Interview with Carol McCleary

Carol McCleary is the author of The Alchemy of Murder (our review here), in which real-world heroine Nellie Bly must save Paris with the aid of Louis Pasteur, Jules Verne and Oscar Wilde.

She talks with us about her inspiration for the novel and her plans for the next one.

What gave you the idea to use historical characters for your book and why did you choose these?

The Alchemy of Murder
The Alchemy of Murder

A friend of mine gave me Nellie Bly’s exposé, Ten Days In A Madhouse, to read. Well, once I read it, I thought, “Wow, this is someone everyone should know” — she is a real life heroine — and perfect for a Victorian mystery.

I could relate to Nellie because, as her editor told her, “Your grammar is rocky…” and so is mine.

What I also discovered about Nellie was that she had a warm heart and cared very deeply about people, especially about the rights of woman, and fought relentlessly to make their lives better. She had immense courage.

The rest of the characters you might say chose themselves.

Why choose Paris as the setting?

So many of Victorian tales are set in London or New York, I thought, why not Paris? It was an interesting place during this time — Paris was brimming with discoveries, inventions and wild parties and the Exposition Universelle, the World’s Fair, was happening.

While researching who was hanging around Paris at this time, I discovered Jules Verne was there, “inventing” science-fiction, and had once served on a health committee with Louis Pasteur, the great microbe hunter, who was making what some call the greatest single scientific discovery in history: the fact germs cause disease.

And, of course, Oscar Wilde was there, titillating café society with his scandals and wit, Toulouse was painting his beloved whores, students were “plotting” revolutions at café tables over absinthes and smokes while anarchists where planting bombs under the tables (just like today).

The plot developed itself from the era, a time when inventions and scientific discoveries like those of Pasteur soared and the “far-fetched” ideas of Jules Verne were becoming reality. The fact these two men represented the two extremes of “science” intrigued me.

Ultimately, the plot was derived from Nellie’s courage to right a wrong (as she was constantly doing), Jules Verne’s fantastic ideas and the research of the great Pasteur as he blazed new paths in real science.

You like the era for the same reason the steampunk movement does: the inventions, the science, the changes. Were you aware of steampunk when you wrote the book?

No, I wasn’t aware of steampunk, but I love the Victorian age and its quirky tales of steam-era science, like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Shelly’s Frankenstein, Jules Verne’s balloon and submarine voyages, the marvellous H.G. Wells tales (even chasing the Ripper to San Francisco in Time After Time), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and anything else Sean Connery plays in). So, though I wasn’t aware of the word, I enjoy the era. To be truthful, better than this computer age we are in.

I also love the Indiana Jones movies, which have the same ambiance as steampunk in a diesel era.

You lived in the Orient for quite a long time. Did that in any way inspire your writing and this book in particular?

While I lived in the Orient only until I was six years old, it’s been said that a person’s personality is developed early and I believe living in the Far East has had an enormous effect on me. I was able to experience different cultures and personalities, which opened my mind to the fact that there is a wonderful world filled with all different kinds of interesting people and that has had a profound affect in my writing. Even today I find myself more attracted to Eastern concepts of herbal remedies and mind-body connections than Western ones.

You’re working on the next Nellie Bly novel, which is great news for all us fans out there. Is there anything you can tell us about it already?

I’d be delighted! After Nellie gets back from Paris, she is taunted by Jules’ remark at the train station that she can’t beat the record of his fictional hero, Phileas Fogg, in his novel, Around The World In Eighty Days. So, one day she goes to her boss, Mr Pulitzer, and announces she wants to try and beat Fogg’s record.

Of course, he says, “No, it’s definitely not a job for a lady. With all the luggage a woman requires and the need of a protector, it’s impossible.”

With that said, Nellie tells him, “Fine, send a man and I will go to another newspaper and beat him.” Pulitzer knows Nellie will do exactly that, so he agrees to let hergo.

It was an age of steam ships that had auxiliary sails for when the boiler broke down and steam locomotives called iron horses. Pulitzer’s concerns were well taken — there were no airplanes, credit cards, ATMs or even cell phones! And Nellie refused to take a gun for protection.

Mystery, murder, the fate of nations, all stand in Nellie’s way as she desperately tries to race around the world in less than eighty days.

This story first appeared in Gatehouse Gazette #9 (November 2009), p. 4-5, with the headline “Alchemy for Mystery; Interview: Carol McCleary”.

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