A slightly different version of this interview first appeared on the EWG Presents website in October of 2002.
Talking with Multi-genre Author Lillian Stewart Carl
Written by Christine A. Verstraete
For nearly twenty years, author Lillian Stewart Carl has been making the past come alive to readers.
A former college history teacher, she asks what better way is there to use a history degree? "It’s one of those few things you can do with a history degree that doesn't include teaching or slinging french fries," she says and laughs.
Carl, who admits, "I read history for fun," also puts her interests and knowledge to good use.
In her latest novel, TIME ENOUGH TO DIE, protagonist and antiquities expert Matilda Gray and Scotland Yard detective Gareth March must find the killer of a woman who'd known too much about the stolen antiquities trade, trying to prevent another such murder from occurring.
Set in one of her favorite locations, Carl again utilizes the rich history of Great Britain to give TIME ENOUGH TO DIE a plot fabric thicker than the Welsh bog that the book opens in.
The realistic descriptions, poetic phrasing, and historical facts and background, are skillfully used by Carl to make even the garish find of a severed hand at the offset seem less gruesome, as seen in one of the opening paragraphs:
"I reckon it’s one o’ them bog bodies, Sir," P.C. Watkins said. "Every now and then the cutters will turn up a bit o’ one. Like empty leather bags they are, after all those years in the peat. Maybe two thousand years, Dr. Sweeney says..."
You can almost smell the peat and see the scene unfold. And that’s because this transplanted Texas, who grew up in Missouri and Ohio, doesn't believe in relying only on what she reads to give her books a real sense of time and place.
"I love ancient history," she says, "I've traveled up and down Britain many times. Some of the things I've worked into the books are things I've actually seen."
That is something she advises writers to do, whenever possible. Visiting a site in person, she says, "you can pick up local tidbits and color that you don't pick up from the guidebooks."
An author of 10 novels and numerous short stories, Carl has been writing for as long as she can remember. "I've never not written, even as a small child," she claims. "In high school I had two notebooks when I went to class. One to take notes and one to write in."
Carl, who’s worked as a librarian and as a newspaper columnist, has actually taken only one writing class. It was not the typical English or journalism class, but it still had an impact on her future writing career. "I took a Writing of Poetry class in college," she says. "It taught me to pack imagery into a small amount of space." And yes, she has used a smattering or two of poetry in her novels if the plot warranted.
Carl originally wrote science fiction and fantasy, then branched out in later years to romantic suspense and mystery. Many of her books also cross genres, containing touches of what she calls her own genre mix of all the above with touches of the paranormal.
Whether she’s writing a romantic suspense novel like last year’s SHADOWS IN SCARLET, or a mystery with bits of romance, intrigue, spooky Druid rites and dark secrets as in her new book, TIME ENOUGH TO DIE, Carl’s goal is to turn out a good tale. And if it gives readers a little shiver down their backs, so much the better.
To Carl, writing TIME ENOUGH TO DIE was a much "fun" as it was challenging. "It has three different points of view, which was one of the things I enjoyed," she says. "Each person has their one particular view of what’s going on."
Carl is the first to admit that juggling the various characters, plot lines, and all the elements that go into a multi-layered novel takes some work and preparation.
"Readers are smart," she says. "They notice when you foul something up like continuity or description. I've been known to change the color of a characters’s eyes halfway through the book and then have go back and fix it. I take lots and lots of notes. I always have a large file I carry along with the text, with bits and pieces of different business that I need to sort in."
A prolific writer, Carl nonetheless faced an author’s worst nightmare, battling outside forces for readership as three of her books originally published by Berkley/Diamond were released in the early 1990s when the Gulf War broke out. The book line was later discontinued.
"The first book (ASHES TO ASHES) was released the same month as the Gulf War," she recalls. "Nobody was visiting bookstores. Since my editor had quit the business several months earlier, there was no one to defend me to the publisher."
Ironically, the title of the second book in the series, DUST TO DUST, Berkley/Diamond August 1991, was kind of prophetic. "Waldenbooks didn't order as many copies," she says. She was dropped after the third book in the series was released.
In the last two years, Carl has heartily embraced the new technologies such as print-on-demand and electronic publishing, which have provided new markets for her work.
A collection of some of her earlier speculative fiction, ALONG THE RIM OF TIME, is available from iUniverse. Seven of her novels have been reprinted through The Author’s Guild from iUniverse. Most of her work is available electronically as well, at Fictionwise.com.
"The ebooks are a definite niche in the market," she says. "There are people who will download a half-dozen books or a couple dozen short stories to read."
She admits that she is still partial to the printed page, however, and loves to visit bookstores when she can. A few of her favorite authors include Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ellis Peters, Charlaine Harris, and above all, J.R.R. Tolkien.
"I love books," Carl says. "It’s hard to beat walking into one of the big bookstores and smelling the paper and the ink and the coffee."
Carl still happily spends several hours each day working on new projects. She’s now negotiating with publishers for the first book of a new mystery series that features a touch of the paranormal and focuses on a portrait of Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie. She also continues to write lengthier short stories and has several coming out in various anthologies.
What’s next? Carl says she'd like to break the bestseller list. She'd love to win an award. And with the help of her supportive husband, Paul, she says she plans to keep on doing what she loves and does best—writing books that make the past seem like more than ancient history.
"There have been time that I've looked through the want ads in the paper for something else," she says, "But I'm a writer. It’s what I do."Top of Page