What prompted you to enter the world of Holmesian fiction?
This is all going to sound rather silly. I was invited round to a friend’s house for dinner, and after dinner we started playing Cluedo. Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. Actually, it was the American edition, so there was no library (changed to a “den”) and no candlestick (changed to a “trophy”). But I digress. We started talking about detectives, and I mentioned that we all knew about Sherlock Holmes’ smarter older brother, Mycroft. But what about Sherlock’s smarter younger sister? We never know about her. So my reaction was to go away and write a story about her. And so the next day (I am pretty sure it was only one day) I sat down and wrote “The Odessa Business”, and put it up on Smashwords. It was liked by those who read it, and I thought, “That was fun”.
So the next day or the day after, I sat down and worked out how Isadora Persano came to be found stark staring mad, with a matchbox on the table in front of him, containing a remarkable worm, said to be unknown to science. That was an enormous amount of fun to write and it went up on Smashwords, and got rave reviews from friends.
I had a contract with Inknbeans Press to publish my short stories about older Japanese people, Tales of Old Japanese, and Jo, my editor, looked at these two stories, and told me if I wrote a third one, Inknbeans would take them and put them out as a book. So the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant came to be. The whole thing went incredibly fast. My Cluedo game was on January 2, and we had the paperback of Tales from the Deed Box of John H. Watson MD (my choice of title) out on Amazon by the end of the month.
Obviously, I’d always loved Holmes and ACD’s style, and had even written a couple of unpublished pastiches, as well as some advertising copy in that vein, but these were the first ones that I felt were good enough to show the world, and more importantly, that were entertaining, and not merely five-finger exercises in writing.
Were you a little apprehensive as to the reaction that your first Holmes book would receive?
To be honest, no, I wasn’t, other than the first-night nerves that any author feels when his work is viewed by the world. I had very little knowledge of the Sherlockian/Holmesian world outside the Canon. I knew of the Adrian Conan Doyle pastiches (I didn’t even know they were called “pastiches” in the jargon!) and had read them along with the Canon. I’d heard of House of Silk, but never read it.
So I had nothing with which to compare these stories, really, other than the Canon. I suppose that if they had been slammed by the critics or the readers, I wouldn’t have continued. I’d have told myself that writing ACD pastiches was not for me, and I’d have moved to other things.
Several successful titles later, do you think you have mastered the art of pastiche writing?
Define “mastered”, please. I am writing adventures which capture a certain nineteenth-century mood and style. It’s not quite ACD, but it’s close enough to deceive at a first glance. There are elements of ACD in my writing, but sometimes his Holmes comes up with some sort of aphorism or bon mot that mine can only just begin to approach. I do try to slip in one or two of these every so often, but I think I fall short most of the time.
My Holmes and Watson are described in greater depth than ACD’s. I don’t think I move away from the original characters, but I do see and expose different sides to them. My writing provides more 20th/21st century depictions of character than the Canonical descriptions, though I do hope that the characters themselves are firmly planted in the late 19th century. But I don’t give Holmes a sex life or anything like that. That’s not Canon.
One thing about pastiches – you must always give a reason why Watson didn’t publish the account of the story. Was there a political or social reason why the story remained in the tin box? Would it have embarrassed the Establishment? Was there a reason it might have embarrassed Holmes? Or even Watson? Or simply it was too slight a case to be considered (I’ve written two rather lightweight, and I think amusing, pastiches, which still manage to show off Holmes’ skills and his character)?
The reviews of your Holmes books are generally excellent, but does that mean you have a lot to live up to each time you begin a new mystery?
I mentioned character just now. Plot, of course, is the driver to each adventure. But the plots write themselves. What I mean by that is that I will usually start with the few canonical words that introduce an Untold, and take it from there.
I try to choose the right sort of names where they’re not given in the Canon (though ACD had some very strange names for some of his characters – Hilton Cubitt, for example – who was ever called Hilton in those days? Or Sherlock, come to that?). And most of the time, I become Watson when I’m writing. By that, I mean, I listen to the client’s story, I am puzzled as Holmes works his detective magic, and I am suitably impressed as enlightenment dawns.
Very often, when I start a story, I don’t even know exactly what the crime will be, let alone the identity of the villain. These things reveal themselves, sometimes at four in the morning, when I wake up and say to myself, “So that’s what happened, and why and how!”.
The style is the easy part. I have moved away from all the adverbs that ACD used, but still use a lot of tags (“retorted”, “replied”, “cried”, and even “ejaculated”). There are the odd inversions, and tricks of speech that I try to incorporate.
Above all, the devil is in the details. If Holmes and Watson take a train, it must start from the correct station, and that station must have existed at that time. Once I found myself stuffing three people into a hansom cab. I managed to change that before it hit my editor! A very tricky element is the social class structure of those days. How was a cook addressed? A parlour-maid? A scullery-maid? And were these modes of address different depending on the social class of the employer? This is something it’s almost impossible to research accurately, other than reading contemporary literature, which for the most part ignores servants, at least in a way that’s useful to my research.
So that’s what I have to live up to.
Is it easy to balance the demands of work with your multi-faceted writing career?
My work is writing, and I’m self-employed. Not all my writing is fiction, though. I write advertising and advertorial copy for a large international business magazine. There isn’t a lot of work from there in terms of volume, but it is very intensive and detail-oriented work. It pays the rent. There are also a few other small gigs, but these don’t take up a lot of time, so I have time to write, and to work on promotion together with Inknbeans. So the answer is, yes, it’s easy. And I write fast. My personal best is an 8,000-word pastiche in a day. If a short (7-8,000 word) pastiche is taking me more than a week to complete, then that’s too slow. It probably will bore the reader, as well. So throw it away and start again.
As you say, I don’t write just Holmesian material, but I consider myself a chameleon as a writer, capable of producing material in a number of different styles. I can actually write advertising copy interspersed with a pastiche, while attending to my busy Facebook feeds.
Like ACD, I would like to be known as an author with strings other than Sherlock Holmes to his bow. That’s why I’ve written a couple of contemporary thrillers, Leo’s Luck and Balance of Powers, as well as a 19th century science fiction novel, The Untime. I would love my pastiche readers to try these. The Untime would especially appeal to them, I think, written as if it had been translated from the French of Jules Verne (actually, some of the dialogue initially popped into my head in French, and I then translated it).
How do you write? In silence? At the same time of day?
First thing is that I write at home. I hate writing on a laptop, so the whole “Go to a coffee shop and ‘Look at me, I’m a writer’ thing” is out of the question for me. I find that pretentious, anyway. My working setup is a Mac mini with two 24” screens, a Happy Hacker mechanical “clatter-clatter” keyboard, and alternating between an ergonomic mouse, a trackpad, and a trackball. The software is Scrivener.
I usually work either in silence or with classical music (sometimes other genres). Music with words I can understand are out – that means French, German, English or Japanese – I don’t speak Italian, so most opera is OK.
I work when I can, but my most productive time seems to be any time after 3pm. A danger with being self-employed and working from home is that you can end up working/writing all day, and spending all day in front of the computer if you’re not careful. So I am pretty careful to stop work in the evening, usually about 7, and not work after that unless there is a real deadline to be met. But as I say, sometimes writing fiction is a whole-day thing.
I edit as I go along. My first draft is very close to being the completed adventure.
When writing Holmes tales, do you revisit the canon to soak up the atmosphere and re-acquaint yourself with Sherlock Holmes?
I write with both Annotateds (Baring-Gould and Klinger) beside me, as well as the Bantam complete for quick reference. I also have the complete Canon on my Kobo, which is searchable.
Do I revisit the Canon? Of course, but not as a regular part of the routine. I’m actually more likely to watch a Jeremy Brett adventure. My inner Holmes looks like Brett and sounds like either him or Benedict Cumberbatch. I have a cinematic imagination, though I watch very few films or TV shows, and seeing the Granada series, which come very close to the original Canon in so many ways, and add to it and sometimes even improve on it (heresy!), acts as inspiration.
By the way, I don’t read other pastiches. Not because I’m a snob or think I’m so much better than other writers, but because I’m frightened of accidentally borrowing ideas or even characters from other people. The last thing I want to do is to plagiarise, even though I’m writing pastiches.
I think I would make a good detective – or a good criminal. It’s generally reckoned that the two are different sides of the same coin. I am probably more Watsonian than Holmesian in character, but I can identify enough with Sherlock Holmes that he is alive in my mind and he acts in my stories without too much assistance from ACD.
How has living in Japan changed you, if at all?
How long have you got? Briefly, I always say that I can’t write contemporary fiction set in the UK. I left in 1988, and things are very different now. I suppose I have become more detached from the UK and see it more objectively. However, Leo’s Luck takes place in a sort of UK setting (though the society in which the protagonist moves is somewhat different from the typical UK society). It’s a black comedy/fantasy/romance or something. Not sure.
I’ve definitely become more tolerant of many things. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean I will automatically reject it. How does that affect my Holmesian tales? Not sure.
On the linguistic front, because many of my clients are Japanese, I am very careful about using words correctly. I remember one meeting where we spent something like ten minutes discussing whether “more than two years” meant the same as “over ten years”. So it’s made me a better writer.
What new projects are in the pipeline?
As far as Sherlock is concerned, I want to get up to 56+4. So far I am at 35+2. I think it would be disrespectful to do any more than the Canon.
At the time of writing (November 30, 2015), there are two new Sherlock Holmes books coming out very soon (like this year!). One is the Dispatch-box hardcover compilation. Eighteen adventures, two published by Inknbeans for the first time, and one for the first time ever in print. There’s also a collection of six adventures we’re calling 1894. It won’t even have my name on the cover. And a new pastiche for David Marcum’s new anthology (Volume IV).
Non-Sherlockian tales. I’m nearly through the first draft of a sequel to The Untime, which goes into an examination of madness among other things. Some Lovecraftian, some Wellsian, and some Verneian elements in this, which exist in The Untime as well.
There’s a novel which has remained unfinished for about three years, and it’s alternative history, dealing with Siberia and Mongolia in 1917-1920. The real-life mystery of how the Tsar’s gold got lost somewhere along the Trans-Siberian Railway started this one off. I really must get round to finishing Gold on the Tracks (same hero, Brian Finch-Malloy, a 1920s James Bond, as Beneath Gray Skies and Red Wheels Turning).
And then? I don’t know. I’ve left it too late to rival Edgar Wallace in terms of the number of books written and published, but maybe I can catch up with ACD.
One thing is for sure – without Inknbeans Press and the constant support of Jo and the other Beans out there, I wouldn’t be writing so much. Thank you. And sincere thanks to all those Holmesians/Sherlockians who’ve been kind enough to say nice things about my pastiches. Without your encouragement, I wouldn’t bother writing.
I'd also like to mention the Sherlock Ferret books. Like you, David, I have taken Sherlock Holmes into children's lives, but I've given him a fur coat and a tail. Watson has become a mouse, accompanying Sherlock Ferret in his adventures, and together with Lestrade, who is a rhinoceros (though he is not a very big one), they work to foil the plans of the nefarious Moriarty Magpie. People who see the paperback editions of these books usually buy them – Andy Boerger's illustrations are delightful, and seeing them online on Amazon doesn't do them justice. They've been written to be read by 7- to 10-year-olds, or read by parents to slightly younger children.
Thank you for your time, Hugh. We all appreciate bit very much
Go to Hugh's website HERE