- Writing Historical Crime Novels:An Interview with Jenny White
JENNY WHITE HAS WRITTEN A SERIES OF PAGE-TURNER, historical crime novels that capture the political and social upheaval of the late Ottoman Empire: The Sultan's Seal (W.W. Norton, 2006); The Abyssinian Proof (W.W. Norton, 2008); and The Winter Thief (W.W. Norton, 2010). Her protagonist, Kamil Pasha, is a Western-trained Istanbul magistrate who exposes a variety of threats to the empire. White, a professor of social anthropology at Boston University, effectively evokes the vibrant cosmopolitanism of a dying empire. Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed White in April 2010.
I'm intrigued—and probably more than a tad jealous—that a tenured professor of anthropology at a major research university has written three very successful historical crime novels. What prompted you to write historical crime novels? And is it difficult combining these two careers?
I have always considered myself to be a writer. I write about observations made during my field research, and I write stories from my imagination. Good anthropological writing also tells a story, but one based on factual data and analysis.
Since I was a child, I've wanted to write fiction, and I compulsively filled notebooks with story ideas and word sketches. But I was also fascinated by science, particularly social science. I ended up pursuing the latter as a career partly because I had a clue as to how to go about it (go to graduate school, get a Ph.D., apply for a teaching position). I didn't know how to get fiction published. I pored over the Writer's Digest, but it seemed an impenetrable world to me. Both career paths use similar skills—research, close observation, pulling a coherent story out of the messiness of daily life. While teaching anthropology and doing ethnographic research and writing, I continued on the side to write poetry and kept up my notebooks. I started a few novels, but never had an opportunity or the time to finish writing one.
When I got tenure at Boston University, I had written two scholarly books, and I felt the need to do something different. One day out of the blue I just started writing The Sultan's Seal. I was walking around Jamaica Pond and the words popped into my head. I didn't have a pen with me, so I ran home to write it all down, and kept writing. By then I had reconnected with an old friend in the Boston area who was a novelist and she took me by the hand and walked me through the process of finding an agent and getting a novel published. And to my great surprise and joy, it worked. I hadn't expected that they wanted more, but now three Kamil Pasha novels have stepped out into the world. I'm back writing a scholarly book again—on Turkish nationalism—but I do admit it's more fun to just make things up.
I have, however, done a lot of research for the novels, which are all set in 1880s Istanbul. The physical setting and historical events and characters are as close to life as possible. This has taught me a lot about Turkish history, which deepens my appreciation for and understanding of the present. So one "career" feeds into the other in productive ways. My colleagues have been very supportive, and they shared my joy at publication. The department has a custom of framing faculty book covers whenever a new book comes out, and they framed and hung my novel covers to go along with the scholarly ones on the walls.
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While I want to keep the focus of our conversation on your historical crime novels, I don't want to dismiss your scholarship. So would you speak briefly about your work as an anthropologist?
I've been engaged with a number of projects over the years. I spent two years in Istanbul in the 1980s working on my dissertation. I was intrigued by the economic transformation that occurred when...