Laurie King on writing romances for one of the most famous literary characters of all time
Laurie King is the kind of writer whose output makes other writers hang their heads in shame, at least those of us who wrestle with motivation, execution and follow-through. She has published 23 books, a number of e-books, and co-edited several anthologies. She supports independent bookstores and writing programs, stays in touch with a devoted fan base via her website, blog and newsletter, and is so varied in her writing style and subject matter that it’s anybody’s guess what her next book will be. Despite my petty jealousies, her keen intellect and quick wit always make for a great conversation. We talked recently about her new book “Dreaming Spies,” and what Sherlock Holmes has to teach us about love.
This is the 13th book in the Mary Russell series. Are there more to come?
LAURIE KING: I don’t envision an end point. Mary and Sherlock travel a lot, and that leaves so many doors open.
What motivates you to keep telling their story?
There’s real pleasure to be found in the overtones of historical novels. Exploring some event with no current parallel has limited appeal for me as a writer, but talking about India, and in the process talking about the war in Afghanistan, looking at the general strike in London, and through that lens looking at terrorism, or visiting the challenges of traditional governments by visiting imperial Japan, allows me to create depth.
It’s also a good reason to keep your passport updated.
The things I do for my readers.
In Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, you’ve taken characters with a huge age gap and built a romance between them. How did you do it?
It’s a careful balancing act. Fans love that side of their relationship, but the references have to be oblique–him touching her fingers or brushing her hair–because these stories are told by a woman in her 80s. She’s not someone who talks about things that take place behind closed doors, so romantic episodes have to be slipped in between the lines, sub-rosa, as if she doesn’t know what she’s giving away. It’s there for those who want to see it.
Is her reserve a reflection of her times?
To some degree, but it’s also her personality. She’s a young woman during the 1920s, and those were wild and crazy times. When it comes to her partnership with Sherlock, she feels that people should be most interested in the workings of their minds, not their hearts, and their minds work very similarly.
Did the journey from friendship to marriage come naturally or by design, to simplify work and travel?
A bit of both. Initially, I wrote Holmes as a supporting actor, but after a few books I became interested in his development as a character, and the development of his relationship with Mary. She reflects him, but definitely has her own nature, and the reader starts to see how she’s changing him. This is what’s less expected, that an egotistical, intellectual Victorian male, who believes he’s right in every way, starts to shift his view of the world—and even himself—because of her. That’s very romantic.
Tell me more about their romance.
It’s in the way their partnership deepens. They become involved in each other’s lives in all ways. Partnership to them is a very active term. Sherlock Holmes says, in “The Moor,” “Look around for a woman with brains and spirit. You’ll never be bored.” Mary Russell would agree, and that’s the key to their relationship. They grow into marriage, but they’re primarily partners—in spirit, in mind, in art.
What can modern couples learn from them?
An odd assumption, especially on the part of young women, is that one person in a relationship decides the course the couple will take—we are interested in art, we are travelers, etc. When partners know who they are as individuals, it makes for a stronger relationship. There’s no doubt that Mary Russell has a strong sense of self. That’s why Sherlock loves her, and why young girls like her so much.
Laurie King will bring her new book ‘Dreaming Spies’ to Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17. Free