To support the incredible Books on the Hill kickstarter “Open Dyslexia: The Sequel” that launched on 7th June, we’re delighted to host historical crime writer J.M. Alvey on the BtGS blog. You may know J.M better as Juliet E. Mckenna.
You’ve written several novels featuring Philocles. At first, playwright and detective seem far apart, but both jobs involve piecing a story together. How did you come up with his character?
If you’re thinking about writing a history mystery, you soon learn that police forces are a recent development. The magistrates in classical Athens had three hundred Scythian public slaves for crowd control, but the victim of a crime or their family were responsible for finding out who dun whatever and bringing the case to court. Legal records make that very clear. There was nothing to stop them looking for help, but who would they ask? It couldn’t be a slave, because no free citizen would give a slave-detective the time of day. It would have to be a male citizen who could give evidence in court. Ideally, this citizen would have contacts right across the city, from the poorest areas to the wealthiest, if he was going to follow up every clue.
Well, everyone went to the theatre, and one way or another, a lot of the public were involved in the plays as part of religious festivals. The city’s richest men provided the finance as a form of taxation. So a playwright would know a whole lot of people. Though they rarely earned a living from writing plays alone – some things never change… So our playwright would need a day job, and pen for hire was the obvious answer. They wrote everything from funeral eulogies to wedding speeches to the cases for the defence or the prosecution for a client to present in court. My playwright-detective would come into contact with even more people and crimes doing that. But why would he get involved? In the first story, Shadows of Athens, Philocles finds a dead man on his doorstep. He feels an obligation to his city and to the gods to find out what happened. Once he’s done that, word gets around, and you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head. Each time, Philocles wants to know the story that solves the mystery.
What came first – ancient Athens or the desire to write a crime/mystery novel? Has your historical research helped shape the core mystery element of the story?
I’ve thought about writing crime novels for ages because I’ve enjoyed reading them for decades. Hearing mystery writers talk over the years, I’ve also learned a lot about the challenges of writing a good one. I wasn’t about to get involved with modern police procedure, forensic science and such. That doesn’t mean writing historical crime is easier – it’s just different. You really have to know your period, and since I studied Greek and Roman history and literature at university, that was the obvious place for me to start.
Why this particular period? Looking at life in Athens between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars is fascinating. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were writing their plays, giving us unparalleled insights into people who were so similar and yet so very different to us. Their acceptance of slavery is only the most obvious example. My research shaped these stories from start to finish. Reading about notable events and scandals and festivals gave me the central idea for each plot. Then I had to research the everyday details that would make committing that crime possible – and enable Philocles to solve it. More than once I came across facts that stopped my plot dead. Fortunately, I always came across something else that took the story in a new and interesting direction.
You are also an epic fantasy author. Is the writing process different when working on your crime novels?
The process of ‘breaking’ the story is certainly different for me. A crime novel has fixed points, usually starting with the body and ending with unmasking the killer. There’s a whole lot more to writing a good mystery than that, but the overall shape of the narrative is well established. For a fantasy novel, I avoid plots with fixed points and themes that come preloaded with expectations. I’m not interested in writing the Chosen One’s quest to learn wisdom, find allies and beat the Dark Lord in the final chapter. I’m always trying to find a new angle on some unforeseen power struggle, or a new twist on magic, or whatever idea has started me thinking ‘what if…?’
Once I have the story in my head, the process is the same. I strip the narrative down to its essentials and plan out the overall structure. That shows me where the gaps are, so I fill those with added interest, secondary threads and maybe a little misdirection. I start writing, and the internal logic of the story soon gathers momentum. Characters, events, and their setting are all shaped by, and all influence, each other. I adapt my plan accordingly, and by the end of my first draft, the underlying themes of the story are emerging. My second and final draft is where I tweak and tighten everything up. Then I look for input from fresh eyes and improve the story with that feedback.
You have always been vocal about gender inequality in genre fiction. Do you think other genres, such as crime and thriller, have the same problems?
Crime writing has more high profile women writers as far as the non-genre reading public is concerned, thanks to things like TV adaptations and supermarket promo sales. That helps every female author in that field to some extent. I have heard there are still issues over gender bias in review coverage, and the ease with which a male media celebrity can get a quick crime book deal at the expense of other writers. It’s not something I have researched in depth though. Using a gender neutral pen name is interesting. More than one review has commented ‘Alvey really knows his period’, so those underlying assumptions persist.
Do you feel modern publishing does enough to understand and address the difficulties dyslexic people can face when they are searching for dyslexic-friendly books?
In the twenty-five years since I signed my first book deal, I have never once had a conversation with anyone in mass-market publishing where the word ‘dyslexic’ has come up in any context. That tells me the issue is nowhere on the radar as far as the bulk of the industry is concerned. That needs to change – and it’s not even that difficult. But I’m guessing publishing people are as ignorant as I was before I met Alistair at Books on the Hill. I’d heard about dyslexics using coloured filters and other strategies to help, but I had no idea how that worked. Somehow, I just assumed writing dyslexic-friendly books would be equally complicated. Well, you know that old saying about ‘assume’? ‘It makes an ass of you and me.’ Honestly, it’s embarrassing…
I was astonished when Alistair explained how formatting and fonts make writing infinitely more accessible for dyslexics. Whether that’s in print or ebooks, modern technology makes doing these things far, far easier. As an author, I don’t have to do anything different. Not a thing. Not at all. Now thanks to Alistair and BOTH Press, I can offer this quick read to give dyslexic readers a taste of the fiction that’s available to entertain them. It’s a privilege to be asked.
For more info or to support the Books on the Hill kickstarter, you can check it out right here.
J M Alvey studied Classics at Oxford in the 1980s. As an undergraduate, notable achievements in startling tutors included citing the comedic principles of Benny Hill in a paper on Aristophanes, and using military war-gaming rules to analyse and explain apparent contradictions in historic accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Crime fiction has always been relaxation reading and that love of mysteries and thrillers continued through a subsequent, varied career, alongside an abiding fascination with history and the ancient world. She also writes epic fantasy fiction and more besides as Juliet E McKenna.