As a friend and appraiser for The Manuscript Agency, we managed to coerce author Cheryl Sawyer to sit down and have a chat with us about her latest book Murder at Cirey. As with all our author interviews, we wanted to know a little bit more about what drove her as a writer and how she came upon her stories. Here she shares a little of her writing journey with us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR…
Cheryl Sawyer was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and grew up in Cambridge and Auckland. She has two master’s degrees with honours in English and French literature and has lived and worked for some time in both England and France.
Cheryl has enjoyed a long career as both a publisher (of both fiction and non-fiction) and a published novelist. She is the author of six historical novels, published in several languages by Random House, Penguin, Bertelsmann, Via Magna, Mir Knigi and others. Murder at Cirey is her seventh published novel, and her first venture into historical crime. Kirkus Reviews have called it ‘Exhilarating’ and bestselling crime writer Peter James calls it ‘Historical fiction writing at its very best. Astonishingly vivid.’
During her professional life in books she has assessed, edited, published and reviewed prize-winning fiction and non-fiction. She has also tutored in literature and novel writing. She says that she has never lost the excitement of seeing new work.
While the greater part of her career has been in publishing, her past experience is eclectic. She has been a bartender in Essex; temporary governess to two bright little girls at the Château de Breteuil, southwest of Paris; teacher of English in France and Italy; freelance editor of The Bone People by Keri Hulme, winner of the 1985 Booker Prize in the UK; food and wine writer for Better Business magazine in New Zealand; guest speaker at a writers’ conference in Reno, Nevada; and, for eight years, opera reviewer for the Australian Jewish News.
She now writes full-time and maintains the blog Free Literary Mentor.
To begin with, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
What did you want to do/be when you ‘grew up’?
I wrote my first novel in primary school when we were asked to produce compositions to be read out in class on Fridays. I created a serial called The Three Gs, about three kids whose names all started with ‘G’ and who were rather adept at catching criminals. I used to write and read out a chapter a week and my teacher told my mother the audience was hooked to the very end. He said, ‘We’ll see her name in print one day.’ I was nine when my inner ambition to write made itself felt. That’s why I used my maiden name on my first published novel—to make his prediction come true!
ABOUT THE MANUSCRIPT and THE WRITING PROCESS…
Can you describe your latest novel in 100 words?
Murder at Cirey takes place over eight days in spring, 1735. When a handsome young man is shot dead on an estate in the picturesque Champagne region of France. Victor Constant, a military policeman, determines to find out why. But no one else, including the local magistrate, seems willing to penetrate the mystery of this brutal death. Alone and against orders, Victor confronts the notorious free-thinker, Voltaire, who found the body. Victor fights to protect the innocent and bring the real killer to justice. A second murder occurs and Victor’s task becomes doubly dangerous: unless he can strip bare the conspiracy behind this intricate series of crimes, he stands to lose his military career—and his life.
How long have you been writing?
And how long have you been writing this particular MS?
I’ve been writing all my life but my most serious endeavours began in the 1990s and the first of my six published historical novels was released by Random House in 1998. Murder at Cirey, my seventh to be published, took about a year to finish. I was a full-time publisher during that time, so I wrote it in my leisure hours.
What are the reasons you decided to self-publish?
What did you find easy, difficult, surprising about the self-publishing process?
For many years, my literary agent was US agent Kristin Nelson, who’s still a friend. I showed her Murder at Cirey but I knew it had only a slim chance because she doesn’t usually represent crime. She kindly recommended it to another North American agent and I also approached a London agent who had represented me in the past, and one or two others in England. But the presence of Voltaire in the story seemed to make agents uneasy, especially in North America. These days, ironically, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, publishers and readers are actively turning to Enlightenment thinkers to relearn the lessons about tolerance and religious and civil freedoms that they taught humanity. I believed in my portrait of Voltaire, in his extraordinary mistress Madame du Châtelet, physicist and mathematician, and in the hero, Victor Constant, and his passion for justice. That’s why I decided to stop searching for an agent and self-publish, for the very first time.
Because of my long career in traditional publishing, the actual process was not difficult, though I do warn people—it’s time-consuming. I published the paperback with the aid of CreateSpace and the Kindle edition through KDP Select, who are very professional. The hard part was teaching myself how to market books online. I spent a year figuring out what I needed to do and, although I’m still learning, I now have knowledge, allies, reviews, contacts, opportunities and friends for which I am profoundly grateful.
I also have a new publisher! Endeavour Press, the largest independent digital publisher in the UK, approached me last month (March 2015) with the offer to bring out two of my past novels as eBooks. Signing this contract really made me feel like I’m back on track as a writer.
When you write, do you jot down all your ideas first
or do they come to you as you go?
I know the arc of the story and often draw a simple diagram of it, with major plot points marked.
For Murder at Cirey I typed up a chronology to keep exact account of what happened, where, on each of the eight days.
But a lot of the ideas for situations, characters and plot (in that order) occur when I’m in the middle of research and I then let them take shape in my head over time (often when walking or swimming), before I begin writing.
I know what I want to happen in each scene before I begin it, but the action itself flows straight into the narrative without any more preparation than the above.
Where can we buy your book? And is there anywhere
else we can find out more about you?
Tell us what’s next for you?
A novel called Death in Champagne, starring Victor Constant and involving Voltaire and du Châtelet as somewhat unusual consultant detectives …