What inspired you to create a mystery series featuring two stars of the Victorian artistic community, Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent?
I had written about the two of them in a previous novel, Portraits
of an Artist, about the time in Sargent’s life when he was the toast of Paris, and about the spectacular disaster that unseated him—in the form of the scandalous Madame X. Violet (her nom de plume was Vernon Lee) was one of the primary narrators in the book, which presents the story as coming from several people (15 actually!) whose portraits Sargent painted during that time. I came to know and love John and
Violet, and when the book was done and published, I really missed them! I didn’t think I wanted to write another “serious” novel about them, so I decided to star them in their own mystery series. I love historical mysteries, and it seemed to be the right time to start my own.
What kind of research did you do to help bring these people to life in your novel?
I read several biographies for each of them, plus a lot of correspondence that has been collected. I was able, of course, to read Violet Paget’s actual writings (most of them available for free, now, at online places like the Gutenberg Project) and those have been very revealing of her style and opinions—she wrote in a highly conversational, exaggerated style, often stating outrageous opinions to provoke a conservative society into thinking about important issues. She was a very out-spoken person, extremely intelligent and argumentative, self-educated and a prolific writer. Sargent, on the other hand, though equally well-educated (they both spoke four or five languages fluently), was more convivial and amiable, didn’t like controversy or arguments, and had trouble speaking in front of strangers—but they were the best of friends from an early age, when their families met each other in Rome. John and Violet used to wander the dirty, derelict streets of Rome, from the age of ten onwards, searching for antique coins in the dirt and following the goats and cows into the hills above the city. He would encourage her to draw, and she would encourage him to write!
What inspired the mystery in this first novel, the search for relics that disappeared during the time of Henry VIII?
What was the most challenging aspect of penning this novel? The most rewarding?
Writing in two different historical time periods was both the major challenge and the major reward! I didn’t want to use the kind of worn-out structure of someone finding a diary or a packet of letters and reading them throughout the book, so I simply told the two story lines every other chapter – Violet and John in 1877, and the monks at Glastonbury in 1539. As with most “crime stories”, the action in 1877 takes place within a single week, whereas the medieval story takes several months to unfold. I had to make sure that the style, diction, usage and daily life and thinking was accurate or at least representative for the two different periods – and it was a delight to me that as I wrote, it became more and more clear that I was drawing a very interesting distinction between the slow, meditative, faith-infused culture of cloistered monks and the bustling, energetic, Darwinian, Victorian Industrial Age in England where a young man and a young woman of artistic or literary abilities could lead a very different kind of life than could have been imagined in the 1500’s.
Where will Violet and John's adventures take them next?
First in a new series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends—beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.
Friends from the age of ten, Paget and Sargent frequently met in the popular European watering places and capitals, frequenting the same salons and drawing rooms in London, Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Vienna and Madrid. Both were possessed of keen minds and bohemian tendencies, unorthodox educations and outsized egos (especially Paget). Their instant, natural bonding led them to address each other as “Twin”, and they corresponded frequently when they were apart.
Henry James once described Violet Paget as having “the most formidable mind” of their times, and he was an active fan and patron of John Sargent, introducing him to London society and his own inner circles of literary and artistic genius.
About the Author:
Mary F. Burns is the author of PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST (Sand Hill Review Press, February 2013), a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. A novella-length book, ISAAC AND ISHMAEL, is also being published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2014. Ms. Burns’ debut historical novel J-THE WOMAN WHO WROTE THE BIBLE was published in July 2010 by O-Books (John Hunt Publishers, UK). She has also written two cozy-village mysteries in a series titled The West Portal Mysteries (The Lucky Dog Lottery and The Tarot Card Murders).
Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English, along with a high school teaching certificate. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she now lives with her husband Stuart in the West Portal neighborhood. Ms. Burns has a law degree from Golden Gate University, has been president of her neighborhood association and is active in citywide issues. During most of her working career she was employed as a director of employee communications, public relations and issues management at various San Francisco Bay Area corporations, was an editor and manager of the Books on Tape department for Ignatius Press, and has managed her own communications/PR consulting business, producing written communications, websites and video productions for numerous corporate and non-profit clients.
Ms. Burns may be contacted by email at email@example.com. For more information please visit Mary Burns’s website. You can also connect with Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or read her blog posts at:
The Spoils of Avalon is on a blog tour!