Author Laurie R. King began her ingenious literary take on the world of Sherlock Holmes in 1994, centering on the retired crime-solver, now a country beekeeper who accidentally joins forces with the bright young Mary Russell. Three decades later fans of King’s award-winning Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series will gather at MAH for a celebration of 30 years of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. A rare opportunity to spend time with the prolific author herself, the event is loaded with talks, fun, games, demonstrations, and delicious catered meals—a day-long foray into the world of the intrepid mystery-solving duo. The weekend also launchesthe publication of The Lantern’s Dance, the latest Russell & Sherlock adventure exploring the 100-year-old puzzle of Sherlock Holmes’ ancestry. The Bookshop Santa Cruz launch of The Lantern’s Dance on Friday 7pm, February 16, and book talk with author Laurie R. King is FREE but requires advance registration.)
I caught up with the author, busy planning her whirlwind national tour for the 30th anniversary of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and over a cup of tea we revisited her literary odyssey.
GT: How did the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes stories come about?
LK: I don’t think I had read any Sherlock Holmes stories since high school when I started writing. But the Granada Television series with Jeremy Brett was on around that time. And I think I must have seen some of those because the character Holmes was in my mind in a way that he wouldn’t have been otherwise.
It seemed that he was a character who was given a huge amount of credit for doing stuff that in a woman would be just counted as female intuition. And I thought it would be interesting to play with the idea of what would that mind look like in a different setting? So instead of having the brilliant mind in this middle aged Victorian male, what would it look like if it were in a young female? A feminist obviously in a 20th century version And, and that’s where Mary Russell came from.
GT: At what point did you realize that you had something that clicked?
LK: When I wrote that first line, I found that her voice was there. My kids were at school and I sat down and wrote “I was 15 when I first met Sherlock Holmes.” And that voice really just stepped forward in a way that writers always hope that characters do. And they don’t always. But I was very lucky with Mary Russell. I could hear her from the beginning.
GT:: You let her speak in the first person voice.
LK: That was really necessary because you need to watch this young woman growing up into her potential. It just wouldn’t have worked in third person. They’re structured as memoirs. It’s also interesting because the limitations of first person are occasionally really striking. How do you let the reader know that there’s another point of view? Very awkward when you’re writing a mystery. How do you have the other character give information that only he knows? It’s much easier to insert chapters from his point of view. And that meant too that I could follow him as a character. We see what he’s doing and what he’s thinking and that allows him to develop in ways that he wouldn’t have.
GT: There are 18 books so far. Why is this series so popular?
LK: For one thing I think that a lot of women, especially young women, love the idea that Russell gets the better of Holmes. Holmes is this masculine icon of superior cleverness, and to have her outsmart him from their very first meeting, is deeply satisfying. It’s a way of thinking about what women can do. I didn’t have a young audience in mind necessarily, but from the beginning it had feet in both worlds YA and adult readers.
GT: Did you find it surprising that suddenly she goes from being the teenage apprentice to becoming Mrs. Holmes?
LK: I’m not an outliner. I don’t plan a story arc or a series arc, which means that somewhere in the back of my head something is keeping an eye on this stuff. Looking back I’m not sure I would have planned it. If it were set in modern times, it would be more difficult. The first World War turned British society on its head. A third of the young men in the country were either killed or rendered unmarriageable. And it meant that for a decade or so you had a lot of marriages that were not what you would normally find. My husband was 30 years older than I was and it never felt the least bit odd to me. We didn’t get together until I was no longer his student and so there was not any of that power dynamic which I think is the real problem of professor/student relationships. Not so much the age, as it is taking advantage of a situation. It neve felt odd to me to have my husband be 30 years older, partly because he was from India and as far as the things that were different about him, age was fairly low down on the list. [laughter].
With Mary and Holmes, they too have their differences, but age is not really part of that.
GT: Readers wanted them to be together, didn’t they?
LK: It had to be a partnership, and it just felt odd to me to have a partnership that was not a full partnership. And at the time, I think without realizing it, I was headed for reshaping Holmes.
Because, you know, he gets sort of the short end of the stick out of Conan Doyle, because he doesn’t really have any relationships. His main friendship is with a man who really is not his intellectual equal. Dr. Watson has many strengths but cleverness is not one of them. And he then gets to the First World War and Conan Doyle can’t see any place for him in British society anymore. So he retires him—just says he’s off, raising bees. And it just seemed like that was selling him short. Because you have this extraordinary mind. And you’re just telling me that he he couldn’t find a place for himself in the post war world? I thought that was unfair to Holmes.
GT: You currently work on other mysteries, including the Kate Martinelli books. Why jump from one series to another?
LK: I love telling stories, but I do find it difficult to live with the same characters year in and year out. If I were to do a Sue Grafton and write the same characters all the time it would make me crazy. I like to trade off. I’m very fortunate that my publisher is willing to let me do different things. It’s a two-pronged problem in having a successful series, in that publishers want you to that and nothing else. But I’ve never had them tell me I couldn’t do something. If I had to do only the Russell books I would go crazy, and then I would hurt my characters. [laughter]
GT: Do you actually enjoy the process of writing?
LK: I do, to some extent. If I’m not not having a good time, if I’m working away and all of a sudden I want to go clean the oven or something, it generally shows that there’s some problem that’s cropping up that Im not seeing. So I’ll go clean the oven and come back and read what I already have there and I’ll see ‘ ah! it’s taking me a certain way and that’s going to be problematic. For the most part I enjoy writing and exploring new things with the characters.
GT: Did writing mysteries save you from a career in academia?
LK:I think that if Noel, my husband, had not been on the brink of retirement, I might have continued on in graduate school. Instead I was a stay at home mom, because if you go away every summer with your academic husband there’s not too many jobs that will say oh sure we’ll see you in September. [laughter]
So with my kids in school I sat down and started writing as an experiment to see if maybe I could earn enough to supplement our income.Fortunately I sold the first book before I had to go out and get a real job. The first sale was actuallythe third one I had written, a Kate Martinelli book set in a contemporary San Francisco Police Department. And my then-editor at St. Martin’s Press said, well what else do you have? Mary Russell was there on the shelf and she fell in love with Mary. And I kept writing.
GT: And the next Mary Russell book?
LK: It took me about a month to feel my way around the situation at the end of Lantern’s Dance and find out where they were going. Eventually they have to go to England. The last several books have had a kind of subtext of her difficulties with his brother, who is something big in the Britis government—a spy master. And his power and his ability to manipulate things is creating problems in a number of ways. At some point there’s a confrontation that’s going to happen and I wasn’t ready for that. So I had to play around with other things, so I came up a more likeable character to work with.
GT: Have you ever thought of having them divorce?
LK: No, but I could see her murdering him! [laughter]
GT:: With this national tour with the 30th anniversary of Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, you’re still on the circuit?
LK: Yes, but I have the feeling this may be my last year. As you can see I use a cane and I have joint stuff. Travel is no fun. And the publishing world has changed.
When I started I had a conversation with the editors, asking what the would like me to do, and they said you just write the books and we’ll do the rest. And then there was a shift, especially when things went online and they expected authors to sell, and promote themseleslve and create a brand. And it was now on the back of the writers. Same with touring. I think there was over-saturation of book events, and under-participation of publishers. The old way of selling books just isn’t there anymore.
GT: What will we discover in the 30th anniversary events?
LK: We’ve put together four day-long events. Each of the four has elements of the stories that I basically know nothing about. So that’s why we’ll have someone coming in to teach lock picking.
The characters are really great at picking locks, but while I know the theory of it, but I’ve never actually done it. So we have a lock picker. At the one in D.C. we have a woman coming to show to demonstrate knife throwing skills, because Mary Russell, you know, throws her knife at various points. But can I throw? [laughter]
I’m a writer, what can I say. I lie for a living!