An Interview with Jeri Westerson
I confess! I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan since before I could read (well). Also, I was a late reader. When I was about six or so, my cousin, who was ten, would project slides of Holmes stories onto a wall and read the captions to me. Then, when my little brain got confused, he’d explain the humor and the general excellence. Consequently, I began reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle voraciously before I turned ten myself.
The stories, the films, the series, all hold a special home in my heart and I’m very happy to welcome Jeri Westerson to the Miss Demeanors to talk about her latest foray into Holmes pasticheland.
First things first… Boy are you prolific! By my count, you’ve written and published 38 novels! I could be wrong, so please set the record straight here. And by God, tell us how you manage it.
That’s 38 published novels (there are several more not published), three novellas, six short stories in anthologies, one short not in anthologies. Poverty is a strict taskmaster. It’s the job. But I suppose I came by that ethic while working to get published. There were so many rejections over the years, I began to wonder if anyone would buy my writing. So I did a number of spec articles for quirky magazines and finally began approaching local newspapers to write for, and became a stringer for two dailies and about five weekly papers. Writing newspaper stories helps one hone one’s skills to write fast, tight, and to a deadline. Perhaps a good reason so many literary giants (Jack London, Mark Twain, Edgar Alan Poe, to name a few) wrote for newspapers.
You were a graphic designer for a long time before you became an author. Do you still do design work or is it writing full time for you?
I write full time. I gave up graphic design as a career when I had my son 33 years ago. Once he was a toddler I thought to get back into it, but the whole industry had turned to computer graphics and I knew nothing about computers. Nor could I afford one or the classes to learn. That’s what turned me toward writing novels as a career move instead of just a hobby; I could stay at home, raise my son, no problem. How hard could it be? [insert outrageous laughter here]. It took me fourteen years to secure that first book contract with a big New York publisher, and four agents later too boot. But I still use my graphic skills to create my website, my bookmarks, postcards, banners, ads, and even the covers of some of my self-published books.
You also tried acting for a while. How do the skills you learned as an actor translate into writing? Personally, I find that I need to almost do method acting to get into my characters’ head spaces. Do you find yourself doing this?
Exactly. You must get into their shoes to know how they tick. As a matter of fact, I like to give them likes and dislikes exactly opposite to mine so I can really immerse myself. And I give them really great dialogue and dramatic scenes that one would wish to play. My goal, originally, was to be an actress, but in college, after some real world auditions, I decided that I just didn’t have what it takes to suffer through those kinds of brutal auditions and rejections. So I changed majors and went for the graphic design degree. It was a good move I don’t regret.
Now, The Isolated Séance is your second novel of 2023, and it’s a Sherlockian mystery. When did you first begin reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Why did you decide to set a series within that world?
I was always aware of Holmes through the Basil Rathbone movies, which I enjoyed as a kid. But I don’t think I read them until college. I was surprised, at the time, how easy it was to read, that the language was not high-falutin’ Victorianese. I don’t even know why I worried, because I was reading Shakespeare on my own before high school. I didn’t read a lot of mysteries back then. I was mostly interested in fantasy and science fiction. But you can’t get away from Holmes because he’s influenced so much literature.
Doyle is not a “play fair” mystery writer. Not like your Agatha Christie’s or Dorothy Sayers’. The latter supply you with all the clues necessary to solve it yourself, but Doyle didn’t bother with that, and Holmes’ method is really impossible to apply in real life. Nevertheless, they were compelling, as sensational Victorian literature could be, with dark secrets and adventure. It doesn’t hurt to have a detective who was the smartest person in the room, too, but someone you could never quite understand. I think this was part of the genius of Doyle to tell the stories as if written down by Dr. Watson, because it gives the reader that much distance between us and Holmes. We don’t get to know a lot of the mechanics of his thoughts and intellect, or even his feelings, or even his backstory, because the majority of the stories are in Watson’s point of view, which is just the right note, I think. Partly the appeal of Holmes is his mystique.
When I had researched the late Victorian era for my Enchanter Chronicles gaslamp-steampunk fantasy series, I realized how much I really enjoyed delving into this other era of research when I had been so steeped in the late fourteenth century with my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. But that series was coming to an end. And I began to wonder if I couldn’t write a Victorian series. But what should it be? I was actually banking of the popularity of Holmes and Sherlockian pastiches, but thought to go another direction from those that were already out there by leaving the canon alone and focusing instead on one of his Baker Street Irregulars. What if he aged out of the job and decided to open his own detective agency…and just how would that go for a young man from the East End of London with the minimal of education and funds to do this? Well, it didn’t go well. Not at first. Not until Holmes stepped in to help. That’s the premise of An Irregular Detective Mystery series.
As an author writing in 2023 about a mystery set in 1895 London, did you find you had to adjust your characters’ worldviews to be more palatable to modern readers? This is a particularly tricky line for historical authors.
Well, having written fifteen books and one short story in my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, and getting into the mindset of an intelligent and educated fourteenth century man, I had already honed that skill. The fact is, you have to use what you know of that era, keep the character’s mindset—and prejudices—of that period, and help them change their mind, unless you are writing reprehensible characters. Even so, it’s up to the author to make them convincing. We must never look at people in the past with modern eyes.
In The Demon’s Parchment, the third Crispin Guest book, Crispin had the same prejudices that most everyone of his time period had against Jews, not really having any congress with them. But as he learns through his interaction with Jews for this story, he realizes that perhaps he hadn’t learned the entire truth about them from teachings from the Church and other writings. His experience changes him.
It’s not fair to the reader to make them modern people in costume. They can still be true to their period and not be completely horrible people. There’s always the Afterword to offer a fuller explanation to the reader interested in the history behind the decisions you have made in the book and offer those perspectives.
Your Watson is a Benjamin Watson, and he happens to be a Black man (again, in 1895). How did you navigate writing his experiences in that world? Going back to question #3, what preparation and research did you do to get into his head?
There’s always research into marginalized people available when you look for it. I included him because there were Black people in England in 1895, and even much earlier. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire by 1838, and so these freed slaves traveled. Many of them were men who ended up in England…and married white women. I like Ben Watson—and you find out more about his background by the second book The Mummy of Mayfair—because he was a man of many talents who wasn’t exactly allowed to pursue them. He has a scientific mind and became a chemist’s assistant for a time (the equivalent of a pharmacist), but also had many other jobs; chimney sweep, fun fair (carnival) performer, blacksmith…all so he could support his mother. He’s really the smarter of the two, though Tim Badger, the former Baker Street Irregular, has street smarts and a case of overconfidence, so he gets by on that. He had the idea to become a detective like Holmes, and when he met Watson—his own Watson!—he believed it was Fate and convinced him to go along with his scheme.
You also have a female journalist, at a time when women were hard pressed to forge their way in the world outside of marriage. Kudos for doing that, and, same question as above.
I really like showing the diversity of the time period, something that Doyle left out (there are no Black people, for instance, in his narratives, and any other person of color is treated as exotic and usually part of the criminal activity at the heart of the mystery). The women’s suffrage movement hadn’t quite begun yet, but the roots were certainly there. Ellsie Moira Littleton was modeled on a real female reporter of the time and for the same paper. She reflects the “Modern Woman” movement, women who weren’t satisfied to be housewives and wanted more out of life. Of course, her interest stemmed from necessity as her father left little behind for her upkeep. So she chose a road less traveled by women of the period but was still trod by a few others. She begins as an antagonist and eventually becomes a partner and love interest. I like writing that too, enemies becoming friends, because a mustache twirling villain isn’t exactly realistic.
Sir Conan Doyle was famously involved with mediums and seances. Did knowing that figure into your plot at all?
Absolutely. Victorian penny dreadfuls were chock full of vampires, ghosts, and the like. And even Doyle used the paranormal to entice readers; The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sussex Vampire, The Creeping Man…and then he turns around and has Holmes debunk it all with logic and science. Which was an interesting thing for Doyle to do because he was a staunch spiritualist. And fairy fancier. So it’s to his credit in his writing skills that he refused to let his detective be dragged into it.
And last, but certainly not least, who is your favorite on-screen Sherlock and/or Watson?
As I said earlier, I grew up with Basil Rathbone and loved him for it for a number of years before I began to read the stories. And I realized that his performance was, perhaps, a bit wooden, and of course, Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, was a failed characterization of the Watson in the stories. I consider Jeremy Brett as the only current canon characterization. He embraces the manic quality, and David Burke and Edward Hardwick in their roles as Dr. Watson, gets him back to the intelligent man as he was originally portrayed in the stories. Holmes wouldn’t align himself with a bumbling fool. He respects Watson and considered him a bosom friend. When I write Holmes, it is definitely Jeremy Brett I channel. We are blessed to have that series to enjoy to enhance what Doyle gave us.
Los Angeles native JERI WESTERSON currently writes two new series: a Tudor mystery series, the King’s Fool Mysteries, with Henry VIII’s real court jester Will Somers as the sleuth, and a Sherlockian pastiche series called An Irregular Detective Mystery, with one of Holmes’ former Baker Street Irregulars opening his own detective agency.
She also authored fifteen Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries, a series nominated for thirteen awards from the Agatha, to the Macavity, to the Shamus. She’s written several paranormal series (including a gaslamp fantasy-steampunk series), standalone historical novels, and had stories in several anthologies, the latest of which was included in SOUTH CENTRAL NOIR, an Akashic Noir anthology.
She has served as president of the SoCal Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, president and vice president for two chapters of Sisters in Crime (Orange County and Los Angeles), and is also a founding member of the SoCal chapter of the Historical Novel Society. See JeriWesterson.com for discussion guides, book trailers, and more.