Laurie R. King
It was September, 1987, and her two young children had gone off to grade school.
“I sat down with the Waterman fountain pen I had bought on the Oxford high street the summer before and wrote on a canary pad the words, ‘I was fifteen when I met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.’ ”
From that moment on, King was a writer.
Nearly two decades and 17 novels later, King is the author of two mystery series – one featuring Mary Russell, partner to the great Sherlock Holmes, and the other focusing on San Francisco police detective Kate Martinelli – and four stand-alone novels.
On Sept. 19, her 54th birthday, King talked over the phone from her Santa Cruz, Calif.-area home about her career, about Arthur Conan Doyle, about Russell and Holmes (the characters featured in that first attempt at writing), her own interest in theology (she has a master’s degree in Old Testament Theology) and a number of other topics.’
King had agreed to an interview because her novel “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” was chosen for the 2006 Spokane Is Reading project.
An edited version of the interview follows:
Dan Webster: Congratulations. Happy birthday.
Laurie R. King: Made it this far.
DW: I have to tell you that I really enjoyed “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” I wasn’t sure …
LRK: (laughs) You weren’t really sure about it at first.
DW: I wasn’t, I wasn’t. And for a lot of different reasons.
LRK: That’s a common reaction.
DW: And why do you think that is? A common reaction among just men or among all readers?
LRK: I think all serious readers. You know, you get very leery of weird story lines. “Fifteen-year-old girl meets Sherlock Holmes, becomes his apprentice, later becomes his wife.” You think, “Ho-kay! This is a little too funky for me.” But I think a lot of really fine stories don’t boil down to the Hollywood one-liner at all well.
DW: I think for me it was a combination – and I don’t know, I’m sure there was some sexism in here somewhere – there was a combination of the ornate language, there was Holmes, the young girl and all this stuff. It seemed slow. But I said, “Look, you’ve gotta be patient here. Just keep going because this woman’s coming to town, this is an important read.” And then somewhere along the line, I can’t say for sure where, I got into it and then it just picked up. And I thought, “I love Mary Russell. She’s just the greatest thing, and she’s a perfect foil for Holmes.”
LRK: You know, it’s funny. I’ve just been thinking about this whole business of the difficulty of getting into something new and different. … I don’t know if you’re aware, but every year there’s big mystery conference called Bouchercon (the 2006 event was held Sept. 28-Oct. 1 in Madison, Wisc) … and on one of the panels that I’m on, one of the questions is about doing a series and exploring something new and how difficult it is. If you have an established set of readers – the Mary Russell readers, for example – how difficult it is to convince them that they would like to read a stand-alone novel. Or something from the other series. And it occurred to me that when I was a great fan of Simon and Garfunkel in high school, every new album they came out with I just hated – because it was different. It wasn’t the ones that I knew from before. So I would force myself to listen to it two or three times until I understood the language that they were using. And I ended up loving it. I think there’s a certain something in the human mind that is resistant to experiment. But once you get through there, and it becomes a part of the reader’s new set of language skills, you have success. It’s quite often that people will say, oh, “I didn’t want to read you, my wife said I had to read you,” or, “I was stuck on a boat somewhere and it was the only thing I could find to read.” Or something like that. “But once I read you I just loved you, and I read all the rest of them.” It is interesting how something that is not immediately appealing manages to sneak its way into your affections.
DW: Are you familiar with Nancy Pearl? She’s a librarian from Seattle who does interviews on Public Radio and she’s written a couple of books titled “Book Lust” and “More Book Lust.” She came to a literary conference here last year. She reads a lot, and she was saying, “Look, if a novel hasn’t grabbed you in the first 50 pages, dump it and start something else because life is too short and there’s so much good stuff out there. Well, it didn’t take me 50 pages with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” I mean, once I got into the flow of your language, of how you were using the language – which I admire greatly, by the way – it was a really intriguing read. Now, oppose that to … I still haven’t been able to finish Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” I’m halfway through the book and I’m going, “I still don’t know what she’s trying to do, I don’t understand the character, I don’t care about this spiritual crisis that this character is having.” So …
LRK: Yeah, I think the 50-page rule is a valid one because a lot of times I think there’s a rough beginning. But between the rough beginning and learning that author sometimes takes 50 pages. But I’d have to agree that if you’re still fighting with it at 50 pages, it may be one of those books you just sort of donate to the library next time through.
DW: Which is funny, because a lot of people may think the same thing about Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping,” but I love that book. And that may go back to what you were talking about concerning trying to hear a different voice from a favorite author and not wanting to go there. But I wanted to get to Holmes himself. Why do you think that Sherlock Holmes endures as a character?
LRK: You could call Holmes a modern-day archetype, which is a sort of contradiction of terms, isn’t it? I mean, an archetype is an ageless mental construct. But if you look at Holmes as a modern-day version of the sort of classic wounded healer, the shaman who has been through death to find life for others, it makes a lot of sense how absolutely central he is to modern awareness. I mean, you find Holmes in any society across the world. If you go to Papua, New Guinea, you’ll find people who recognize a silhouette of Holmes. They will know who you’re talking about. He is the person who is passionate about justice and righteousness and cannot be passionate about the human beings that are involved. He is aloof and involved. His entire reason for being is the solution of injustice and has sacrificed his entire humanity for that cause. So it’s interesting … I came to the Holmes stories as an adult. I had not read them as a kid, though everybody reads “The Speckled Band” in high school. So when I started writing the Russell stories in the late ’80s, as soon as I realized that Holmes was going to be a character in the book, I thought, “Hmm, it might be a good idea to know.” I went out and bought, I think, it was the two-volume Dover edition in teeny, teeny print. I don’t think I could manage the print now, but at the time it was nice and cheap. And I read my way through them. And it was a fascinating exploration because I had thought of them as being sort of high-class kids’ adventure stories. And instead of that, they are remarkably subtle. And some of the characteristics of Holmes really took me aback, this business of his passion. There are two or three places where it just bursts out of him and that really quite powerful – and unexpected. And humor. There are several passages in the stories that, especially if you have a taste for dry British humor, that take you completely aback and make you laugh out loud. These were things that I had not expected to find in the stories – and I think justify what I do with Holmes. Because Holmes, you see, is finished, as far as Conan Doyle is concerned, with The Great War. The Great War starts in 1914. Holmes’ last appearance is on the eve of that, in August of 1914. … And all of the stories written after … are all before the war. So when I come along and put him in motion in the middle of 1915, during the war, he is a man cut loose from his society. The Victorian society that he lived in – gas lamps and hansom cabs and all the rest of it – doesn’t exist anymore. So I have as raw material this man who has perhaps the most distinct personality of a fictional character that you could require, yet who is completely rootless because his society has been cut out from underneath him. So I give him Mary Russell.
DW: What was it that drew you to him in the first place. I’ve read that you just sat down and wrote out the first sentence, “I was fifteen when I met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.” But why Sherlock Holmes?
LRK: If you’re writing any kind of mystery fiction, Sherlock Holmes is always there in the background. There’s no way around the man even if you choose to ignore that form of mystery story and write a thriller or whatever instead. But Holmes is so much a part of the vocabulary of crime fiction that he’s always present. … The format of “Beekeeper,” of course is that you have an old woman looking back on her life, with the collected memoirs of Mary Russell. So if she’s starting out that old and is looking back at her youth, the early part of the century is where I needed to land. The Great War was a period that interested me, and when I realized that Holmes was a part of that, in a peripheral kind of way, it seemed to me that if you’re writing a detective story or series of detective stories, following at the same time a young woman’s growth as a person, that what you’re talking about is the training of a mind. And the mind of Mary Russell is, in effect, the mind of Sherlock Holmes. They have the same engine, as it were, driving a different chassis. This is an idea that interests me, and I’ve worked with it a couple of time in the first of the Kate Martinelli stories. I explore the same idea of what would a woman Rembrandt look like? … What would a 20th-century woman Sherlock Holmes look like? And because I think it more interesting to watch the development of that, we started with her very young. In “Beekeeper,” he age is 15 to 19.”
DW: I’ve not gone on to read any of the other books in the series, and so I’m shocked to hear that they get married.
LRK: There are two reasons for that. One, if you’re talking about a partnership between a man and a woman in the early part of the 20th century, it’s extremely difficult to have a societal form that would allow them to go off and do cases together.
DW: You make that clear in “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.”
LRK: You also have the fact that someone like Holmes, if he is forming a partnership with someone, it really is not imaginable that it would be a sort of partial partnership. This was always the problem between him and Watson was that Watson really wasn’t up to him. He was a valuable adjunct at times, but it was not a full partnership. If you have a full partnership for someone like Holmes, it seemed like a good idea that it would be full in all ways. It would be as much an emotional attachment as an intellectual one.
DW: It’s interesting. You play with the convention of fiction, period, by having Holmes, together with Russell, contradict almost everything that Watson has written about him. Which I thought was pretty funny. But I’m curious: Is that your way of trying to show that everything depends on a personal point of view?
LRK: I think in some way what I’m doing there is freeing Holmes from Conan Doyle because, of course, Watson is representative of Conan Doyle – the big, bluff, hearty, nonintellectual Englishman. And the fact that the two of them were doctors was not an accident. If you accept the notion that a fictional character such as Holmes has, to some degree, a life independent of his creator, then you can take that further, such as I have done, and question whether Conan Doyle really got it right. What I mean is, Conan Doyle was a devout spiritualist. He lost his mother and son, and he could never just accept that it was simply a loss and final. So he became someone who went around and spent his considerable wealth and dignity trying to convince the world that the spiritualists were not just a bunch of fakes.
DW: There was the case of the two little girls and the fairies (portrayed in the 1997 film “FairyTale: A True Story”).
LRK: Yes. He was so gullible and so earnest and he believed all this, but does he allow any of that to intrude on Holmes? Never once in any of the Holmes stories do you have Holmes saying that he believes that spiritualism exists. He has a couple of slightly romantic passages where Holmes says something about a vague, Victorian kind of concept of God, the divine. And another one where he has the little romantic side thing where he has a meditation of a rose. And those are really the only places where there’s anything remotely like a spiritualist attitude in there. Because Holmes is such a strong persona of his own that he resisted the artistic impulse, which must have been considerable, of Conan Doyle to change him. I mean, Conan Doyle, if he could have made Holmes a spiritualist, he would have done so. So I’m looking at this and saying, “OK, Holmes is his own person despite what Conan Doyle would have preferred to make of him. But what if I simply assume that he is his own person and that a lot of what we know about him is what we know about Conan Doyle rather than what we know about Holmes?” Which, as you say, is a very delicate balance. Because if you don’t want to say, “Conan Doyle got it all wrong. He didn’t understand it and this is the real Holmes that I’m writing here,” well, that way goes madness (laughs). But that’s not what I was wanting to do. I wanted to play with it, to tweak it gently, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Conan Doyle did with Holmes. He was just a superb writer. And the fact that his stuff is still in print more than 100 years later indicates that he had a profound touch of humanity. And I certainly would not want people to think that I have any objection to any of that.
DW: Well, you have your own background in spirituality.
LRK: Yes. Or at any rate theology. I’m not sure where you draw the line.
DW: Spirituality is one of those dangerous words. So, right, theology is much more exact. But that’s something beyond the realm of what I can sit here and touch, unless we’re talking about theological philosophy and so forth.
LRK: Oh, let’s not! (laughs)
DW: Do you try to infuse some sort of a sense of that in your books?
LRK: In some of them. Now, you won’t see much in “Beekeeper.” There’s a slight overtone in her meditation about going to Israel …
DW: Of course!
LRK: But not a lot.
DW: But enough. More than simply a passing reference. It is part of who she is.
LRK: Yes. Definitely the idea of her as an exploring Jew. She is raised to ask questions and that’s what she is rather than a believing Jew. Some of the other books that I have written are much more concerned with theological questions than “Beekeeper.” The second of the Martinelli books is “To Play the Fool” and concerns a modern holy fool in San Francisco, which where else would one put a holy fool? (laughs) And the first stand-alone I did, called “A Darker Place,” is about a woman who goes and investigates modern religious movements, i.e., cults. So there are a number of books that use theological ideas. The third Russell book, called “A Monstrous Regiment of Women,” is about a religious leader in London in the ’20s and how Russell becomes involved in her modern feminist church at the same time that she is coming to make a decision about her and Holmes’ future. You have these two threads that are coming together. You know, “If I marry him, I will become a different person than if I stay independent and become involved with this church.”
DW: What I find interesting is that you’re able to capture this character so well despite the fact that you have described yourself, at least when you were growing up, as “socially inept, physically awkward, excruciatingly shy.” Those three kind of go together.
LRK: Aren’t we all?
DW: A lot of us who spent nomadic childhoods grew up thinking of ourselves that way, even if that wasn’t necessarily what our character was always going to be. We went through that period. I mean, what do you hold on to? You don’t have any friends. Nothing endures.
LRK: I think that self-awareness is something that is why these Russell books are so appealing to girls of that age. I have a tremendous readership of girls between the ages of 14 to 18 who adore Mary Russell, who send me drawings, who talk about how she is sort of a role model. I’ve had three letters over the past year from young women who gone to Oxford because Mary Russell went there. This is the sort of thing (laughs), “Whoa, wait a minute! Let’s not build your entire life around this fictional character!” But it’s obvious to me that there is a limited amount of positive role models for girl geeks, for girls who are readers and who feel like they’re outsiders, that unless you go into the whole witch fiction, there’s not really a place for girls like I was growing up. I read a lot and I never had a lot of friends. So they have Mary Russell.
DW: And, of course, you say that you wish you’d had a book like that when you were that age. What were you reading?
LRK: Oh, I think I probably read everything. Anything my father would bring home. I can remember reading “Doc Savage.” Do you remember “Doc Savage”?
DW: Sure. Of course.
LRK: Biographies. I read a lot of science fiction when I was young. Because that was the classic period of real science fiction.
DW: And most of which was written by men. Although there were a couple, a few women sci-fi writers. But most of it was men and very male-oriented. The Robert Heinlein of the 1940s is a lot different from the Heinlein of “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
LRK: I actually prefer the early stuff where you just don’t have to write about the women’s stuff (laughs). When Heinlein discovered sex in the ’60s, he began to get these really bizarre books. He was much better before the ’60s came along and liberated him from himself (laughs). Our local university, the University of California, Santa Cruz, has a collection of his papers. He was a local guy. He lived in a town not too far from where I live. His widow a few years ago donated most of his papers and some money to help organize them to the university.
DW: How hard is it to resort to a completely different voice when you do the Martinelli books?
LRK: It’s kind of like what it must be to be fluent in two languages. I’m not, so it may be a poor analogy, but because they are so different I don’t find myself shifting from one to the other and going,” Oh, that’s not right.” The Russell books are, as you say, this very ornate, English English, and they’re written in the first person. They are a formal structure and vocabulary. They’re long chapters. The Martinellis are third person, American English, certainly not as ornate in language and much more straightforward storytelling with not as much peripheral reflection. So because the whole flavor of them is different from word one, I don’t tend to have any sense that I’m slipping into the wrong one. The thing that has interested me is that in the stand-alones, they seem to find their own voices as well. I don’t tend to write the stand-alones in the Martinelli or the Russell voice. They tend to have their own little world. The one that I’m working on now is called “Touchstone,” and it’s set in 1926, so you’d think that I’d get the Russell flavor in there a lot. But it’s not, partly because the character that I’m following is a bumbling American. It is interesting in that each book seems to have its own personality that catches me from the beginning and never really seems to get lost.
DW: How many Russell books have there been at this point?
LRK: There are eight Russells.
DW: And how many Martinellis?
LRK: “The Art of Detection,” which was published this year, is the fifth.
DW: How hard is it to keep a series going like that? Is there a logical ending point?
LRK: It’s something that writers talk about a lot. Should you just let a series go until everyone is just sick of it?
DW: Like Spenser (the long-running) Robert B. Parker series).
LRK: Well, yeah, OK (laughs). You mean the Spenser short stories. Have you ever done a word count on one of those books?
LRK: They are novellas at the most.
DW: You’re absolutely right.
LRK: One of the things that I find helpful is that I tend to alternate books so that I don’t write the same characters year in and year out. I can’t imagine writing 26 Mary Russells in a row. You’d just have to take me out and shoot me. But alternating a Russell and a stand-alone or a Martinelli makes it possible to keep my interest in what’s going on. But there’s also the question of each book itself and how to make each book itself different. … Three of the Russells are set outside of England. One of them is set in Palestine; it’s the expansion of the chapter in “Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” making it into a whole book. “Oh, Jerusalem.” And the last two of the Russells have been “The Game,” which was in India, and “Locked Rooms,” was in San Francisco. In “Locked Rooms” they’re in San Francisco of 1924, and I then bring that setting into a Martinelli. So that “The Art of Detection,” which came out this year, is a Martinelli book, but it has a novella in it – 100-page short story – that has Sherlock Holmes doing a case in San Francisco. It’s my first real Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It allows me to play with all kinds of things, including the idea that Russell and Holmes are real. Of course, this investigator who comes across this short story assumes that this is a piece of Conan Doyle fiction that has been brought to light. But if you are a Russell fan, you know it’s not fiction. I do have fun with my writing. I enjoy it.
DW: Sounds like it. How many stand-alones have you written?
LRK: There are four of those, three crime fiction and one science fiction.
DW: Am I counting 17, then?
LRK: I think that’s right.
DW: I’m a writer, not a math major. If I were a math major, I’d be making lots of money and not sitting here.
LRK: I’m glad you’re not.
DW: Actually, I’m glad, too. This is really actually the fun part of the job.
LRK: I should mention that if you want references for any of those, my Web site (www.laurierking.com) has a books and reviews page, and they’re all on there.
DW: OK. I was looking on it earlier. It’s really terrific stuff, especially the autobiography.
LRK: It was an interesting exercise, the idea of writing 10,000 words about yourself without being bored. Most of life is pretty boring and straightforward, but to work it around, “OK, where do these stories come from and what part of me links up with them?” was, I thought, kind of the interesting part. For me.
DW: It was “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” that they chose to feature for October’s Spokane Is Reading, so what ultimately would you like people to know before they tackle the book? Or should they just tackle it blindly?
LRK: (Pause) I don’t know what other books that Spokane has used for this …
DW: I can tell you. “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card and “The Girl in Hyacinth Blue” by Susan Vreeland.
LRK: It sounds like the Spokane people have come up with a good selection of interesting things. Quite often, book clubs tackle books that are meant to be serious, and this is why I couldn’t bear to read the Oprah books because she picked such dreary books. If anything, I like to reassure people that “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” is fun (laughs). It’s a fun book. There are a lot of things going on in it, but the serious ideas are incorporated within just having a great time.
DW: You know, the only author who didn’t come to Spokane was Charles Frazier. And nobody really liked the book anyway. So that was probably just as well.
LRK: It was one of those books that, when you get to the ending, you felt, “Well, why did you have to do that?”
DW: I threw the book across the room.
LRK: I had a lot of problems with the ending. I think a lot of times writers do that kind of thing because it makes their book feel weightier. And you think, no you don’t really need to do that. It’s not necessary. There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending.
DW: Didn’t Conan Doyle kill off Holmes at one point and was forced to bring him back?
LRK: Yeah, he had too many bills to pay.
DW: Let’s hope that never happens to you.
LRK: No, no, we’ll see. I think if you keep doing new things with each book, then the series can go on for quite a while.
DW: Do you have a ninth in the works?
LRK: Yeah, I’ll be writing it next year. I’m finishing a book now, working on the rewrite and probably by Christmastime I’ll start the new Russell and Holmes for ’08, I guess it would be. They’ll be going back to Sussex, in fact. They’ve been in India and California, so they need to go home.
DW: Well, I look forward to it. Thanks. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Have a great birthday.
LRK: Thank you.