By Jamie Rush
I sat down with author Laurie R. King to talk about her career, her life, and her new offering in her Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series.
Laurie, I LOVE the cover of PIRATE KING! It’s fabulous and eye-catching and really captures the book’s feel. But of course, we want to know what’s in between the covers. What’s PIRATE KING about and why do you love it?
The cover’s great, isn’t it? It’s always satisfying when a cover catches the book’s essence, and this one does, a combination of drama, color, and silliness.
As the blurb of the “movie poster” says, PIRATE KING is “A Swashbuckling Tale of Love, Murder, Detection, Poetry, Musical Interludes, & Thirteen Blonde Actresses—starring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.”
After writing a couple of fairly serious Russell novels involving wayward family members, religious cults, and international espionage, I wanted to go in the other direction, and aim for farce.
So: In England’s young silent-film industry, megalomaniacal Randolph Fflytte is king. Nevertheless, at the request of Scotland Yard, Mary Russell is dispatched to investigate the criminal activities that surround Fflytte’s studio, traveling undercover to Portugal where the crew is gearing up to shoot a cinematic extravaganza, Pirate King, loosely based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
Nothing seems amiss until the thirteen blonde-haired, blue-eyed actresses Russell is bemusedly chaperoning meet Fflytte’s swarm of real buccaneers. And when the crew embarks for Morocco, Russell feels a building storm of trouble: a derelict boat, a film crew with secrets, ominous currents between the pirates, decks awash with budding romance—and now the pirates are ignoring Fflytte and answering only to their dangerous outlaw leader, La Rocha. Plus, there’s a spy on board. Where can Sherlock Holmes be?
What fun, murder and mayhem on a movie set! With real pirates even. What inspired you to use a movie as the backdrop for this book?
Can you think of anything more guaranteed to drive Sherlock Holmes mad than movie people? And I live for driving Holmes mad.
I love that you feature Sherlock Holmes’s wife in your series. What gave you the idea to use them as your leads? Is she based on his real wife or a figment of your imagination?
No, no, no, Conan Doyle’s world of Holmes is quite wife-free. Holmes does refer to Irene Adler, who soundly beats him at his own game, as The Woman, but romance to him would be “grit in a sensitive instrument.” Although romance doesn’t enter into the Russell series much, either—it’s more about the partnership. She is a young, female, feminist, 20th century Sherlock Holmes, and putting them next to each other lets me look at their differences more than their similarities.
And to show her beating him regularly at his own game…
I love that, Laurie. Sounds deliciously full of conflict!
PIRATE KING has a few exotic locales, including Lisbon, Portugal and Morocco. Have you been to these places? Any interesting tidbits about researching them you’d like to share?
I spent a few weeks in Lisbon with my daughter, exploring the bits of Portugal around the city, and we also went to Morocco for a couple of weeks. Many of the Russell books are set around the world, always in places I’ve been.
Mostly my on-site “research” involves wandering aimlessly through the streets and letting the place work its way in through my pores while I’m shopping for groceries, buying a newspaper, drinking a coffee. But because I write a historical series, I make sure I take along a good contemporary guide, so that as I walk the streets, I can see the shadow city of 1924 behind the modern one.
Is there a theme in your books, a thread that you see coming up in your stories often? For instance, underdog fighting for justice?
I write for entertainment. The Russell books in particular are meant to be fun (especially PIRATE KING!) However, what I like best, both as a reader and as a writer, are those novels that leave a subtle aftertaste in the mind, stories that tease the reader into seeing things just a bit differently.
In historical fiction, this often means playing on the parallels between then and now, developing themes and events that on reflection, say as much about modern life as they do about the story’s historical period. So, rather than a particular thread of “underdogs” or “save the children,” what I aim for is a tight plot (since the books are, after all, crime fiction) with strong characters (because why read a book if not for the characters?) and the lingering sensation of layers upon layers.
Is there a book you’re longing to write that you haven’t had the opportunity or time to yet? Something completely different from what you’re writing now?
I’ve been working on a nonfiction book, a little at a time, linking my present life as a crime writer with my academic background of theology. A collection of modern Midrashim, with critical apparatus to encourage the reader to explore the story’s history and meaning.
What’s your best reader comment? The funniest? Any booksigning stories to share?
I find it moving, how people embrace fiction at hard times in their life, finding comfort and inspiration in what is basically simple entertainment. The number of people who have told me that BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE was a friend while a loved one was dying, for example, or how a minor plot point in MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN inspired them to go clean and sober. Yes, I write escapist fiction, but escape can save a life, and fiction can speak to the heart in ways not even the author anticipates.
Not sure if it’s funny, or what, but memorable was an early signing, reached by the valiant efforts of an escort through a flooded parking lot, with a handful of people (waiting for the flood waters to recede, I suspect) including one very large and enormously muscular gent who wanted to talk about getting published, because he had some great stories about his time in prison, a place that he had clearly inhabited very recently, and he thought that…
Thank God for escorts.
Do you have any writing rituals before you begin a book or start your day?
Rituals, no. I started writing when I was the mother of small children, happy to be given ten minutes to myself, anywhere at all. I’ve written entire books behind the wheel of a Volvo during soccer practice and piano lessons.
What does your writing space look like? Do you have any inspirational sayings tacked to your monitor or wall?
I have a giant cork board where I stick up maps, photographs old and new, ancient bank notes, pictures of coins, fabric swatches, notes reminding me what the book needs to do, calendars, and time lines. By the end of the book, the board is buried deep. But inspirational sayings? More like stone-carved commandments.
Which I then systematically smash into pieces.
There’s something very Californian about your author picture … the carefree smile, just a touch of windblown tresses. You look like someone I’d enjoy sitting down and chatting with for a spell. Tell me about your life, your passions, and what you do when you’re not writing.
Yes, I think my publisher was rather taken aback by the photograph I chose, which is definitely informal—and, as you say, a bit windblown. But unlike some author photos, at least you’d recognize me from it.
I’m at a time in my life where I seem to do nothing but write. In the past year I’ve either written or co-edited six books—two novels, three non-fiction books, and an anthology—plus two published short stories and a ream of online writing. Beginning in 2012, I intend to shove back the writing just a little and make time for a few other things. After that, I may have something to chat with you about other than plot points, cover art, and word count.
I think it’s lovely that you post drawings readers have made to capture your books. (See the bottom of Laurie’s homepage. ) How did that start?
For the last few books, we’ve been doing projects with readers—those marching across the bottom of the web page form a Russellscape, an endless landscape of scenes from the novels. This year we’re running a contest illustrating a short-short story I wrote for the PIRATE KING promotion called “Parrot King”—those illustrations can be found here. We have a whole section of the web site called “Art in the Blood” (that’s a Sherlockian phrase) where we collect fan art. We’re also running a PaiKu contest—Pirate Haiku—for those who find outlet in words, not images. The contests are under the “events” tab on the web page.
How cool that you offer your fans merchandise based on your books. You also donate the proceeds to your favorite charities. This year the benefiting charity is 826 Valencia Project. Can you tell us more about that charity and why it’s special to you?
826 Valencia is a nation-wide organization (826 National) that runs free writing and tutoring centers for school-age kids. Each of their centers has a themed store-front to raise funds—Brooklyn’s Superhero Supply Co, Seattle’s Space Travel Supply, DC’s Museum of Unnatural History—and the store in San Francisco is all about pirates. Which made it a great link for PIRATE KING.
So we’re doing a fund-raiser, with a drawing on September 19th (International Talk Like a Pirate Day, of course!) among those who have donated to the LRKing page, with a grand prize of naming a character in next year’s book.
And while I’m here: please send something to 826!
What’s the best way for reader’s to get in touch with you? Do you Tweet/blog/etc.?
I do not keep a personal Twitter account, but a friend and I collaborate on Mary Russell’s Twittering (Russell currently has about 5000 followers @mary_russell) and on Russell’s blog. I post once or twice a week on my own blog, write a quarterly newsletter, post regularly on Facebook, and answer email—the best way to see all these is on the home page.
Thank you, Laurie, for filling us in on all the goodies. PIRATE KING sounds like a rip-roaring good time!
Well, I definitely intend to have fun with it!