Interview with Bonnie MacBird

La Gazette du 221 B :This is your fifth Sherlockian novel in seven years. What makes you so productive?

Bonnie MacBird : I write every day, no matter what, Fabienne.  My life has had some extreme ups and downs since I began this series, but writing is a constant.  It is an additional gift during the good times and a comfort in the hard times.

G.221B : What draws you to keep writing about Holmes and Watson? Does it still thrill you to make them face new situations? Or is it more about delving deeper in the characters?

B.MB. : It is both, really.  Holmes is such a complex character, it will be impossible to ever get “to the bottom” of him.  And  I enjoy expanding on canon without contradicting it… yet adding tantalizing bits.  UNQUIET SPIRITS reveals some of Holmes’s early life, and THE THREE LOCKS does so for Watson.  We get glimpses into a couple of formative moments of their youth.   WHAT CHILD IS THIS? challenges Holmes to think outside his usual patterns and to observe and respond to complex social issues in a way that we have never seen this introverted intellectual do before.  It stretches him.  Will he rise to the task?  Of course;  he is Sherlock Holmes. But how he does is a surprise, I think.   And I love thinking up dilemmas and dangers for them to face.

G.221B :What enticed you to write a Sherlock Holmes Christmas tale?

B.MB. : I wanted one to read!  The model was Conan Doyle’s Blue Carbuncle (which I adapted for a zoom performance of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.) 

Christmas is a warm, wonderful family holiday for many, but not for all.  How was it for Sherlock Holmes?   I can’t imagine that Sherlock Holmes’s childhood Christmases were filled with sugarplums and fairies.  I wanted to create a story where Holmes was true to his curmudgeonly, introverted self, but shows a surprising sensitivity on the subject of families… in ways we might not expect. 

In What Child Is This, He solves the mysteries of two cases – both tinged with violence –  airly early on in the story, but then there is unfinished business that presents the real puzzle.  Holmes steps up and delivers in a way we’d not seen him do before.  Our hero is intelligent in more than one way and that’s where I’m hanging the light this time. I thought that would be very satisfying to the reader, and it has been, for most.

G.221B : You grew up in California, miles away from the clichés of a Victorian Christmas. Were they alluring to you when you were a kid ?

B.MB. :Oh, yes!  Of course most of our Christmas traditions both in the US and in the UK where I now live come from Queen Victoria’s court.  The trees, gifts, caroling were transplanted there by Prince Albert from the beloved Germanic traditions of his own childhood.  Also, I have been an Anglophile from a very young age.  Dickens, Hayley Mills, James Bond, the Beatles, Jane Austen, P.G.Wodehouse,  Monty Python, Douglas Adams, George Elliott… a wide range of British influences.   As a kid, I may have had California sun outside my window, but inside, I was roaming the moors with my nose in a book. 

G.221B : You mention Dickens several times in your novel. Do you think he is an inevitable reference in Christmas literature?

B.MB. : Yes. It snowed in the London winters then, much colder than now.  And while the middle and upper classes exchanged gifts and enjoyed rich foods and drinks around a fire, in sections of London, children ran barefoot and freezing in the streets. In order to survive, whole families might be subject to the dismal servitude of workhouse life.The extreme contrast between the haves and have nots during the nineteenth century makes for very Dickensian and dramatic storytelling.  

G.221B : What Child is This? has this uncommon feature in Sherlockian novels:  Everybody is flawed but even the wrongdoers are not really evil.  Did you want to write it so or is it a concession to the spirit of Christmas 😉 ?

B.MB. : I wanted it so, and whether it is a concession… well, I think it suits a holiday tale.  When a reader picks up a Sherlock Holmes story or novel they expect a satisfactory ending and justice to be served. Sometimes there are chills, adventure, violence, threat and Great Evil along the way.  I didn’t want Great Evil in this story and yet there had to be suspense,  a mystery, something where the answer isn’t clear and Holmes has to solve it.  And a touch of danger.  The two cases in WHAT CHILD IS THIS? are less about “who did it?” than they are about “how can this be fixed, repaired, healed?”  In some ways these are harder problems for Holmes to wrap his head around.  Social niceties are not his forte, so can he possibly end this dilemma satisfactorily? You must read it to see.

G221B : How did Frank Cho get involved in the adventure ?

B.MB. : After falling in love with Frank’s beautiful ink illustrations for the BSI programs, and meeting him (we had a fun dinner at the Sherlock Holmes Pub here in London) I proposed having him illustrate the book to my editor at HarperCollins who embraced the idea.  Frank was keen to do it and we made the deal.

G.221B : How was the collaboration between you ?

B.MB. : Given the distance (I am in London, Frank is based in the States) we had to do it electronically.  I sent him the manuscript, then he asked for suggestions on which moments to illustrate –which I sent, along with a pinterest file for some visual reference (for Heffie’s dress, for example).  The final choice of which scenes to illustrate were his.  At one point he came to London and we had a bit of face to face discussion and a couple of very good meals! 

G.221B : Is it kind of a balance, for you as a writer, to mix characters that you borrow and carry over, like Holmes and Watson, and recurring secondary characters, like Vidocq and Heffie, that you entirely created ?

B.MB. : Yes. I introduced Jean Vidocq in Art In The Blood and had such fun with this would-be rival that I’ve brought him back several times.  He’s controversial and invites both love and censure from readers.  Which is always fun, I think!  Heffie first appears in THE DEVIL’S DUE and became an instant fan favourite.  Michael Dirda says she steals every scene she’s in.  

G.221B : How much of a challenge was it to design the interactions between Holmes and children? Did you get inspired by the few appearances of children in the Canon or did you entirely make it up ?

B.MB. : I believe that Sherlock Holmes has had some kind of darkness in his past.  I imagine that Holmes was an odd child, probably a lonely one, and certainly an outlier himself.  It might follow that he keeps well-hidden a very real empathy for children, either those abandoned or those misunderstood by their parents.So his own childhood might have left him with a well-hidden but decidedly soft spot in his heart for a vulnerable, and special child particularly. 

And I should mention that I was also inspired by photos and accounts of Jeremy Brett on the set of the Granada series.  The actor had a special rapport with children.

G.221B : The status of children is indeed at the heart of the novel. Is it a question you feel concerned about?

B.MB. : Yes. Unparented children in Victorian times were in danger of being conscripted for grueling work in factories and as servants in large houses.  If they were born in a workhouse, their lives would be very bleak.  A marginalized child is at the centre of one of the two mysteries of What Child Is This?   And a missing adult son is at the centre of the other

G.221B : I won’t spoil the novel, but the two plots you mix are centered on the above questions.  What came first? These plots which led you to a general reflection, or the theme you eventually illustrated with example?

B.MB. : The title came first and then… the themes.  I always start with these.  I then begin to brainstorm characters and dilemmas that relate to this theme.  I think about how this topic might affect our boys.  I start designing moments, finding the danger and the deductions,  and weave plotting and scene work in a kind of braid

G.221B : Inevitable last question… Can you tease us with your next Sherlockian projects ?

B.MB. : The next is The Serpent Under, a full-length novel involving a heinous crime at Windsor Castle, with a complex web of treachery behind it that takes Holmes and Watson to some dark and unusual places.

G.221B : Bonus question: last year, you dramatised a Sherlock Holmes story you performed for the SHSL annual dinner. Would you consider adapting your novels on stage?   

B.MB. : Yes, I would!  One is in work now!