About the Author
Sarah Stewart Taylor was born in 1971 on Long Island, New York and was educated at Middlebury College and Trinity College, Dublin. Her first novel, O' Artful Death (2003) was nominated for an Agatha Award. In addition to writing mystery novels, she teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies. She lives with her husband and young son on a farm in Vermont.
Question: What was your inspiration for a series featuring a specialist in gravestones and funerary art?
Answer: I've always been fascinated by the ways in which human beings express grief and bereavement. Grave markers have gone from utilitarian objects to Puritan reminders of mortality, from euphemized Victorian mourning objects all the way to modern expressions of favorite hobbies or occupation. It's so interesting to me. I saw the "Art of Death" exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1992 and I remember thinking that an amateur detective who studied mourning ritual and art would make a great subject for a mystery series. Years later, I came up with Sweeney.
Q: How would you describe Sweeney St. George?
A: Sweeney is, above all else, an art historian, and she's in love with her specialty — funerary art. She is never happier than when she's tracking down the history of a gravestone or piece of mourning jewelry, trying to figure out who created it and why. She's fascinated by the ways in which human beings have responded and respond to death, and when she becomes curious about something, it's impossible for her to let go until she's achieved understanding. She has experienced a lot of death in her young life, and that gives her first-hand knowledge of the things she studies and it gives her a melancholy, troubled nature that she is only starting to understand. She is adventuresome, stubborn, and sometimes prickly, but she's funny and fun, and she loves and lives intensely. She has a hard time letting people in.
Q: How will she develop over the course of the series?
A: Sweeney has some pretty painful personal history to confront. She'll start dealing with some of this, and she'll start loosening up to the world, trying more of the things that life offers that scare her, like romantic relationships, friendships, and the rekindling of family connections she's written off.
She'll also confront the truth that while her growing interest in solving crimes frequently intersects with her research interests, it doesn't always mesh well with her academic career. She'll have to handle conflict on that front and start thinking about what she wants for herself, in life and love.
Q: How did you get interested in arts colonies?
A: Well, my great-grandmother Grace Lawrence Taylor was a concert pianist and was a member of the Cornish Arts Colony in Cornish, N.H. I grew up going up there for summer vacations and I was always fascinated by the lives of my great-grandmother and the other artists.
I wanted to create a former arts colony that is a little more insular than Cornish is and I wanted to have a lot of artistic license in creating the artists who inhabited it, so I created the fictional arts colony of Byzantium, Vermont. I live in Vermont now and I wanted to capture some of the things that I think are unique about our small state.
Q: Who are some of your favorite mystery writers? Who do you consider your influences?
A: I love British writers like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell who, I think, combine impeccable plot construction with superb, subtle characterization that really elevates their work to the level of literature. I've read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman many, many times and I am always blown away by James' deftness. I love Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels and all of her Barbara Vine stand-a-lones. And I love novels about scholarly mysteries. She's not a mystery writer per se, but A.S. Byatt's Possession has certainly been an influence. I love how she conveys the excitement of the academic quest. I just read Tucker Malarkey's An Obvious Enchantment and admired much about this novel, also centered around a quest. I like Amanda Cross' academic mysteries (as much as I like Carolyn Heilbrun's non-fiction) and Iain Pears' and Arturo Perez-Reverte's art history-themed books. Batya Gur is a wonderful writer who I recently discovered. I can't wait to read everything she's written. I feel the same way about Lev Raphael. Some of my other favorite contemporary mystery writers are Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Ian Banks, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard. All of these writers have created characters who stay with me, and haunt me, long after they've solved the mystery of the day.
Though many of their themes and attitudes are dated, I really, really admire the skill of the so-called Golden Age mystery writers: Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Elspeth Huxley. These writers really were masters of plot construction. I'm always in awe of their stylish puzzle plots. Christie is one of the only mystery writers who consistently manages to fool me (or would if I hadn't read every single one by now).
One of my all-time favorite novels is Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night. Of course, as many readers have pointed out, it's a murder mystery without a murder, but it does so many things so well. The last couple lines of the novel comprise one of the most beautiful love scenes in English literature. Sayers is amazing.
Some of my favorite non-mystery writers are (in no particular order) William Trevor, Jane Austen, Forster. I did my graduate work on the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen and she remains a favorite.