Susan Elizabeth George was a high school English teacher in southern California when she sold her first murder mystery in 1988, the award-winning A Great Deliverance. It was the first of her seventeen best-selling mysteries, set in England and starring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley. The BBC adapted the Lynley books for television, a series that airs here on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.
Lured by the sense of place she so loves in literature, George moved north to Whidbey Island, where she now lives with two dachshunds and her husband Tom. She recently launched the first in a series of young adult novels set near her home in Langley.
Valerie Easton: What book is lying open on your nightstand right now?
Elizabeth George: I'm reading Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton. So many of Wharton's books are out of print, and I love her. Any time I see a new printing of an old Wharton, I snatch it up.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends?
I was blown away by Broken Harbor, a psychological crime novel by Tana French. Her earlier book was Faithful Place and I felt likewise about it. She's an Irish writer with an incredible sense of place.
Do you tend to buy books or get them from the library?
I almost always buy books. I don't do ebooks. I have an enormous to-be-read collection on one of those turning library tables. All the shelves are filled and the top of it has four stacks of books on it as well.
What were your most cherished books when you were a child?
I adored the Anne of Green Gables books. I adored Anne. The sense of place was remarkable and I went to Prince Edward Island a few years ago specifically to walk in Anne Shirley's footsteps. Now that's a series that had an impact on me.
Can you name a favorite childhood book that influenced you?
It would have to be To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read first as a twelve-year-old and have read at least ten times since then. My mom once asked me when I was going to stop reading that book. I said, "As soon as I stop learning something from it."
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?
I think I just answered that….Jane Austen's books are also in this category, though. Particularly Persuasion, which is my favorite of her novels.
Are you a fast or slow reader?
I'm probably a medium-speed reader. I read four books in a week recently, but that's because I was on a journey to Ohio and had lots of time to read in airports and on the plane.
Do you write in the margins/take notes?
Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?
I read mostly fiction but I do love excellent non-fiction as well. I was completely mesmerized by Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, for instance. I loved Thunderstruck and Isaac's Storm by Erik Larsen.
Do you read other genres besides mystery?
Indeed. I rarely read mystery at all. I do read crime novels occasionally. I also read thrillers, mainstream fiction, Pacific Northwest writers, modern British literary and commercial writers, and anything else that takes my fancy.
What’s most important to you in a book? Humor, plot, characters, setting?
For me, characters are incredibly important, but so is place. I love novels that make place real.
When and where do you settle down to read?
Because of my workload, I read in the early morning on the exercycle and in the evening before I go to bed. I also get up really early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and sit in the rotunda of our house that overlooks Saratoga Passage. I like to start while it's still dark and read while the sun is coming up.
How many books do you usually have going at once?
What mystery authors/titles have most influenced your work?
The number one book that influenced me was a book by Margery Allingham called Traitor's Purse. The hero detective Albert Campion wakes up with amnesia, forced to depend upon others. I found that so much more appealing when the detective is shown as a vulnerable human being.
You recently published your first Young Adult title. Did you read any great YA books when you were researching The Edge of Nowhere?
I really enjoyed several books by John Green, particularly Looking for Alaska and The Fault in our Stars.
You just finished up writing two books – can you tell us the titles and when they’ll be published?
The 18th Lynley novel is currently titled Just One Evil Act, but my editor might recommend a different title. The young adult novel is The Edge of the Water. The Lynley novel will be out in autumn 2013 and the YA will be out in January 2014.
Of the books you’ve written, which one is your personal favorite?
Missing Joseph. It was an enormous stretch for me, because it’s largely a meditation on motherhood, and I’m not a mother.
What book do you plan to read next?
Hillary Mantel's new book Bring up the Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall.