‘It’s not the crimes that interest me,” author Anne Perry acknowledged. “It’s all the things that you discover when you’re solving the crimes.”
Selected by the London Times as one of the 20th century’s “100 Masters of Crime,” Perry has gained international renown as the bestselling writer of two acclaimed series of historical detective novels — featuring fictional sleuths Thomas Pitt and William Monk—as well as a couple of fantasy novels, a young adult series and several Christmas-themed novellas. Although her books often deal with murder and mayhem, Perry said she’s most attracted by the mysteries of the human heart.
Perry, 75, is the keynote speaker of the 30th annual Central Coast Writers Conference on Sept. 19 and 20 at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.
On Friday evening, Perry will participate in an onstage conversation with author, anthologist and playwright Victoria Zackheim. Following that discussion, the two will take part in “Women’s Voices” with authors Barbara Abercrombie and Mara Purl, reading from their work and fielding questions from audience members before doing a book signing.
The theme of Friday’s talk, which will encompass character and plot development, reader engagement and the importance of taking risks, is “Put Your Heart on the Page.”
“It’s a very important element of who (Perry) is as a woman and a writer,” Zackheim said.
Reached recently at her home in Scotland, Perry talked about her career, her characters and tireless work ethic. She typically writes three books a year, writing out drafts longhand before turning them over to her secretary to be transcribed.
“I’m actually a frustrated preacher. Give me a soap box and I’ll stand on it. Don’t give me a soapbox and I’ll make one and stand on it,” quipped the author, although she’s just as likely to be found “in a very, very comfortable armchair with my feet up.”
Illness kept the London-born Perry out of school for much of her childhood, which included stints in the Bahamas and New Zealand. She didn’t start writing in earnest until her 20s, encouraged by her father. Stories from the past Perry published her first novel, “The Cater Street Hangman,” in 1979. That book introduced readers to working-class police inspector Thomas Pitt and his well-born wife, Charlotte. With the release of “Face of a Stranger” in 1991, Perry launched a second series of crime novels featuring amnesiac private investigator William Monk, who’s aided in his inquiries by Crimean War nurse Hester Latterly.
Asked why she chose to set both long-running series in Victorian times, Perry said the era lends itself to storytelling.
Working in the days before ballistics, fingerprinting and other modern techniques, “You have to solve your crime by good, old-fashioned human nature,” she said, which can lead to some startling discoveries about the people surrounding the case.
“You discover quite a few things about yourself as well.”
Perry sees direct parallels between the 19th and 21st centuries. Many of the issues facing society today — such as birth control, minority rights, workers safety and freedom of speech—were equally relevant in the days of horse carriages and crinolines, she noted.
When writing historical fiction, Perry said capturing a mood is more important than recreating every detail of a certain time or place. Her books have transported readers to such far-off settings asElizabethan England, 13th Century Constantinople and the European battlefields of World War I.
“If you’re writing a history, you want to know what happened. If you’re writing a novel, you want to know what people think happened,” explained Perry, who uses historical streetmaps, photographs and advertisements as reference points. “You don’t research so you can put down everything you know. You research so you don’t make mistakes.”
Perry’s ability to bring history to life, coupled with her gift for creating relatable characters, might be one reason her booksresonate with readers.
“I’ve never written a character that I can’t see something in to empathize with,” the writer said, adding that she always imbues her characters with weaknesses as well as strengths. “You can like somebody who cares, even if they make mistakes.”
Perry’s books often deal with guilt, forgiveness, redemption and the shadowy secrets of the past — themes made even more poignant by her real-life connection to an infamous crime.
In 1954, Perry — then a 15-year-old named Juliet Hulme living in Christchurch, New Zealand — helped close friend Pauline Parker kill Parker’s mother. Convicted of murder, she served five years in prison, repented and began a new life under a new name after she was released. (Perry declined to discuss the incident, which later inspired the 1994 movie “Heavenly Creatures,” for the purposes of this interview.)
Even though her work often finds her exploring the dark corners of the human psyche, Perry said her life is driven by a strongly positive force.
“Love, in the sense of caring for other people, wishing they would do well is at the core of pretty much everything that matters,” said Perry, who joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1968. “I feel (that) more deeply than I ever used to.”
It’s fitting, then, that she considers G.K. Chesterston, the English writer and Catholic theologian known for his Father Brown mystery series, her favorite author.
“If I could have one book in the world, it’d be as much of his work as I (could) cram between two coversbecause there’s so much joy in it, so much good in it,” she said. “The world is so beautiful, and genuine love, not sentimentality is always good.”
ANNE PERRY’S ADVICE FOR WRITERS
As one of the literary world’s most popular and prolific artists, Anne Perry spends plenty of time speaking to fellow writers.
Fortunately, that’s something she loves. “I always leave conferences and conventions absolutely full of ideas and longing to do something, make something,” she said. “Ideas are like fire. They spread like crazy.”
Here’s some advice for writers, courtesy of Perry.
Keep it real: “It’s important to make your (characters) likeable and believable. You can have a woman who never has a bad hair day and has teenage children who think she’s perfect, but she doesn’t exist.”
Keep it fresh: “You’ve got to do something different (occasionally) because not only do you bore yourself, you bore your readers as well. “That’s a cardinal sin.”
Keep it loose: “Never stick to an idea just because you’re the one who thought of it. If somebody offers you a good idea, for goodness sake say, ‘Thank you very much. If you don’t mind, I’ll do that.’”
Keep going: “I’m never arguing, ‘No, please, give mea bit of time off.’ Some people never slow up. I hope I’m one