Friday, May 7, 2010

From Psychiatry to Baroque Mysteries



by Jean Henry Mead

Beverle Graves Myers made a mid-life career change from psychiatry to mystery writing. A graduate of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, she worked ten years at a public mental health clinic before her first book was published in 2004. Interrupted Aria introduced singer-sleuth Tito Amato and the Baroque Mystery series set in old Venice.

She also writes short stories set in a variety of times and places. Her short fiction has been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Woman's World, and numerous anthologies. She's also earned nominations for the Macavity, Derringer, and Kentucky Literary awards. Her latest novel, Her Deadly Mischief, was released from Poisoned Pen Press last September.

Bev, why did you decide to set your mystery series in 18th century Venice, featuring castrato opera singer Tito Amato?

For me, no other background can match the drama of Tito’s Venice. In the 18th century, the faltering city-state reinvented herself as the pleasure capital of Europe. Venice became a magnet for gamblers, courtesans, and adventurers of all kinds. Since opera was the most popular entertainment of the era and its singers on a par with rock stars of today, Tito was right in the thick of the intrigue.

Tell us about your protagonist.

Tito enters the series as a young man, fresh from a Naples conservatory and na├»ve in the ways of the world. He loves music but has conflicts about performing publicly as a musical eunuch and feels he’s an embarrassment to his family, particularly his rough-and-ready sailor brother Alessandro. Throughout the books, Tito gains wisdom, and his natural curiosity and sense of fairness draw him into mysterious doings, usually on the side of underdogs and other marginalized characters.

How long have you been interested in opera and how much research was necessary to begin the series?

I fell in love with opera during a marionette production of “Rigoletto.” I was nine. Thunder, lightning, kidnapping, wonderful melodies—it made quite an impression. The research on the castrato singers of early opera and 18th-century Venice was a delight, but took some time. I spent six months immersing myself in that world before I started to write Interrupted Aria, the first book in the series.

Have you written in other genres? Tell us about your background.
My first career was in psychiatry, so I also have an interest in writing mysteries and thrillers that incorporate medicine and science. So far, I’ve only published short stories on those topics, but in addition to the Tito novels, a science thriller is in the works now.

How has your background influenced your writing and your characters?

My career in psychiatry gave me a deep understanding of character, personality, and motivations for good and evil deeds, so it’s no surprise that my novels could be described as character driven. Also, although psychiatry as we know it didn’t exist in Tito’s time, at least one character in each of my books suffers from what we would call a mental illness. Tito’s sister Grisella has Tourette’s Syndrome. Her family, mystified by her outbursts, tries everything from herbal remedies to exorcism.

Did a favorite author influence your own writing?

When I decided to write historical mysteries, I studied the Roman novels of Steven Saylor and the Bruce Alexander series featuring Sir John Fielding of the Bow Street Runners. Both authors have a knack for bringing the past to life without a tiresome history lesson. I tried to write by their examples.

You’ve written your books as though they were set for the stage.

The novels in the Baroque Mystery Series each have three or four distinct parts, much like the acts of a grand opera. In the widest sense, this type of story-telling structure goes all the way back to classical times. The rising action and partial resolution in each act keeps things interesting for the reader. Focusing more narrowly, I enjoy writing a book that could be an opera about an opera singer who is the hero of a book. Interesting symmetry, I think.

Have you received feedback from the operatic world? If so, has it been positive?

I’ve been reviewed on several opera sites, and often receive emails from opera fans. They seem to enjoy the backstage antics and intrigue as much as the solution of the mystery.

Have you visited Venice as part of your research? If so, what did you find that surprised you?

My husband and I visited Venice for eight days a couple of years ago. It was my first trip, so the first several books were written without first-hand experience of the city. Because of my extensive research, not much surprised me, though I did expect the Rialto Bridge to be bigger. It was the little things that truly charmed me—canary birds hanging from many open windows, children playing in the alleys on their way home from school. I could really imagine Tito walking those pavements 275 years or so ago.

What do you enjoy most about the writing process as well as the least?

I enjoy manipulating words to paint a scene—finding that one crucial word or phrase that sums it up perfectly. On the downside, it sometimes becomes a burden to write every day, especially if I feel I’m not writing particularly well.

Anything else you’d like to touch on?

I’ll just caution readers not to be put off by the opera aspect of the Baroque Mysteries. You don’t have to be an opera lover to enjoy the books. Tito gets all over Venice, makes a side trip to Rome, and has all sorts of adventures totally unrelated to the opera house.

(Interview excerpted from Mysterious Writers, to be released in late May)

2 comments:

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks for the interview, Jean. It's always great seeing what people are posting, and the mix of guests makes it even better.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm intrigued by the subjects covered in mystery novels and the amountof research involved in historic mysteries. Beverle Graves does a great job bringing 18th century opera to life.