ROBERTA: Today Jungle Red Writers is positively elated to welcome Laurie King, author of nineteen novels including this month’s release, The Language of Bees. Laurie has won the Edgar, the Creasey, the Macavity, the Nero Wolfe, and the Lambda awards, and has been nominated for Macavities, Edgars, Anthony and Agatha awards. We could go on and on, but we’d rather hear from Laurie herself. Laurie, welcome, and let’s start with the new book. THE LANGUAGE OF BEES is the ninth installment of a series featuring Mary Russell, the wife of Sherlock Holmes. Please tell us how you came up with that amazing idea.
LAURIE: Thanks Roberta, for inviting me to be an honorary Jungle dweller. Mary Russell is what happens when a young mother (me, 20 years ago) faces the daily investigative demands of raising small children and thinks, Why did Sherlock Holmes get all the points for figuring stuff out? A woman looks at a kid with no appetite, sees the diminished cookie jar, knows instantly what happened, and at the most gets credited with “feminine intuition.” A man follows the same process, calls it deduction, and you have Watson standing there exclaiming, “Holmes, I just don’t know how you do it!” I thought it would be interesting to put that mind of Holmes (which, granted, is a superior model of mind) into another package—instead of a middle-aged Victorian male, a young, twentieth century, intellectually inclined female: Mary Russell.
ROBERTA: Since this series is set in early 20th century England, we’d love to experience vicariously how you get your facts right. What kind of research is involved?
LAURIE: Being a recovering academic, research is a dangerous project—although I can give it up any time, I swear! Information about a time or a place needs to be intimate to be of any use for a story—historical photographs are intensely flavored with their time, as well as giving detail of clothing and technology (although you have to be careful that they’re actually from the dates the publisher claims, since photo captions are not always completely accurate.) I love old guide books, which are all about the day-to-day needs of moving about a country or city (where to hire armed guards for your trip through the Sinai; the monastery whose “divans are infested with fleas...”) Sometimes you can find governmental surveys that cover a given year, or diaries, although many times those are too self-reflective to be of use to an idea-thief: give me facts, not feelings! One of my best finds in the course of research started when I was looking at the life of British officers in India during the early 20th century, and came across mention of pig sticking, when young British men were encouraged to work off their energy (in the 110 degree heat) by climbing on their ponies and hunting wild pigs with long spears. Can you believe it, there’s an entire book written on the art of pig-sticking, written by the Boy Scout man Baden Powell—what kind of spear, what to look for in a horse, techniques of the sport, you name it. And of course, Mary Russell (good Jewish girl) just had to go pig sticking (that’s in The Game.)
ROBERTA: Tell us about the logistics of using someone else’s character in your books. How does that work?
LAURIE: For me, it only works because I pick up Sherlock Holmes and his companions after the original author was finished with them. The last date Conan Doyle set a story was literally the eve of the Great War, 1914. For him, Holmes was too inextricably a member of the previous era. Under the terrible light of the War and the vast social changes that followed, his Holmes would fade into obscurity. However, it seemed to me that a person as brilliant and mentally flexible as Holmes (yes, even though a male) would have thrown himself at the changes with gusto. These are not pastiches, which use the characters of others and slip them into the existing stories; they are Russell stories, with Holmes as a supporting character—or as the publisher put it, they are about “The world’s greatest detective—and her husband, Sherlock Holmes.” Because I continue Holmes after Conan Doyle, not during his tales, I can show Holmes growing as a character, which a pastiche really cannot.
ROBERTA: Since you write two different series, along with standalones, how do you choose what comes next and then keep everything straight?
LAURIE: As far as the Russells go, after nine books, it’s definitely tricky to keep details straight, especially when I try to pick up material that I wrote ten or fifteen years ago. Short of having to read my books time and again (which would be pure hell) I often depend on the people who know my books better than I do—readers. If I can’t remember where I talked about Russell’s childhood psychotherapist, or what color Lee Cooper’s eyes are, one of them will know. And I make sure to give one or two of the more committed an early ARC as a last-minute chance to catch mistakes.
In general, though, because the various projects are so very different—time, place, person, language—my head seems to keep track of them without too much difficulty.
ROBERTA: We have a number of aspiring writers who follow this blog. Could you give us some advice about writing and publishing? I’m impressed with your promotion—blogs, book clubs, Myspace, Facebook…how do you fit it all in?
LAURIE: You have to remember, I’ve been published for sixteen years and nineteen books. My local bookseller (Capitola Bookcafe—hooray for Independents!) gave me signings, but my first “tour” was a visit to the ALA in Miami (in late June!) to give away copies of the third book (To Play the Fool.) I didn’t go onto a proper book tour until the fourth (Chicago in January—oh, the romance of this job!)
It can be a real problem for new writers to be told that they need to self-promote. Some of them have both the time and the interest, to hang around Facebook and Dorothy L and so on, chatting people up and spreading the word. And if a person enjoys that, if it’s entertainment and an agreeable social network, fine, getting your name out there certainly can’t hurt sales.
However, to do these things as part of the job is another matter. I feel very strongly that the primary task of a writer is to write. Not post, not blog, not make flyers: to write. Anything that interferes with that task should be dumped. The hours spent every week online could better be spent honing skills—taking a course, analyzing loved books, studying bloggers who write about writing.
At the moment, the LRK universe is going through an intensive phase online, which we’re calling the Fifteen Weeks of Bees, an oh-so-clever way to tie together The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (the first Russell) with the new book The Language of Bees (number nine.) This has involved asking “fans”—they call themselves Friends of Laurie (FOLs) or LRKers—if there’s anything they’d like to do to celebrate Russell. One woman came up with three puzzles for the contests (this week’s contest is one of her crosswords.) Another is helping keep track of Myspace and Twitter, others have taken charge of Goodreads. In each of these, I’m involved, but they provide the energy and time, giving me a list of the responses that I can answer all at once, for example, instead of having to log onto the site every day. It’s a temporary state, and will subside the middle of May, but everyone enjoys it and it can’t hurt sales, so I put in the extra effort to Tweet and wrote an ongoing Mary Russell story for Myspace and do guest blogs like this one.
However, after mid-May I’m back to my electronic hermitage, with occasional outings to the spaces, and I’m writing.
I swear, this too I can give up any time!
And now for the official Jungle Red stumper! Please tell us three truths and a lie and we’ll try to guess….
1. Laurie’s first real job was managing a coffee store.
2. Laurie once dropped her wedding ring into a human skull on Easter Island.
3. Laurie once owned a Coatimundi.
4. Laurie searches out B and C roads on her British Ordnance Survey maps.
(Laurie is on tour for The Language of Bees from LA to Boston during April and May—visit her at an event near you.)