Mystery writer Anne Emery is the author of ten novels. Her most recent book, Though the Heavens Fall, is due to be published by ECW Press in October. Her books have won prizes such as a silver medal in the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards, the 2011 Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction, and the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel for Sign of the Cross. In the following post, Emery discusses her writing practice, the role religion plays in her work, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and mystery novels in particular?
I’ve been writing since childhood, and have always wanted to be a writer, though of course other workaday matters took up much of my time. I’m not sure when I decided on the mystery genre but it may well have been when I read John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That of course is a masterpiece of a spy novel and I have not attempted a spy novel myself, but it has the element of mystery, a puzzle to be worked out, and LeCarré gives us a glimpse into the murky, flickering region between good and evil. But what strikes me most powerfully are his unforgettable characters and their brilliant dialogue, along with the setting and atmosphere of the British intelligence services. The most important element for me in a book is character, and my favourite part of the writing process is dialogue: hence my character Maura MacNeil, who has a tongue in her head that could slit the hull of a freighter. And her husband, bluesman and lawyer Monty Collins, whose courtroom scenes are one of the highlights of the writing for me.
What role does religion play in your writing?
I am interested in the intellectual, worldly kind of person who also has a strong religious faith. Not the sort who refuses to believe in evolution or thinks the earth is only six thousand years old. The religious element also brings in other things that are important to me, including the great tradition of music in the church, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina and Byrd to Mozart and Handel and, more recently, Lauridsen. Also, the magnificent art and architecture: a stained-glass window, a Botticelli painting, a soaring gothic cathedral. I wanted a complex, attractive character, someone with conflicts that had to be addressed, the most obvious of course being his struggle with celibacy: and so Father Brennan Burke, who strays on occasion but keeps the faith. I get strong reactions to Burke, everything from “He’s not fit to do anything but scrub the floor of that church” to “I’m a single woman; where can I meet him?”
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
First, do a lot of reading. Not just in your preferred genre. Read the great writers and also read history or politics or whatever else you might have to know for your story. And have several other pairs of eyes look over your work—that includes your query letter—before you begin submitting it. And when you are stuck, do what I keep telling myself to do: “Just sit down and make it up!” It will be revised a hundredfold later on.
Do you workshop your material with other writers? Do you have a writing group?
No, I’m a lone wolf when I’m writing. Have to be alone. But once I have a draft, I have three very astute “early readers” who read what I’ve written and offer their suggestions. I revise the manuscript accordingly, and only then do I send it to my publisher. Then there are several stages of editing, for which I am most grateful!
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
One of the best things about Nova Scotia, and the Maritimes in general, is the wit and humour that is characteristic of Maritimers. So I try to make that part of all my Maritime stories. And I have mined the history and culture of our part of the world, particularly the Irish and Scottish, and the Gaelic culture of Cape Breton. Writing in Halifax has opened my eyes to the beautiful old buildings we have in this city: think King’s College, our lovely wooden houses… I am a bit obsessive about research so, even though I have lived here for much of my adult life, I still go out and observe the buildings: how many panes in the windows of the University Club at Dal? What is the correct term for those faces on the Spring Garden Road courthouse? Et cetera.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I head out for a walk with my music player; somehow, listening to music awakens the creative impulse. Music forms a vital part of the stories themselves. My two main characters, Collins and Burke, are musicians. And many of my scenes were inspired by music or lyrics. In fact, my fifth book, Children in the Morning, arose out of three particular songs: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (the title comes from a line in “Suzanne”), and Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. And—I said this above, but it bears repeating: on those occasions when nothing seems to work, I tell myself, “Just sit down and make it up!” I find that starting to write—writing anything at all—gets the neurons firing.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
The day I got word that ECW Press was going to publish my first book, I was meeting two good friends for lunch, and I was over the moon. Glad I got to share the good news with them over a bit of food and drink. And when the publisher, Jack David, came to Halifax to meet me, he was frank: he mentioned a well-respected crime writer and said, “He was on his eighth book before he could give up his day job.” That’s about what I would have expected! I was grateful that he hadn’t given me any horseshit about making me (1) a star or (2) a fortune. I wouldn’t have believed a word of it and now that I know Jack, I know he’d never have spun a fictional tale like that.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you prefer to move around?
I write on the top floor of my house in Halifax, looking over the harbour. The room is, as you might imagine, full of books.
What are you working on right now?
The tenth novel in my Collins-Burke series is coming out in the autumn: Though the Heavens Fall. It was directly inspired by the inscription on a building in Dublin: Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall. I said to myself, “There’s my next book.” It is set in Belfast during the Troubles. I am working on the next book in the series, set in Halifax and Germany; it will be called Postmark Berlin. I also have a couple of historical mysteries in the works. A daunting task indeed. Every single line has to be researched. “They went to the castle.” Yes, but how did they get there? And when they arrived, they had a drink. Of? And what did they drink out of? The paradox is: you have to do scads of research to paint an authentic picture for the reader, but nobody wants to read all your research. So it may take a while before you see anything historical with my name on it.