Interview with Robin Stevens - Murder Is Bad Manners
The US cover of Murder is Bad Manners
Amy B: Welcome to the U.S.!
Robin Stevens: Thank you! It’s lovely to be here at last!
AB: I discovered your book "Murder Most Unladylike" when it first came out in the UK and I had to order it from the UK to read. Now it's here in the U.S. with its new title "Murder is Bad Manners". You're originally from the U.S. yourself, although you moved when you were quite young. Do you think Americans read mysteries differently from UK readers?
RS: I am! I was born in California, and still hold an American passport. I’m proud of belonging to both countries, and actually, Daisy and Hazel are as much influenced by Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown as they are by Poirot and the Famous Five. I think that we all bring our own cultural experience to the books we read, so I’m very pleased that you guys are going to see my heroines in the context of all of the American mysteries I grew up on – stuff that my British readers miss!
AB: Wells & Wong could easily have been Wells & Wagner or Wells & Watkins. What made you decide that Hazel Wong's family was from Hong Kong. Did you plan that or did you discover she was from Hong Kong as you wrote your book?
RS: Hazel’s nationality was one of the first things I knew about the book, actually. Most of my own friends at school were Hong Kong Chinese, so I grew up hearing their stories about their home lives, and the differences they noticed between England and Hong Kong. I think I connected to them because we were all from non-traditional English boarding school backgrounds: none of us fit in, and all of us slightly felt as though we were intruding on something. And, as a kid who read a lot of boarding school stories, I noticed that people who thought like us – and looked like them – didn’t feature at all. That made me cross, and I decided that when I wrote my own boarding school stories, I’d do something to redress the balance.
AB: I would imagine that a mystery writer has to be more of a plotter than a pantser. Is this true? What types of things surprised you even after you nailed your plot down?
RS: After a very painful redraft of Murder is Bad Manners when I first signed with my agent, I decided that I needed to learn how to be a plotter. I’m now fanatical about nailing down the exact events around each one of my murders – I do a huge spreadsheet with each character’s actions filled in in five or ten minute slots, to make sure that everyone’s alibis check out, and the right people see each other at the right time. Other than that, though, I’m looser – I have a basic idea of where I’m going and how I want to get there, but I like to leave room for my characters to breathe. I have to keep myself interested as I write – it’s a story I’m telling myself, so I’ve got to want to keep going!
AB: As an elementary school librarian I find that my students are always up for a good mystery. What is it about mysteries, do you think, that are so captivating for children?
RS: I think it’s partly the puzzle, and partly the rush of a pacy, exciting story – but I think the pull for kids also has a lot to do with the fact that they’re seeing people like them, totally in control of the story. Child detectives aren’t just the heroes, they’re driving the entire plot, and at the end of the day they get to outsmart the adults. That is so exciting to see when you’re nine and you spend your real life being ordered around by the grown-ups in your life.
AB: "Bunbreaks" seem to be an integral part of life in a 1930s boarding school and Murder Is Bad Manners. Please describe for our American readers what exactly this entails.
RS: Bunbreak is a very exciting and important concept that I learned when I was at school. It’s really just another word for morning break – we would pause lessons at 11am and eat some cookies or a slice of cake – but it was the highlight of the day for us, as it is for Hazel and Daisy. I’ve slightly broadened the concept of bunbreak to mean any moment when you stop what you’re doing to enjoy a sweet treat, and it’s caught on hugely over here. A lot of my readers have taken pictures of themselves having a bunbreak with the book, and I hope Americans will embrace it in the same way.
AB: And finally, if readers wanted to sound particularly 1930s British, what expression would you have us add to our vocabulary?
RB: Ooh! I do like spiffing (fantastic) for everyday use. I’m also a fan of words like waxy (angry) and pax (peace) – some of them have made it into the book, but some had to be cut. I read a lot of 1930s books and I love soaking up the language in them. AB: Thank you Robin for taking time to answer my questions. I can't wait to see what Wells & Wong are up to next.
To discover more about Robin Stevens and about Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, visit her website or follow her on twitter.