“Every Texan I know can spin an anecdote about going to the gas station into an hour-long piece of entertainment.”
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Ms. Raybourn, you have a new novel publishing in March, An Unexpected Peril, book six in your Veronica Speedwell series. Please tell us about your newest book.
DEANNA RAYBOURN: This latest installment in the Victorian mystery series has our intrepid lepidopterist sleuth, Veronica, investigating the death (and possible murder!) of a female mountaineer who has died in mysterious circumstances on an Alpine peak. There is a royal complication, and, of course, Veronica is joined by her partner in detection, the very popular Stoker.
You are a prolific author; I counted twenty-three books so far—please correct me if I’ve miscounted. Your debut novel, Silent in the Grave, the first Lady Julia Grey mystery, was published in 2007. Before you began writing full time, you taught high-school English and history. How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Please tell us about your first big break and how you made the leap to full-time writing.
I’m working on my seventeenth full-length novel now; the others are novellas that either extend the Julia Grey series or tie in to my 1920s adventures as prequels. I only taught English for three years because I always knew I was going to write—it just took me fourteen years to get published!
I finished my first novel at twenty-three, but I was almost forty before I saw anything in print. It was a lot of years of writing, submitting, and dealing with rejection, but I wouldn’t trade that journey for anything. I learned so much about resilience, patience, and perseverance. I wrote in the summers when I taught, and after I had my daughter, I stayed home with her and wrote while my husband kept us fed.
You write classic, historical mysteries with a twist: your heroines are all confident, adventurous women who live during eras and in societies that weren’t typically approving of women who didn’t conform to conventional expectations. What inspired you to write historical mysteries, where do these inspiring women come from, and how do you determine when an idea for a new novel will require a stand-alone book?
Part of what I love most about writing is knocking down the misconceptions about women in history. Most women were conforming to traditional gender roles, but many were not. Those are the stories I love to read and those are the women I use for inspiration. The idea for Veronica Speedwell was sparked by a globe-trotting Victorian butterfly hunter who made her own way in the world, exploring, traveling, and taking lovers where she chose. She was not the typical Victorian woman, but she is certainly a mesmerizing one!
I love the comfortable exoticism of a historical setting. Victorians in particular are just far enough removed from us to feel different, but we have so much in common. They struggled with questions of technology, immigration, science, community, war, pandemic—their headlines look startlingly familiar. Writing about Victorians is a way to explore those issues in a slightly altered setting, but one that is relatable.
Your mysteries are set in very different places, spanning the globe from Victorian London to the Himalayas to flapper-era Africa. Please describe your research process. Do you get to conduct research in person? If so, would you share a couple of your favorite experiences on location?
Some research is very easy to do in person and that’s always a great treat. I try to get to London every few years just to freshen up my perceptions and get my hands on new research materials. Some places I’m not able to visit. The area I wrote about in the Himalayas is tricky to get to, and I was writing my African book in the wrong season for the migrations and weather, so I immersed myself in first-hand accounts instead. I can learn so much from memoirs, journals, biographies, documentaries, but it’s absolute joy to be able to walk in my characters’ steps personally. Even if I’m writing a book set a hundred years in the past, I can still gather enough impressions to make it worth the trip.
I want to ask you about those gorgeous book covers. Who do you collaborate with, what is the design process like, and how do you know when you’ve gotten it just right?
I don’t collaborate at all! Full credit goes to the immensely talented art department at Berkley. I supply my editor with a few bits of information—maybe a color I’d love, motifs that fit the story, some unusual details about the setting—and she briefs the art department. They take it from there and a few months later they produce something that’s utterly dazzling.
The artists are perfectionists and I’ll usually see a few different versions that look almost entirely the same to me, but there will be tiny details they insist on tweaking until they’re happy. With the paperback publication of the first Veronica book, they hit on a really solid formula, so now it’s a matter of playing with the individual elements for each book.
For those who enjoy your work and would like to discover more great mystery writers, who do you recommend?
I share a lot of readers with Sherry Thomas, Lauren Willig, Tasha Alexander, Alyssa Cole, C. S. Harris—all wonderful writers.
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. You are a sixth-generation Texan. Please tell us about those generations of Texans and how the state has shaped your writing.
Because Texas sits at the crossroads of the west and south, the family gossip and tall tales blend with folklore and Indigenous and Black and immigrant oral traditions to give Texans a unique storytelling perspective. Every Texan I know can spin an anecdote about going to the gas station into an hour-long piece of entertainment. And we attach stories to everything—our food, our landscape, our larger-than-life personalities. I most often write historical fiction based in London, but the stories I grew up with have shaped everything about my work. The setting may change; human beings are pretty universal.
I’ve a new question to ask writers this year: How has COVID-19 affected your work, and what measures have you found successful in adapting to this new environment?
I was fortunate enough to finish my last book tour on March 14 . I spoke at my last event and headed straight into lockdown, where I’ve been ever since. I’ve immersed myself in my writing and it’s not just been my job, it’s a means of escape. For a few hours each day, I’m reading or writing in another world and I can focus solely on that instead of refreshing my news feed every couple of minutes. I’m looking forward to traveling again when it’s safe to do so, but it’s nice to connect with readers via online events since I’m able to get to places I don’t usually visit.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
Veronica Speedwell number seven! I’m in the early stages of writing that book, and I’m in the middle of writing my first contemporary—the story of four female assassins on the cusp of retirement who have to band together to take out an enemy. It’s a departure from what I usually write, but it’s been tremendous fun and the main character is a Texas woman with a lot of rage. I adore her!
What books are on your nightstand?
Camilla Bruce’s In The Garden Of Spite and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister The Serial Killer, both highly recommended!
New York Times and USA Today bestselling-novelist Deanna Raybourn is a sixth-generation native Texan. She graduated with a double major in English and history from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of one, Raybourn makes her home in Virginia. Her novels have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, two RT Reviewers’ Choice awards, the Agatha, two Dilys Winns, and a Last Laugh. Further books in the Veronica Speedwell series are contracted through 2022.