Monday, November 17, 2014

Blog Tour Q&A with Mary F. Burns, Author of The Spoils of Avalon

Please join me in welcoming Mary F. Burns to Let Them Read Books! Mary is touring the blogosphere with her brand new book, The Spoils of Avalon, first in a series of historical mysteries featuring real-life friends John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, two stars of the Victorian London artistic community, on the trail of holy relics that disappeared during the reign of the Tudors. I recently had the chance to ask Mary a few questions about the inspiration for this new series and the challenges of writing a story set in dual time periods. Read on and enter to win your own copy of The Spoils of Avalon!

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?

I had long been wanting to write a novel about Glastonbury—the ancient Isle of Avalon—and have even started a separate novel that begins some 400 years B.C.E., with a village of people at the site who follow pagan and Druidic religious practices. About two years ago, I was reading a book about Glastonbury Abbey at the time of its dissolution (1539), which described it as the wealthiest abbey in all England—with relics in gold and jewel-bedecked cases, a magnificent library of ancient manuscripts and illuminated books, and artifacts of great value from all over the world. The writer of this book speculated that, because the Abbot had plenty of warning that Henry’s minions were coming for them, he would most likely have taken great pains to spirit away the most valuable items before they could be taken—and that some day, there would be a breach in a hidden wall panel in some great castle in the north of England (where loyalty to the Roman Catholic faith lasted longer), and many of the long-missing items of Glastonbury Abbey would come tumbling out. This intriguing
idea stuck with me, and when I thought about writing an historical mystery, it just seemed to fit perfectly to make this be part of it. And it turned out to be true! In my researches, I serendipitously stumbled across information that revealed almost exactly what that writer had surmised—and I actually got to see and touch one of the most important artifacts from the Abbey (found at Naworth Castle seen here) when I went on a research trip to England this September.

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?

So many choices!  The two of them travelled throughout Europe and the Near East, and frequently met in Paris, Venice, Rome, London, and other European capitals. Sargent, travelled more widely, to Africa and often to America, all the way to San Francisco, late in his career. Their biographies are great chronicles of where they were at any given point in time, and I have an index of Sargent’s paintings, year by year, and Violet’s publications, to help create the context for their adventures.  I’m thinking the next one will be in Venice, about a year later than The Spoils of Avalon. All the stories will follow the two-time-period structure, as the more distant past will provide clues to solve the mystery.

Thanks, Mary! Great answers and pics! Looking forward to reading the books!


The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings—including the legendary Arthur—as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different—the industrialized, Darwinian, materialistic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

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 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!


  1. I want to read about Violet Paget

  2. Violet - I think reading about historical women is more interesting (usually) than reading about men because women had so many more societal constraints on them (usually) and so had to put more thought into how to get stuff done without attracting attention/being thrown in jail/burned at the stake/etc.

  3. Thanks, mesdames, for your comments! I totally fell in love with Violet, as you can probably tell from my description of her -- I'm really looking forward to writing about her as she develops and matures. And nrlymrtl, I agree with you about the tougher time (hence, more interesting) that women have had ALL through the ages!

  4. I definitely want to read more about Violet. I had never heard of her before and look forward to reading all about her.

  5. I would like to read more about Violet. This book sounds so interesting. Thanks for having the giveaway.

  6. Definitely Violet.
    lag110 at mchsi dot com

  7. I thought I'd be more interested in Sargent but after reading a little bit more about them it's really Violet Paget that catches my fancy. Thanks. carlscott(at)prodigy(dot)net(dot)mx

  8. I'm so delighted at all the interest in Violet Paget! She and John Sargent are perfect foils for each other, and they both appreciate who the other person is, full-heartedly. As she was in life, Violet can rather dominate the scene, and it's often good to have a really strong main character, but I'm hoping to 'bring out' Sargent more and more as the series goes on; he'll have some special moments of his own, and (again, as in real life), there will be times when their friendship is tested, and perhaps strained, but is affirmed again and again as they mature and grow. I'm just beginning work on the second novel, which is set in Venice, a city they both loved and one which I visited three years ago, walking down the very alleys and over the bridges that they both walked on!

  9. I would like to read more about Violet Paget.

  10. About a year ago I saw some of Sargent's paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. I've read several HF novels about great artists - that's become a favorite sub-genre.

    1. FYI, my last book published was Portraits of an Artist, all about Sargent as told from the points of view of many of his most famous sitters--including Violet Paget, the infamous Madame X, the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, and several others. You might like it!

  11. Love the Victorian era!
    Thanks for the giveaway!

  12. I'd actually like to read about them both. They seem to be so close and I 'd like to read both. I know they'll both be very intetesting reads. Thanks for the post. It was very interestting.
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com


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