A Chat with Charles Mathes
for Dastardly Deeds, March 2000
Itís obvious from the first page of any of Charles Mathesí mysteries that a comfortable chair is needed post-haste, as well as several hours free of anything more arduous than turning pages... as I discovered to my cost when I started the first one well past my bedtime. I didnít finish until dawn, but it was worth it.
Charles Mathesí "Girl" books arenít quite a series, and donít share the same characters. However, each one follows the adventures of a girl who pulls at a loose thread in her life and follows it to an important discovery about her past, which changes her completely. In THE GIRL WITH THE PHONY NAME, orphan Lucy McAlpin Trelaine searches for her birth family and nearly loses her life over the secret she didnít even know she possessed. THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED SNOW, reluctant magician Emma Passant, finds out where that dimly-remembered snow was falling when she tries to find her grandfatherís killer. Antique dealer Molly OíHara, THE GIRL AT THE END OF THE LINE, hunts her own attempted murderer after a lethal explosion destroys her antique shop.
The girlsí stories are very entertaining. But what makes the books most special for me is that the way Mr Mathes describes people and events feels very immediate, very personal, whether his tone is comic, moving, or suspenseful. He also has a knack for sharing fascinating information. I always feel Iíve learned something more about the world after Iíve read one of his books.
None of this comes as a surprise when you consider the manís background. Not many people have resumes dotted with the famous names of Broadway composers and lyricists, magicians, and Cubist painters - and know all about whist counters, to boot. I asked Mr. Mathes about his arts career, and where writing fits into it.
"I've noticed that people tend to discount their own talents. People who sing wonderfully often pursue other careers, but they are still wonderful singers. I always knew I was a writer, but there were plenty of other things that I wanted to do. I went into the theatre because so many of the arts seem to converge on stage -- music, design, literature, dance and so on. When the realities of making a living as an actor sank in, I fell back on my writing ability and earned an MFA in playwriting on a fellowship, but I didn't really want to write plays. I took a temporary job with Rodgers & Hammerstein typing address labels and before long I was running their play publishing and licensing division, collecting millions of dollars in royalties from productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific and learning about the real world of the theatre that was very much different than my idealistic notion of it. I now make my living as an art dealer and appraiser, so being a writer is still not my goal; it is simply part of who I am."
Thereís no question that Mr. Mathesí background has contributed to his books. But as he points out, it doesnít limit them.
"I do have experience in the theatre and in the world of antiques and art, which often appears in my books, and like Emma Passant in THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED SNOW I worked as a magicianís assistant. (This was twenty five years ago and I doubted the young magician would amount to anything. Even his name was preposterous. David Copperfield, indeed.) However, I think the essence of writing is envisioning yourself or your characters in different situations. Shakespeare didnít have to be Henry IV to put himself and his audience in the Kingís shoes. I donít have to run a discount cremation service or a little antique shop in North Carolina to imagine myself or my characters in those places. There is an art dealer in my next book, but I am very happy to say that I never met anyone in the art business like her."
Mr. Mathesí experience in the art world put him onto a panel on Art and Antiques at this yearís Malice Domestic conference in Washington, D.C. On the subject of collecting as a motive for murder, he pointed out that even people who donít think they collect anything do: they collect money in all its mysterious forms. It hasnít always been paper and coins, after all.
"Woodpecker scalp has been considered money. And while silver in previous centuries was stored as value in the form of useful items, like plates and andlesticks, those items were still money."
After heíd demonstrated the monetary value of collectibles by tearing the signature from a sample Picasso heíd brought from his art gallery - you have to see this magic trick to believe it - he explained why collecting is so popular.
"People collect to give order to chaos. Itís the simple act of finding, in total chaos, two like itemsÖ recognizing the patterns."
Sounds like the primary occupation of our favourite sleuths. I asked Mr. Mathes about his favourite mysteries and what books have influenced him.
"Though I was taken at an early age by Sherlock Holmes and G.K. Chesteronís Father Brown stories, my reading tastes were always very eclectic. I jumped from Jorge Luis Borges to Isaac Asimov to D.T. Suzuki. When I got into theatre, I became very enamored of George Bernard Shaw. I believe that mysteries follow the classic form of the well-made play: the first hit mystery was Oedipus."
But does this explain why heís such an incredible source of varied information?
"I see connections everywhere and I like to make them - which is why creating a website was just as much fun for me as creating a novel. I do have a great deal of useless knowledge in my head. Do you know that according to the autopsy, Beethovenís liver was small and hard and covered with bean-like nodules and striations? What else could I do with this kind of trivia than become a novelist?"
Could there be a better lead-in to ask the question that has haunted me since I first read THE GIRL WITH THE PHONY NAME? In this book, heroine Lucy MacAlpin Trelaine is unable to find anyone else who shares her last name. I was so intrigued by this notion that I looked up Trelaine in my own city's phone book and couldnít find it. How could Mr. Mathes have stumbled across a name that didnít exist, just when he needed one?
"I actually came up with the name "Lucy McTavish McSwain" first. I liked the rhythm of this, but the duplicate Mc had to go. I let my mind wander around the sounds and syllables and Trelaine just floated in. But was Trelaine a Scottish name or an Irish one? I was determined that she be Scottish so I could keep that rhythmic Mc middle name but at this point I didnít really know where the plot was going. I went to the library to check the origin of the name Trelaine and was surprised that it was neither Scottish nor Irish. I then checked several other genealogical references (some of which are mentioned in the book) and was surprised that Trelaine appeared in none of them. Nor did it appear in any of the major city phone books that I randomly checked. I had a real mystery on my hands!
"In fact this is what gave me the idea of having Lucy be an orphan who was searching for her identity. If I didnít know where her name had come from, why would she? My research into Scottish history led me to the name MacAlpin which gave me other plot ideas, but the name Trelaine is really the key to the whole book and as you see, it came out of poetry and the air. Perhaps the first chicken dreamed up the egg out of which it hatched in this same fashion."
Mr. Mathesí talent for gathering and sharing intriguing information is extended to his website, www.charlesmathes.com. Itís one of the most fun writersí sites Iíve ever seen, and itís structured to include its own mysteries.
"When I was a kid I would lock myself in my room with a ball of string. I would attach one end to a doorknob and run a length to the lock on the window, then run another length from the bedframe to the desk and so on. Pretty soon I was sitting in the middle of my own spiderweb of string (sometimes with the dog, who didnít find this nearly as fascinating as I did).
"A website is like a book. Iím surprised that so many writers farm out the work to designers who can provide only form. The key to a good website is content. Making connections between the books I have written, the isle of Skye, what to eat in Chinatown, my collection of whist counters and Oscar Hammerstein (among other stuff) was as much fun as I used to have alone in my room with a ball of string. Come to think of it, maybe Iíll find a place to stick in a picture of the dog."
Before we parted, I had to ask what stands out for Mr. Mathes as the highlight of his mystery-writing career to date.
"As I said earlier, I used to think that the stage was where all the arts convened and this is true as far as it goes (i.e. what can be physically produced beneath a proscenium arch). On stage you hear music, see dancing. There are beautiful sets and costumes. There are characters interacting with each other. In a book, however, a writer can make connections between an infinite number of points and the world he creates is bounded only by his imagination. This is what I enjoy most: the freedom to let my mind soar and take some readers who share my sense of drama and humor along for the ride."
I couldnít have said it better - thatís what I enjoy the most about Mr. Mathesí writing, too. Canít wait to do more of it with his next "Girl" book due out from St. Martinís Press in the winter of 2001
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