Interview with Lyndsay Faye

lyndsay-6La gazette du 221B :  What was your first introduction to Conan Doyle and his detective?

Lyndsay Faye : When I was around ten years old and had finished all my Nancy Drews, I asked my dad for a recommendation and he said specifically, “Try ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band.’  If you don’t like that one, then you’re free to move on, you probably won’t like any of them…but if you do like it…” Of course, I was instantly hooked.  I didn’t just read all of the canon–I never stopped reading the Sherlock Holmes canon, and I still haven’t, around 30 years later.

G221B : What inspired you to start writing pastiche about Sherlock Holmes?

Lyndsay Faye : Totally unmerited hubris, actually.  I’m trained as an actor and did that for about ten years, so I’m good at mimicry and accents and the like, and I have a real fascination with historical research.  When I would read pastiches, especially those dealing with Holmes vs. the Ripper, very often phrases and plot points would ring as false to me.  I wanted to see whether or not I could step up to the plate and put my money where my mouth was.

G221B : Jack the Ripper is a subject that has been written about many times in Sherlockian pastiches, what encouraged you to give it a go yourself?

Lyndsay Faye : Basically I developed a strong dislike for what I started calling Kitchen Sink Syndrome–it could never be just Holmes and the Ripper, it had to be Holmes, the Ripper, and the Royal Family; Holmes, the Ripper, and a satanic cult; Holmes, the Ripper, and Martians.  Why do we need to embellish this story, I wondered?  What would it look like if someone made it gritty and real?  What if we did these brutalized, mutilated women justice for once, instead of turning them into fodder for some kind of titillating ghost story?

G 221 B:  Do you have any favourite pastiche of Holmes and the Ripper?

Lyndsay Faye : I always get a kick out of Christopher Plummer and James Mason in Murder by Decree.  They’re so charming together as Holmes and Watson, and it was one of my first experiences of Sherlockian and Ripperologist mashups.

 G221B :  Were you inspired by any of them to write this book?

Lyndsay Faye : That’s a marvelous question and I can’t help but answer it honestly: I was inspired by several of them how not to write this book.

G221B :  Did you write this story around your own beliefs regarding Jack the Ripper’s identity, or did you choose the culprit to suit your story’s needs?

Lyndsay Faye : Oh, no, I have no beliefs–no one will ever know who Jack the Ripper is.  I wrote what I imagined to be a plausible explanation and a good plot, that’s all.

G221B :  Your story is full of incredible details; how much research was put into writing this book?

Lyndsay Faye : Thank you!  I did six months of intensive research myself, reading original newspapers from the time period, Yard evidence, everything I could get my hands on really.  And then after I had a completed draft, I sent it along to two wonderfully generous and brilliant Ripperologists: Stewart P. Evans and Donald Rumbelow.  They were more than happy to provide insane details like, “this unnamed constable you have here with the rag and bucket is in uniform, but he would have been a plainclothesman.”  I’ve never been more impressed in my life.

G221B : Did the city play a huge role in your book, in the same line as “Gods of Gotham”?

Lyndsay Faye : Absolutely.  London is a living, breathing, noxious, marvelous, magical entity in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and I did try to capture that.  The politics, the poverty, the squalor, the glamor, the evil, the kindness.  Like with any city, if you don’t imbue your historical novel with a sense of place, it’s impossible for the reader to feel really grounded in geography and time period.

G221B : And, as a New-Yorker, was it difficult to immerse yourself in the Victorian London?

Lyndsay Faye : Not at all, actually–my mind has lived in Victorian London for much longer than it’s lived in New York.  I read the canon in 1990 and moved here in 2005, so Victorian London has a solid 15 years on the Big Apple!

G221B :  You seem to take a special delight in creating strong female characters, some of them totally absent from the canon and from the Ripper story, as Mary-Ann Monk. Was it important to you to add them to your story?

Lyndsay Faye : Well, that’s certainly true, but I always delight in telling people that Mary-Ann Monk was just as real as you or me.  She was the friend of Polly Nichols who identified the victim’s body to Scotland Yard.  She appears in their reports and then vanishes quite quickly. So what’s actually important to me is not creating strong female characters; it’s remembering the ones who were already there.  We know very little about Mary-Ann Monk, but the sex workers of Whitechapel were ferociously smart and resilient.  She deserved to have her place in the narrative.

G221B : You carefully avoid the pitfall of a love story for the detective. Isn’t Holmes romantic material, in your opinion?

Lyndsay Faye : Yes, he certainly is, but in my own work?  No, not to my mind.  So very many people identify strongly with Sherlock Holmes that it’s important to me to leave the same sort of gaps Sir Arthur did regarding his romantic proclivities. If you want to read my novel and imagine Holmes attracted to Mary-Ann, or happily asexual, or comfortably living in a domestic partnership of whatever sort with Dr. Waston, or pining for Irene Adler, I don’t want to get in the way of that with definite affaires du coeur.  For me, mapping out his exact sex life would drive someone away who might otherwise enjoy the adventure.  I want everyone to feel welcome at this table.

G221B : When writing a pastiche, do you try to forget your own writing style in order to find Arthur Conan Doyle’s voice? What are your methods?

Lyndsay Faye : Interestingly, I had Conan Doyle’s voice long before I had any sort of voice of my own.  Dust and Shadow was my first novel–it was a passion project, a copycat work, a fanfiction, a pastiche.  I wrote it wholly out of love.  Only later did I discover what I sounded like, because I had zero notion.  Doyle lent me the pithy, poetic, efficient prose…the Ripper lent me an outline and a plot.  It was an amazing starting point for a young author.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.