall them (though we did indeed try to find one). So instead, by way of apology, we are offering every one of you who has purchased a misprinted copy of Singing in the Shrouds a replacement copy of that book (verified by an actual human as correctly printed) shipped to you at no charge, as well as a free copy of a Felony & Mayhem book of your choice. Email us at mail@felonyandmayhem.com to get started.