Monday, December 26, 2011

W is for Westerson: Jeri Westerson

Today the Mystery Author Alphabet Meme continues with W is for Westerson: Jeri Westerson.

Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Series. It’s her take on a hardboiled detective series in a medieval setting. Jeri’s books have been shortlisted for a slew of mystery awards including the Macavity, the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, the Shamus, and RT Reviewer’s Choice Award. She has excerpts of the books at www.JeriWesterson.com.

**BOOK CONTEST** Comment below to win a copy Jeri’s latest book, TROUBLED BONES! Winner: Kelly Robinson!


JERI WESTERSON: Chaucer and Me

When I was a kid, I had a more or less ordinary upbringing but for one thing; in our house, medieval English history was king. We had conversations about the British monarchy at the dinner table. We had books of English literature, history, and historical fiction on our bookshelves.

And we had Geoffrey Chaucer.

I owned the most wonderful children’s version of the often bawdy book The Canterbury Tales, written sometime around 1387. It is unique in that it was truly the first great piece of literature penned in English. In Chaucer’s day, it was Middle English, a more German/Latinized version of the English we know (ever wonder about all those silent letters in our words? Well, they weren’t silent then). Prior to that, romances and histories were written either in Latin or French. This was now the dawn of Englishness. At this point, even the nobility spoke English, where before, after William the Conqueror came to England and replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility with his own, the nobility spoke French. Now the lingua franca was English, a change not only in language but of mindset.

And it wasn’t just important for that. This showed us a slice of life of everyday folk thinking and speaking like everyday folk. The great romances and histories of the day were about ladies and princes, not the local Miller. In The Canterbury Tales, we get a sense of the real people of the period.
The book that I had growing up was the Deluxe Golden Book “Special Edition for Young Readers” illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. Oh, these were wonderful illustrations. As strange and as foreign as Middle English itself. I was drawn in by the whole package of weird and wonderful pictures and then these stories. All of these different medieval people were meeting in London to journey to Canterbury and they would each tell stories to pass the time. Stories of people like them, or great timeless stories from Ancient Greece or old Britain. The person who told the best story would win a dinner back at the Tabard, a tavern where their journey began, a tavern that really existed back in fourteenth century London.

And I knew these stories well. The Aesop-like Nun’s Priest tale of Chanticleer, the Wife of Bath’s tale of the Loathly Lady, the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale of the false Alchemist. I enjoyed them all. I was bitterly disappointed when I got to the end to discover that Chaucer never finished his tales. He died before he could. Who would have won? And what were the other stories to be told because they had to make the journey back to London? To this ten year old, it was a complete bummer.

But that wasn’t the extent of my partnership with Chaucer. My mother had a record of an actor reciting some of the stories in Middle English. How I listened to that! What was it? It was sort of English but not really. And it had a lyrical cadence to it like a romance language. I knew before I was old enough to ask that what I was hearing was something odd and special.

And then there was that one degree of separation from Chaucer himself.

We made frequent trips to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. This was a museum of books and manuscripts, with a gallery of a collection of Gainsborough paintings, including Blue Boy and Pinkie, and extensive gardens and grounds. When I was a kid it was free. Our parents went to lots of places that were free since we were a family of five with little to no money to throw around. In the Huntington Library, they have quartos of Shakespeare plays, a Gutenberg Bible, and the Ellsmere Manuscript. The last is the beautifully detailed handwritten and illustrated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, commissioned not too long after Chaucer died in the early fifteenth century. It is on parchment and done in careful calligraphy, complete with drawings of all the pilgrims, including Chaucer himself. I was intrigued again, now because of the floral designs and calligraphy that was to inspire a later career as a graphic designer.

I couldn’t escape the fellow and he followed me into adulthood where I could read all the stories, including the ribald ones, with a deeper appreciation for what the whole thing truly was. Not just classical stories retold, but of moral lessons through the persons of the pilgrims themselves.

Much later, when I created my medieval mystery series with a sleuth who was a hardboiled detective, I made him a disgraced knight who used to move in the more noble circles, including the household of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. Why did I pick the time period of Richard II’s reign? Chaucer’s fault again. Because I knew I wanted to include him at some point in the series. And of course he will have known Crispin and been his friend, since he, too, lived in Lancaster’s household. So what better way to introduce him in the series than by reliving The Canterbury Tales and forcing Crispin to journey to Canterbury and meet some very familiar pilgrims in the fourth installment, TROUBLED BONES. Only this time it involves murder. And then, of course, Crispin has to get his friend Chaucer out of trouble. How much trouble? I suppose you’ll have to go on the journey to Canterbury along with them to find out.

23 comments:

Lesa said...

I don't need a copy of Troubled Bones, Janet, but wanted to say the book was on my top ten list for the year. I loved Crispin Guest, and this story.

And, Jeri's presentation, including this information about Chaucer, was terrific.

Larry Moniz said...

Fascinating description. As a youngster I was a big fan of the Greek fables of Homer and follow of the Arthurian stories. Nice to see someone else who drew experiences from a different historical era.

Larry Moniz
Award-winning Journalist and Author
LarryMonizBooks.com

lil Gluckstern said...

Fascinating is right. Like Larry, I was raised on Greek and Norse mythology. I didn't fall in love with England until I read all about the Plantagenets (did you ever read Thomas Costain?- and read on forever. Your books are a joy because they are not about the wealthy, but ordinary people, no matter how they got there.

Kelly Robinson said...

A hardboiled knight? My curiosity is piqued.

Terry P. said...

Like you, I'm fascinated with British History. Don't have the education on it that you do, but I still love it. Wonderful books that you write, Jeri. Thank you for the chance to win a copy.

Valerie L. said...

A few years ago the BBC did a program that presented The Canterbury Tales in animated form. The difference was the first half of the program had the characters speaking in Chaucer's English. The second half had the exact same animations but in modern day English. It was fascinating.

I really enjoyed meeting Chaucer in Troubled Bones so very much. Thank you, Jeri, for giving us our own Canterbury pilgrimage.

Jeri Westerson said...

Lesa, thanks so much for those kind words! I certainly enjoyed popping in to your library and hope to do it again next fall for BLOOD LANCE.

Jeri Westerson said...

Larry and Lil, I was into all those things. And the Egyptian panoply, too! I've forgotten more than I learned at this point. And I certainly did read Costain. Was raised on him and a slew of other historical novelists of the time: Nora Lofts, Anya Seton, Frank Yerby... Whatever was on the shelves, I read it.

Jeri Westerson said...

Hey Kelly, I hope so! There are a lot of books in the series yet for me to write. Give it a shot.

Jeri Westerson said...

Terry, I came by it honestly and am pretty much self taught. My college degree is in art! (I was a graphic artist for some fifteen years before I turned to writing novels as a career path.)

Jeri Westerson said...

Sounds fascinating, Valerie. I really think it should be taught in grade school. You don't have to include all the stories but I think kids will be as fascinated by the concept as I was. And learn something about history, too.

carol said...

I really enjoyed the first two in the series, and adding Chaucer to the mix sounds marvelous. Thanks for the chance to win.

carolsnotebook at yahoo dot com

Gram said...

I like the sound of this series and will be on the lookout for it. I had forgotten about Anya Seton, Frank Yerby, et.al Thank you for reminding me. I must look them up to - old friends are good.
Dee

Jeri Westerson said...

Go, Carol, go!

Jeri Westerson said...

Gram, I still have some of those books, too. Katherine, The Odor of Sanctity, The Lute Player. I think it's time to reread them myself.

Debi Murray said...

Would love to win a copy as my book list is long and my pockets are empty. The concept of a hard-boiled ex-knight detective intrigues me! It was also great to meet Jeri @ Murder and Mayhem in Muskego this past November

Deb said...

Just loved this book! After reading it, I've now checked The Canterbury Tales out at the library. I just know that I'll be subconsciously looking for Crispin while I'm reading it.

Jeri Westerson said...

And I loved being there in Muskego, Debi. I wish I hadn't had a cold, though.

Jeri Westerson said...

That's so funny you should say that, Deb. I was doing a little extra research on John of Gaunt, and in the back of my wee head, I kept thinking I should be coming across info on Crispin any time... And then I slapped myself. Strange moment.

lil Gluckstern said...

I am so disappointed. I thought Crispin was real. Y'know, it's entirely possible that there men like him around then, isn't it? I already own your book, but There is no way to autograph a kindle, arg.

Samuel Thomas said...

I love the idea of interweaving historical figures into fiction, especially when it's so fascinating a figure as Chaucer. (Right now I'm trying to figure out how I can shoe-horn Andrew Marvell into a mystery that takes place in Civil War Yorkshire...)

The Huntington is wonderful - have you spent much time in English archives, too?

Jeri Westerson said...

Lil, I have no doubt there were men like him. He styled himself after Lancaster so...

And I did sign a Kindle cover once, but now I make sure I can sign my bookmarks. Even if you don't need one of those you can frame it or something.

Jeri Westerson said...

Samuel, Marvell would work well, especially since he pissed off the court.

I wasn't able to travel to England for any of my research but I talked to plenty of archivists via the internet, a marvelous thing. Plus there is more and more available online as scanned documents and manuscripts, far more even than when I started writing this series in 2005. I do the majority of my research in university libraries.