In Conversation with Caroline Lawrence: Westerns and Mark Twain!


This is the second part of my interview with Caroline Lawrence, the fabulous author of The Romany Mysteries and her latest series, The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. You can check out the first part of the interview, where we discuss the religiosity in her books as well as general Roman Life. Don’t forget to enter the giveaway at the end of the post!

Caroline: One of my favourite films is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Based on a musical, the 1965 movie is directed by Richard Lester. It’s hilarious! It’s also one the most accurate films about ancient Rome I’ve ever seen because it’s actually based on a play by Plautus, an ancient Roman playwright. It has all of the classic characters of Roman comedy: the dim but likable hero, the crafty slave, the lusty father, the brother and sister who kidnapped by pirates in infancy and the beautiful “soiled dove” who turns out to be highborn.

Rhys: Is soiled dove a term you coined?

Caroline: [laughs] No, but it’s obviously not a Roman term. It is a real expression dating from my other historical period, the American Civil War. I try to use as much authentic vocabulary I can. The 1860s is an amazing period, it’s so rich with primary sources, and you’ve got a vast number of letters and journals because people were so literate then.

Rhys: Is it easier to write about the 1860s? Or is it harder because you’re restricted?

Caroline: In one way, Western America in the late 1800s is harder to write about because there are so many documents. An embarrassment of riches! I want to put it all in and hate throwing any of it away. Whereas first century Rome period provides me with just enough information and no more. I can use my imagination to supply the rest.

In another way, it’s marvellous to have so much material for my PK Pinkerton Mysteries. I can even see into the past – they’d just discovered photography in the 1850s and had even developed a stereoscopic camera. If you view some double photos through a special viewer, you can see 3D. It’s only sepia – you know: black and white – but you can actually get real depth. There are pictures of Civil War battlefields right after the battles and of places like Yosemite, which is a stunningly scenic national park in California. You’re really seeing into the past!

The other thing I love about the 1860s is that we know exactly what the music sounded like. Although we don’t actually have any recordings from that period there is sheet music and a strong tradition of playing it the way your grandfather would have played it.

Rhys: What sort of music was it?

Caroline: What we would call bluegrass and gospel, though they would have called it Music Hall or minstrel music back then. This was the era of the first Black Faced Minstrels, i.e. white men who put boot black on their faces and played ‘Negro’ music. Needless to say, this is extremely politically incorrect today! But some people consider Black Face Minstrelsy to be the beginning of the Blues. You’ve got your banjo, your fiddle, your tambourine and clacking bones. I reckon Stephen Foster’s song Camptown Ladies would have been the theme song of Virginia City (the setting of my PK Pinkerton books). Stephen Foster wrote other famous songs like I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanee River). Then there are the stirring Civil War songs like Dixie and Bonnie Blue Flag. It was a great period for music and it’s wonderful to hear the past! Especially as nobody really knows what Roman music sounded like.

Rhys: How many books are there going to be in this PK Pinkerton series?

Caroline: Four in England and three in America.

Rhys: Why the difference?

Caroline: They’re a bit more cautious in the US! I don’t know if children will ‘get’ the type of humour that I’m channelling. The wit of Mark Twain and other so-called ‘sage-brush journalists’ is dry as dust and told with the straight face of dead-pan humour. They were writing hoax articles like Mark Twain’s famous Petrified Man, his first real article. In the second PK Pinkerton book I quote that article almost verbatim. And the US title of book two is PK Pinkerton and the Petrified Man. Although Twain’s spoof description of a prospector-turned-to-stone in the desert was far-fetched, a lot of people believed it and the article was reprinted all over America. Then people started arriving in the region, looking for a petrified man in the Nevada desert! People were disgusted when they found they had been fooled. The following year Twain wrote another hoax article called the Bloody Massacre, about a man who slaughters his family, scalps his wife, cuts his own throat from ear to ear and then rides ten miles through a forest from a place called Empire to a place called Dutch Nicks. Anyone from the region knows that whole area is a desert and that ‘Empire’ is the same thing as ‘Dutch Nicks’. And everybody knows that you can’t ride when your throat is cut, but people still believed it, because it was in print!

So anyway, I could be being too clever for my own good by having this deadpan humour and slightly hoaxy feel.

Rhys: I agree that children might not get it, but I don’t think it’s always for the kids you’re writing for.

Caroline: You’re absolutely right! I have to write what I like and what interests me. That’s what I’ve always done. I often tell would-be writers of kidslit: Don’t write for children; write for yourself. You will find that your writing suits a certain age group. So first find out which age group your natural style appeals to most. I often say we have an inner child in us. My inner child is an eleven-year-old, and I write for that part of me. (Some writers are quite skilled at gearing their writing to any age group, but I’m not!)

Rhys: That’s what I think about the roman mysteries – it’s not simple, though many books of that age group are toned down, and I don’t mind reading books like this but ones that are intentionally diluted for an age group are just…I don’t get it.

Caroline: The thing I discovered when I was a teacher is that certain things go right over a kid’s head. If they don’t know what I’m talking about or hinting at, it doesn’t register.

Rhys: Soiled doves?

Caroline: Exactly! When I taught Latin at primary school, I used to show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to my Year 6 Latin class. These eleven-year-olds adored it and didn’t get the bits about eunuchs and slave-girls. But one of my former students, now in his twenties, saw it recently and posted on Facebook in mock shock: “Miss Caroline, how could you show us that when we were only 11?!” I replied, “Did you get any of the double meanings then?” and he admitted he didn’t.

Rhys: Yeah, I think people make too much fuss about that sort of thing when it actually goes right over their heads. It doesn’t surprise me that the soiled dove thing goes over their heads because it’s such a euphemism

Caroline: Have you seen Rango?

Rhys: Oh yeah – I bought it the other day

Caroline: Again, it’s not for kids, it’s referencing all this pop culture, including films like Chinatown and all those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns…

Rhys: Ride of the Valkyries –

Caroline: That’s right, that’s from Apocalypse Now. In fact, I’ve done a blog post called a Rango Cheat Sheet, with all the references to other films, and some people have added others they’ve found.


Rhys: It’s a great film.

Caroline: Yeah, but it’s not for kids! In fact, which westerns have been done for kids? Only a handful. The Coen Brothers have just done True Grit, but that’s really dark. The best recent kids’ western is Back to the Future III.

Rhys: Is that a western?

Caroline: [laughs]Not really, but it has lots of nods to the Western genre. It’s very funny because Marty goes back to the town as it was in the Wild West days, and the locals in the saloon think his trainers are moccasins and he blurts out that his name is Clint Eastwood. Fun jokes like that.

Rhys: So, my last question is about PK’s voice when you write; do you have to force it or does it come naturally?

Caroline: It wasn’t easy to come up with, but once I got it, I got it. A lot of it came from immersing myself in primary sources. For example the expression ‘get a case of the mulligrubs’ comes from an article about Mark Twain. Whenever I find a word or turn of phrase I like, I will take it and adopt it. Once my first draft is done, I always go through it to see if I can find if a better period word for a bland one. I read a lot of letters, particularly Mark Twain’s. There are also diaries, journals and newspaper reports. For the third PK Pinkerton book, The Case of the Pistol-packing Widow, I used daily reports about the Territorial Legislature. You’d think accounts like that would be dull, but the reporter A.J. Marsh is drily witty (like Twain). For example, after someone was shot and killed one night, he wrote this:

The good people of Carson City are enjoying the sensation of a first class murder, which came off here about one o’clock this morning. A full grown, cold-blooded murder, with thrilling accompaniments, had not happened right here in Carson for upward of a fortnight previously. Consequently this affair has all the charm of novelty!

I can almost see the twinkle in his eye!

I don’t just read accounts from the past. I listen to them, too. I have at least a dozen audiobooks of excellent actors reading books by Mark Twain, short stories by Bret Harte, poetry by Walt Whitman and even a reporter’s account of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And that’s how I got PK’s voice!

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