April 14, 2021

Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael

Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael

In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book My Brother Michael and how she uses setting, incorporates both ancient and recent history, and how her characters answer a call to adventure.


In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book My Brother Michael and how she uses setting, incorporates both ancient and recent history, and how her characters answer a call to adventure. 

It was first published in 1959 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

''Nothing ever happens to me...'' So begins Camilla Haven's letter home during her quiet holiday in Athens. But when a stranger begs her to drive a car to Delphi, swearing that it is a matter of life and death, Camilla impulsively takes the opportunity she's been offered. Before long she is caught up in a whirlwind of intrigue, deceit and murder as she spins along the dusty Greek roads in a race against time to solve a fourteen-year-old mystery.
 
 The longer I waited the less possible it seemed to walk out of the café and leave everything to settle itself without me, and the more insidiously did the other possibility begin to present itself. Dry-mouthed, I pushed it aside, but there it was, a challenge, a gift, a dare from the gods . . .
 
Takeaways for writers:

 In My Brother Michael, Camilla Haven has just written on a postcard that nothing ever happens when a man gives her the keys to a jeep that must be taken to Delphi for Simon. Camilla takes the opportunity to get to Delphi, thinking she’ll at least save the cost of transportation there, and pass the jeep off to Simon – whoever he is. 

Mary Stewart sets My Brother Michael against a backdrop of ancient history and the recently ended World War II.  She intertwines the ancient and contemporary to give the reader the feeling that the past isn’t so far gone. Ancient secrets, war secrets, and settling old scores create a recipe for adventure and romance.

Camilla isn’t looking for love or romance, but she gets caught up in Simon’s quest to find out what happened to his brother – the titular Michael – and what Michael found that he referenced in his last letter home. 

Exercises for writers 

Characters – How do you introduce a character at the beginning of a story so going from “nothing ever happens” to accepting the call to adventure feels natural? How do you build a bond between characters who didn’t know each other at the beginning of the story but are a couple by the end? Do you show or tell the reader what the character is going through in a dangerous situation?

Backstory – My Brother Michael deals with ancient and more recent history. Notice how she weaves both into the contemporary story. Read your work in progress from the beginning, and only leave in the relevant information about the character’s past that the reader needs to understand the story at that moment, or edit it so the relevant information is where the reader needs it for understanding the story. How do you make the information relevant to your characters? Knowing why it’s relevant will help you decide what information the character – and your reader – need now.
 

 

Transcript

Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.

Episode 114 - My Brother Michael

18:43

Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words. Today I'm talking with Suzanne Fox. She writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society 19, and works with authors to shape, publish, and market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art, including that used for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts, is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. 

Find out more about Suzanne at www.bookstrategy.com and www.SocietyNineteenJournal.com

In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book My Brother Michael and how she uses setting, incorporates both ancient and recent history, and how her characters answer a call to adventure. 

It was first published in 1959 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

''Nothing ever happens to me...'' So begins Camilla Haven's letter home during her quiet holiday in Athens. But when a stranger begs her to drive a car to Delphi, swearing that it is a matter of life and death, Camilla impulsively takes the opportunity she's been offered. Before long she is caught up in a whirlwind of intrigue, deceit and murder as she spins along the dusty Greek roads in a race against time to solve a fourteen-year-old mystery.
 
 The longer I waited the less possible it seemed to walk out of the café and leave everything to settle itself without me, and the more insidiously did the other possibility begin to present itself. Dry-mouthed, I pushed it aside, but there it was, a challenge, a gift, a dare from the gods . . .
 
End quote. Welcome to the podcast, Suzanne, how are you today?

Suzanne 02:31

I am very good.

Linda 02:32

I am excited to talk about My Brother Michael. It's one of Mary Stewart's books that are set in Greece, there are several of them, and I enjoy the way her love for the country comes through,

Suzanne 02:45

I think it does very strongly. And one also sees her love for literature, in this case, classical Greek drama, which infuses the setting in part because it's set in Delphi where Greek history and Greek culture are almost palpable, sort of in the air.

Linda 03:06

Yes. And she really does a great job, I think of bridging the gap from ancient to recent past history with World War Two. And then the contemporary setting, which is set, I believe, a dozen or so years after the end of World War Two,

Suzanne 03:25

I think so too. It's interesting that there are a number of extremely contemporary references in the characters in the book, one of the women that touches in the story is very much described as contemporary, I believe, although it's possible, I miss remembering this that she wears pale lipstick. Her clothing is very contemporary, there's a young male artist who feels very much like a modern character. And yet, as you say, you feel both the reverberations of the very distant past the past of classical Greece, and then World War Two and its aftermath with a lot of complexity and infighting, as it were, in Greece itself between different factions, organizations and groups. So there's a really rich layering of the past which is suitable for that setting, since it's a place of ruins in a way.

Linda 04:18

Yes, and certainly Delphi is a place of ruins, the historical aspect is certainly present. And there's a scene where they are in the amphitheater, and there's a particular mark on the stage where when you're standing there, you can whisper and your voice is projected to the back of the seats. And there's some information that is exchanged while they're in the amphitheater that not directs the action of the villain after but certainly plays into what the characters know. And when they knew it.

Suzanne 04:53

Yeah, you get the fun of having two people who know a lot about the classics. They are both professionally involved in teaching and knowing Greek culture and Greek classical literature. And yet it is very cleverly melded into a mystery that while it actually does end up touching on the very distant history of Greece is mostly defined by much more recent events.

inda 05:18

Yes, and I always enjoy the way she spoons in backstory, you only find out what you need when you need to know it. So by the end of the story, you know what the driver of the story was. And at the beginning, you only know a little bit from Camilla Haven’s point of view, which is that she has just written on a postcard that nothing exciting ever happens to her, she has an opportunity to have an adventure and make something happen. And because of that she's launched into this – not adventure, but this story of someone else's, and finds out something about herself something about her nature, and also something about human nature.

Suzanne 06:06

Yeah, I think that's right. It's interesting that as you say, she accidentally on in some way propels herself into stories. Stewart doesn't write books about professional sleuths in any way. She doesn't even write books about people who are amateur sleuths, but happen on a lot of murders. Her characters are not particularly interested in mysteries in any way. And so Stewart uses, I think, a number of interesting devices to propel them into the story. And this one is really an accident by which somebody essentially delivers her the keys to a car, says it is Simon's car, and it needs to go to Delphi immediately. At that point, she having just written nothing ever happens to me realizes that something has happened to her and she takes it on. But I also think it's interesting that Simon, who we meet when she brings the car to Delphi, is very much a character on a quest. So while she doesn't have any particular motivation initially to get involved in anything uncomfortable, or to pursue something uncomfortable, Simon does; he is on a quest to find out something about what happened to his late brother. It's a very passionate desire. And I use the word quest deliberately because I think that it has the quality of a real pilgrimage and a quest where someone wants to make a journey and come back with new understanding.

Linda 07:41

Yes, and I think quest is good. I think quest to me – a quest has a goal, you know, you want to do something as opposed to Camilla's adventure where she had been thinking about going to Delphi, didn't know if she had enough money to do that, and then is presented with the way to get there, saving her the bus fare, or certainly she didn't have enough for car fare, but she could save herself the time and expense of the bus and get to Delphi and then go from there. So she didn't have a goal for her adventure other than exploring the area and having some fun on her holiday. Whereas with Simon, it definitely is a quest. He's got a goal. And the goal is to find out exactly what happened to his brother, Michael, and he has gone to Delphi to talk to the person who last saw him.

Suzanne 08:35

You know, it's interesting, as a writer, one always has to create a reason for a character to continue to solve or even be involved in a difficult problem.

Linda 08:48

Yes,

Suzanne 08:49

If your character doesn't have a strong reason to do that, at some point, they're going to say this is dangerous. This is inconvenient. You know, let's stay at home and you know, eat tea and delicious tarts right and Stewart is very good to take in characters who initially have no particular involvement or motivation with many of the problems that she faces her female protagonists with, but immediately giving them a reason that they will stay sort of in the game. And that's true here. She becomes interested in Simon's quest, but also I think she begins to care about him. And so she has a reason to stay in what becomes a rather dangerous and uncomfortable challenge.

Linda 09:35

I think part of the romance of the history of Delphi deals with death and certainly there are several points when Camilla and Simon are facing death and the stakes are that high. 

Suzanne 09:49

As a matter of fact, there's a scene where she witnesses someone being killed. I don't want to say a lot about it. You know, we don't worry too much about spoilers, but it's one of those scenes that it takes her by surprise. So for those who have not read the book or who have not read the book recently, I won't describe it specifically. But I will say it's really chilling. Stewart does a wonderful job of both making it credible – she’s good at writing scenes that have to do with death or murder or very extreme behavior while keeping them in the world of her stories, which are not thrillers, right? You know, they're not super larger than life thoughts. But in this one, there is something about being hidden away as you watch a murder happen. And the particular way that the murderer does it in a rather matter of fact, as well as callous way, that Stewart just it's an extraordinary scene. And I think it's one of the most powerful of the book,

Linda 10:46

I think so too. And part of it is just that matter of factness, with which he does it, you know, there's no malice, it's just, she has finished her usefulness to him, and no need to split any share of booty that he may come across with her. So she's disposable. 

Suzanne 11:07

Yeah, it's really powerful. And again, as a writer, I think that that's interesting, that there's many ways to write a good villain character, you know, whether he's a true capital V villain, or whether he's sort of a more mixed bag. And some of them you don't have to do almost with tamping down the emotion with looking at is this somebody who is killing out of some kind of passion, or as you say, This character is really killing out of convenience. It's sort of efficiency at this point for him. And I think that that makes him feel believable, in a way and it makes it interesting. It also, I think, is one of those subtle things that helps the book feel credible. Mary Stewart, you know, can write these things that in summary, I think the novels sound, if not implausible, certainly acts extreme. If you just look at the plots, their true romantic suspense plots, that they're sort of a mystery that's fairly dramatic. And yet Stewart manages to keep that feeling plausible. And one of the things that she does is, I think, very few if any of her criminals are sort of, you know, the Snidely Whiplash “Little lady, let me torture you to death.” She just does not. She's not extreme about that. They have many different reasons to do what they do. And they have many different personalities, but she doesn't – she never over-does the melodrama.

Linda 12:32

The other thing that I'm struck by is the contrast between the sort of stiff upper lip of the British characters versus the passions of the Greek characters. There's a scene where, you know, the grandson sort of implies he would have avenged his brother sooner if I'm remembering correctly. And I may not be, but the youngster, and I'm using the term loosely, but for his age, which is maybe late teens, possibly early 20s, he seems unfinished as an adult, he seems impulsive. He's caring of his grandparents. But he is of an age where he is sort of struggling, the contemporary and the ancient and young enough to still feel sort of ties to his home and his grandparents, but young enough to want an adventure, to want the fight. Whereas for Simon, it's not about the fight. It's about finding the man who killed his brother. And if he can, there would be a fight, but he really wants to find out the circumstances of his brother's death more than to avenge the death itself, at least in the beginning. I believe that does change by the end of the book when circumstances have changed, but initially sort of do feel that contrast between passion of the Greeks and the fabled sangfroid of  the British characters.

Suzanne 14:00

Yeah, they're much more reserved in terms of their not so much their emotions, but I think how they express their emotions, right, right, that Simon clearly has very deep emotion, he's going to find out what happened to his brother who died a while back when Simon himself was or felt relatively young, you know, too young to go and find out I also wanted to know that one of the wonderful things in the book is that in addition to Simon wanting to find out what happened to his brother, how his brother died, the brother Michael was very excited about something that is not explained. So there's a letter in which Michael, who again, is clearly is a character who's writing during the war. He's in the military, so he's not somebody to get unduly excited about a small thing. He doesn't say what it is, but that's definitely something that his brother want also wants to know is what was it that Michael found out or discovered, and for quite a while at first, we don't know. And then there's a suggestion, which is a plausible one from evidence that Simon uncovers, that it might have been some gold that was hidden away. But there's a bit of disappointment in a funny way on the part of both Simon and Camilla where they – I don't know, you know that Michael would be excited about money is a little bit disappointing. And I think it's really wonderful. That turns out not to be true. And I think what is discovered creates one of the most satisfying moments in Mary Stewart books. I think it's incredibly touching. It brings the book full circle, and it's setting full circle. It really does. Yeah, a wonderful surprise.

Linda 15:43

Yes. And the other thing about that is, it's very organic, the way it happens, there's nothing in this book for me that feels contrived or artificial. All of the actions that the characters take seem to be fully in keeping with the characters as they have been developed. And explain to the reader it's really interesting. I don't want to call it a MacGuffin because you do find it. And in most instances, when you talk about a MacGuffin, you never really see it, which in this case, you absolutely do. But it's almost like that scene in one of the Star Wars movies, when you find out that Darth Vader is Luke's father, it really makes you rethink everything up to that point. And that's how it was for me, like all the – I don't want to say all the clues are there, but you definitely get the feeling that by the time you get to the end of the book, it is a satisfying ending because there was no deus ex machina, there were no surprises out of left field for how things ended up, and the actions that all the characters take good and bad, are in keeping with their characters.

Suzanne 16:55

Yeah, I think you could say that Stewart here, and in her other novels, the denouement is not what you expected, right? But it's what you should have expected. Right? And that in any mystery-related form, that's what makes it satisfying that you are misdirected by the author to believe one thing, and you are surprised, but the surprise actually turns out to feel more plausible than what you believed all along. And I think that that's very satisfying. And I'll just say in closing, it makes a very nice contrast always to the fact that in a romantic suspense, you really do know, particularly in books of this period, maybe a little bit less. So with contemporary romantic suspense, you know the outcome of the romantic relationship is never really in doubt. You can identify the hero when he appears, so that is not suspenseful. So it's important that the suspense part of the story work, or else you really don't have much surprise in the book.

Linda 17:54

Right. Well, thank you. I think this was a really fun discussion, and I thank you again for being on the Tart Words podcast today. 

Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart114. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.

Suzanne Fox

Guest

Suzanne Fox writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and works with authors to shape, publish and market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art (including that for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts) is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA Writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. Find out more about Suzanne at www.bookstrategy.com and www.societynineteenjournal.com.