Is this your first time at the Virginia Festival of the Book?
Yes, it’s my first time and I love it! I’m very impressed with Charlottesville. It’s beautiful. The whole town and the festival itself are quite impressive.
I know you have a background as a screenwriter, producer, and actress. You’ve put on a Sherlock Holmes play, The Blue Carbuncle. What was the transition like from screenwriting to novel writing?
My background is in the movie business. I’ve been 35 years in the entertainment business in Los Angeles. I started as a studio exec. I did development and that meant reading literally thousands of scripts. I think during that very formative time in my career, I got many lessons on story structure by doing that and working on screenplays, which are highly structured pieces of writing. Then I was a screenwriter for a number of years. I was the original writer of the movie, TRON, and then did a bunch of other scripts that sold.
I think that two things are gained toward novel writing from screenwriting – more than two, but there are two big ones. One is the sense, as I mentioned before, of structure. Screenplays are highly structured forms and they really require that you move at a pace. In screenwriting, you can only write what you see and hear. But in the novel, there are thoughts and observations and so forth. Of course, writing in Conan Doyle’s style, you’re writing in first person as Watson. You’re very much in his head and in his voice, which makes it very different from screenwriting. Nevertheless, it’s succinct and moves. Structurally, screenwriting gives you that.
But screenwriting also gives you the ability to really hear voices. The beginning screenwriter makes the mistake of having everybody talk alike. You really have to differentiate your characters by what they say, how they say it, how many words per sentence, their vocabulary, the structure of their language. It has to pop off the page and be so evident to the actor that you hear the voices in your head.
Other things are, of course, very different. I think another thing that transfers to novel writing from Hollywood is a work ethic. Nobody is in the film business casually. Everybody who works in it is pretty intensely fanatic about what they do. And you don’t just write a first draft and that’s it. You write draft after draft after draft. As a development exec at Universal, I was privy to seeing all those drafts. In fact, I did notes for most of the drafts of things that were in house. I saw the effort and the progress that were done over time. It’s really something that’s very attended to. That doesn’t mean that every script comes out good! (Laughs) Sometimes this process goes the other way, but I was made very aware of the work ethic.
Your title Art in the Blood comes from the Conan Doyle canon and more specifically from the story entitled, The Greek Interpreter. It’s no surprise that Mycroft Holmes has a large part in the book. Could you explain the theme of your book and some of the differences between Sherlock and Mycroft?
In deciding to write a novel of Sherlock Holmes, I realized that one of the changes I’d have to make from emulating exactly what Conan Doyle did – he only wrote short stories and novellas. Once I’m writing in long form, I felt like it needed some thematic content to sustain it.
I wanted to say something that was important to me personally. The gift of the artistic temperament is Janus faced. It’s a gift and a liability at the same time. The gift of it is the ability to see pattern where other people can’t see. To make these things emotionally or these intuitive leaps of thought clearly fits Holmes’ process. But the flip side to the artistic temperament is the emotional liability or vulnerability in this sort of almost bipolar energies that he has. This is all throughout the canon.
It’s interesting. People have said this book is very like the modern versions. Well, yes, because we’re all taking from Conan Doyle. Where it’s like Sherlock BBC for example, is because Sherlock BBC and this book are emulating Doyle. Doyle created this sort of complex, almost bipolar character.
He’s different from Mycroft in a number of ways. He is proactive and he is active. He is only happy really in action in a way. He falls into depression when he doesn’t have a good case. Whereas Mycroft you sense, sort of sits back from life and he’s playing a chess game in his head. He’s quite a different character but brilliant, of course.
There is one tiny aspect of Mycroft that I did in fact borrow from BBC and I will cop to that. (Laughs) In BBC, they make Mycroft a little bit of a threat to Sherlock. The ambiguity of their relationship is played up a little more. It is in the canon. They’re clearly competitive and there is an edge to their relationship in the canon. I loved that and I thought it had I call “story juice.” I really enjoyed sort of slipping that in. That is the only thing I didn’t take directly from the canon.
“Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” is the original quote. It refers to the weird things that can be in your personality if you have art in your blood. I have art in my blood. My mother was an artist. Conan Doyle’s father was an artist. My cousin is an artist. I have a lot of artists in my family! My hobby is water color painting so I’m very deeply involved in the arts.
Of course, movies are the art form that encompass all the other art forms. Screenwriting is blueprint for that. You have to have them in your head: allowing room for the costume designer, set designs, and the music. You leave space for the other artists, the actors. Everybody brings their arts to this final thing. I’m very steeped in art and artistry and what it takes to do artwork. That became a really interesting theme to me here.
I noticed that you have illustrations on the first image of each chapter. I loved that because they were fascinating and cute.
Yeah, the drop caps! Thank you! I don’t think that too many people notice that.
Were you consulted on that?
I didn’t draw those, but I produced those. In 19th century books, they have those decorative drop caps at the heads of each chapter. I had in my head that this would look like a 19th century book. I commissioned those to be drawn and each drop cap has a little image embedded in it that pertains to the action of each chapter.
I’m pleased that you noticed them because they were fun. We first settled the look of the drop cap and I provided the artist with source photos. I took a lot of historic photos and used them in the annotations. A couple of times, I gave choices, but usually I specified one.