Thursday, June 7, 2007

Interview with Laurie R. King

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

At what point in your life did you start writing fiction? What prompted you? And why mystery?

I’ve loved fiction since I was small, an impulse only made stronger by the fact that we moved so often, libraries became my mainstay of entertainment and friendship. So it was probably inevitable that sooner or later I would think: I have a story I want to tell. As it turned out, I’ve had eighteen (so far) stories I’ve wanted to tell.

I work in the mystery genre because I find the structure satisfying, the combination of intellect and emotion, the way a writer can bring in pretty much anything that engages human passion. As a writer, it forces me to work close to the bones of a story, which mainstream fiction doesn’t always.

Many writers have chosen to enter the world of Sherlock Holmes created by A. Conan Doyle. Few have turned the canon on its ear as you did, not only by giving the misogynistic Holmes a wife and partner, but by making that wife, Mary Russell, not only many years younger than Holmes, but also just as intelligent as he is. Where did Mary Russell come from? What were you thinking? How have the books been received by Sherlockians? And has it all turned out the way you expected?

Holmes has always seemed to me less misogynistic than misanthropic in general—sure, he says disparaging things about women, but he does about men as well.

When I started writing about Mary Russell, I wanted to show a young woman whose mind is that of a Sherlock Holmes. And because I thought it would be more interesting if I put the two minds together, I set her down with him.

I took their partnership to its fullest state, that of marriage, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s difficult to envision a non-marital relationship in the 1920s between a man and a woman that wasn’t closely hedged by taboos and limitations. More importantly, it seemed to me that Holmes was the kind of person for whom life had to be all or nothing. Even if Watson had not been a man, that partnership would always have been held back by the doctor’s intellectual limitations: He just isn’t quite up to Holmes. But if he had been? And if he’d been female?

Early reaction among the devout Sherlockians was, understandably, unenthusiastic. Sherlock Holmes meets a girl of fifteen, teaches her his skills, and marries her sounds downright creepy, and without spending a couple or three books looking at how their pairing works, and being reassured that this upstart King woman isn’t writing some kinky kind of Sherlockian romance, the Sherlockian world wasn’t about to clasp Russell to their chests.

That has changed. I have made it clear, in the books and in peripheral writings and interviews, that I have enormous respect for Conan Doyle’s character and that I am doing a very different thing. I now have many readers among the friends of Holmes, and was even the guest speaker at their annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner this year.

But as for expectations? Surely you can’t imagine I knew enough when I began this writing life to expect anything?

Your first Kate Martinelli book, A Grave Talent, features not one but two very interesting women: the brilliant artist Vaun Adams and the police detective Kate, a San Francisco lesbian with a therapist partner who pays a terrible price for Kate’s dedication to her job. What was your starting point for this story? Did you have a particular “what if” or theme you felt compelled to explore? Did the characters take you in any direction other than you intended? Did you originally conceive Kate as the protagonist of a series?

The starting point for the book was the question, What would a female Rembrandt look like? And although I had by that time written two Russell books, this idea didn’t fit into the rather whimsical ménage of Holmes and Russell, so I moved it to a time and a place closer to home, that of the Bay Area in the late Eighties.

I didn’t realize Kate had the potential for a series until St Martin’s asked me for a second, but then, I didn’t realize it was a mystery until they called it one. I thought of it as a novel, but as it happened, she and her crew fit well as a series.

Your characterizations of Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli are both more rounded and more challenging because you chose to make both of them outsiders: Mary is Jewish, and Kate is gay. What led you to make these choices? Are you interested in the particular cultural baggage you gave these women? How it affects their relationship to the larger culture? Or what?

When I wrote A Grave Talent, in the late Eighties, it was very believable that a lesbian cop might prefer to stay in the closet. By the time I wrote The Art of Detection, set in 2004, that choice would have been highly neurotic, but that’s the pleasure in writing a series that spreads out over time.

Few mystery protagonists are well-balanced, well-rounded, undamaged individuals. Or if they are at the beginning of the book, life soon descends on them in a big way. Even a mainstream novel is about tribulation and change, and if the characters don’t suffer and grow, what is the point?

Both Kate and Mary are realistic, that is, complex people. Both are women, both are outsiders, but both reflect and engage with their society in ways that are both accepting and adversarial. Both have to stand up for their right to make choices, but interestingly, in some ways Kate has a harder time of it than Mary eight decades earlier. The Twenties were a tumultuous time, and women (particularly upper class women) in England have always had the option of just looking thoroughly idiosyncratic and doing whatever they damn well pleased.

In addition to the two series, you have written several stand-alone novels. How did that come about? Do you have a preference? Is the process of writing a stand-alone different for you from the way you work on an ongoing series?

Some ideas and stories simply don’t fit into an ongoing series without a lot of corners getting knocked off in the process. When I want to write about a woman who investigates religious movements, or a woman who rebuilds her life along with a derelict house, or a man who rescues children, making them standalones frees me from all the considerations of a series: Is this a likely scenario, to be repeated time and again? What if I need, for the sake of the story, to kill off a character, even the protagonist?

With a standalone novel, the writer is presenting an entire universe, the lives of her characters beginning to end. It all has to be within those four hundred or how every many pages; you can’t return and explain later.

(That said, the novels Folly and Keeping Watch aren’t purely standalones, although neither are they sequels. They have small areas where the stories overlap, and eventually I plan two or three more, all separate novels with small areas of overlap. I think of it as the San Juan Cycle.)

A standalone is more demanding, since the research and development is unique to that book and can’t be recycled for a second and fifth, but it is also more freeing, since it can end up nearly anywhere.

How do you work? Do you need solitude? Do you write every day? Do you outline or write into the mist? How much do you revise? How do you research your books?

I write by myself in my study, with a window nearby to distract me, but without music or much noise. When I’m working on a first draft I tend to write pretty much every day, at the very least five days a week, which gives me a 300 page first draft in three months or so.

My first draft is essentially a 300 page outline, and comes into being with very little conscious deliberation on my part (although somewhere in the back of my mind is a fairly efficient Organizer, who keeps track of what’s going on.) Only when the first draft is in existence can I begin to work on it, to craft the novel I can see lurking in the fits and starts of faulty prose on the page.

The rewrite takes me longer than the first draft, maybe five or six months. The Russell rewrites tend to take longer than the Martinellis, since so much of the effect of those is in the polish—the language and the subtle details, while the contemporary Martinellis are more straightforward.

Research depends on the book. I use the local university library heavily for the historicals, not as much for the modern stories. I usually begin with book-research, then narrow down my needs as time goes by. If it’s a question about modern police techniques, for example, I call a friend on the police department. If it’s about old cars, I have a man who knows all about 1926 Rolls Royces and how to fiddle with their innards. For guns and military, I know someone else, and if it’s about things specific to that book—the parks, for example, in The Art of Detection, I either phone or show up and ask questions. People are remarkably generous with their time and knowledge.

You have spent a considerable amount of time studying theology, with a BA in comparative religion, an earned master’s degree in theology, and an honorary doctorate from a school of divinity. Is theology primarily an intellectual, philosophical, or spiritual study for you?

Theology means god-talk, or the study of god, and it is a human pursuit that embraces the intellectual and the spiritual. The study of humankind’s relationship with the divine is the study of humankind. Some of the characters in the stories I write are similarly fascinated by it. Of course, others have no more time for god-talk than your average man on the street.

Your novels offer the reader a strong sense of place, and you have traveled widely. Do you have a favorite place? Is there anywhere you haven’t been but very much want to go?

I’m very fond of England, no doubt one of the reasons I write about the place. And there’s a deliberate set-up at the beginning of Locked Rooms where I mention Russell and Holmes being brought in to work a case in Japan, because the author really wants an excuse to go there.

What’s up next for you—as a writer and in general?

Touchstone, in early 2008, which we’re calling a “country house political thriller.” It’s a standalone historical set in 1926 England just before the General Strike—although my editor was so smitten with some of the characters, she wants me to bring them back and make a series out of it. We’ll have to see about that, because after Touchstone I’ll be doing the ninth Russell and Holmes, where they get home again to Sussex after far too long.

In a peripheral area, I’m setting up an online book group, where readers can meet and discuss the LRK novels and the occasional related book. It will be on the web site ( and in the newsletter (which readers can sign up for on the site, as well) with contests and giveaways and such. Hey, reading is fun, you know?


Lorraine P. said...

Oh, I love the Russell/Holmes books and am sorry to read that I have to wait until 2008 for another one.
In 2004, I wrote Ms. King a letter about these stories and received a hand written snail mail reply which I still have.
So, in addition to enjoying her work, I also think she's a very gracious woman.

Lois Karlin said...

Terrific interview, Liz!

King's incredible breadth of interest and intellectual stamina make for delicious stories...the kind that turned me on to books as a kid, and to writing. She digs deep into the worlds she writes about, and the treasures she turns up in her shovel make for lose-yourself stories. Yet she manages a first draft in three months? Wow.

It was great to talk with you Wednesday night. Without MWA or SinC meetings over the summer maybe we'll all make progress through the stacks of books that await us.

-Lois Karlin

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Lois. I think we're all in awe of Laurie, since I notice we're commenting in the third person rather than assuming we can have a conversation with her. ;) I felt honored to interview her.