Me: If someone had never heard of the Mary Russell books before, how would you explain them in just a few sentences?
LRK:What if you took the mind of Sherlock Holmes and put it into a young, female, feminist, 20th century person? And how would that new (and improved!) version of Holmes interact with the old, Victorian detective, in the years after the Great War when the entire British Empire was reshaping itself as well?
Me: What was the appeal of setting your stories in Holmes' world? What type of research have you had to do over the years?
LRK: I'm one of those Americans with a strong British influence in my past--my mother was more or less raised by two English maiden aunts, although she only made it there when I took her to Oxford in 1984. And I married into the country as well, since my husband was born Anglo-Indian but lived and raised his first lot of children there. By the time I started writing, the UK was my second home.
Then there's the deep influence of Britain on the world of crime fiction, where the setting infuses the story with meaning. Justice Hall, for example, would make little sense if I'd tried to set it in the US.
As for research, there are two kinds. One is the really arduous and expensive part, the hard slog of travel to the UK, usually in summer, exploring such things as picnic lunches a la Brit, punting on the river, and--especially hard but vitally important--the varieties of beer available in British pubs. The other research of course is from books, many of which I dig up through my immensely helpful University of California library, topics ranging from Surrealist art to pig-sticking. I also buy a lot of books that have to do with the time and place I'll be writing about, and try to lay hands on a Baedeker's guide to any place I'm writing about.
For an insider's view, collected letters and diaries are lively and immediate in a way full biographies or even autobiographies are not.
Me: Is it "dangerous" to write books that include famous literary characters? If so, why risk it? Why not start from scratch? What are the difficulties involved in writing about established characters?
LRK: There are writers who claim that committing themselves to words on a page is a dangerous profession. Personally, I've always thought that claim a trifle pretentious, however, I do understand that it is a risky thing to take on an interpretation of someone else's character that may prove to be a personal, and idiosyncratic, version of a "person" whom others know very differently.
To tell the truth, I've found it much more dangerous to take on real-life characters, such as the incorporation of Dashiell Hammett (rather than Sam Spade) in Locked Rooms. I blithely decided that it might be fun to write the man into the book, since he happened to be in San Francisco at the same time as my characters--only to later come face to face with Hammett's actual daughter and granddaughter. Such a psychic wrench that was--it couldn't have been much more disturbing to be introduced to a granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes.
As for why take on someone else's character, I'm not sure that any of us in the world of crime fiction ever start from scratch. Considering that the world of the detective story is well into its second century, all of us write on a foundation built by others. Even if we mention no names, we write with the vocabulary and experience of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and (yes) Sam Spade. It's just that some of us choose to identify our sources by name.
I could have written a Mary Russell born long after Sherlock Holmes died. As a person, she would have worked, and she would still have been interesting. However, putting her--a female version of the Great Detective's mind--beside her paradigm allowed me to compare and contrast in ways that I couldn't otherwise. The scenes with the two of them, locking horns or working together, are the liveliest in the books.
Me: What type of response have you gotten from Holmes enthusiasts?
LRK: When I first started writing the Russell books, Sherlockians were by and large suspicious: was I about to turn Holmes into a romantic figure, making him fall in love with this (disturbingly young) uncanonical character?
However, after the first three or four books, it became apparent even to the most suspicious of Holmes fans that I had a great deal of respect and affection for Conan Doyle and his creation, and that I had no intention of doing violence to the man. They have relaxed considerably, to the extent that they invited me to speak to the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner last year, and not one tomato was thrown.
Although, any of them who are following Mary Russell's ongoing blog/story on Myspace are no doubt beginning to wonder where the tale of Russell and the pack of ravening Sherlockians is going... Me: Do you have an ending to the series in mind, or a specific number of books you plan to write, or do you plan to continue Mary Russell's adventures indefinitely?
LRK: I have no ending in mind, nor any number of books. So long as I enjoy writing them, and I can conceive of fresh ideas and interesting people to put in the books, I'll continue with them. The chief problem at the moment is that there are not enough hours in the year, to produce a Russell book, and a Martinelli, and the standalone I plan to go with the other San Juan books, and oh yes, those characters from Touchstone need to be revisited...