L.J.M. Owen is the author of Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity, the first two in a series of nine novels. The series marks a new literary protagonist on the scene – Dr Elizabeth Pimms is a cat lover, foodie, introvert and, most importantly, an archaeologist in search of the truth. Both books follow a fascinating plotline with authentic archaeology that gives us an intriguing insight into ancient civilisations. Elizabeth Pimms becomes an ‘intermillennial sleuth’ and her investigations into the mysterious deaths of ancient peoples, mainly women and children, reveal much from the past – barbaric rituals including torture of children and mass sacrifice – as well as the more mundane aspects of life that we can all relate to thousands of years later. The Better Reading team spoke to L.J.M Owen about her journey of becoming a published writer, her book series, the research process and who would play Dr Elizabeth Pimms in a movie…
L.J.M. : A few Christmases ago my partner sat me down and said, ‘Enough. Please write it down. I’d like to see a draft by next Christmas.’
Apparently I’d been driving him – and many of my friends and family – quite mad.
For years I’d talked about wanting to write a series that was half Bones, half Midsomer Murders. I wanted to call it ‘Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth’ and tell the story of an Australian archaeologist/librarian who solves really cold cases. I’d describe the ancient civilisations, the magnificent libraries and the quirky characters that would feature in the series, but I hadn’t put a single finger to keyboard.
My partner’s plea played on my mind. Before I could attempt writing, though – not just one, but all nine books in my imagined series – I had to examine my motivation. Why did I want to do this?
At the heart of it, I had two main aims.
The first was a sense of wanting to give back. Like many bookworms, I spent most of my childhood escaping into storyworlds created by others. Then, as an adult, I continued to snatch an hour or two between book covers whenever I could. So I realised that I wanted to create another world for readers to escape to.
My second motivation, I was surprised to discover, was simmering anger. Over the years, reading one ancient history textbook after another, I’d noticed a distinct lack of chapters on women. I knew they were extensively documented in the original records, but for some reason women’s stories were mostly missing from modern accounts. So another impetus for writing the Dr Pimms series was that I want everyone to know about the incredible contributions women have made to human history.
That was motivation enough. I began by reading all the writing advice I could find from my favourite authors. I was particularly drawn to one anecdote from Agatha Christie, who talked about her fans routinely asking for: ‘A Christie for Christmas’. I dared to hope, very quietly, that one day I could produce a book a year just like Dame Agatha and deliver such entertaining reading that people might ask for ‘A Pimms for Christmas’.
My course set, I began to write. Back then, I was working full-time as a public servant as well as studying full-time. I swapped the study for writing and now it’s my all-consuming passion.
In late 2014 the first book in the series, Olmec Obituary, was drafted. I researched how to publish it, how to get my story to readers. Other writers cautioned me against going down the traditional publishing road, counselled me to avoid the endless rejection involved.
After a crash course in crowdfunding I launched a Kickstarter project in the hope of printing just 300 copies. I was ecstatic, but exhausted. Little did I know, the instant you launch a crowdfunding project you’re bombarded by people offering to ‘help’ you – for a fee. Five days into Kickstarter I received an email from Angela Meyer, a commissioning editor at Echo (an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Australia), saying that she’d seen my novel, it looked interesting and could I send her a copy?
I hadn’t heard of Angela or Echo, and at that point I was so hazy with fatigue I almost dismissed her email as another scam. But something in the back of my mind said ‘No, be certain, run it down.’
So I Googled ‘commissioning editor’. That checked out. Then I Googled ‘Echo Publishing’. That was also real. Then I Googled ‘Angela Meyer’. Jackpot! As I hadn’t intended to submit anything to a publishing company until I’d self-published at least three books, having my first novel picked up by a publisher after just five days on the internet was extraordinary.
The Kickstarter also met its funding goal, so I first delivered a limited edition run of Olmec Obituary in May 2015, then had it traditionally published with Echo in November 2015. Echo re-released Olmec Obituary in August this year with a gorgeous new cover. Book two in the series, Mayan Mendacity, was released just this month.
My dream of people asking for ‘A Pimms for Christmas’, it seems, may one day come true!
Your first book Olmec Obituary and your second book, just published, Mayan Mendacity, are part of a series of books featuring the fictional young archaeologist Dr Elizabeth Pimms. We understand you are planning nine in total – is that true and how do you expect the series to evolve?
Yes, there will be nine books in the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series. Before writing Olmec Obituary I plotted the main storylines for all of them. While each novel is a standalone archaeological mystery, there are storylines from Elizabeth’s private life that run from book to book.
In each instalment of Dr Pimms the reader will glimpse an ancient civilisation through the eyes of an historic figure. In Olmec Obituary the reader is introduced to the Olmec obsession with corn, fertility and the Great Ballgame in the story of Ix, a 3,000 year old female player of that gruelling and deadly sport. In Mayan Mendacity the reader sees the life of ritual, sacrifice and political intrigue of Lady Six Sky, a documented Mayan princess caught between the ancient Mesoamerican superpowers of Calakmul and Tik’al.
Over the remainder of the series readers will explore the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mongolia, Persia, India, China, Britain and Europe. I’ve already chosen the period of history, major archaeological finds, libraries and key historic figures that will feature in each book. There are also more long-buried family secrets to be revealed – and tasty recipes, of course.
As for Elizabeth, when we first meet her at the beginning of Olmec Obituary, she is a passionate archaeologist and Egyptologist. Her best friend describes her as ‘curious, intellectual, tenacious and secretive’. As her creator, I would add ‘a touch naïve’.
Elizabeth dedicated herself to the discovery of lost civilisations and ancient treasures from the age of four and, to begin with, doesn’t deal well with any deviations from that path. Aided in her investigations by her phrenic library, her inner sanctum of bookshelves, ever-changing fireplaces and her beloved cat Billy, Elizabeth has a growing sense that something is awry in her world, something she can’t quite put her finger on…
In your recent live interview with Better Reading you describe the series as ‘archaeological cosy mysteries’. Can you explain that a little more?
Picture the forensic science element of archaeology, as featured in the TV series Bones, crossed with the gentle sleuthing and cups of tea in Midsomer Murders. Now, set that story in a world of beautiful libraries, gardens and cats. That’s a close approximation of the Dr Pimms archaeological cosy mysteries. And, of course, there are plenty of bookshops, culinary exploration and historic trivia along the way.
I’ve had very positive feedback from readers of another well-known archaeological cosy mystery series, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, which has been reassuring. In one sense, I hope to bring the archaeological cosy mystery genre to a whole new generation of readers.
We understand that the two books so far are thoroughly researched and much of the archaeological content authentic. How did you achieve this and how do you go about your research?
Writing about archaeology was born from my own love and deep study of archaeology and ancient history. I have an honours degree in archaeology and biological anthropology (a broad field that includes human genetics and forensics) as well as a PhD in palaeogenetics (the genetics of past human populations). This means I’ve practiced most of the archaeological and forensic science techniques I describe in the books.
I also research each civilisation extensively. I have piles of academic tomes on the Olmec and Mayan civilisations, as well as folder after folder of papers, strewn about my study. I research everything I can on the politics, religion, art, architecture, food, writing systems and libraries of each civilisation as well as the genetics and physical appearance of its population.
For readers who are interested in finding out more about the ancient cultures featured in the series, I provide a list of suggested reading at the end of each book.
Who is the series aimed at mainly?
In my heart, as I write, I picture other bookworms like me reading Dr Pimms: people who work hard, who deal with challenges all day long, who long to escape into a good book.
Having said that, there are two main groups of readers who seem to particularly enjoy the series: mystery lovers and readers of older YA.
The first group consists of people who already love mystery fiction, be it historical mysteries like Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series or Lindsey Davis’ Falco series, forensic science crime fiction such as Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan series, or classic mysteries including Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series.
The second group consists of YA readers. Given that Elizabeth is an introverted, slightly awkward scientist in her 20s who is struggling with work, home and her love life, the series is particularly suitable for readers aged 16 to 22. As the series is cosy – meaning there’s no swearing or sex scenes – it’s also suitable for younger readers who are keen on mysteries with strong female protagonists.
As the majority of avid readers know, though, more than half of the people who read books labelled ‘YA’ are older than the category suggests. I think there’s an honesty, a freshness and a sense of hope to be found in YA literature that is often absent from fiction written for older adults.
So I’d say that the Dr Pimms series is for readers of any age who are looking to escape the everyday by diving into a world of ancient murder, family secrets and really good food.
Could you compare Dr Elizabeth Pimms with any other literary protagonist? Who would play her in a movie of the series?
If you can picture a woman who is half Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters’ intrepid archaeologist) and half Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reichs’ passionate forensic anthropologist) with an Australian twist, that’s Elizabeth. Dr Pimms may be younger than both Amelia and Temperance but already she shares their drive, intellect and hunger for the truth.
Despite Elizabeth’s Grandmère Maddie constantly comparing her to Miss Marple, though, Dr Pimms doesn’t share the razor-sharp insight into human psychology of Agatha Christie’s iconic female sleuth. Not yet.
My number one pick for an actress to play Elizabeth in a movie version of Dr Pimms would be Katie Elin-Salt [pictured, left]. The moment I saw a photo of Katie it was as though Elizabeth had stepped from my mind and onto the screen.
Katie has Elizabeth’s enormous Welsh green eyes and her mix of intelligence, quirkiness and zeal. Although Katie is has a lighter build than Elizabeth (I imagine Dr Pimms as an Australian size 12), and Elizabeth has the darker colouring of her Chinese and French-Berber grandmothers, I can easily imagine Katie with Elizabeth’s huge, unruly mop of wavy brown hair in her hieroglyphic-covered pyjamas, sipping apple tea and Skyping with Henry as they solve the mysteries of the ancient world.
Katie is also a passionate anti-domestic violence activist and an open, collaborative person so she would be a perfect fit for the spirit of the Dr Pimms series.
We met up with L.J.M. Owen in Canberra! Watch our live interview here.