Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Anna Waterhouse. She has co-written Mycroft Holmes (Titan Books, September 2015) with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Anna Waterhouse is a professional screenwriter and script consultant.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNA WATERHOUSE
- Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
I was born and partly raised in Italy...English is actually my second language. In the past 20 years, I've taught screenwriting and worked on screenplays, primarily fixing 'broken' ones. Somewhere in there, I got the bright idea of going back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing. I wrote a novel for my thesis but got too busy to even send it out. Then I began another one, got about 200 pages in....and was sidelined by other work.
So, although Mycroft Holmes is not my first novel, it's my first published novel.
- What inspired you to become an author? Have you always been interested in writing?
My mother told me, since I was seven or so, that I was a writer. At that age, and well into my 20s, I couldn't think of anything more boring than sitting alone in a room, 'coming up with stuff.' I tried other things: I was a child actress (on TV shows that you're no doubt too young to remember). I was a singer and a disc jockey. I did voiceover work....anything to get out of having to actually sit down and write. Eventually, though, I realized that I didn't hate it...that, in truth, I loved it. It was a real Beauty and the Beast moment, I guess, when I finally embraced the creature.
- You collaborated with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on "Mycroft Holmes" (Titan Books, September/October 2015), which is a novel about Sherlock Holmes' older brother. What was it like to work with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? How did you come up with the idea of writing this novel together?
Kareem is great. I know the word "enthusiastic" doesn't crop up that much when one describes him, but for those things he's passionate about, it's a word that fits. Beyond that, he's knowledgeable, and blessed with what I wish I had: a very good memory for facts and details. The book was entirely his idea: it's something he's been carrying around for years, this love for Conan Doyle and particular admiration for, and curiosity about, Mycroft Holmes.
As to our collaboration, that began a few years ago. He executive produced and co-wrote a full-length documentary, "On the Shoulders of Giants." Through no fault of his, the 'finished product' had gone off the rails, and his business partner and manager, Deborah Morales, hired me to fix it. He and I (and Deborah) sat in an edit bay for what seems like fourteen years (but was probably a few months) and reshaped it. It won some awards, including the NAACP Image Award for Best Doc, and was for a long time on both Showtime and Netflix. So we already knew we could work well together.
- Did you work intensely together during the writing process?
Writing is always intense, isn't it? I just don't know of a single instance of, "Whoa, that was easy!"
We began with his original ideas. From that, we built a fifty-five page outline. (I want to emphasize that that's five pages less than sixty.) It was massive. It had everything in there and the kitchen sink. It took forever. And then our intrepid editor at Titan, Steve Saffel, went over it with a fine-tooth comb, challenging this and asking about that, and suggesting the other thing. But it also made the writing process itself a bit less arduous. We went chapter by chapter, passing each back and forth until we were satisfied.
- Could you tell us something about the protagonist, Mycroft Holmes? What kind of a man is he?
He's the reason I signed on. It's the same reason that Kareem signed on. Unlike Sherlock, who goes after the individual criminal, and for whom 'the game's afoot!' Mycroft takes no joy in deduction per se. He isn't remotely interested in punishing the criminal. He sees a bigger picture: a world view (or at least the part of the world that Britain has to do with). He's interested in stopping crime before it happens. Eventually, he will do so via laws, edicts and diplomacy (as Sherlock says of him, he sometimes is the British government)...along with Machiavellian chess matches. But when we meet him, at 23, he thinks civilization is going along just fine, thank you very much, and he's very comfortable with his role in it. It's only when his world is upended that he reluctantly takes on the role of hero — which is true of many of us, I think, the reluctant warrior.
- Could you also tell us a something about Cyrus Douglas?
I'm in love with Cyrus Douglas. He's 40 and already wise way beyond his years...as any black man would have to be, who manages to run a successful business in 1870s London. He's had a rough life, but he's not bitter. And he cares deeply for Mycroft, partly because he sees goodness in him, and partly because Douglas is the sort of man who would care deeply about anything that's been placed in his path, that he's been given to nurture. Because Mycroft is so brilliant, Douglas has to be more than a translator for the audience, a la "...and why is that, Holmes?" He has to be able, within reason, to keep up with the latter's deductions, and — because Mycroft is not the most soundly ethical person in the world — to steer him gently but firmly back to the straight and narrow.
- Mycroft Holmes and Cyrus Douglas are realistic and well-created characters. Was it challenging to write about them and their investigations?
I don't know. Truly. Sometimes the writing process is a bit of a blur afterwards. There are times when 'something' takes over and you have several 'aha!' moments, one after the other. And times when you're just counting pages, hoping to get to the end of the chapter. It helped that there were two of us. When I was stuck, or Kareem was stuck, it helped to talk it over and work it out.
- There's charmingly witty British-like humour in this novel that I found compelling. What inspired you to use humour in the story?
When you're emulating, even loosely, a writer who is so very iconic, you just can't take yourself too seriously. Beyond that, I gravitate to people who make me laugh, and I hope I make them laugh (occasionally even for the right reasons), so I guess it's a matter of simply not wanting to spend that much time with characters who aren't at least a little amusing.
- When I read "Mycroft Holmes", I noticed that you've managed to create a realistic and believable vision of life and crime in the late 19th century. Did you have to do any research about historical facts before or during the writing process?
Research before, during, and even after. (After, because Titan has a few dynamos of fact checking that kept us on our toes.) The research, frankly, was brutal. But it's all definitely worth it: first, because nearly all the characters in the periphery are either real or based on someone who actually lived at that time; and then because that attention to detail — when it comes to setting — helps you 'place' the characters within it, and act/react in a way that feels a lot more genuine. (Because it is.)
- You write about racial issues, prejudices and slavery in an excellent way in this novel. Was it challenging to write about these issues?
It's funny, because we never intended 'racial issues' to be a part of the story. It's just that, when you make Mycroft Holmes' best friend a 40-year-old black man, it's hard to get around it. So if it's 'excellent' (and thank you for that, by the way!), it's because the character was born first....and we simply watched him interact, if you will, in his particular society in his particular manner. The rest was pretty much inevitable.
- Most of the happenings take place in Trinidad. Have you ever visited Trinidad?
Never. But Kareem has, several times. His family is from there. His grandmother Venus first told him stories of the lougarou, and from there we found the douen.
- I noticed that "Mycroft Holmes" strongly appeals to speculative fiction readers, because there are a few references to supernatural elements ("douen" and "lougarou"). What inspired you to use these elements?
- How would you advertise "Mycroft Holmes" to readers who are thinking of reading it? What is the target audience of this novel?
Oh, wow. I'm so bad at the pitch!
Last question first. I'd say the target audience is early 20s and up. I would like to think it branches beyond lovers of Sherlock, but that's as good a start as any. Mycroft Holmes is a man whom Sherlock claims is smarter than he is, who is more than just in the British government but at times is the British government. This, then, is his origin story. Where did he come from? What sort of young man was he? What was his relationship to his younger brother? His parents? What could have so broken his heart that, like Sherlock, he never marries? And so on. Beyond all that, Britain is always portrayed, in the Victorian era, as being profoundly and very nearly exclusively white. But it wasn't. Britain had colonized much of the known world and so was polyglot and poly-colored. This novel, while paying homage to Conan Doyle, goes its own way in re-creating that time.
- Have you planned on writing a sequel or a companion novel to "Mycroft Holmes"?
We are hoping for so many sequels that we finally catch up to Conan Doyle's obese and curmudgeonly 40-something creation. But that's up to the readers.
- What was the most rewarding part of the writing process and what was the most challenging part of the writing process?
The most challenging was probably the same challenge any writer faces: the blank page. Because, even though we knew 'what happens next,' in that we had such an extensive outline, diving in is always an issue. There's a lot of nervous snacking going on, short walks to the fridge and back. The most rewarding part is always the same too: finally seeing it take shape. Having a sentence, or a paragraph, or sometimes an entire page, that flows well enough that it doesn't want to make you run screaming from the room...that feels good.
- What can readers expect next from you?
I'm dusting off my MFA thesis novel and trying to finish the other novel I began. And hopefully Kareem and I can get going on a sequel to Mycroft Holmes.
- Is there anything you'd like to add?
Only that I'm so very appreciative of everyone who reads the novel and likes it, who not only sees all the hard work that went into it but actually enjoys it.
I seriously can't thank you enough.