By: Lizzie Howie
As a well-travelled, trained archaeologist and qualified librarian with a PhD in palaeogenetics, there is no doubt that L.J.M. Owen is a fascinating (and accomplished!) woman, who is also incredibly lovely to speak to. With two novels under her belt, she can also add ‘author’ to her list of achievements. Her most recent being the second instalment in the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series, Mayan Mendacity, which hits shelves this November.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series? What was the initial spark or seed of inspiration for the story?
Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth is a new Australian crime fiction series with cosy mystery sensibilities. It’s the journey of Dr Elizabeth Pimms, archaeologist/librarian, solving ancient mysteries from across the globe with plenty of forensic science, culinary exploration and historic trivia along the way.
Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity are the first two books in a planned series of nine. Each novel is a standalone archaeological mystery akin to lighter works from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, where the reader pitted their deductive reasoning skills against the fictional sleuth of the hour. There are also story lines from Elizabeth’s private life that run from book to book.
So far the majority of the modern story has been set in Canberra. As the series progresses Elizabeth will also be ‘on location’ in Cairo, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing and various European capitals. My days as a vagabond observing the sights, sounds and smells of cities across the world will finally pay off!
Each instalment of Dr Pimms provides insight into 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 through the story of Ix, a 3,000 year old female player of that gruelling and deadly sport. In Mayan Mendacity the reader will glimpse 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 Crete.
My original inspiration for creating Dr Pimms was a sense of wanting to give back. I’ve gained much in my life through reading, by stepping into storyworlds crafted by others, so much so that I wanted to provide another storyworld for readers to escape into.
I’ve incorporated archaeology, forensic science and libraries into the series because they’re my passions—I have qualifications in all three. I’ve woven in food and cats, and adopted a cosy crime setting, because these are things that bring me comfort. I also write about women in history and women in science because I want our society to know the names of its ancient female leaders, inventors, architects, philosophers and mathematicians. I want to hear the names of women scientists grace our lips as readily as those of male researchers.
Through a combination of all these loves and interests the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series was born. My hope is, ultimately, that the Intermillennial Sleuth chronicles will become a place of refuge for readers.
It’s always wonderful to read stories set here in Canberra—can you tell us a little bit about this connection?
Going by the maxim ‘you should write what you know’ it made sense to draw on my experience of the Canberra cityscape, institutions and culture as a major component of the Dr Pimms storyworld. I also wanted to show how exquisite Canberra can be. I adore our seasons: the intoxicating leaf colours in autumn; snow-capped mountains in winter; avenues of bright green oaks in spring; the glittering Lake Burley Griffin in summer. I’ve tried to feature the beauty of our city, to highlight the lives of ordinary Canberrans who have little or nothing to do with interloping politicians.
I stress, however, that Dr Pimms’ version of Canberra is fictional. While the Mahony Griffin Library is solidly based on the National Library, with the same striking marble foyer and glorious stained-glass windows, there’s a far higher likelihood of discovering a corpse in Elizabeth’s universe. The intermillennial sleuth’s skeletal analysis laboratory is also fictional, an amalgam of a real one at the ANU and elements from my visits to Oxford and Durham Universities.
Some settings in the series are true to life though. Beyond Q, Canberra’s only underground secondhand bookshop, the orangutan-occupied Canty’s Bookshop in Fyshwick, the National Botanic Gardens, and Queanbeyan’s Benedict House have all featured so far…with plenty of recognisable locations to come.
You originally self-published a limited Kickstarter edition of Olmec Obituary, which got picked up by Echo publishing, can you tell us about this journey?
In December 2014, to the strains of The Beatles’ Paperback Writer, I launched a project on Kickstarter to raise $10,000 for an initial print run of Olmec Obituary. I’d heard demoralising stories of manuscripts languishing for years in the traditional publishers’ collective slush pile, so I chose self-publishing.
Five days into the Kickstarter I received an email from Angela Meyer, the commissioning editor at Five Mile Press/Echo, saying that my novel looked interesting and asking if she could see a copy. Now, as soon as you launch a crowdfunding project you’re bombarded by people offering to ‘help’—all for a fee, of course. I hadn’t heard of Angela or Five Mile Press at that point. I was hazy with exhaustion and almost dismissed her email as another scam. But something in the back of my mind said no, check it out, run down the company and the person who’s emailed you.
So I Googled ‘commissioning editor’. That checked out. Then I Googled ‘Five Mile Press’. That was also real. Then I Googled ‘Angela Meyer’. Jackpot! I suspect my happy dance that day looked something like Chandler from Friends meets Elaine from Seinfeld, so it’s probably best that there were few spectators.
I hadn’t intended to submit to a publishing company until I’d self-published at least three books, so to be picked up by a publisher after just five days on Kickstarter was extraordinary. The intense pressure of the Kickstarter itself also paid off and the project reached its financial goal. So I delivered a limited edition Kickstarter run of Olmec Obituary in May 2015 and then the Echo edition in November 2015, accumulating a sleep deficit well north of 2,000 hours in the process. Echo, now an imprint of Bonnier, re-released Olmec Obituary in August this year with a gorgeous new cover designed by Josh Durham. Is it wrong to fall in love with your own book covers?
Your second novel in the series, Mayan Mendacity, is soon to be released (November 2016!). What can readers expect from Dr Elizabeth Pimms?
This time Elizabeth is presented with a set of skeletal remains recovered from the bottom of a cenote (sacrificial well) on a Guatemalan island. There are, sadly, many tiny bones as well as remains that show signs of torture and extreme injuries. In her efforts to decipher the meaning behind the bones, Elizabeth encounters crystal skulls, an intruder in her phrenic library and an enraged colleague. With the aid of her motley crew, including a Canberran map enthusiast, a Queanbeyan geneticist, and a New York foodie, Elizabeth attempts to solve mysteries both ancient and personal.
Elizabeth herself is still curious, tenacious, introverted and slightly awkward. Life is throwing one challenge after another at her and as she rises to meet them she is learning more about herself. There’s a nebulous sense that something is awry in her world, though, something she can’t quite put her finger on…
As with Olmec Obituary, the archaeology, ancient history, forensic science and library services described in the book are based on deep academic research. Mayan Mendacity explores the society of the ancient Mayans of Guatemala, including their political system, female rulers and practice of human sacrifice. With a warm, cosy setting in modern-day scenes that feature Elizabeth’s multicultural family and their rambling home, both books are suitable for new adults and up.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with aspiring writers?
Seriously, just do it.
I thought about writing this series for years. I had plot ideas, I could see the characters and the storyworld. Yet I did nothing. Not a single finger to keyboard.
Finally, one Christmas, someone sat me down and said they wanted to see a draft of something by the following Christmas. No more delays, no more excuses, just get on with it. That was enough for me to take up the challenge. That’s when I started researching how to write fiction and, five years later, here we are.
For years I had ummed and ahhed, wondered if I could do it, wondered if it would be good enough. In the end the answer was yes. Yes, I could do it. Yes, you can do it. And it will be good enough if you put the work in.
That’s my advice to aspiring writers. Start writing. Ask questions. Go to courses. Learn to edit your work. The sooner you start the sooner you’ll hold your completed novel in your hands.
Dr L.J.M. Owen escapes dark and shadowy days as a public servant by exploring the comparatively lighter side of life: murder, mystery and forgotten women’s history.
A trained archaeologist and qualified librarian with a PhD in palaeogenetics, L.J.’s Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series has been described as ‘the thinking person’s cosy mystery’.