Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Murder in the Vatican

Here is an interview with author Ann Margaret Lewis about her new collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.
EMV: Ann, congratulations on the publication of your most recent book, Murder in the Vatican.  I commend you for reviving the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a series of new adventures. I enjoyed becoming reacquainted with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. You captured the essence of the original Holmes stories, while finding your own voice in the telling of the tales. What were some of the challenges of writing a novel with characters who are already so well-known?
AML: The real challenge is to being true to the original. With Holmes pastiches, that is often not the case, so there are many bad ones. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a specific character that folks know, so I had to make sure Holmes and Watson lived up to their expectations. If I deviated at all, I needed to give a very good reason for it. In other words – I needed to remain “orthodox.” I wasn’t going to make any major changes to Holmes or Watson, or even to Father Brown who has a cameo in the book or the Holy Father Pope Leo. To be true to all of them, I really had to know them like I know my own family.
EMV: Your portrayal of Pope Leo XIII is especially vivid.  Pope Leo has long had my admiration, but after reading Murder in the Vatican, I feel as if I have had an audience with him. Can you share a little about what it was like to depict the pope in a work of fiction?
AML: Intimidating. I wanted to wear a veil as I typed.  
Seriously, I wanted to reflect him as he was, but I knew to tell a story about him some literary license would be necessary. It was like the process of converting a book to film. To make a novel work in another medium, one has to tweak the storytelling, To make a real person (Leo) into a character in a story, I had to tweak him ever so slightly—and yet remain true to who he was. Nevertheless, I felt guilty even doing the mild change I did. I repeatedly asked his forgiveness for taking what license I did. (I had him be a little more physically active than I’m sure he really was—but no Jackie Chan moves from this pontiff!).
EMV: I enjoyed the scenes that take place in Rome and at the Vatican, and while I was reading I thought that you must have spent time Italy because you really transport the reader there. Am I guessing correctly?
AML: Back when I was in college I stayed in Italy for three months studying Italian language and Renaissance art. But I really only managed to stay two days in Rome. Wisely, I spent most of that time at the Vatican. So, I was relying on my memories, photographs and books I purchased while I was there as well as others I checked out of the library to remind myself of where everything was. The difficult part was the inside of the papal palace, though, because one can’t go in there. So I lucked out in that I found an article from an 1890s magazine that described the inside of the palace as it was during Leo’s reign. And the artist even made sketches! So that helped a good deal.
EMV: Fascinating! Many historical details of what was going on in the Church and the world are subtly woven into your narrative, which enrich the impact of the mysteries that Holmes must solve. Could you tell us a little about the research that went into crafting a mystery in an authentic historical setting?
AML: Finding primary source material was invaluable. I found the article I mentioned above on ebay doing a search for stuff relating to Leo XIII. The magazine was The Century and it was from February of 1896. What a find! Also, I found another terrific article online done by a contemporary journalist named James Creelman who personally met and interviewed Papa Leo—the first journalist ever to interview a pope. I also read a period biography (written by a priest mentioned in one of my stories, by the way). Using works from that time tend to get you into the proper frame of mind for the period.
Then, of course, looking at the history of the church at that time, particularly in England gave me ideas for the stories themselves. I discovered London didn’t yet have a cathedral and that the hierarchy was only recently restored. I read what it was like in England as Leo moved from bishop to Cardinal and then pope, and how Queen Victoria felt about the Church. All of these things helped me paint a picture of the time, and were all very useful in creating a proper setting for the mysteries to take place. In fact, the stories grew out of the research. I had ideas to start with, but as I researched I realized doing things differently would just be so much more interesting. It was almost like…how Michelangelo described sculpting. Just as the David was always in the marble and he just “uncovered it” – the mysteries were in the history, I simply “uncovered” them.
EMV: Ann, from reading your short bios I am struck by your vast range of interests, from being a Star Wars expert to a classically trained soprano. Do you find that having varied interests, especially in art, literature, film and history, help to feed the creative process?
AML: I have always believed so. Unfortunately, I have to split my time between my other interests and writing and that makes me a slow writer. But as I learn new things, it gives me material to use in new writing projects. For instance, in another novel I’ve finished, I have an opera singer who is a soprano. I would have made her, perhaps, a contralto…but it was easier to make her a soprano because it saves me some research. I already know her repertoire!  
Regardless, doing other things energizes me for writing. It’s also nice to know that someday when my singing voice fails (which it will as I age), I can always write. So that’ll always stay with me.
EMV: I am intrigued by your next book. Can you tell us a little about it?
AML: I’ve finished one more Holmes manuscript called The Watson Chronicles—which is going through a little editing right now. That’s a book in which Dr. Watson writes about his life as he and Holmes part ways at the turn of the century. I haven’t yet snagged a publisher for it—I’m hoping my present publisher may be interested in it. It is a little different in that it isn’t a straight mystery, though it has mysteries in it.
Now, the book I’m writing right now—and that is a book called Roman. A gentleman by the name of Deacon John McMullen wrote the book originally—and I was asked to come in and work with him on it. It is about a priest who was accused of accosting a woman in a confessional in Southern Indiana in the 1840s. I am helping him rewrite the book into a more “blockbuster” novel. It is a true story, and Deacon John is a terrific researcher. It’s really a very engaging tale and I can’t wait to really dig into it with him.
EMV: I can't wait to read it! You are a very gifted lady and definitely a person to watch for those who like good historical fiction! Thank you, Ann.
My review of Murder in the Vatican is HERE.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful, insightful interview, Elena Maria and Ann! I'm reading your book now, Ann, and thoroughly enjoying it!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Ellen!

Julygirl said...

Souonds like the same issues that arise in writing historical fiction. Good Luck with what appears to be a worthwhile 'read'.