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Letter to Amazon.com about the Benjamin January series - July, 1999


Since my college days (back in the late Mesozoic Era) I've wanted to do a mystery set in the antebellum South with a free black protagonist. Historical mysteries are mostly comedies of manners--investigations of the ins and outs of the society in which they take place--and the artificiality of that milieu fascinated me. I deliberately steered clear of the Civil War and the era immediately preceding it because a) a lot of other people have done it better than I could and b) because the issues, and the people, were very different even a generation earlier. It mokes it harder to research--very little is done about that changeover generation between Jeffersonian and Jacksonian America--but the more I study, the more fascinating stuff I find. It's a goldmine for a writer.

One of the things I enjoy most about the Benjamin January series is the continuing cast of characters. Family and friends are a major subtheme of the books: you need your family. You need your friends. After Benjamin s wife dies he returns to New Orleans, a city in which he will automatically become a non-person and will be in periodic danger of enslavement, because his family is there and in his grief and his pain he cannot survive without them. This is not only an emotional truth in all times and places, but very typical of the society about which I'm writing. To the antebellum New Orleans Creoles, both white and black, family was everything.

I must say I love writing Ben's mother. She's an absolutely horrible woman, snobbish and greedy and self-centered, but she's a wonderful mechanism to advance plots by giving the reader whole reams of Information in the form of spiteful gossip. In fact I love writing about most of those people--Ben's sisters, and his worthless white pal Hannibal, and Lieutenant Shaw. I'll occasionally use historical characters in the books, like Madame Lalaurie or John Davis, the man who owned the Orleans Ballroom, and I try to get those people as accurately as I can, from what I can learn of them. There was no lack of fascinating people running around New Orleans in that era. About some of them. like the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, it's almost impossible to find "hard" information--only rumors and traditions and tales that have been colored by the prejudice or political correctness of the tellers.

I try, too, to portray what the city must have been like, what people must have been like. New Orleans fascinates me because there were literally four separate social systems--white Creoles, white Americans, mixed-race free colored, and black slaves--living in the same few square miles of territory and none of them dealing with the others unless absolutely necessary. The concept of solidarity between the free colored and the blacks was almost unheard-of: the free colored, for the most part, identified with the white Creoles, the people who had power and money. January is an interesting character to me precisely because he was raised with a French Creole outlook, because he has the outlook of an educated European. He's very much a man between two worlds, on outsider among his own people.

For most of my life I've been a student of history, although I've had a fairly long career as a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy before I began writing historical mysteries. My degree is in Medieval History, something I've seldom used in any of my writing: basically what I learned was how to research, and how to set up a non-industrial society. From the time I was five I knew that I wanted to write, and I've tried to do at least a little of the things I write about: hand-to-hand combat, riding a horse, loading black powder weapons. dancing, wearing a corset. My love of history was one of the things that drew me to New Orleans for the first time, though I fell in love with the city--and with my husband, whom I met there--and ended up living in New Orleans half-time for nearly three years.

I feel like I have so much more to learn.

About myself I will just say that I was born In California, raised here, and currently live in Los Angeles with my husband, two dogs, two cats, and two lizards. Like Benjamin, I treasure my family and my friends. In the course of getting my degree in Medieval History I spent a year at the University of Bordeaux in the early seventies, and in connection with writing a couple of historical vampire thrillers I've traveled through Europe learning that there are no back-alleys in the old part of Vienna (oops, I guess I'll have to re-write that back-alley scene) and that the sunlight in Istanbul is not like light anywhere else that I've seen.

My husband, who is a science fiction writer, and I go back to New Orleans a few, times a year. Even in the eighteenth century it was remarked on that once someone had lived there, the city would draw them back.

I hope to go on writing about that town for a very long time.

-Written by Barbara Hambly, July 22, 1999.
This letter was taken from the Graveyard Dust page at Amazon.com.
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