Caroline Lawrence – ‘Do you want to see my spittoon?’

Caroline and friend at Santa Clarita cowboy fest

So, we didn’t have beans. That would have ‘bean’ the perfect Western breakfast for Caroline Lawrence, seeing as she climbed out of bed at the most dreadfully early hour to come and talk to me about her Western Mysteries. I was allowed to make coffee. Other than that, Caroline brought her own food, including hard-boiled eggs. ‘It’s very strange,’ she muses about the eggs, ‘it’s a really American thing’(carrying cheese and nuts and chicken breasts around wherever she goes). ‘It’s a pioneer thing!’

Having dealt with the food, I start by asking Caroline about what I’m most interested in. ‘Now, I want to ask you about Pinky’s Aspergers. Is it Aspergers?’

‘Well, one reviewer has said they don’t want Aspergers to be a literary device and I totally agree. I met Mark Haddon shortly after The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time came out, and I told him how much I liked his Aspergers hero. He said “I never say it’s Aspergers, and that’s on purpose”. In a way I’ve been interested in psychological variations in the mind for a long time and one of my favourites is Oliver Sachs, and Temple Grandin’s books. So I just thought it’d be great to have a character who’s maybe super nerd more than Aspergers. All of us, maybe even some of the people in this room, are slightly obsessive, slightly nerdy in a good way.’

Caroline Lawrence, The Western Mysteries

‘Definitely. Yes.’

‘I think that’s why it appeals especially to people who read and, and to the type of person who likes to escape into another world, people who are re-enactors. I always say PK isn’t so much Aspergers as my own weird things magnified a hundred times. Except for the maths ability, which I kind of wish now I hadn’t put in, because that’s what everybody does. It would have been more creative to have PK be not numerate at all.’

‘I suppose so, but he has to have something to make him shine.’

‘Well, he’s good at visualising things, but he’s also got prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise faces. I’m bad at remembering people’s faces. So again, a bit like me exaggerated.’

I mention that Caroline’s meeter had worried about how to recognise her at the station.

Western sleeve

Cowboy hat

‘In the end, when I stepped off the train in my fringed buckskin and my cowboy hat I was not hard to recognise…’

‘Not too many people like that in Stockport.’ We laugh.

‘I’d make the worst detective because I could spend an hour with someone and not remember what they were wearing. I think you have to train yourself to be observant. My inability to recognise people fascinates me, and that is one of the reasons I made PK like that. If I can give PK a strategy for recognising people, then maybe I can find a strategy. Also, I will often barge in on a conversation, and if I’d looked at  people’s feet I might have realised, and so in a way what I’m doing is discovering for myself and I hope discovering things for kids, as well.’

‘The feet thing, did you work it out yourself?’

‘No no. My PK mentor is a version of the poker faced Jace, is ex-FBI investigator Joe Navarro. He’s written several books, and I’ve taken a lot of stuff from them. For instance you can’t always tell if people are lying or not, but you can tell if they are stressed.’

‘Yes.’

‘He says first you have to get a baseline on the person and find out what sort of person they are; they might be naturally fidgety or they might be quite still. Then there are psychopaths who show no signs of lying and can calmly do the most horrible things.’

‘I like the word Thorn, it’s a very good way of describing it.’

‘It’s straight out of the New Testament. St Paul talks about “his Thorn”. It’s the classic thing, someone’s disability can be an advantage.’

‘The foreword in the book, was it just a pack of lies?’

‘Yes, a big ole passel of lies… It was my “apologia” for the political un-correctness in this book, where I have gone back in time to a town with gambling, smoking, whoring, racism. Although I’ve captured the period speech, but people might say “oh, that’s racist”. Expressions like “chop chop!” for Chinese and “heap big” for Native Americans. Every writer at that time has Native Americans speak in the cliche way we’ve come to think of TV Indians.

But one fun thing about language of the time are the little quirks. I’ve been reading a lot of period journals and diaries and I love the way they put ampersands in and little quirky abbreviations. I had to fight to keep those in, but I wanted it to look different, not to look like every other kid’s book in the market.’

Caroline breaks off to plead for a veto on the photos being taken as she speaks.

‘So was there actually a Corinne?’

‘Yes, she was my great grandmother, so that’s all true. It’s a mixture of truth and fiction.’

‘Yes, at first I was quite taken by it and then I thought, no…’

Caroline Lawrence, The Western Mysteries

‘Obviously I have written the books; they aren’t found documents. You can probably tell certain Caroline Lawrence-isms have crept in, despite the fact I’ve tried to make it different from the Roman Mysteries. Having it first person helps.’

‘And you’ve just got PK.’

‘The gender ambiguity works, because I’m telling it in the first person, so you’re not sure.’

‘You don’t have to say he or she. Are we allowed to talk about this?’

‘Well, if I talk to too many people it will get out…’

‘OK.’

‘And you probably have your own theory?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m 99% sure I know, but I’m leaving the option open. If I don’t put my finger on it, maybe it will embrace more people, if PK is just PK…’

‘Will you continue with the is he, is she?’

‘Yes. I’ve just been listening to J J Abrams on TED, speaking about “the beauty of keeping mystery” and he talks about magic. He has a box which cost $15 but “there’s $50 worth of magic” inside and he’s never opened it, because the promise is more. So I’m trying to do that, to leave that space for the imagination. The reader supplies what’s missing.’

I then make a serious mistake in asking Caroline about scalping. I’ve wondered about that since childhood and need to know what exactly it entails, seeing as it clearly isn’t what I imagined all those years ago.

‘There are accounts of people surviving’, Caroline says, while the photographer goes to lie down. I suddenly decide I’m not terribly interested in her answer either.

‘There’s an element of black humour in that Pa Emmet has a hatchet in his chest and a beatific smile on his face.’ Caroline laughs.

Needing to move on fast, I ask about all Caroline’s research for her Western.

‘Part of the appeal to me is that I really did have ancestors who were pioneers. As I’m researching I begin to see things in myself and maybe in my Mother. My Dad’s Jewish with parents from the shtetl but she’s All-American pioneer stock. I can see certain attributes that she and I share that would have made us good pioneers. Then there others that would have made us terrible pioneers,’ she laughs heartily. ‘The first research trip I did, my sister Jennifer came along. She’s got all the driving genes. I’m a bad driver.

Goes the Wrong Way, Stands in Confusion and Hawkeye

She came along, and it worked really well. It was the first time that we’d done anything together, just the two of us, in years, decades.’ The following year Caroline asked if her sister would come with her and Richard to Virginia. ‘It worked really well! At the end I asked her “what did you enjoy the most about it?” We’d seen battle fields, a photographic studio, toured with a vet, fantastic museums, amazing scenery. “I liked the driving best” was Jennifer’s reply.’ Caroline giggles. ‘She’s the perfect person to go with, and we met up again in May for the Santa Clarita cowboy festival.

Richard and I nicknamed Jennifer “Hawkeye”, because she’s so good at spotting things like crazy drivers and roadside critters. If we were pioneers, I would be hopelessly lost in the wilderness, but Jennifer would be the scout and the covered-wagon driver and find the way. In Santa Clarita I had my iPhone and I still couldn’t tell where we were. I realised then that my Indian name would have been something like “Stands in Confusion”, and Richard’s would have been “Goes the Wrong Way”. But luckily we have Hawkeye.’

‘So will you be able to do more research trips for the other books?’

Stands in Confusion on Arizona dude ranch

‘Yes.’ Caroline describes her riding research, at a dude ranch in Tucson, Arizona. ‘I was rubbish at it,’ she laughs. Her ribs hurt, and her horse was spooked by a coyote. Her beautiful hat is from there, too. She continues laughing while describing hers and Richard’s riding trials.

‘So you’re not a natural rider?’

‘I am not a natural rider, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting to make PK a cowboy who’s really rubbish at riding a horse?’ She laughs some more. ‘But I thought, no I have already been breaking too many conventions, because I’m trying to de-mythologise as well, trying to tell it like it was.’

Gary's stagecoach, Virginia City

‘Did you ever travel by stagecoach?’

‘Yes, but only for about ten minutes. They are so uncomfortable! One aspect that that really struck me is how claustrophobic they are. There is a blank wall in front of you, and these little windows, so you only see a little of what’s going on on the outside and it’s quite queasy too. I would love to, well not love to, but endure, going on one for a few hours.’

‘You can do that, can you?’

‘You can, on certain re-enactment events. This guy Gary… I’ve got a photo of him. Do you want to see a photo of him?’

Gary, stagecoach driver

‘Yes.’

Caroline gets out her laptop, ‘he took Richard and me, and Richard was on the offside by the cliff and he was that close to the edge with the wheels, showing off, and I was in ignorant bliss because I was on the other side. Richard was saying “if you’d seen how close we were…”  Book four I think, is going to be about stagecoach robberies.’

‘Which book are you writing now?’

‘Book two is settling, so I can come back to it, and book three is in the planning. I had an idea, but it’s kind of playing around with various ideas…’

‘How frequent will they be?’

‘They are going to be a year apart. That’s to give me time to write the Roman Mysteries spin-off — called The Roman Mystery Scrolls — about the little beggar boy, Threptus. The first book, The Sewer Demon, is out February 2012.’

I ask about the time scale for her plots.

‘The Western Mysteries will be quite a bit like the Roman Mysteries, quite condensed. Book Two takes place a week after the first one ended, because PK is setting up as a private eye, and the problem is no one takes him seriously. Btw I say “him” but it could as easily be “her”. I sometimes say he, I sometimes say she.’

‘Yes.’

‘I hope there will be ten books covering a time span of about two and a half years. The Roman Mysteries took place with 17 books in the reign of Titus, just over two years.These will take place during “the reign of Twain”, because Mark Twain was in Virginia City for about just over two years. So it’s almost like the beginning and end of Titus were my parameters for the Roman Mysteries, and the arrival and departure of Mark Twain can be the parameters for my Western Mysteries.

Caroline Lawrence with 'Mark Twain'

Having said that, I think PK might go away from Virginia City, go to San Francisco for a mystery, go to some of the other places in the west, to Lake Tahoe, maybe. Maybe go to the Black Hills (PK’s Sioux ancestors come from the Black Hills) where Deadwood is set. I’ve never been there, so more research.’

‘Poor you.’

Caroline laughs, ‘and Monument Valley, the Navajos, the iconic, huge rocks, big orangey red buttes.’

‘How has interest been for the books?’

‘There was the initial launch, then when the rubber hits the road is whether kids will read it. That’s going to be by word of mouth eventually. Orion originally warned me that nobody’s reading westerns. I said I don’t care, this is what I really want to do. You’ve got to write what you’re passionate about. I’ve put my heart and soul in this. It resonates with me on so many levels.’

‘I can understand that.’

‘I hope it’s a slow burner…’

‘Weren’t the Roman Mysteries a bit like that too? You were totally unknown, just started writing.’

‘It has been ten years now since I published the first Roman Mysteries. It came out the week before 9/11. So yeah, I’m writing despite the fact that it might not be a commercial success.’

‘Is it the case that children really don’t know westerns at all?’

‘Their knowledge of westerns comes from three things; from Back to the Future 3, which is not bad actually. They do a pretty good job in that. And from Woody in Toy Story. And from Red Dead Redemption, a platform game set in the Wild West, for older kids aged 13 or 14 up. If kids don’t have a grandfather or a dad who liked westerns, they probably don’t know about them.

For me, it’s not so much the western genre I am interested in exploring as much as exploring a world I want to inhabit, like I wanted to inhabit ancient Rome. To be honest, some westerns are really boring, they go on a cattle drive, for heaven’s sake. How boring is that? But we’ve got Mark Twain and real gunslingers, robbers, soldiers and newspapermen. And there were women, too! I’m hoping to bring in a few female spiritualists because they were about the only women who had a say in those days. People respected them, because they could supposedly communicate with the dead. There are so many fascinating aspects I could put in that would take it beyond the boundaries of a classic western.’

‘You and I are of an age when we must have practically lived westerns. It was the natural thing to do.’

‘Especially in America. When I was growing up there were westerns on TV all the time; Rawhide, The Virginian, The High Chaparral, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, Have Gun Will Travel and all the rest, some of them really good, some of them not so good. Then you have all the classic films. And then the western died. Or did it? They say it died, but I don’t think it did. When they say Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven as an anti-western to kill all westerns forever, he was just doing a new riff on the western, for that time.’

‘Mm.’

‘I recently listened to a really interesting interview with some Hollywood old-timers. They said the western more than any other literary form in America talked about morality and good versus bad. White hats vs black hats; Good Guy versus Bad Guy. Until the Vietnam war, when Westerns start to glorify the outlaw, and the sheriff becomes corrupt. It’s fascinating! It has often been said, and I agree, that the western is the mythology of America. A Western film will tell you America’s psychological state at that particular time.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I’ve been re-watching a lot of them and to me some westerns seem absolutely fresh and and even better than before. Then there are some that are horribly dated. To give you an example; The Magnificent Seven versus The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Which do you think has become horribly dated and which is the masterpiece? In my opinion it’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which is the masterpiece. I hadn’t seen it in maybe 15-20 years, and I was just slack-jawed with amazement at how good it was, how funny, how witty, and what great storytelling. Not just the story, but the use of the camera, the use of the music. Even before Deadwood it was grimy and grungy and looked real, whereas The Magnificent Seven is so over-the-top. My gosh, the scene where Robert Vaughn dies, eugh.’

We laugh. ‘They’re all really clean and walking around with their designer jeans, and although they’ve got the great locations and a fabulous cast, it’s soooo stagey, and I was getting bored with it.’

‘I really ought to get back to watching westerns…’

‘They brought Rango out, and True Grit, have you seen either of those?’

‘No, lack of time…’

‘True Grit is one of my top ten favourite books, one of the books I’m passionate about. I read it over and over again. I also have it on the Kindle app of my iPhone, on audiobook, and I just go to it again and again. What Mary Renault was for my Roman Mysteries, Charles Portis is for my Western Mysteries. So no movie could come up to my expectations! Although I adore the Coen brothers. The other film I really enjoyed was Rango, with Johnny Depp as a chameleon in the desert. It’s a cartoon western for adults not kids, because it plays with so many conventions of westerns and other modern films, like Chinatown. Also, great soundtrack…

‘Is that why you went West after ten years in ancient Rome?’

I know so much Roman history, and on a recent trip home I realised I don’t know American history half as well. I thought writing a series set in the West would be a brilliant chance for me to dive into it. I love the artefacts, the concrete fabric of the world. I brought some with me; do you want to see my spittoon?’

Spittoon

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Do you want a poster? It’s big.’

‘Yes, please.’

Duffle bag

‘I’ve got my carpet-bag.’

‘Wow!’

PK's horseshoe

Medicine bag

‘It’s beautiful.’ Caroline says she wanted a western version of her Roman sponge on a stick, something yucky. ‘This spittoon is a 120 years old. What else have I got? Antibacterial gel, proper wire-rim old-fashioned glasses, and one more… my little medicine bag.’

‘Is that what it looks like? What Pinky carries?’

‘Yeah. Finally, my pony horseshoe. A blacksmith hammered PK into it.’

Caroline Lawrence signature

Caroline signs the poster, and she signs our books, and stamps them as well. We talk about her western clothes, comparing them to her Roman outfit.

It’s a little early to ask, but ‘what next?’

Caroline laughs. ‘We were talking about that on my last visit home. I said how great it was writing books set in places I want to visit, but that I was slightly kicking myself I hadn’t set more of the book in the Bay Area, especially San Francisco. My brother suggested I write a series set in the 1960s in San Francisco, during the days of Flower Power. Instead of “The Case of the Missing Whatever” you could have “The Trip of the Missing Whatever”.

Caroline laughs again. ‘So it looks like I have the next twenty years well-mapped out for me. Ten years of The Western Mysteries, then ten more for The Hippie Mysteries!’

Well, I for one am looking forward to all of that. Aren’t you?

(Photos by Helen Giles and Caroline Lawrence)

One response to “Caroline Lawrence – ‘Do you want to see my spittoon?’

  1. Pingback: The western breakfast interview | Bookwitch

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