Article first published as An Interview With Jeri Westerson, Author of Blood Lance and the Crispin Guest Book Series on Blogcritics.
Author Jeri Westerson has done it again: She's managed to craft another fascinating, entertaining, engaging book in a style that's been dubbed "medieval noir."
Her latest book, Blood Lance, is the fifth in her series of books about Crispin Guest, a detective of sorts during the medieval era, a man who was previously a knight.
One of the many aspects of this book and series I enjoy is how Westerson combines by I Want This">history with fiction, even historical figures with fictional ones, with grace and eloquence.
In our latest interview--I previously interviewed her about her book Troubled Bones--she also talks about her concerns about the state of the publishing industry and how it will affect authors including herself.
The photos include two of Jeri jousting, which she did as part of research for this book. The jousting photos were taken by Craig Westerson.
How did the ideas for the latest book in your Crispin Guest series develop? How would you summarize the plot for this one?
The latest is Blood Lance: In late 14th century London, disgraced former knight Crispin Guest spies a body hurtling from the uppermost reaches of London Bridge. Crispin’s attempted rescue fails, however, and the man—an armourer with a shop on the bridge—is dead. While whispers in the street claim that it was a suicide, Crispin is unconvinced. He discovers that the armourer had promised Sir Thomas Saunfayl something that would make him unbeatable in battle. Sir Thomas--a friend from Crispin’s former life--believes that the item was in fact the Spear of Longinus - the spear that pierced the side of Christ on the cross—which is believed to make those who possess it invincible.
Complicating matters is another old friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who is suddenly anxious to help Crispin find the missing spear…and locate Sir Thomas, who must face a trial by joust for desertion to determine whether he lives or dies. Desperate to help, Crispin, along with his faithful apprentice Jack Tucker, hunt for the spear while dodging the various powerful factions determined to have it for themselves. Through danger and trials, Crispin finds that the safety of England may have landed solely in his hands.
I wanted to write something that dealt with Crispin’s knightly past, to feature a joust, and bring in the iconic London Bridge into the story. So I chose a knightly relic—the Spear of Longinus. And because Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder seemed to frequently feature in the nightly news, I thought I’d explore that and its history. Surely, I thought, that this is not a new phenomenon. And when I delved into the research I found it wasn’t, though it went by other names in the past, most notably cowardice. And so I brought a knight back into Crispin’s life suffering from PTSD but seen through the eyes of medieval people. One thing just leads on to another thing when it comes to devising plot.
Do you have a favorite character in your books or is that like asking a mother to pick her favorite child? I really like Jack, Crispin's apprentice, and enjoy how he has grown throughout the books. I wonder if Jack one day would get or need his own apprentice.
Crispin is still my favorite, but Jack offers all sorts of advantages to the plot and to Crispin’s backstory. Jack is the foil, someone to whom Crispin can explain what’s going on (and, subsequently, to the reader). Jack seems to be becoming wise and maturing while Crispin is often stuck in the loop of his worst nightmare. And yet he is still young and somewhat naïve. They are good for each other. And considering Jack was never going to be returning after book one, it’s quite a testimonial. In fact, Jack will be featured in his own young adult series to hopefully expand the Crispin universe. It will be for tweens and teens and a bit of a departure from mystery with more of a fantasy element, but I think Crispin’s readers will find it enjoyable, too.
One of many joys as I read your books in this series is wondering which characters are real life people, or at least based on real people (Geoffrey Chaucer, for example), and which are fictional. Do you enjoy that too? Put another way, is it fun to intermingle fictional characters with real people?
Lots of fun. And I do mention in the Afterword who did exist and who is imaginary. Learning about the real people of the time always suggests interesting plot twists, because I use the history presented. I don’t change the history to suit the plot. Some real people have very little information about them. The sheriffs, for instance. So I usually cobble their characters out of whole cloth. I was always a big fan of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is why I picked this particular time period in which to place my novels, because I knew I wanted to use him. He’s been in two books so far and I have no reason to believe he won’t be in more. The same with Henry Bolingbroke, the son of the duke of Lancaster.
Lancaster was another character who was supposed to show up only in the first book but he kept barging his way back into book after book. Now he has to make regular appearances. But in Blood Lance he is away in Spain. Actually, he’s away for the next two books. That’s an historical fact. I can’t very well plausibly have him sending Crispin messages and so his son has stepped into his role, which makes perfect sense to the history unfolding.
So... that leads to this follow-up: In this book, for example, which characters besides Chaucer ARE real? Some of the royalty and clergy are, correct?
Abbott Nicholas of Westminster Abbey, two Spaniards, both sheriffs, Brother John of Canterbery (note the different spelling), John Charneye the coroner, the earl of Suffolk, the earl of Oxford, Richard II and his wife, the Lady Anne, and an assortment of other nobility at court mentioned in passing.
How do you go about doing research for this series and, specifically, this book?
Mostly the old-fashioned way. In university libraries and archives. The internet is useful in that it can direct you to archives and more research, and I also seek the advice from scholars, professors, and historians from a medieval listserv.
As for the jousting, I looked at some of the fourteen and fifteenth century books written about swordplay and jousting and suited up into armor myself. Nothing like hands on research!
Do you read other authors who do sort of what you do with this great series, namely construct a fictional historic thriller using some real people, places and events? For example, have you read Gyles Brandreth's novels about Oscar Wilde?
I haven’t read that series but I do read the occasional historical mystery. I must be careful, however, not to pick up any plot points, so I don’t read medieval mysteries anymore.
How far or long would you envision the Crispin Guest series going? I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about a Facebook page you put up titled Save Crispin Guest. It sounds like you are concerned that due to the realities of the publishing world if sales of your books don't increase your books won't come out in paperbacks and the series may end. I realize that's an oversimplification but is that the basic point?
I’m following a specific timeline with his story and so I envision—after next year’s release of Shadow of the Alchemist--11 more books to fully explore Crispin’s tale. And yes, we’ve hit a snag with the current publisher. They live or die by their sales, too, and the unfortunate truth is that sales of the Crispin books have not met their expectation. But to be completely fair, publishers, particularly big New York publishers, are terrible at promoting their midlist books. What seems to happen is they scatter a lot of money publishing a LOT of midlist authors, sort of throwing them all on the wall and seeing if any of them stick.
One or two might, that is, they garner good solid sales all on their own, and then the publisher moves in with more marketing to bolster them. But for the others, they don’t help to promote those author’s books and then they wonder why sales aren’t meeting their expectations. It’s backwards business practice to be sure, but that is the state I find my books in. They won’t invest in the paperbacks because their whole by I Want This">marketing strategy is concentrated on hardcover.
Hardcover sales, primarily to libraries, have been their staple, whether it’s currently a solid by I Want This">business practice these days or not. Fewer bookstores and ebooks have moved into the paradigm, and for a while my ebook sales rose, too, but now they’ve plateaued as well. The only thing that will save Crispin’s books with this publisher is for readers and libraries to buy more hardcover books. A LOT more of them.
But if this publisher won’t offer any more contracts, then there is the hope a smaller publisher will pick it up and be happy with the solid core of fans. Smaller publishers, ironically, put more effort into promoting their authors, but naturally there is less money for authors with a smaller publisher; smaller advance, less places to buy the book. It’s a trade off. That’s why it’s most difficult for authors to make any sort of living at writing.
What made you decide to set up the Facebook event? What has been the reaction to it?
I wanted to boost sales in order to keep my current publisher. It was a desperate and gutsy move. It’s still a better deal having that big name publisher behind you. By my book’s mere presence in their catalog—a catalog that goes out to libraries and bookstores—gives my book that imprimatur that lifts my novels above the dross.
The reaction has been heartfelt. Every Crispin fan wants to help. Readers don’t realize how important it is these days to talk up a book. To ask their libraries to order it for all their branches. To review it on online sites and to “Like” it where those buttons are offered. I really hated to do it, because it could backfire just as much, but I’m not one to sit by. I’m proactive and have always busted my buns getting the word out about my books. I don’t know whether it will be enough, however. Plenty of other seemingly successful authors have been in my shoes, and they have had to find smaller publishing homes for their series as well.
Let me come at that topic another way. Recently, I understand, you got word that the books haven't met the publisher's sales projections and they have no plans to offer by I Want This">more contracts for the series. No contracts, no books, unless sales rise significantly or another publisher can be found. What are your plans regarding this issue? Did I sum up those facts correctly?
That’s about it. They are a business, after all. A strange cock-eyed business but that’s what I signed up for. My plans are to raise awareness and maybe sales enough for them to change their mind. And failing that, to find another mid-size or small publisher who would be happy with the sales numbers we are getting. I have a fan base and a good platform and it would be a good addition to any publisher’s stable. I know a lot of people have told me to go indie, to self-publish, and though I haven’t taken that off the table either, I consider it my absolute last resort. To have the backing of a publisher is far, far better that not having one at all. The books can be reviewed by reputable industry magazines, they can be distributed to bookstores and to libraries (library sales are significant. Picture your main library. Now think of all the satellite branches that could order copies). It doesn’t matter to readers, but I got my foreign rights sales and by I Want This">audio book sales based on that publisher name on the spine. It matters. Self-pubbed books rarely get into libraries and bookstores.
Do you do e-book sales? How does the sale of e-books by you and others fit into this equation and problem?
The publisher creates the ebooks. Sales rose slightly but then plateaued. They still only account for ten percent of my sales. Readers who like this kind of mystery really do prefer paper. Sometimes they buy the ebook for convenience, but then they also buy the print book to have on their shelf. The historical mystery demographic is different from what you might read about on blogs and on news sites.
What is your favorite part about writing what I believe you call "medieval noir"?
I like Crispin’s being a tough guy. I like incorporating the hard-boiled tropes into the medieval setting. And I love delving into his character and exploring his chivalric side, whether it’s a good idea for him to indulge in that or not.
Final question: Some of my favorite scenes in this novel involve the jousting. You suggest readers, if they get a chance, should go see a real joust. What is it like to see one in person? Where's the best place to go see one, barring a time travel machine?
They are terribly exciting. There is an authorized jousting circuit but they are few and far between in the U.S. I just signed books at the Tournament of the Phoenix that is presented every autumn in Poway, California. But I imagine you can check by I Want This">the internet to find them locally. Theatrical jousting that you might see at Medieval Times Dinner Theatre is not the same, because it’s staged. When two powerful horses ride toward each other, with their mounted knights with lance at the ready, and then they clash! Wow! Imagine the best play of football, basketball, hockey—with horses—rolled into one and you’ll get a feel for my excitement.
I invite readers to check out my website. If you are a bookclub, I have book discussion guides of all my books, and if you are in Southern California I’d be happy to meet with your group personally or meet you by Skype. There’s also a series book trailer on the video page, and Crispin has his own blog there, too. Stop on by.