There are few antidotes to a long and often unpredictable subway commute: pretending to work while writing a blog post on the blackberry and reading a good book. Both activities allow you to zone out the caffeinated traders talking loudly about their latest (but possibly real) deals and (mostly fictional) amorous encounters. The first antidote leads you to daydream about food and write the draft of a recipe, the second… to miss the Wall Street stop and end up in Brooklyn, and late for work. While I take full responsibility for the first and the potential disasters in my kitchen, I can blame Charles Finch for the second occurrence. Let me take you back to several years ago, around Christmas time. I was browsing books at the now defunct Barnes & Nobles in Lincoln Center looking for something good to read over the holidays. As usual I was in the mystery and thrillers section, reading the back cover of a book with an intriguing title “The September Society”. A middle aged woman approached me and emphatically recommended the book. Naturally, I bought the book and started reading it right then and there on the way back home. I even ran back to the book store the following day when I realized that it was the second book of the series!
The action takes place in Victorian England, 1865 to be precise, and the main character of the series is Charles Lenox, a gentleman who leads a very comfortable life as the second son of a Duke. While his brother inherited a spot in the Parliament and the family seat, Lenox spends his days with a frowned upon hobby: he is a detective. Constantly torn between social pressure (a gentleman shouldn’t engage in trade) and his curiosity and passion for detection, Charles Lenox is as compelling as the characters he is surrounded by: Graham, his butler and “assistant” detective, Dallington, the charming yet debauched apprentice, Lady Jane, the next door neighbor and love interest, Edmund, Lenox’s brother who would love to participate to the investigations, McConnell, that I envision as the tipsy version of Watson. The Charles Lenox Series has become a Holiday season staple: it’s like reconnecting with old friends who lived in a different time and the latest installment “An Old Betrayal” was published last month, just in time for the holidays.
I connected with Charles Finch, the author of the Charles Lenox Series, on Twitter a couple of years ago and was surprised by the fact that he is one of the very few authors who has a healthy interaction with his followers. Usually authors either shy away from social media altogether or have a love/hate relationship with these new instruments. Charles Finch is the exception because he has a strong following of readers but his interaction with them is not inclined in self promotion. It is more of a conversation among people who are passionate about the same things. When I asked to interview him I didn’t even need to bribe him with my world famous eggplant parmigiana!
L25: The Charles Lenox mysteries have become quite a winter staple for your readers. When you wrote the first book did you imagine it would become a series?
CF: I certainly hoped it might be – I’ve always loved series where you know a new installment will be coming at a certain time every year, like an annual visit with old friends. But I don’t think I could have predicted when I wrote “A Beautiful Blue Death” that it would have six sequels.
L25: Lenox is a man of means in Victorian England, who is initially torn between his social status and his “hobby” of investigating crimes. Later in the series he is torn between his job as a Member of Parliament and his investigations. He seems to have an ongoing conversation with himself about what he should be and whether he is fulfilling his potential. Are you fighting the stereotypical depiction of Victorian society? What led you to create such a modern man and drop him in such a dark time in English history?
CF: This is a wonderful question, which really gets to the heart of my main character. From the start I wanted Lenox to be just slightly at odds with his period, which was so stiff and formal, and in which it was hard to move very far beyond what your father did – if he was a coal miner, in all likelihood you would be too. Same thing if he was a Duke. (The fate of women is a whole different, and at times sad, subject.) I wanted to be sure that Lenox was a man of his time who nevertheless pushed against its constraints, and had more of a modern attitude toward his own happiness, and toward work, duty mixed with vocation. Because after all there were people pushing for more individual freedom in Victorian England, even if it happened slowly.
L25: You have a large number of very faithful and supporting readers who follow you on Facebook and Twitter while many authors neglect social media altogether. Has the interaction with your readers influenced your writing and the development of your characters? Do you like the dialogue created by social media or do you think it limits your creativity?
CF: I was initially uninterested in social media, and now it’s become one of my chief pleasures from writing the series, especially the fans on Facebook, who are so smart and well-read and have such interesting feedback on the book. It goes to show that an open mind is a good thing. And I definitely sometimes think about the characters who are favorites among my readers – Graham for instance, or Dallington – when I’m planning a book. A few people mentioned that they thought Lady Jane didn’t have enough to do, so I gave her a pretty important role in “An Old Betrayal.” So if anything I think social media has helped my creativity – as long as I’m strict about not using it when I have to be working.
L25: Aside from the occasional tea and crumpets historical fiction usually doesn’t feature the eating habits of the characters. In your books you often mention food, from coffee and toast to complex dishes prepared on a ship or simple meals in a pub in the country. Lenox, that you describe as a tall and slender man, enjoys his occasional feast. Are you a food enthusiast too?
CF: I am! I love to watch cooking shows, and I cook a bit myself. (I can’t bake at all, sadly.) I think I found that I always enjoyed it in books when characters ate. It’s such an enormous part of life that it might be underrepresented in fiction, I think. And a murder mystery can be a little bleak, so a cup of tea or a nice roasted chicken by the fire at home can provide some respite from that, a feeling of comfort.
L25: Every writer has a routine in terms of hours, location and conditions in which they write. Some even have a favorite snack to fight writer’s block. What is your routine and do you have a snack you munch on while working?
CF: I think there’s no right way to write a book, but for myself it helps if I work first thing in the morning, and often I’ll have coffee and toast while I work. Then I might have some lunch and look over what I’ve written, or work on some of the non-fiction I write – book reviews, essays – because it takes just a little less attention. I can’t write on a full stomach.
L25: You recently announced that your first non-historical fiction will be published in 2014. Did you need to take a break from Victorian England?
CF: Like Lenox, who’s interested both in politics and crime, I’ve always liked to have a couple of projects going at once. (Actually it sounds like you, too!) The Last Enchantments, which is my first contemporary novel, is a kind of updated Brideshead Revisited, a book about a group of students in Oxford, England, and I’ve been working on it for several years as I also wrote the mysteries. So it wasn’t as much an escape from Victorian England as an alternative universe I could take myself to. Hopefully each made me refreshed for the other.
L25: How did you approach writing about the present after being so comfortable writing of the past?
CF: It was hard. One good thing about Victorian England as a time period is nobody had a cell phone, which makes for a lot more drama! The Last Enchantments is a bit more literary, and also a bit more autobiographical, so I took a lot of care to get the details right. On the other hand it was less research, because I know what people eat and drink and read nowadays, whereas I had to look it up to find out that people used to eat pigeons in aspic, or whatever.
L25: Lenox, Lady Jane, Graham, Dallington, Toto, McConnell and even Kirk have become a part of the literary family for your readers, will they be back? Because you know that people will complain on all social media if you are not bringing them back, right?
CF: Of course they’ll be back! I could never let them go, even if they have different-sized roles in each book. Though I have to admit this is the first time anybody’s asked for more of Kirk…which gets me to thinking it might be interesting if he were to have some new business…
L25: Thank you so much for talking to Lemonade 25 and consider yourself invited anytime you want to have a home cooked Italian meal. No pigeon in aspic, I promise!