I am so excited to have my very first author interview below. The excellent Dead Man's Land was released last week and I was thrilled when I was offered the chance to ask the author, Robert Ryan, some questions about the novel.
Dead Man's Land sees Dr. John Watson in the limelight, as visits war grounds of WWI to teach about blood tranfusion. Soon, he becomes suspicious of some strange deaths and with memory of his detective work with estranged friend Sherlock Holmes, he begins investigating and finds out that the place with so much death around is the perfect place to commit murder... You can read my review of this book here.
Did you find it a responsibility working with such iconic and much-loved characters as Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes?
To be honest I considered pitching Watson’s War (as I thought of it) several years ago, but I was wary of tackling such a well-established figure. In my novel Early One Morning I dealt with SIS (MI6) in WW2 and with Bugatti. I thought Bugatti owners would love the novel and MI6 hate it. Quite the reverse, I got to know a couple of ex-spies through the process. The Bugatti people were less welcoming. So I knew you could easily upset those who felt ‘ownership’ of a topic or a personality and Holmes obviously has fiercely protective fans. But when I talked with Simon & Schuster I realised it fitted in with exactly what they were looking for and (I think) the first series of Sherlock was being trailed, so I thought: why not give it a go? However, I do believe that, like James Bond or Batman, you can stretch and bend these characters out of shape and they always ping back to the original, allowing other writers to start all over. In Holmes’s case it is, of course, those 56 short stories and four novels that form the ACD canon. But I did pepper the text with references to those stories that I hope the aficionados enjoy.
I enjoyed the fact that Watson was in the forefront and using skills picked up from Holmes. Did you feel that you added any other dimensions to their characters?
Some of the areas I wanted to explore were Watson as an unreliable narrator of the stories who bolstered Holmes’s reputation somewhat, the fact they would both be growing older – the fear of mental capacity diminishing must be even greater for a man like Holmes – and Watson’s way with what Holmes called ‘the fair sex’. Interestingly ACD said that Holmes was simply a calculating machine and that to add anything else was to diminish the character, but I thought the twilight years of such a detective held some interest. There is one thing I would like to add – I didn’t intend for Holmes to be in the novel at all. He just barged in and wouldn’t leave.
What is the process in gaining permission to use the characters from the Conan Doyle Estate and how long did it take?
As my agent explained patiently when I told him the idea, although the Conan Doyle canon is out of copyright, Dr. Watson has been trademarked (the way Disney trademark Mickey Mouse etc.) by the Conan Doyle Estate, along with Holmes, Moriarty and Professor Challenger. Would this really stand up to legal scrutiny? I wasn’t sure. But the whole Holmes copyright issue is murky – not here but in the USA, where the situation is blurred because of various Holmes movies. The legal representatives of the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insist that as The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes is still in copyright, which means Holmes himself (and Watson) is protected until 2023. The New York Times described the situation as ‘a tangled web’. I had no desire to get caught up in it. So, it seemed worth getting the estate's blessing to proceed and, after a nervy pitch on the phone and a couple of emails outlining plot and characters, permission was granted (after a tense couple of weeks) to say that Dead Man's Land was officially sanctioned worldwide (including the USA) by Andrea Plunket, Administrator of Conan Doyle Copyrights. It might have been unnecessary, legally and strictly speaking, but it made me sleep easier.
Why do you think there has been a resurgence in popularity of the characters over the last few years?
The duo is endlessly malleable but somehow remain above all the re-inventions. Some fans loved Jeremy Brett, before that it was Basil Rathbone, now it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr – you can re-cast Holmes for every generation (much as Bond has been) and keep the essence intact. But also the Watson/Holmes partnership is the blueprint for every detective/sidekick pair you can think of, so even though they are Victorian characters, there is a modernity about their relationship. Plus, ACD’s writing is surprisingly fresh and engaging – again, every generation can re-discover the original source material.
Have you always been a fan of the characters?
Lapsed I would say. The stories and Hound were among the first thing I read (sadly, the second was Mickey Spillane, which might explain a lot). But over the years I have picked up the short stories and enjoyed them. I can’t claim to be one of those obsessive fans – you find me choosing the Holmes canon as a Mastermind subject.
You mention in your notes that found a particular blog (This Intrepid Band http://greatwarnurses.blogspot.com) helpful in your research of WWI. How useful do you find blogs and social media in your research and also in finding out readers responses to your work?
Increasingly so. Compared to the slog of researching something like Early One Morning, which wasn’t pre-internet but was pre-blogging/twitter/facebook, researching WWI was much more straightforward. I have always gone of the basis of ‘first find an expert’ for my research. Tracking down an expert has never been easier. I am not sure about readers’ response through social media. It is two years since my last novel Signal Red and the landscape has changed enormously. Like most authors, I tweet and I blog now, so I await developments with interest.
Do you find it difficult to remain historically accurate?
Not in the big picture, but sometimes precise dates are very inconvenient – like Watson being slightly ahead of the curve in blood transfusion. He is probably six months before his time. But it is a work of fiction, you can’t tie yourself in knots. And as a rule I try and apologise at the end for any liberties taken!
What other research did you do for the novel?
There were three stages. Speak to my nurse/blogger about medical matters. Read the annotated Sherlock Holmes, which dissects the stories in forensic details. Read everything I could on WWI and spend an unhealthy amount of time in the Imperial War Museum. Then just write, trying not to let all that get in the way.
You have set a lot of your work during WWI and WWII, how important do you think it is to keep the memory of these wars alive?
I think there are historians who can do a better job that me (I’m thinking Max Hasting and Anthony Beevor) of dissecting those wars. What I feel is that both conflicts remain amazing backdrops for (often true) stories when everyday men and women did remarkable things in a manner we simply can’t envisage now.
What personal links do you have to these historical events?
There are no family links left now – but because of the books I have a great friend who was in both SOE and MI6. His history of secret service for this country goes back to the Russo-Finnish war in 1939-40. After he told me his story, I wrote to the Finnish Embassy explaining that he had undertaken secret missions to help the Finns, and the government re-struck the Finnish Winter War medal. So, at the age of ninety plus, he finally got the award two years ago. He is a great source of information and wisdom about men and women in wartime
What further reading would you suggest for those interested in learning more about WWI?
Well, Birdsong did it for me when I first read it and I recently read and enjoyed Andrew Martin’s The Somme Station (which I avoided while I was finishing off DML, because the subject matter was too similar). But of non-fiction I found The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell useful and insightful and Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel both fascinating and moving.
You can find out more about Robert Ryan at www.robtryan.com or follow him on Twitter @robtryan
Thank you to Jamie Groves at Simon & Schuster UK for arranging this interview.