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Life Between My Pages presents Rhys Bowen
October 01, 2009

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October 2009: Rhys Bowen

The Spooky House, The Queen of Swanley and Me

By Rhys Bowen

All small children live in pretend worlds. Writers do the same thing: we create worlds for ourselves and people them with characters from our imagination. Essentially I suppose we are just children who never grew up.

I certainly had an active pretend-life when I was little. I was a lonely child, living among adults with no other children to play with, so I invented pretend-friends for myself. My favorite pretend-friends were the Gott family. There were four sisters: Gorna Gott, Leure Gott, Googoo Gott and Perambulator Gott. (Okay so you can see I was already a weird child, or that I had no idea what real children were called). The Gott family had to come everywhere with us. My mother had to hold open shop doors so that four imaginary people could come inside. Places had to be set for them at the table. We played great games, the Gott sisters and I.

Then, when I was four, we moved to a big spooky house in the country—long hallways and creepy corners, great for hide and seek but hard on a child with an overactive imagination. I was always scared of falling asleep and constantly had bad dreams there.

It was outside a village amid orchards and again I had to amuse myself a lot of the time. My mother was principal of the local school, my father ran the factory, so I was the girl from the big house and the village children were wary of becoming too friendly with me. So again I slipped into my own universe. I was Patsy of the Circus, doing incredible stunts on the trapeze I made in an apple tree. Amazingly I never fell because Patsy wouldn’t fall. And I also became the Queen of Swanley, shut away from normal people in my tower. I’d look down from one of the upstairs windows and wave regally when people passed. When I went out on my bike, I’d give my regal nods, while in my head speaking the TV commentary, “The Queen of Swanley goes out to inspect her lands and the loyal peasants...” I suppose the local people thought I was quite batty.

It’s amusing now that the big spooky house and the Queen of Swanley have both played a role in my present writing career. I have always gravitated toward mysteries and toward the kind of books that take the reader to another time and place. Living in that old house certainly heightened my imagination of a dark side of life. My brother also swears the house was haunted, by the way, and he was only four when we moved away. And as for the queen of Swanley—I supposed I enjoyed being royalty, even if I was shut away from normal life. So I do identify with my current heroine who is a member of the royal family.

I was also born with wanderlust. My parents had never been travelers, but from early childhood I had a desperate longing to visit other places. When I was 12 my parents put me on a train in London and sent me to friends in Vienna. Imagine doing that with a 12 year old today! I’ve been traveling ever since.

Having grown up in this way—isolated, living in an imaginary world, it’s strange that I took so long to gravitate to mysteries. For a long while I wrote other things, until it finally dawned upon me that I should write what I liked to read—books with underlying suspense and puzzle but stories that also take the reader to another time or place.

And so my first mystery series takes place in the mountains of North Wales, where I spent happy hours with relatives as a child. Then I visited Ellis Island and knew I had to write about the emotions I felt there. So Molly Murphy became an immigrant who has to flee from her native Ireland and while she is on Ellis Island becomes involved in a murder. That of course led to her living in New York City in 1901—about which I knew very little. So loads of research and nine books later, I know my way around old New York pretty well. I chose a real house for Molly and I received an email from the current resident saying, “Do you know I’m living in Molly’s house?” How cool is that?

I love the research and immersing myself in another time when I write about Molly but I was also concerned about the darkness in the real world. I wanted to write the perfect escape novel—a literary version of Charade, in which the reader laughs, is scared and experiences romance—all with a touch of glamor. So I created Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the throne but penniless in the Great Depression. I happen to know quite a lot about Lady Georgie’s lifestyle, and not just from my childhood pretending games, because life among the British upper class hasn’t changed much over the years and I married into a frightfully posh family, complete with cousins with silly nicknames and stately homes. And of course, I was once a queen, so it’s easy for me to put myself in Georgie’s place.

At the moment I’m writing two books a year, one dark and multi-layered and one light and frothy. It’s a demanding schedule but I enjoy visiting both times and living vicariously amongst the royals in the 1930s. I even get to meet Mrs. Simpson! As to where I’ll go next—I continue to travel in real life and I have so many more ideas for books I’d like to write that I’ll have to live to a hundred and twenty.

Rhys Bowen currently writes two mystery series, the Agatha and Anthony-award winning Molly Murphy mysteries and the bestselling Royal Spyness series.

Visit her online at

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