Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Accidental Expert

RHYS: Remember the Robert Frost poem, Two roads diverged in a yellow wood... and I tood the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference?That could be the theme-song for my life. Opting out of the chosen path for me, leaving the BBC instead of rising through the ranks, going to Australia, meeting my husband and moving to California. All my writing career has been one long serendipity too. And along the way I have picked up all kinds of knowledge I never thought I'd want or need.It started when my husband became sales manager of Air India. We had to entertain Indian dignitaries in a city where there was no consul. We became experts in Indian food, were on the board of an Indian dance school and traveled to India numerous times. We ended up with close Indian friends. So we are accidental experts on India.
My kids became swimmers. I found myself president of a swim club. I became a stroke and turn official. Never a competitive swimmer myself, I was judging big meets
.I started writing books about Wales. Although I knew the place well, I learned all kinds of interesting facts--the contents of the National Gallery stored during WWII in a Welsh slate mine, for example. Every book I write involves research into a field I never thought I'd want or need.
When I started to write my Molly Murphy books, my aim was to set a book on Ellis Island. I did all the background reading I could find on the immigrant experience before I wrote the book. Then Molly steps ashore in Manhattan and I realized how little I knew about New York City in the early 1900s. Lots of tramping around the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village followed, hours in the NY library and historical society, a large library of my own and now I know my way pretty well around 1903 New York. I know about the formation of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, and about the rise of spiritualism, and the birth of Coney Island and pharmaceutical recipes of the time. All knowledge I never thought I'd want or need. But sometimes I astound native born New Yorkers by pointing out something about their city that they didn't know. Accidental expert on New York history.
My latest research has been on Houdini and illusionists--and what fascinating reading it made. Actually many of his illusions or stunts have not been improved upon over the years. He was a brilliant escapologist and an equally brilliant illusionist. But when I read that he had probably been used by the secret service as a spy while he was on his European tours, then I knew I had a good story. So I'm now an accidental expert on Houdini too. But I'm not going to tell you about any of his amazing illusions. You'll have to read my book, The Last Illusion, if you want to know more!
And Jungle Red Sisters--in which areas have you become accidental experts?
ROBERTA: Wow Rhys, you have had some interesting twists and turns! We'll be looking forward to the dinner invitation with all that Indian food expertise!(Rhys: If you come to SF for Bouchercon this year, we can definitely cook Indian food for you!)In 1990, I was minding my own business running a therapy private practice with an interest in good tennis. I was considering embarking on advanced training in psychoanalysis (which takes years and years of training and a training analysis) when I met my husband-to-be, John. He got me hooked on golf and because I was such a mental basket case, I began to write about it. Next came the Cassie Burdette golf mysteries and the rest is unfolding. I have to shake my head at how life has changed--mostly for the good.
JANS: As a journalist, I'm used to becoming a 24-hour expert on something, which was brutal on my family when I was health reporter because I could take the fun out of almost everything. (When I told my brother he really should wash the melon before he sliced it because of the bacteria, he told me I had to get another job.) Now because of all the research I've been doing on my non-fiction project, I'm an expert on Boston and its racial and urban crime problems in the mid to late 1970s. I never had a burning need to know these things before I started this project.
RO: All things Indian are in the air for me today..I was accidentally cc'ed by a pal at BBC on a lengthy string of emails about a get-together at an Indian restaurant. It was pretty funny reading someone else's there a story in this?
I am an accidental expert on Tanzania. My husband and I went there on a Habitat for Humanity build and have since been back a dozen times because we decided to build a library there. It's frightening that I know the bus schedules from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma and I don't know which subway will take me from 59th St. to the east village.(RHYS: The 6 is the closest you'll get. Stops at Astor Place. You see I know my modern NY pretty well too!

RHYS: I think the great thing about writing is that we have the chance to learn new things all the time. And it's the closest to time travel that I'll probably ever experience. Now I've got to get back to Chinatown, which is where the next Molly book is set!


  1. Ah yes, the thing we fall into and then happily wallow in.

    I once wrote a magazine article about food safety for MORE Magazine and ever since that research I've washed my melons (and grapefruits and avocadoes and ...) before slicing. Because it's what's on the skin that CAN make you very sick.

  2. For some reason I am absolutely reckless when it comes to washing fruit. Maybe you've cured me. (Although..grapefruit...really?)

    And're right about the #6! You're an honorary New Yorker.

  3. Hey all--in NOrth carolina on a bad laptop--you guys are fascinating.!

    And I wash all fruit, too. ANd use a new fork every time I turn the chicken in the oven..

  4. Good conversation. I like it.Of course it's necessary to wash all fruit, vegetables before consuming. And not only apples or smth like that but grapefruit, banana too!) I've read a terrible article about stomach diseases which caused by dirty fruit, so be careful and wash your fruit.