Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Visiting with Laurie King

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.)


  1. Welcome Laurie! Lovely to see you here..

    Laurie and I were on a panel together at--Bouchercon? It was about the influence Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories had on our mystery writing. And turns out, even for the not-so-obvious me--the influence was certainly there. And it was a fascinating panel.

    A very gracious Mary was surrounded by fans. I mean--they were so charming and so devoted!

    You told a great story about "why Bees?" What was that again?

    And thanks for letting us off the Facebook hook.

  2. I resisted reading the Mary Russell series for a long time--how dare anyone meddle with a literary icon?

    Then I picked up a copy of The Beekeeper's Apprentice from you at Bouchercon. I owe you a huge apology--it was a convincing and compelling read, and I loved it. Or maybe I owe myself an apology, but at least I have the rest of the series to look forward to now.

    My WIP opens with a beekeeper--a small tribute.

  3. Great to have you here, Laurie! I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, loved Les Klinger's annotated version of his works. Your twist on SH is delightful, particularly given what a misogynist the Holmes character was (or do you disagree?) One thing I've noted is how quasi-academic and picky-picky-picky Sherlockians are. Do they give you a hard time with any liberties you've taken?
    - Hallie

  4. Welcome, Laurie. I'm glad you dared to brave the jungle temporarily, but I'm sure you never owned a coatimundi! You just don't seem the coatimnundi type, although they are awfully cute.

    I wonder if Mary and my Lady Georgie will meet some day? Wouldn't that be fun--to have one story in which Mary, Maisie Dobbs, Lady Georgie all meet...

  5. Thank you for hosting Laurie R. King. I really enjoy following Laurie's blog tour. With each visit I'm learning more about the characters I love and the author who's talent brings them to life.

    I was thinking that #1 the first job might be the April's fool joke, because I couldn't imagine coming up with the coatimundi unless you actually had one. After reminding myself that this is LRK, who routinely makes the unusual believable, I've decided I agree with Rhys on #3 as my choice.

  6. Why would you bring up a coatimundi if it wasn't true? How would you even think of it?

    And she didn't say it was at her HOUSE.

    And I hear it was named Watson.

  7. Any truth to the rumor, from your newsletter, that Russell is pregnant?
    I look forward to seeing you at Writers with Drinks

  8. I'm a huge fan. Thanks for stopping by!

    Confucius says, woman who put dish soap on top shelf, jump for joy.

  9. I love that no one picked as a lie the statement that Laurie dropped her wedding ring into a skull on Easter Island. Says something about Laurie doesn't it? LOL

    I'm a fan who is loving this blog tour and all the fun things going on for the Fifteen Weeks of Bees.

  10. To Cara,

    The newsletter doesn't say Russ is pregant, only that she has a child. Big difference... ;-)

    To the other ladies,

    Great site! I've been reading some of your (collective your) books. If any of you are interested in having YouTube channels, let me know. Contact me through Laurie or my Blogger contact info.

  11. I love that you're circling back to the bees in this book (at least in the title). I feel like I've been waiting for ages for this new Mary Russell adventure, and I can't wait to read it!

  12. Thanks to Laurie and Roberta for an interesting interview. I loved this series from the first - that anyone could do something truly new and fresh with Holmes was pretty impressive. Have I loved every book equally? No, that's not possible in a long series, but I certainly enjoyed the last few and now I can't wait to get my hands on the new book.

  13. Aha, the other Meredith is visible here! *waves*. Sheila, I totally identify with delaying reading Laurie's "Holmes, next" books and then being So Pleased. I am indeed one of those devoted fans. Great fun taking a close look at this blog -- have to visit more often. Thanks, ladies.--Meredith T.

  14. Thanks for the warm welcome. Had to laugh at the remark that no one turned a hair at the idea of Laurie's wedding ring in a skull...

    Hallie asks about Sherlockians--yes, at first they were very (VERY) dubious about the whole idea. I understand I used to be flamed on the Holmes group, Hounds of the Internet, however, as I was an Internet virgin, I passed through the flames unscathed. But they've settled down, now that they see how much I admire and respect The Great Man, and even invite me to Sherlockian events. Les Klinger and I are doing three events this spring, by the way, in NY, Chicago, and San Francisco. We call these "Les & Laurie Shows" (actually, Les being a gentleman, calls them Laurie & Les) and they're great fun, to come at Holmes from two very different perspectives. (The events are at page

  15. Strawberry Curls--did I meet you at Bouchercon? Will you email me?
    (Just go to my website and click on contact...)

    I notice Laurie carefully said nothing about her pet coatamundi.
    The game is clearly afoot.

  16. In anticipation of the release of The Language of Bees, I am re-reading all eight Russell books. Started The Game last night. I find them as engrossing and delightful as when i first read them.

  17. Dear Laurie,

    Last year I moved away from home, and living in a new place I was completely disoriented. It was then that I discovered The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice on a library table. Mary Russell was a wonderful companion all year, and I felt somewhat bereft when I finished the books. I’m thrilled to know that there is another Mary Russell book coming out and so glad that I can say THANK YOU directly to an author who has brought me hours of enjoyment and insight.

    Susan Danoff
    (tomorrow’s blog guest)

  18. Hi Laurie --
    Your work is recently receiving (as in the past two days) much good word over on the Patrick O'Brian "Gunroom" listserv. No easy feat; that group doesn't praise easily.

    Lovely coincidence to see you here, and I am provoked, provoked I say, to read your series. :)

  19. Okay, I'll admit: I've never owned a coatamundi. Although I knew a very peculiar girl in fourth grade who had...