Alyssa Maxwell, author of The Gilded Newport Mysteries and A Lady and Lady’s Maid Mysteries, knew from an early age that she wanted to be a novelist. Growing up in New England and traveling to Great Britain fueled a passion for history, while a love of puzzles of all kinds drew her to the mystery genre. She and her husband reside in Florida, where they love to swim in the backyard pool, ride their bikes, and shop at farmer’s markets and consignment stores. Alyssa also loves to watch BBC productions, sip tea in the afternoons, and delve into the past. She is a member of her local chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and the Florida Romance Writers. You can learn more about Alyssa and her books at http://www.alyssamaxwell.com and connect with her at the links on the bottom of this article.
How did you get started writing fiction?
That began way back in elementary school! I have always been a writer by nature, and the power of words has always fascinated me. Not that I would have expressed it that way as a child, but I’m naturally introverted, so the written word gave me an outlet to express myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. I developed the skills over time and later, in high school and college, I did best in the subjects that required a lot of writing. Math? Uh, no. I’d always believed there was a novel or two in me somewhere, but I didn’t know how to get started—I lacked the technical knowledge about character development and story structure—until a friend sold her first book. When I confided that it was my dream to be a writer, she dragged me, almost kicking and screaming, to my first Florida Romance Writers meeting (I thought romance was my niche at the time), invited me into her critique group, etc. So despite being an English major, it was really during this time that I learned how to write fiction.
You write historical fiction. What draws you to that genre?
Along with that love of writing, I’ve had a love of history since I was young. My favorite games weren’t “house” or anything so modern, but “pioneer” and “castle.” I loved reading both fiction and nonfiction about women and girls living in the past, and as I got older my favorite writers were Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart, the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen. Then, of course, I discovered Agatha Christie. Now, as a writer, I love the challenges historicals pose in terms of solving crimes without modern conveniences or forensics, and the challenges to the characters, especially my female ones, to be assertive and persistent in a world where they were expected to be meek. History provides us with plenty of examples of strong women, though, so my heroines are not without precedent.
I understand that you married into one of the major families in Newport, RI, where your Gilded Newport Mysteries take place. Did the family and their stories influence you to set your books there? In what way?
I’d call them an old, very Newport family. Being part of the family has given me insight into what the real Newport is like, and the real Newporter. Most tourists only ever see the glamour – the mansions and the wealthy summer residents who go for the yachting and fun. The real Newporter is not wealthy, but someone who works hard to support his or her family. Their roots there probably go back for generations, and their history is intricately entwined with the city’s. Some branches of my husband’s family has been there since the early 1700s. They built businesses in Newport and crossed paths with the members of the 400 (society’s leaders) who summered on Bellevue Avenue. We know his great grandmother, who came from Ireland, was a maid in one of the “cottages”; that his family’s moving company moved furniture in and out of those mansions (apparently musical instruments like pianos, were a specialty), and this is probably how the couple met; and later, in the 1920s, the company expanded to include demolition and reclamation. They were hired to take down some of the cottages deemed white elephants (including one owned by Reggie Vanderbilt), but before they did, they “reclaimed” some of the beautiful woodwork and used it to build houses in the Point neighborhood on the harbor. We recently were in one—it was such a thrill. The owners had discovered framed photos of my husband’s great-great-grandparents when they renovated the attic, and wanted to return them to someone in the family. Since my husband has taken on the role of family historian, those photos now hang in our house.
In Murder at Marble House, you deal with an arranged marriage between the American Vanderbilts (American aristocracy) and the British Duke of Marlborough (the highest title of nobility beneath royalty). Were arranged marriages common in the U.S. at the time? Were they more prevalent among the aristocratic families?
They were very common indeed among the wealthy. American society — the 400 — had reached great heights when it came to material wealth, but they lacked one thing — nobility. In that, Europeans would always have the upper hand. The one solution was to marry one’s daughters off so that one could at least say, “Oh yes, my daughter the duchess . . .” This didn’t really apply to sons, since they were needed at home to inherit and run the family business. That’s another difference between American upper classes and European nobility. In Europe, the upper classes didn’t work, not in the same sense. They were considered gentlemen who did not deign to dirty their hands in business. This, among other factors, led to the depletion of the family fortunes over time. Hmm, what do to? Why, marry a vastly wealthy American heiress, of course! For example, Jenny Jerome, the daughter of a New York financier, became Lady Randolph Churchill, and was the mother of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And then there was poor Consuelo Vanderbilt (i.e., Murder at Marble House). As her story tells us, these girls were more or less forced into the situation whether they were willing or not. In the end, their mothers always won, and it was up to the daughter to make the best of it — as Cora did in Downton Abbey. For most, however, it was difficult. Although the aristocracy valued their dowries, they looked down on these American girls as vulgar and inferior.
I especially love your Murder Most Malicious, both for its mystery plot and for the way the book highlights the social changes that are beginning to take place in England right after World War I. What in particular attracts you to this era?
Pivotal moments in history have always fascinated me. World War I swept people up in a common cause, and it also brought huge changes in society. Before the war, British society and the upper classes in particular, had ambled along in very much the same way for centuries. Yes, the middle class had grown during the 1800s, but for the most part, the classes were still very much defined and there was little to no movement of people from one class to another. Out of necessity, the war began a blurring of class lines (nearly a million men of every class perished), and an expansion of the roles of women, who had to fill the labor gap during the war years. Following the war, many people were not content to return to the status quo. Many women liked their newfound independence. Men saw new opportunities to better their lives. And the aristocracy, which had seen their fortunes dwindling for decades, saw their traditional world beginning to crumble. Even finding servants, if one could still afford them, became difficult as more and more young people looked for better paying jobs in the cities. Times like these present great challenges to a society, and how those challenges are met determines who will prosper and thrive, and who will sadly be left behind. I see Phoebe and Eva as two individuals who will gradually adapt and use the challenges to their benefit, while at the same time taking on the responsibility to help those who can’t – like Phoebe’s grandparents.
You seem to dwell a lot on class consciousness in your books. What has led to this becoming your focus?
I find it almost impossible to look back from where we are today and not see the vast discrepancies between the classes, between rich and poor. I didn’t necessarily set out to make it my focus, but it became unavoidable because for someone like Emma Cross, in the Gilded Newport series, as well as Phoebe and Eva, class divisions pretty much define their lives. For Emma, and the people of Newport, these divisions are a daily sight. One sees the mansions, one sees the humble homes of the Newport residents. One also sees the imbalances in how the law is applied to the two groups, in how resources are allocated, and in how individuals are treated on a daily basis in terms of privilege and respect. For Phoebe and Eva, their daily interactions are underlined by the class difference between them, a difference that previously would not have been questioned by either of woman, and is questioned now because of the changes brought on by WWI. The main difference between how class was seen in America and how it was seen in England is that in America, money could buy one’s way into the upper class. It might take a while, but eventually you’d be let into the “club.” In England, class was defined by birth, so even an impoverished lord was seen as inherently superior to a wealthy member of the middle class. As an American, I find this latter notion rather ridiculous, and I sometimes express this through forward thinking Phoebe. It’s usually Eva, the servant, who adheres more to the traditional views of class. But she’s slowly coming around.
Can you describe for us what your writing process is like?
My writing process is nothing strict or structured, but it works for me. First I map out my characters and my plot—working through the possibilities and finding the plot points that will propel the story. Once that’s thoroughly fleshed out, I begin writing. Now, my synopsis will pretty much always undergo changes as I write, because sometimes what seemed logical in the outline just doesn’t work in the context of the story. Sometimes the characters surprise me by doing something unexpected, and I’ve learned to listen to them. I always try to do 1500 to 2000 words per day. More than that I can feel my mind turning to mush, although occasionally it does happen. I’ve learned to incorporate exercise into my days, because it helps the creativity flow better, and sometimes getting out of the house helps as well so I don’t get caught in a rut. Nothing beats simply sitting down and keeping those hands on the keyboard, and to get my brain back into the story I go over what I wrote the day before, making little edits along the way. That makes it easier to keep going and generate new pages.
You are part of the Sleuths in Time group. What is that?
Thanks for asking! Sleuths in Time is made up of nine historical mystery authors. We have a website, along with Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook pages. We’re the most active on Facebook, where we post daily about topics ranging from our latest books, to interesting historical tidbits and fashions, to our favorite teatime treats, etc., and enjoy engaging in conversations with our readers. At least twice a year, we have events where readers can win fun prizes and, of course, our books. We are: Anna Loan-Wilsey, Ashley Weaver, D.E. Ireland, Victoria Thompson, Nancy Herriman, Susanna Calkins, Jessie Crockett, and Radha Vatsal, and me of course! You can find us on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/SleuthsInTime/
Your books contain quite a lot of research in them. Will you explain your research processes to us?
I’m lucky in that I have my knowledgeable husband and his considerable stash of photos, family trees, etc. pertaining to Newport. I’ve also lived there, and we try to get back for yearly visits so I can do some hands-on research. With the Lady and Lady’s Maid books, I don’t have those luxuries, which means digging up facts in books, on the Internet, and even searching out documentaries on TV. Thank goodness for our Roku, which makes that last one easier. There is quite a lot of information about WWI and its after effects, so it’s just a matter of looking. I’ve also grown quite fond of my archived newspaper subscription, which lets me peruse through newspapers from both my time periods.
What did you like to read growing up and what do you enjoy reading now?
I’ve already mentioned my favorite authors when I was young, and really, my tastes haven’t changed all that much. I love reading my fellow mystery authors, who are too numerous to mention, but historical mysteries and historical fiction remain my favorite. I love nothing more than to get lost in a book that takes me back to another time. I live vicariously through the characters and, as I think I’ve already mentioned, enjoy the challenges of life before all the modern conveniences we’re used to. Not that I would give them up! I wouldn’t, but it’s fun to imagine a simpler way of living. Actually, in a way my life is pretty simple – write. Every day! I’m working on the 4th Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery, A Murderous Marriage (which should come out next December or January), and will hand that in in March, whereupon I’ll get right to work on the 7th Gilded Newport Mystery. The 6th in that series, Murder at Ochre Court, will come out in July. Ochre Court is the administrative building for Salve Regina University, and isn’t open for tours. But as they say, it’s not what you know but who you know, and when the lovely woman at the front desk discovered who we were, (she’s a good friend of my sister-in-law), she took us on a private tour of the house! It was one of those magical moments that seem to happen every time we visit.
Thank you so much, Vicki, for your interest and your support of my books!
Get to know Alyssa better at the following sites: