Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans is the author of the award-winning Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries: Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings, and Floodgates. Her new novel, the sixth in the series, is Strangers.

Earlier this month I asked her what sh was reading. Her reply:
I'm sure I'm not the first writer to bemoan the fact that, though I write books because I love to read them, I find that writing my novels cuts deeply into time I might spend reading. And when I do read, it's frequently nonfiction that's related to the topic of my work-in-progress.

Since I write mysteries about an archaeologist and I am neither an archaeologist nor a historian, I set aside about a month at the beginning of each new project to bone up on the history and material culture of the area where the book is to be set. I call this activity "reading for a living."

I scour my own library, which includes tomes like The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the WPA guides to Florida, Mississippi, and New Orleans. I poke through the public library for material, getting some of the more esoteric stuff by interlibrary loan. (I believe it took four libraries to satisfy my insatiable need for information on tin-glazed medieval Islamic ceramic lustreware. Who would have thought that information would be so hard to get? It wasn't even on the internet. What's up with that?)

Despite its dearth of information on tin-glazed medieval Islamic ceramic lustreware, I crawl all over the internet, following my nose as I look for background material on my topic. At this point in the process, I don't care of the information is scholarly or pop culture schlock or even unsubstantiated rumor. I can sort out the truth later, but schlock and rumor are part of the human condition, so they have their place in fiction. Or so it seems to me.

For my new release, Strangers, I found an online English translation of a journal kept by the priest accompanying the Spaniards who founded St. Augustine in 1565, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales. His descriptions of hurricanes and lost ships and massacres and first contact with Native Americans were simply indelible. Because I don't like to muck around in the lives of real people, my depiction of Father Francisco's actions is very close to his own, but I also created a fictional priest to tell the story I wanted to write.

My Father Domingo sees the same massacres and epidemics that the real Father Francisco did, but they affect him differently. Father Domingo wakes up the morning after the massacre at the Matanzas River and he just walks away. He goes native, ministering to the Timucuan Indians as they pass into extinction. And, in the end, he strikes back in the only way a man trained in peace can manage.

Inevitably, I buy more books for my groaning shelves. For my current work-in-progress, Plunder, I bought a book that I think has one of the best titles ever: X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. After reading it, I'll never again watch Johnny Depp pilot the Black Pearl in The Pirates of the Caribbean in quite the same way.

But I write fiction because it's what I like to read, so I squeeze reading it into the scraps of time left me by my work and my family responsibilities. This is why it has taken me an astonishingly long time to read a book that I'm really enjoying: Light in August by William Faulkner.

As a seventh-generation Mississippian and an Ole Miss graduate, it's fairly inexcusable that I'd never read Faulkner beyond a few short stories in high school. I chose Light in August for two excellent reasons: It was already in my overstuffed library and I thought the blurb on the back looked interesting. Imagine how surprised I was to find myself immersed in a beautifully written and artfully nuanced work of...crime fiction.

No, it's not a mystery, as the publishing industry currently defines it. I don't really even like to mention a genre category in the same paragraph as William Faulkner, for fear that someone reading this might think that I can't tell the difference between pop culture schlock and timeless art. My point is that, as I've read it, I've spent a good bit of time trying to pinpoint the differences between the two, because it can only help my own work. And also because the question is interesting.

Faulkner's use of the English language is, of course, far more sophisticated than that in modern crime fiction. (And in everything else...) His ability to give a clean and clear look at a character's heart in a sentence or a page (or a page-long sentence) can make me stop reading so I can think a bit. Having grown up in Mississippi, I know that his descriptions of the countryside and the social interactions and the psychological intricacies of a small-town church service are pitch-perfect.

I'm nearly finished with the book and, unless Faulkner is going to pull a fast one on me, he hasn't been shy about letting us know whodunit...because finding out who did the murder is not the point. The spreading ripples of that murder's impact and the sordid history that brought the killer to the act of murder is the point. And the writer's obvious joy in manipulating time and space as he unfolds his story is pretty damn fine to read, as well.

Maybe some foolish mystery editor would reject Light in August if it were submitted today, because the killer isn't hidden from view, but that editor would be wrong. I actually don't think my editor would reject it. I think she'd just see it as a different way to explore the concept of justice, which is what I think mystery fiction is all about.

A friend told me that Faulkner's Sanctuary is even more like a mystery than Light in August. I think it'll be next on my reading list. Right after I plow through this stack of books about shipwrecks and how to salvage treasure from the bottom of the ocean...
Learn more about the author and her work at Mary Anna Evans' website.

The Page 69 Test: Floodgates.

--Marshal Zeringue