Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Connie Berry

Connie Berry is the author of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Like her protagonist, Berry was raised by antiques dealers who instilled in her a passion for history, fine art, and travel. During college she studied at the University of Freiburg in Germany and St. Clare's College, Oxford, where she fell under the spell of the British Isles. In 2019 Berry won the IPPY Gold Medal for Mystery and was a finalist for the Agatha Award’s Best Debut. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and is on the board of Guppies and her local Sisters in Crime chapter. Besides reading and writing mysteries, Berry loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie.

Berry's latest title in the Kate Hamilton Mystery series is The Art of Betrayal.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The first thing to say is I’ve never yet had my publisher use the title I gave my manuscript. In this case, the manuscript I entitled A Pattern of Betrayal became The Art of Betrayal, which is better because the plot centers around a reclusive widow who’s planning to dispose of her late husband’s famous art collection. The title also references the bad guy, who’s perfected the art of deception and treachery.

All my titles have four words, which (I’ve been told) tells the reader to expect a traditional mystery rather than a thriller or novel of suspense, which often have one- to three-word titles, or a true cozy, with a title built on a pun like Sugar and Vice, A Cookie House Mystery.

There’s an art (and a science) to titling books. I’m glad my publisher knows what they’re doing.

What's in a name?

Kate Hamilton got her name so long ago I can’t remember why I chose it, other than the fact that her late husband’s Scottish roots play a role in the plot of the first book, A Dream of Death. For my main characters, Kate and Tom, I chose simple names I liked and thought I could live with for a long time.

The real fun has been choosing names for the secondary characters.

Lady Barbara Finchley-fforde, for example—the last survivor of the Finchleys of Finchley Hall, a family with eleventh-century roots. When Lady Barbara saved the Hall from creditors by marrying the wealthy son of a Welsh family, Cedru fforde (yes, lower-case double ff’s), her father insisted their surnames be hyphenated, an affectation often associated with the British upper class.

The name I gave Kate’s friend and mentor in the antiquities trade, Ivor Tweedy, combines two elements. Ivor is a Norse name, a hold-over from the Viking incursion into East Anglia, where the book is set. The surname Tweedy has a Dickensian quality, implying eccentricity. Ivor is a loveable eccentric.

Since my books incorporate history, I often choose names from lists of very old or rare English names like Ingham and Nuthall. My best sources for character names are often census records, lists of fallen soldiers in East Anglian churches, and names on tombstones. For wealthy or professional characters, I’ve been known to troll lists of National Trust and BBC executives, although I always mix up the first and last names to protect the innocent.

For each book, to minimize reader confusion, I create an Excel spreadsheet of both first and last character names so I don’t begin names with the same initials, except for families.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

What an interesting question. Since my parents raised me to believe I could do just about anything I set my mind to, I don’t think my teenage self would have been surprised to learn she would become a novelist. Reading was a pleasure instilled in me very early by my mother, an ex-schoolteacher and book addict. Of course neither would my teenage self have been surprised to learn she would become a world-famous archaeologist who would one day unearth the lost tomb of the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Actually it was during my early teenage years that I discovered, in the stacks of my local library, not only the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery (Agatha Christie, Cyril Hare, Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, to name a few) but also those masters of British wit, P. G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome. I was hooked then and still am now.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Both are hard. Writing is hard. The first chapter of my debut novel went through more iterations than Lady Gaga. That was mostly because I didn’t yet know what the book was really about. Lots of wasted effort. What I’ve learned since is not to revise or change the first chapter until I’ve completed the first draft of the book. I’ve also learned that the first chapter has to do a lot of work, so I’d better get it right.

In The Art of Betrayal, the first chapter begins with Kate in Ivor Tweedy’s antiquities shop. She meets the central character, a reclusive widow who wants to sell a Chinese pottery jar from the Han-dynasty tombs of Imperial China. Kate is thrilled to have the consignment, but the woman herself sends up red flags. Something isn’t right.

I introduced the reader to the possibility of doom in the first sentence: “The fourth of May was one of those glorious spring days in England that almost convince you nothing evil could ever happen again.” Almost.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

There’s something of me in every character I write—good, bad, or somewhere in between. The hard part is bringing it to the surface and then putting it on the page. Once I was writing about a character who was enraged at a supposed injustice. I wasn’t going deep enough, so I pulled up a memory of what I’d felt like when a neighbor’s dog was hit by a car and run over. I loved that dog. At that moment (I was probably ten), I wanted to throw myself at the driver and beat him to the ground. I didn’t, of course, and I’m sure the poor guy felt terrible, but it was the memory of the emotion I drew upon.

Every person, over the course of his or her life, experiences the full range of human emotions. Hopefully we don’t act on them all, but this is the well writers draw from. Another well is observation. Readers often ask me if Kate’s wise, logical mother is patterned after my own mother. I tell them “partly.” My characters are mash-ups of lots of people, but I’m definitely in there somewhere.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My most significant non-literary influence would be my parents who were antiques collectors and later dealers. My father shopped for clothes at K-Mart, but he thought nothing of paying thousands of dollars for a Georgian silver teapot or an exceptionally fine cloisonné vase. Many of the objects I mention in my books are ones I remember or still own. Our house doubled as a warehouse where objects would come and go. At various times our living room might be occupied by a life-size bust of Marie Antoinette or The Three Graces on a marble pedestal or a sixteenth-century ivory tankard in a terrarium to keep it from drying out. Or possibly all three. I thought my upbringing was totally normal. Only later did I realize that my friends were a bit frightened by it all. Once, as a child, I asked my mother why we couldn’t have new furniture like everyone else. She said, “Our things have a history. So much more interesting.” Now I agree with her.
Visit Connie Berry's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Art of Betrayal.

My Book, The Movie: The Art of Betrayal.

--Marshal Zeringue