10 Questions with James Lovegrove
1. Mr. Lovegrove, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Sherlock Holmes – Gods of War, your newest novel, came out on June 10. Tell us a bit more about this book.
GODS OF WAR is set during the twilight of Sherlock Holmes’s career, after he has retired to the south coast and taken up beekeeping. It finds him comfortably ensconced in his small farm on the Downs near Eastbourne but a little bit bored and restless, missing the stimulation and adventure of the old days. Watson arrives for a week-long stay, and before you know it the two of them are embroiled in a mystery. The body of a young man has been found on the beach at the foot of the section of cliff called Beachy Head, a renowned suicide spot. The local police and the boy’s father reckon he took his own life. Holmes believes differently. But is that a product of analytical reasoning, or is the Great Detective, as Watson fears, so desperate for excitement and a sense of purpose that he is trying to find a murder case where none exists?
2. What is it like to write about the world’s most famous detective, especially since his character is very well established? Did you find it a bit limiting as you had to fit a certain persona?
The personalities of Holmes and Watson are so well etched that it’s difficult to improve them, and it would unwise to alter them too much. I don’t mind that, because Doyle has still left plenty of room for other authors to develop them and play around. In my Holmes pastiches I bring an element of good-humoured antagonism into the two men’s relationship, Holmes forever exasperated with Watson, Watson finding his friend’s intolerance increasingly intolerable. There is no doubting the bond that exists between them, but it can’t be easy for Watson, being the best and perhaps only friend of such a difficult and frustrating man, and I like to work on that angle. They’re like brothers who have grown up together, and sometimes can’t stand each other but nonetheless can’t imagine being separated.
3. How is Sherlock Holmes – Gods of War different from other books featuring this character?
It’s set late in Holmes’s life, on the eve of the First World War. Holmes is pushing 60, his bones are a little creakier than once they were, and perhaps his mind is not quite the steel trap it used to be. Watson is definitely feeling his age and is more attracted by the comforts of hearth and home than the prospect of pursuing criminals and putting his life in danger. They’re not young men any more, either of them, and that’s a central theme of the story: the question of there coming a time when one has to admit to one’s frailties and adjust one’s expectations of oneself accordingly. The shadow of war, too, looms large over the action. In 1913, a Europe-wide conflict seemed all but inevitable, and there was a definite sense of doom in the air. It’s not a downbeat novel by any means, but its mood and content reflect the tenor of the times. I also foreground Eastbourne and its surroundings. Few Holmes novels have done that, I feel. I was born in Sussex and know the area like the back of my hand. The local landscape and folkloreare as crucial to Gods Of War as Victorian London is in most of Doyle’s original tales.
4. What is your greatest disappointment as a writer? What is your greatest satisfaction?
I have few disappointments. There are maybe a couple of novels I’ve written that didn’t turn out exactly the way I was hoping, and a few that haven’t sold as well as I would have liked. I tend to regard these not as failures but as learning experiences. They’ve helped pushed me in the right direction, by showing me which paths I’m better off not taking. My greatest satisfaction as a writer is any book of mine that does what I set out to do when beginning it. My first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Stuff Of Nightmares, is one of those. I wrote it at blazing speed – it took me seven weeks in all – because I was so excited about it, and I felt I got the combination of Holmes investigation and steampunk thriller just about right. Beyond that, any book I finish, I’m satisfied by. It’s another notch in my belt, another step towards building a decent body of work.
5. Why do you write?
The cynical answer would be “to pay the bills”, and I won’t deny – no writer would – that getting paid to make up stories is always good. It’s what we want when we start out on a literary career: the freedom to do this job and earn a living wage from it. However, writing is also a compulsion, a bit of an addiction, and I’ve been doing it so long that I can’t now contemplate a life of doing anything else. The process itself, the daily slog of turning out a couple of thousand words, can be pretty gruelling, even disheartening at times, but the end-product – a novel with one’s name on the spine – is immensely rewarding. Finding a readership, connecting with them, keeping people entertained, holding them in your grasp for the time it takes them to finish the book – that’s a writer’s inspiration and goal.
6. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing?
I’m slightly alarmed by the way self-publishing has allowed a vast number of poor-quality books to become available for sale. These are little more than rambling, unmediated manuscripts that haven’t been through the traditional and to my mind necessary process of commission, acceptance, editing and proofing. As the saying goes, everyone has a novel in them, and in most cases that’s where it should stay. Self-publishing has done away with that, opening up the field to all-comers regardless of ability. Of course the occasional gem will turn up, and will become a huge sales success, and that’s wonderful. Great books often get overlooked by the big publishing houses and the small press, and self-publishing can be the only viable route for the author to get their work out there. But this huge glut of available material is in danger of swamping the market and making the signal indistinguishable amid the noise. Readers who have too much to choose from may end up choosing crap or, worse, nothing at all.
7. What are your favorite pastimes?
I don’t have much spare time outside of work, and the little I do is taken up with my duties as a father of two young boys. That said, I try to keep fit, because I feel that the healthier my body is, the better my brain will work, so I’m at the gym twice a week and out walking the dog most days. I get to the movies as often as I can, and I play board games with my kids – especially the roleplaying game Talisman – whenever possible. And, of course, I read voraciously.
8. Had your writing not worked out, what would you have wanted to do?
I’d have liked to be a musician. I set out to do that originally after I left school, but for one reason and another the being-in-a-band thing didn’t work out. I now compose songs and instrumentals on a keyboard in my office, but again I don’t have as much free time to do this as I would like, so it’s become a sporadic activity rather than a continual hobby. It’s nice, in a way, to have a creative outlet that isn’t in thrall to deadlines and payments, that’s purely for pleasure and my own satisfaction.
9. What are your writing habits? Outlines or not?
I write my daily pages longhand first, then type them into the computer and tinker around with the text. I like to have a pen in my hand and a piece of paper in front of me, but I also like the flexibility and limitless freedom that word processing offers. If I manage five or six pages in a morning, I’m happy. I prepare outlines, always, but I seldom stick to them once I’ve started work on the novel. By page 50 I’m already straying, and by page 100 I’ve more often than not gone down a completely different route. I’ll keep to the bare bones of the novel’s basic concept but everything else is subject (and liable) to change. New characters appear, new idea suggest themselves, the plot veers off in new directions. That’s part of the fun of it: knowing where you’re headed, not knowing quite how you’ll get there or even how near you’ll come to your intended destination. Usually you wind up somewhere you couldn’t have predicted, somewhere better.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
I’ve just completed World Of Fire, the first volume in what I hope will be a long-running space opera series. That’s out in August. I am now literally just starting work on a new Sherlock Holmes, The Thinking Engine. It’s set in Oxford in 1895 and involves a steam-powered computational device that seems able to think like a human – and indeed may be even smarter than Holmes himself.