Read a review of A Breach of Promise.
Read a review of Brunswick Gardens.
In her bio -- not a book you understand, but part of the package sent to wandering journalists (that'd be me) in advance of an interview -- Anne Perry writes, "I was born in London, England in 1938, a few months before the war, and spent the first years of my life there, although I was evacuated a couple of times for short periods. My schooling was very interrupted, both by frequent moves and by ill-health. but I do not feel as if I have been deprived because of it... Because much of my education was acquired haphazardly, there are some rather large gaps in it, and some odd additions. I missed most of my schooling from thirteen to eighteen, then took University Entrance examinations and passed in English, Latin, history and geography."
In Anne Perry's case, acquiring an education haphazardly is a rather delicate euphemism for incarceration. Perry was well on her way to becoming an internationally known mystery writer when her secret came out: as a teenager in New Zealand, Perry and her best friend were tried and convicted for killing the other girl's mother. No doubt it was much to Perry's embarrassment that details of the story came to light. Nor could she have been particularly enthusiastic about the 1994 film -- Heavenly Creatures -- that was made about the story. In that regard, I only know what I've read: understandably, it's not something that Perry likes to discuss.
In person, Anne Perry is much as expected. It's not even difficult to imagine the girl Kate Winslet portrayed in the film growing to be this cultured and mature woman. She is tall, slender, perfectly coifed and turned out when I meet her: she is elegant and her bearing is regal. We meet in a busy bistro and there is noise all around. The clink of glasses, the midrange hum of a successful eatery. Somewhere at a distant table, a child cries intermittently. Perry pays attention to none of it. She meets my gaze with her own clear blue one, sits serenely and answers quietly.
Readers of Perry's Monk mysteries might even feel they recognize one of the writer's own characters in the level, intelligent gaze. In many ways, Perry reminds me of her creation: Hester Latterly. Both women possess the same maturity of style and stance, the same natural elegance and -- perhaps -- even a bit of the same background.
Perry has not been an overnight sensation. Still relatively unknown in her native United Kingdom, Perry's North American audience has been growing in modulated spurts since the publication of her first book, The Cater Street Hangman. In the last few years, however, that has been changing as well, while a steadily increasing number of readers are tuning into her two series of well-honed Victorian mysteries. And while Perry will be the first to admit she didn't invent the genre, she's certainly done much to increase its popularity.
Perry is committed to publishing two books per year: a "Pitt novel in the spring, and a Monk novel in the fall." And while a pace like that might leave other writers breathless, Perry feels she works consistently but not at breakneck speed. With time enough, in fact, to occasionally focus on other projects. Two of these projects have been of special interest to Perry of late: a film version of The Cater Street Hangman has been completed and will be aired in the United States on A&E in mid-December. And -- for something completely different -- a fantasy novel called Tathea will be published in February, 1999.
Linda Richards: How do you manage to write so many books?
Anne Perry: I work reasonably hard. Though probably not harder than many people. I work probably eight or nine hours a day, six days a week.
Two books a year is what you're doing?
Yes. Plus a few short stories. I'm not planning to slow up. I normally do two a year. I've done two a year since 1990.
Your first book was published in 1979?
Yes, right at the beginning of 1979. That was The Cater Street Hangman. That was the first one in the Pitt series. First mystery I ever wrote, first Victorian one and the first one to get published.
And you're living in Scotland now?
Yes. Between 45 and 50 miles north of Inverness. In the Highlands. With one dog and five cats.
Of your books, what's your favorite?
Whatever I'm doing at the moment because it might just work out exactly right. My heart is always in whatever I'm doing at the time.
You used to live in the U.S.
I lived near San Francisco for about six months and in the Los Angeles area for four and a half years in the late 60s.
I understand you moved around a lot as a child. I think that spawns writers, in a way.
Yes, I guess you make your own world. And also illness has that effect as well. And I had a lot of childhood illness. Not since then, thank goodness. But it does. Because you have to live within your mind because there's not much you can do outside it.
Your latest William Monk novel doesn't offer the clues to Monk's past that readers have come to look forward to. Is there a pattern or plan in your mind about revealing more of the mysteries from that investigator's history?
Yes there is. But my editor said to me, "Don't do it every time. It gets a bit..." you know? And I thought she was right. It's agreeable or I wouldn't have done it, but just to leave it for a while. But I've got something planned where we're going to discover a great deal more about his mentor. And he's going to be forced to discover things he'd much rather not know about both his mentor and himself. And it's really going to put it on the line.
Are you working on something right now?
Yes. Of course I am. I put the pen down to come here. I am a third of the way through the Pitt for the spring of 2000. And they have the Pitt for next spring which will be called Bedford Square. And they have the Monk for next autumn which will be called The Twisted Root.
You like writing, don't you?
Yes. I do. How did you guess?
There's passion in your eyes when you talk about it.
I think it's a terrible thing to write and not enjoy it. It's a sad thing. But of course a lot of people do work because they need to eat. And we all need to eat, but that's not the only reason to work. You couldn't have paid me not to write. If you said you'd give me x thousand -- or a hundred thousand dollars, or a million dollars a year -- not to write I would tell you to keep your money, because what am I going to do? You've got to do it. I think it's the same for people who act or sing or play music or dance, whatever.
How old were you when your first novel was published?
I was 38, approximately. Well, I guess I was when it was accepted. I was 41 when it was published. Or 40.
In A Breach of Promise you spend a lot of time with Oliver Rathbone, and not as much with Monk or Hester Latterly.
I like Rathbone. And I thought the structure of the story called for Rathbone to be investigating at that point rather than Monk. You'd have had to distort the story to have Monk investigating at that point. Somebody who's going to be served with breach of promise goes to a lawyer, not a private investigator. It wouldn't have made sense to have him go to Monk.
So you use them as you need them?
Exactly. Yes, that was the story.
Do you have a large American readership?
Yes. That's where it is. The readership is American.
I didn't realize that.
Well, if I tell you that The Cater Street Hangman came out in America in 1979 and has never been out of print. And they brought it out this year in Britain: in September. That should give you some idea.
And they can do that with your books. Because they're quite timeless.
Oh, I hope so. If it's taken that long in my own country. I mean, I've got a few out, but I'm not a big name at all. Not at all.
But what made me think of that were your comments about Rathbone. I mean, that's British stuff. In relation to money and breeding.
In relation to money. Not necessarily breeding. Because you can't buy class.
Americans sometimes say to me that they have no class system themselves. All human beings have class systems. It can be based on a different thing in a different country, but the thing about breeding is, you can't buy it. If you have to say it, you haven't got it. It's a kind of an inner confidence and you don't have to say it. And it's curious but those people who really have breeding can be very quiet and very self-effacing but they have that total confidence. They don't believe in themselves: they know.
So Americans don't have a problem then with making the leap to understanding that? But then, you're writing about history and you write about it well. You write about it with authenticity.
Well, thank you. I try. Besides, on the east coast they also have exactly the same class system. It's the same thing.
It seems to me that you're at an interesting point in your career. Popularity-wise. Your following has really grown in the last few years. Do you get a sense of that?
Yes: according to the figures it goes up a little bit each year. It's been absolutely steady, there's no just gently all the time. But it's also gone up quite remarkably in France and in Spain. Does nicely in Italy, in Portuguese and Japanese. And they're on audio tape and The Cater Street Hangman has just been filmed for television. And it will be shown by A&E in early December. It's a pilot and I don't know whether they're going to do any more or not. We're swinging in the breeze waiting to find out.
Filmed in North America or in the UK?
In the UK. Done by Yorkshire Television. Now, watch when I name drop, I do it well: it's actually Prince Edward's company that's done it. And he does actually work at it. He was there on set. He actually is a very nice chap. And he has a nice sense of humor, too. He was on the Des O'Connor show -- which is a sort of chat show -- just before the program aired in the UK and he really was funny. He had them rolling around. And it's all spontaneous. None of it was thought up before.
What's the title of the show?
It's called The Inspector Pitt Mysteries.
Did you see it?
What do you think? [Laughing?]
Did you like it?
Yes. I liked it very much. I was very lucky. I waited quite a while and worked with people I believed would not have much of a chance of getting it done, but if they did would make a really good job of it. And they did get the chance to get it done, and I think they made a superb job of it. It's very, very true to my characters. The stories altered a little bit. Condensed, of course because it's a different medium. But the characters are exactly as I wrote them and quite a lot of the dialog is straight from the book. But the casting director picked them right out of my mind. I'm very, very fortunate.
Tell me what your genre is.
Well, if you've got to stick it in a genre... mystery is so wide. You can put it in: a mystery novel. Historical mystery novel. But I don't think I invented them: I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got there a day or two before me.
I don't like putting things into descriptions, but I suppose you have to.
There's also always something mysterious going on in your novels.
There's always a crime and it always gets solved. I think of the end and then I think, 'Well, how did this happen?' and then you write it that way. You start at the end, and then go back and write and go that way. Not everyone does, but I do. Some people just sit down at the page and start off. I start from what happened, including the why. And I don't like, 'He was mad' as an answer. Unless he's been driven mad by something we can understand. And I've had one or two of those: it's something that we can understand that put him in that position.
You're a very strong writer. I think anything you wrote would be interesting.
Thank you. I'll take your tape. And play it back to myself when I'm feeling low.
Do you think there's a chance you might write outside of this genre?
Yes. I've got a fantasy coming out in Britain on the 4th of February. It doesn't exactly fit in that genre, there's just no better way to describe it. An allegory. A spiritual journey in story form.
What's it called?
Tathea. It's the character. If it will come out in North America I don't know. I haven't got an answer from the publisher yet. It's not my usual publisher, it's a church publisher. I'm Mormon. And it's with the publishers there. I've got a verbal "Yes, we like it," but you don't know until you're there. When I've got someone's name on the contract, then I'll know where I am.
So, is it fantasy like Anne McCaffrey kind of fantasy?
No. Not at all like that. It doesn't really fit into anybody's sort of category. No dragons, no magic. No wizards. No sorcery. It's a spiritual journey back to the original question: who am I. It's the basic question that some of us ask at some time or another.
Was it fun to write?
If I tell you I had a wonderful Christmas... everybody I employ was away for a whole fortnight and I worked over 600-odd pages and did a complete re-write and I wrote every day except Sunday, even Christmas day I wrote for a while. It was one of the best Christmases I've had. Fun it was not. It was totally satisfying and absorbing and I was very happy.
Yes! That's a better word. I was totally absorbed in it. And I was happy to work every day from the time I woke until the time I went to sleep. I got right through the whole thing in two weeks. I did a complete rewrite of 650 pages in two weeks.
Is writing fun for you?
Oh yes it is. I love it. You couldn't pay me not to write.
So you enjoy the process as much as anything.
Yes. Almost everything about it is enjoyable for me. About the only thing I don't like is when the editor calls you from two books back and you've forgotten what it's about. And she says, 'On page 372 about half way down, did you mean this or did you mean that?' And you can't remember the story. And you've got to scratch through the manuscript and try and apply yourself and think, 'Well, what did I mean?' I don't think anybody likes line corrections.
You write 19th century London so well, would you like to have lived there and then?
No. Do you know anything about the medicine then? The plumbing? The dentistry? The clothes? The central heating and lack thereof? The dreadful restrictions on women? But just the medicine itself would be enough to put me off permanently.
You do write it so compellingly. I was reading a bit in Breach of Promise dealing with Gabriel's description of his war experience in India. And it's so real: you have to have done a lot of research to have captured the feeling so accurately.
I read quite a few diaries of the period. It was pretty appalling.
The detail was so fine. Readers could get the feeling that you dreamed yourself there.
Oh absolutely. I am there.
And you get to come back.
Exactly. I get to do it in the comfort of my own home. With a flush bathroom and a hot bath when I want one and if I need to go to the dentist I can have a nice shot to deaden the pain and if I get a problem I can go to the doctor and get sorted relatively painlessly. Relative to that, anyway. | November 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.