David Marcum first discovered Sherlock Holmes in 1975, at the age of ten, when he received an abridged version of The Adventures during a trade. He is the author of "The Papers of Sherlock Holmes" Vol.'s I and II (2011, 2013), "Sherlock Holmes and A Quantity of Debt" (2013) and "Sherlock Holmes - Tangled Skeins" (2015). Additionally, he is the editor of the three-volume set "Sherlock Holmes in Montague Street" (2014, recasting Arthur Morrison's Martin Hewitt stories as early Holmes adventures,) and the massive three-volume "The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories" (2015). He has contributed essays to the "Baker Street Journal", "The Solar Pons Gazette", and "The Gazette", the journal of the Nero Wolfe Wolfe Pack. He began his adult work life as a Federal Investigator for an obscure U.S. Government agency, before the organization was eliminated. He returned to school for a second degree, and is now a licensed Civil Engineer, living in Tennessee with his wife and son. He is a member of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London,
You have been editing the MX short story collections Vol’s 1-3, which have received great reviews. Tell us about the selection process.
First of all, thank you for asking me to participate in this interview. I’m really excited about the three books in the new Holmes anthology, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, and this is a great chance to share some about it.
When I first had the idea for this anthology, I had no idea how big it would become, and all in less than a year. Back in January 2015, I literally popped awake early one morning, having just had a vivid dream about having edited an anthology. I could see it, and the idea was fully formed in my head. If I’d gone back to sleep, it would probably have never happened. But I got up started thinking more about it. I emailed MX publisher Steve Emecz to see what he thought, and he liked the idea, so I began to contact some Sherlockian authors that I knew and liked.
Initially, I pictured a book of about two-dozen stories at most. I certainly didn’t know that this would become the largest collection of new and traditional Holmes tales ever assembled at one time. I started reaching out to pastiche authors that I’d either met in person or by email, as well as some that I didn’t know. The response was overwhelmingly positive. These authors suggested others, and I invited them as well. Steve and I were trying to decide how big of a book this was going to be, since it was still only going to be one volume then, when word got out about the project, and still more people became interested. We decided to expand it to two volumes, which was not how I originally pictured it. But I realized that more volumes would mean more new Holmes stories to read, and how could I say no to that? When even more people offered stories, it was easier to go to three volumes. Still, I think of it as one big book, just in three parts.
How did you set about collecting the stories from so many writers? Were they specifically invited to participate or was there a general appeal via social media, etc.?
There was never any general call for stories on social media. Part of that is because I’m not much for social media, to the consternation of publisher Steve Emecz. I write a lot of emails to people, but I take so much time over them – editing, punctuating, revising, and so on – that they end up more like letters, and they’re quite long all on their own. I’m really only on Facebook because it became necessary when putting together the anthology, and I don’t spend tons of time there.
Anyone that is involved in this project is here because I invited them, or they were suggested by someone else already involved. I didn’t want to issue a general call for stories because I was so strict about the types of stories that I would accept – traditional Holmes only, set in the correct time period, and no non-Canonical aspects, such as vampires or major character deaths, absolutely no “Sherlock and John”, and no other Alternative Universe twists. If there had been a general invitation, I would have had to read a lot of stories that I wouldn’t have accepted – and I already had my hands full reading and editing all 63 stories that did make the cut, along with some others that didn’t.
Can we expect to see more collections in the series?
I’m currently editing stories for “Part IV – 2016 Annual”, which should appear in May 2016, and also “Part V – Christmas Adventures” for late 2016. And I already have several stories promised for “Part VI – 2017 Annual” as well! The word “Annual” is certainly meant to indicate that this project will go on as long as there is interest. So far things look very promising!
Part IV is planned to be out in time for the opening of the Stepping Stones School at Undershaw, one of Doyle’s former homes. I should explain – if people don’t already know – that the author royalties for all of these books and stories are being donated to the Stepping Stones School for special needs children. It’s located at Undershaw, which is where Doyle lived when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The house is currently being remodeled, after being nearly ruined over the years by former owners and then abandonment. The response from the authors contributing to these collections has been amazing, both in the quality of the stories that they came up with, new for this collection, and also for their generosity in donating their royalties to be a part of something so special.
You are a noted writer of Sherlock Holmes pastiches . . . how did that come about?
Thank you for that saying that I’m “noted”, although I don’t know how true that is. I’ve certainly wanted to contribute to the Sherlockian world for a great part of my life, and since I’m a Missionary for The Church of Sherlockian Pastiche, this is my way of doing so.
I’ve been reading and collecting literally thousands of Holmes stories since I was ten years old, in 1975. I read a lot of other things too, but I’m also always concurrently reading a Holmes adventure as well. Soon after I found Holmes, I received Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, and I yearned to be part of the group of experts listed in the Bibliography who had contributed to the World of Holmes. Back in 2008, I was laid off from my job as a Civil Engineer, and realized that I’d never have a better opportunity to try and write something and add to the Great Holmes Tapestry. I had an ambitious idea for a story, “The Adventure of the Other Brother”, but I felt that I wasn’t ready to jump in that deeply, so I wrote a practice story first, “The Adventure of the Least Winning Woman”, to see if Watson would speak to/through me. Then, as now, I don’t write with an outline. Rather, I just start listening to Watson, and then transcribing what he says, finding out the mystery and solution as we go along.
I ended up with nine stories, including “The Other Brother”, the one that had intimidated me to begin with. And then . . . I did nothing with them for a while. I printed them out on 8½” x 11” sheets of paper and put them in a binder with the rest of my Holmes collection, and there they sat for a couple of years, known only to me.
In 2011, I finally let a few people read my stories, and they liked them, and I got the bug to let others read them too. I initially contacted George Vanderburgh with the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, a publisher with whom I’d had some dealings, and later that year he published all the stories as a book, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes. Then, in 2013, I got in contact with Steve Emecz at MX, and we arranged to republish that book for a larger audience, but now dividing it into two volumes. Since then, it’s also been published as a re-combined hardcover, a Russian edition, and a planned edition (someday) in India. Additionally, I wrote two scripts from two of the stories that were broadcast nationwide as part of Imagination Theatre’s “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”.
After that book, I wrote a novel, Sherlock Holmes and A Quantity of Debt (2013), and another book of short stories Sherlock Holmes – Tangled Skeins (2015). The latter was named by Randall Stock of the Baker Street Irregulars as one of the five best Holmes fiction books of 2015 on his famous yearly Christmas list.
What are particular pitfalls to avoid when writing Holmes pastiches in your opinion?
As I said, I’ve been reading and collecting thousands of Holmes stories for the last forty years, and I’ve made extensive notes on all of those adventures. I maintain a Chronology of both Canon and pastiche, fitting stories into it by day, breaking them down by chapter, page, or even paragraph. By seeing the entire lives of Holmes and Watson this way, and not just by looking at the pitifully few 60 stories of the Canon, or just a few pastiches, I get a sense of the big picture, and I often see the same big mistakes jump out.
I always play The Game, that fine old tradition where Holmes and Watson are treated as real historical figures. Therefore, I like it when someone who is writing a pastiche does the same. That means we’re writing about people who were born in the 1850’s, and NOT the 1970’s. Just because some modern shows have characters with Holmes and Watson’s names does NOT mean that those characters are about Holmes and Watson.
If one reads the Canon, Holmes and Watson NEVER call each other “Sherlock” or “John”. Holmes is not a barely functioning sloppy drug-addict with Asperger’s Syndrome who can only survive through Watson’s constant attentions. If you are going to write about the true Holmes, play The Game and treat them as real people, not caricatures. Verify historical facts, such as who is the Prime Minister when a story is set. Do your research and don’t make assumptions. For instance, it always drives me crazy when a story that is set in the 1880’s has Watson already publishing in The Strand Magazine, which did not even come into existence until 1891, just in time for “A Scandal in Bohemia” to appear. If a story has Watson already publishing adventures in The Strand in the 1880’s, it’s wrong.
Hugh Ashton, who I interviewed recently, does not read other pastiches. Do you? (Obviously, allowing for the fact that in your role as editor you could scarcely avoid it).
I couldn’t NOT read pastiches. I’ve been reading them, collecting them, and intensely addicted to them for 80% of my life, so far. I couldn’t and wouldn’t stop reading them just because I’ve now written a few.
The most amazing thing personally for me about editing the MX Anthology is that I get to read all of these stories brand new, straight out of Watson’s Tin Dispatch Box, before almost anyone else. When I was putting together the first three volumes, I was the only one for months and months who had read all of the stories, and knew how good they were, and how much pleasure the readers were going to have. It was like having a big secret that I couldn’t share yet.
Do you set aside a certain amount of time each day to write or edit?
Unfortunately, no. If I were to win the lottery, I would probably have a go at being a real author, treating it as a real job, and working set hours each day. But instead, I have to find time here and there, and get geared up for the painful process of squeezing out a few thousand words.
I’ve read about authors, such as Jonathan Kellerman, who scribbled his first novel in bits in pieces while he was a doctor, and when he had a moment or two here-and-there between patients. I’ve never tried to write that way, but I don’t think it would work for me. I need a big chunk of time where I can throw the door open and let the words flow for a while. I don’t have any problem letting the words flow – as you can see from these long answers – but finding the time isn’t always easy, and it isn’t exactly painless either, so it’s a commitment every time.
Do you like to write in solitude and silence, free from interruptions?
As I’ve written elsewhere, when I write I go into a “zone” and I’m only vaguely aware of the outside world while the story comes out. I don’t have a real plan, and I transcribe what I’m hearing Watson narrate to me. When I come back a few hours later, I’m somewhat stiff and sore, all of my coffee is gone, and I have a few thousand words on the screen that weren’t there before.
I can generally write about 3,000-5,000 words in a sitting, over the course of a 2-3 hour period, and I can get a basic 8,000-word Holmes story down in a couple of writing sessions. Then, after I let it sit and percolate for a few days, I re-read it to improve the language, eliminate repeated words, look for loose plot threads, and so on – probably not that different from how other people do it. I have to write on a real keyboard though. I can’t use a laptop keyboard for some reason, and I certainly can’t write in longhand, since my thoughts (or Watson’s dictated thoughts) flow too fast for that. I learned to type when I was nine years old, and I’m pretty fast, so I can keyboard a conversation in a story just about as fast as they can say it.
Solitude and silence are definitely necessary. Our desktop computer is set up in our dining room. My wife and son leave me alone when I’m writing, but ideally I get up early and crank out a chunk of story while the house is absolutely quiet. I’m not a full-time writer, so I have the luxury of doing it when I feel like it, but I have to discipline myself to feel like it, since it’s a somewhat painful process. Still, there’s nothing like sitting down with nothing there, and coming back to the real world a few hours later with something that didn’t exist before.
There are probably more Holmes books being written than ever before. Too many do you think?
Never too many. When I was growing up, I was lucky to get a couple of new Holmes stories per year. Later, when I was in high school and college, I used to receive a couple of Sherlockian catalogs, and I would place one big order per year on my own, and then mark the catalogs for my parents and sister so they would know what else to get for me for Christmas. In the late 1980’s, when I was in my early twenties and started dating my future wife, she introduced me to a local bookstore that had hard-to-find Holmes items on the shelves, and I would snap them up with the proceeds from my first job. My wife is a reference librarian, so over the years she has showed me how to track down lots of Holmesian rarities.
In the 1990’s, I went back to college for a second degree in Civil Engineering and discovered the internet. That changed everything, from giving me access to fan fiction adventures (which I printed off as permanent paper copies if they were traditional Holmes stories – something that I still do to this day,) to finding new places to track down and purchase obscure Holmes books. Now it’s a rare day when I don’t add some new traditional Holmes pastiche to my collection. And I always read them, and add them to the Chronology. And I still want more!
Granted, the quality of these new Holmes stories is WAY up and down, but I try to look past the presentation, or even the grammatical and Canonical mistakes, to see the actual Holmes adventure. All of these current “editors” of Watson’s notes are accessing what I’ve described as The Great Watsonian Oversoul. Or maybe they’ve all just found different Tin Dispatch Boxes. Every new story that appears isn’t perfectly polished – after all, Watson, with the help of his Literary Agent, only cleaned up 60 of them for publication in his lifetime. The rest of these new stories might be rougher, and they might have some mistakes or inconsistencies in them, but the Watsonian essence is still there. To me, with that kid still inside who only got a few new Holmes stories per year, this is an incredible and amazing time. I’m not going to turn down a new traditional story just because it was free on a website, and not in a slick-and-shiny book that was on a shelf at a book store. What we’re living in is beyond a Holmesian Golden Age – It’s a Platinum Age to be a Sherlockian.
There is a great snobbery among some Sherlockians, wherein they won’t even consider reading a pastiche if it isn’t in a fancy published book from a big-name publisher, written by one of their pals in the same popular kids club. These people would never deign to look at stories from lesser sources, such as a shabby fan fiction. It’s too bad, because they’re only cheating themselves. Some of the very best Holmes stories that I’ve ever read were fan fictions from the internet, or in books or chapbooks or pamphlets from small publishers, and people who won’t be open-minded are missing an incredible assortment of great Holmes adventures.
If you could take five original stories from the canon with you to a desert island what would they be?
Ah, the always difficult question. I suppose I’d have to pick some of the favorites that I always enjoy the most when I revisit them: “The Speckled Band”, “The Copper Beeches”, “The Abbey Grange”, “Charles Augustus Milverton”, and The Hound of the Baskervilles
But don’t ask me why I like all of these, or I might write even more. This list might be different on a different day, or even an hour from now. And if I could pick some of my favorite pastiches too, then the list would become positively unmanageable.
And the future. What’s next for yourself?
As I said, I’m currently editing stories for the fourth and fifth volumes, but it isn’t as difficult this time around as it was for the first three books. Now, there are less stories – but still about two-dozen per volume! – spread out over a longer period before the deadlines, and Steve Emecz and I worked out all the formatting when we set up the first three books, so those issues aren’t hanging over me now like before.
I’ve completed (as of this morning) about 60,000 words of a new Holmes novel, and I’m also writing four new Holmes short stories, two for the next MX Anthologies, and a couple for two Holmes collections coming from Belanger Books next year. I have a lot of loose Holmes stories that I’ve written, now placed in various locations, and I hope to collect them into a new book in a year or so. And the other day I had an idea for yet another type of Holmes anthology, so I’ll see where that goes as well.
Through all of this, I’m still so fortunate to be able to read all these new Holmes pastiches that are appearing every day. I’m extremely lucky to finally be able to play in the Holmes sandbox that I first became aware of when I read Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, forty years ago. (Wow – where did that time go?!?) And I’m incredibly blessed to have met some really great people through this whole process, and I thank them so much for all that they have done through this whole process. You’re all great!
David Marcum can be reached for questions or comments at: