Good Reading : July 2005
goodreading 15 author profile ‘I don’t mind schedules. My sister-in- law once told me that if she had to live by a schedule, she’d just die. She loves spontaneity. Dinner is a moving target at her house. I’ve learned to take a cooler of food with me when I go to visit because chances are good that there won’t be a meal when I need one. Once she invited me, my fiancé, and my cousin Sue to Thanksgiving lunch ... and finally got around to serving it at five-thirty in the afternoon. ‘I’m not like this. I’m my sister-in-law’s polar opposite. I was a high school teacher for thirteen and a half years, and there’s not much in life more rigorously scheduled than the life of a teacher ... unless it’s the life of a recruit in the Army. But this is much to my benefit as a writer, because the only way to succeed at the writing life is to be able to live according to a schedule that accommodates time to write.When Glenda – that’s my sister- in-law – told me she’d just die if she had to live with a schedule, I replied that I would lose my mind if I couldn’t live with one. That doesn’t mean that there is no spontaneity in my life. It just happens during the time I have scheduled for it.’ Having shared her sister-in law’s shame with the world, George may have to watch out for ground glass in her cranberry sauce next time she goes to Glenda’s house for Thanksgiving, but this story highlights the deep chasm between those who write and those who don’t. Now, someone who doesn’t write for a living might assume that George would treat her first visit to this part of the world as a semi-holiday. She’s working on her next novel, but George has just been to New Zealand, it’s a long and exhausting jour- ney from the US, there are number of other Australian cities she’s agreed to do publicity in after Sydney, and she’s got her husband with her. George says that, according to her lights, she is taking it a little easier: she got up this morning a whole half hour later, at five instead of four-thirty. Rising at the latter time is the routine strictly followed five days a week when a novel is at its first draft stage, and for seven days when she’s working on her second draft and her third. ‘I get up quite early to write because this is before my husband and my dogs are up.’ (There’s an endearing entry in the list of acknowledgements at the back of With No One As Witness to her new husband Tom McCabe, whom George thanks for having ‘heroically put up with five am wake-up calls for months on end – including on ski-trips, hikes in the Great Smokies, and Seattle getaways – without a word of complaint.’) ‘It’s before my assistant arrives and before anyone has started to ring me on the telephone. So I can get a tremendous amount of work done between 4.30 and 9.00 . . . I’m invariably done with my writing for the day by about ten or eleven o’clock.’ This gives her the rest of the day to attend to any other busi- ness ‘tangential to my writing of the novel’ and to enjoy her new hobby, which is making mixed media assemblages. (As she describes it, creating these unusual artworks – where a lot of disparate elements such as an old key, a figurine, coins, brass buttons, and pieces of broken china are gathered together and put into different pat- terns until a picture emerges – sounds very much like writing, especially writing mystery stories, where the author plays with the clues before the detective does.) A dedicated writer is someone for whom their occupation is their preoccupation. He or she is always working even when they are not.Which is why a trip to Yorkshire George and her former husband took a decade and half ago was an opportunity for him to look at the places where James Herriot set his books, and for her to check out where to set her book, the one that was to become A Great Deliverance , the first Inspector Lynley mystery. (George and husband Tom McCabe had a brief holiday in New Zealand before she began her media rounds, and she says that she found Wellington intriguing, so perhaps there may be a Lynley TV mystery set there some time in the future like all those picture-postcard episodes of Morse and The Bill where the cast and crew get to go Down Under. This is one admirably business-like lady.Though our inter- view was conducted on her part as if we were a couple of girl- friends having a chat over a cuppa, George checked her watch discreetly as soon as I turned on my tape recorder, and when I made tentative wrapping up noises, her publicist-minder was summoned instantly to her side, ready to accompany her to her next appointment. As well as Thomas Lynley, the eighth Earl of Asherton, George has created a group of continuing characters for her books.There’s his long-time partner Barbara Havers, and the recently promoted Detective Sergeant Winston Nkata; forensic pathologist Simon Allcourt-St James, his wife Deborah, a pho- tographer; and Lady Helen Clyde, Allcourt-St James’ laboratory assistant, whom Lynley marries partway into the series. At first though George didn’t see Lynley at the heart of the narrative.What she planned to write were books along the lines of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with an acentric detective and his admiring outsider. Her detective was to be the reclusive Simon Allcourt-St James, a forensic scientist with a field of expertise wide enough for him to assist the police whenever they had trouble with one of their cases.Thomas Lynley was to be merely the offsider, a New Scotland Yard detective who came to Simon for help. But after writing two novels with this for mat, both rejected by publish- ers, George then decided to see if Lynley could solve a case on his own. Giving him a case meant giving him a partner, which gave us Barbara Havers. Almost certainly the addition of this particular character to the mix provided a vital ingredient to Elizabeth George’s liter - ary recipe for success.