Brittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels, including A Study in Charlotte, The Last of August, and The Case for Jamie, which will be released March 6, 2018. She’s also the author of the poetry collection Girl-King and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is a creative writing instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy.
Can you tell us about the process of writing in a teenage boy mindset? Did you ever consider a different gender dynamic to Holmes and Watson? Such as two girls or two boys?
That’s a really good question, and I’ll start by answering the second part first. Holmes and Watson are interesting figures in the history of queer studies and queer theory, and there is a really strong case to be made that Holmes and Watson have a romantic connection in addition to a platonic one. There is some evidence that Doyle, in fact, based Sherlock Holmes and John Watson off of a pair of his friends who had lived together as “confirmed bachelors” in London for a long time. I would love to see some kind of canonical adaptation of Holmes and Watson that works really closely with the original Sherlock Holmes stories and re-imagines it as a queer relationship. But I’m not necessarily the person to write that story, and I was also keenly aware that it is not my place to be telling a lesbian version of Sherlock Holmes. There are [stories where] Holmes and Watson are re-imagined as lesbians, they’re just not been picked up by mainstream publishing in the same way, or they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The same goes with gay, male Holmes and Watson. There is, of course, a way to make them both girls or both boys and have it be a platonic relationship, but one of the most important things for me was creating a relationship that blurred the lines between friendship and romance in the way that a lot of really obsessive teenage relationships do. And in my own experience, in where I felt like I had the most right to be telling this story, I wanted them to be a boy and a girl.
In terms of writing in the voice of a teenage boy, I actually really enjoyed it. I never imagined writing in anybody else’s voice for the series – I knew I wanted Jamie Watson to be the world’s worst rugby-playing-teenage-boy-poet, and that was something I thought about quite a bit from the beginning. I think that teenage boys get the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. I feel like while we are expanding the representations of different kinds of teenage girls, we are sometimes forgetting about the complexities of teenage boys; that they evoke different kinds of gender expression in the same way that girls do. Jamie Watson is kind of a hot-headed romantic, and, in a lot of ways, he’s a lot more sensitive than Charlotte is, and in my own experience, that’s been the case as well: my male friends have felt things more deeply than I have. So, I drew Jamie a little bit from life, a little bit from my imagination, and a little bit from the original Dr. Watson and what I imagined he would’ve been like as a teenager before he evened out as an adult. That was where I started building Jamie.
How was it writing a mystery novel? How do you as a writer anticipate readers’ expectations and subvert them?
I hope I do that! I mean, we have certain expectations of a mystery novel, particularly ones having to do with murder – that you’re going to find a body, and that then you’re going to find a second body. You’re going to have a detective who exists a little bit outside of society, and because of that, has a unique view as they look in. The most important thing to me in writing the Charlotte books was that I wanted the girl to be the genius, and I wanted her to be the kind of genius that was frightening, not the kind of type-A perfectionist genius we see portrayed so often – that there was something raw, jagged, and frightening to her intelligence. In a lot of ways, I think the Charlotte series is a character study where they solve mysteries, rather than a mystery series that has some ongoing characterization, and some of my impetus for that comes from my changing relationship to the Sherlock Holmes stories as I’ve gotten older. When I was a kid, I loved those stories because they were wonderful, little puzzle boxes, but now, I’m more interested in the relationship between the outsider and the person you think of as his human credential. As in, you can say, “Holmes must be an all right guy because this really wonderful person is his best friend.”
One way I wanted to subvert original the Holmes and Watson relationship is that I think Jamie is still on his way towards being a good person as much as Charlotte Holmes is. He makes a lot of mistakes, and in the original Sherlock Holmes stories I think Watson is very steadfast, loyal, and not an incredibly dynamic character. So, I wanted to give Jamie a little bit more room to have flaws.
In terms of writing a mystery novel – don’t do it. *laughs* It’s a lot of fun, but you will find yourself constantly contradicting yourself and constantly making a giant muddle of your work. I think I tweeted when I was thinking about it a few months ago, something like, “revising a mystery novel feels like you have this giant, messy ball of yarn that has a grenade inside, and the only tool you have to open it is a chainsaw.” There’s no way it’s not going to end with dismemberment and blood. I’ve had to allow myself, as a novelist, to be messy in my plotting and in my decisions in a way I’ve never really allowed myself to be in my poetry, because in order to get the novel done, I have to say things I’m going to contradict later, I have to make decisions that are wrong, and characters will die who will have to be resurrected by the final draft. There’s a lot of stuff I have to ultimately fix. I think mystery novels seem very tightly plotted and controlled, but you’re only seeing the finished product. At least in terms of the way I work, I have to clean up all my edges, constantly, and that’s been a big challenge for me. It’s gotten a little bit easier as time has gone on, but when I was first writing A Study in Charlotte, I was like “Oh my god, what have I done!” *laughs*
When it comes to constructing a narrative, how did it differ when writing a poetry book versus a novel?
In terms of writing Girl King, originally the book wasn’t in sections: it was one long arc in terms of the poems. One thing that was really useful, actually, as I continued to revise the book, was putting it into smaller arcs and thinking about each section as a self-contained unit. Constructing a narrative of twelve poems was a lot more natural for me than constructing a narrative of, say, forty-eight poems. As I was used to constructing these smaller, tightly-constructed poems, so, I found that sections were really useful. I also was worried in the original few drafts of this book [Girl King] that the reader might trying to ascribe one speaker onto the “I,” to constantly return to this one conception of who is telling these stories, and that that reader would be looking for her narrative development over the course of the poems. I really think there are a number of speakers in the collection, and one thing that having it in sections de-emphasizes is the importance of having one voice in the collection. There’s this weird slippage with poetry much of the time. People really like to read autobiography into your poems, whereas nobody would read A Study in Charlotte and say, “I know you’re Jamie Watson,” and you reply “Yep, totally Jamie Watson!” *laughs*
But with Girl King, oftentimes I would put poems next to each other that very clearly had different speakers to try to trouble that idea a little bit and to break up the idea of who was talking. So, a lot of the construction of this [Girl King] has to do more with setting and with time-period. I like to think about those poems next to each other, speaking to each other. For example, maybe there will be a poem set in 1990’s, Illinois, next to a poem set in the nineteenth century, but I feel like the speakers are quite similar, and so we can kind of transition from one to the next in that way. Or, I will put two speakers from a similar time-place who are quite different people next to each other. I think quite a bit about creating tension in that way.
In terms of writing a novel, it’s just very different. I would think quite a bit about how the events of the novel mimic the character’s internal journeys throughout the course of the book – if my characters are moving from this emotional point to this emotional point, how can I put them through a series of emotional events that would lead them there, and how do those events, and what they are, mimic the internal struggle of these characters?
What made you choose to write about the descendants of a fictional character and making the ancestors real in the world of the novel? How true did you feel you needed to be to the source material? How do you make it fresh for a 21st century audience?
Woof. *laughs* For the third question, I just hope I have! I guess to answer the other questions, we Sherlockians do a thing called playing the Great Game, or the Grand Game, depending on what continent you’re on. What we do, we strange group of people, is that we pretend Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, Dr. Watson wrote the stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the literary agent, and all the inconsistencies in the stories add up in some way, or are mistakes that Dr. Watson himself had made when he was writing the stories. We do that because there are a lot of inconsistencies and mistakes. Jamie points out a few of these over the course of A Study in Charlotte; he breaks down “The Speckled Band” and all of the errors Doyle made while writing it.
I wanted to make my Holmes and Watson, Charlotte and Jamie, the descendants of Holmes and Watson for a couple of reasons. The first is, if we suppose Holmes and Watson were real, then we have all of this amazing, weird expectation placed on any descendants they might have. So, if they were real people in the world they would have been quite famous; they would have had a kind of celebrity that was really troubling for the descendants who felt they had to live up to it. In a lot of ways, I wanted to mirror the feeling you have when you’re a teenager, when you feel like there is a certain amount of expectation placed on you by your parents—whether it’s to be like them, to not be like them, or to perform in some proscribed way they’ve set up for you. So, I felt there was kind of a nice mirror there; there was a way for me to satisfy some of my Sherlockian impulses while also staying true to the spirit of Young Adult fiction.
In terms of it being new – well, it’s interesting. I think there are a lot of adaptations that focus on the ways in which a modern-day Sherlock Holmes would be a technological wizard, and I think that definitely has merit. But the thing that drew me to writing a story like this was that I love campus novels. I love boarding school novels, and there seemed something kind of strange about Charlotte having her own CSI lab in the middle of a setting like a boarding school. So, in terms of keeping it fresh or new for a modern day audience, I tried to focus on the characters themselves feeling modern rather than the trappings, or the means of deduction, feeling hyper-modern, because I’m not a technological expert. So, quite a few of things I have Charlotte focus on are spy training techniques, a lot of MI5 stuff, that doesn’t require technology. She knows how to tell if people are lying, which I now know how to do since I had to study it for Charlotte – it’s weird, to be able to look at someone you don’t know and be like … *makes a telling look, laughs*
In A Study in Charlotte, Watson struggles with his national identity, stating, “In England, I was an American. Here it was the opposite.” As your work seems to center around Anglo topics, do you see this sense of national fluidity in yourself?
At the time I was writing Girl King and A Study in Charlotte, I was thinking a lot about those questions. I had been living in Scotland for a while; I had plans to move back to Scotland, and, at that point, I was thinking quite a bit about what it meant to be an American abroad. I had never felt so American as I did when I was outside of America, and that was a really strange and interesting experience for me. I think that feeling of being an outsider, no matter where you are, is something you feel a lot when you’re a teenager, whether you’re trespassing on another social class, or trespassing in somebody else’s family – that you don’t belong where you are, this idea that you’re never exactly quite right. That was something I wanted to underscore with Jamie Watson. Another reason why I made Jamie this outsider was in tribute to the original Dr. Watson, who comes back from the war in Afghanistan to London where he’s friendless and alone. I wanted to think about what that would be like for a sixteen year-old boy, minus some of the trauma, which is also something Doyle doesn’t really explore. His Dr. Watson has old war wounds – although, with Doyle’s inconsistencies, sometimes the wound is in his leg and sometimes it’s in his shoulder, which is part of the reason why on page one of A Study in Charlotte, Jamie says he misses “London like an arm, or a leg.” *laughs* Sometimes I don’t know why anybody reads these books; I just wrote them for myself!
That was one way I thought about it; that Jamie didn’t necessarily have a home he felt he could go to, especially in America with his father nearby who he wasn’t close to – that he would feel quite like an outsider. I really dislike the word “Anglophile,” but I suppose, in some ways, you could say I am one or someone who is really comfortable and happy in Scotland. When I was living there, I found the sense of history really fascinating. I loved the idea that I could stand somewhere and that place had existed for a long time. I had a Scottish boyfriend for a long time, and when he came to visit me in the States, he made the observation that America feels like it could blow away at any time, like a bazaar, or a county fair. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for months after he’d said it.
I’m really interested in exploring that sense of being uncomfortable where you are, and what is productive about that feeling of being uncomfortable. If you were standing just outside something, how does that change your relationship to it rather than participating in it? Some of it just comes down to being a writer, in that I watch myself watching things all the time. There’s nothing so acute as the experience of being a foreigner, and I really liked being a foreigner, which probably says strange things about me.
In your poems, you blend together historical, mythical, and pop-culture references seamlessly. Is there a process of choosing these? And is there a worry that these references will clash with one another if you choose them?
I really feel I have less agency about what goes into the poems than I do about what goes into the novels, in that sometimes the reference just sort of presents itself, or I get really, really stuck on a title [a poet friend like Rebecca Hazelton] has given me… In terms of this, so much of the time I think that when I’m writing a poem, I am writing it to revise something that really bothers me, and that botheration doesn’t have to be negative, necessarily, it could just be an idea that I get stuck on. As a kid, I was pretty obsessive. If I liked something I really, really liked it, and I think I learned how to channel that into writing. And so, if I watch something and I really love it, I will watch it four hundred more times, and then I will write something about it. I love the things I love to death, I guess.
What’s an example?
Sherlock Holmes, obviously. When I was a kid, the X-Files… but yeah, I just am sort of obsessive and sometimes I think about my poems as an encyclopedia of things that I haven’t been able to get rid of. There’s a Marie de France lai I wrote about in Girl-King about a woman who was accused of cheating because she is carrying twins, the idea being that, if you have two fetuses inside you, they have to be the result of parentage of two men. And I just thought about that all the time for some reason and I’m not sure why. Mostly, because I think it—we tell stories to explain the world, but sometimes the story that you choose to tell to explain the world is a shitty one, like this Marie de France story. What can we make of that? I wanted to explore it.
I was really obsessed for a really long time with Victorian magicians. There was a year… the best year of my life was the year that there were two Victorian magician movies that came out, The Prestige and The Illusionist—do you remember that? They came out at the same time! I was like, ‘I don’t know even know what’s happened here!’ I love Nicola Tesla, I love the horrible monster that was Thomas Edison, I have no idea why I love these things, but I just do. And I think a lot of the time, my poems are my way of explaining to myself why I love them or why I was bothered by them, or both. And I usually love things that have a big flaw in them that don’t let me step inside of them completely, and my writing is a way of fixing that or revising it. …Like my Berryman imitations, where John Berryman is my favorite poet, and his depiction of women and black people is just flawed, offensive, and occasionally straight-up gross…And yet, the way he works with language is so interesting to me and was so influential; I started rewriting his poems phrase by phrase, making his Henry into a woman—which I hope offends him, wherever he is—and trying to explore, at least, my feelings on gender. I don’t think I’m the person to rewrite Berryman’s poems on racial politics; that’s not something that I’m qualified to do… Tyehimba Jess has rewritten some of the Dream Songs, like in his pom “Freed Song”, which is wonderful. But yeah, so some of my work was intriguing to work out like ‘what is it with Berryman?’ and ‘why do I love him and how can I fix this’, which is not to say my poems are doing anything but satisfying some need for me to talk back to those poems.
Have you ever purposefully, or unconsciously, written poetry about your Sherlock Holmes series? Is there a process that gives the characters more depth, or tell you new things about them?
So my second poetry collection, Unhistorical, has a long murder mystery about Holmes and Watson, as Holmes and Watson. That’s coming out next year… The Holmes and Watson poems I was writing were trying to speak more directly to some ideas I have about power, genius, and agency than what I think the Charlotte Holmes book are doing, and the poems—those Holmes and Watson poems I’ve written—are also in conversation with the more contemporary poems in that manuscript, in that they depict a relationship that the Holmes and Watson one. I want those to be read on top of each other as much as possible. So much of what I love is from the nineteenth century, and getting to write from a place where I can use that diction is creatively fruitful for me. I also think that those concerns from Doyle’s stories are pretty contemporary, ight? Like, who has more power in the relationship and why is the question that I think we ask a lot in all of our friendships and relationships in the day to day, even if we aren’t aware we’re asking it. There is a poem in Girl-King that I think about as the precursor to the Charlotte Holmes books. It’s called “Autotheism” which is the word for the worship of oneself as a god. The poem is set in contemporary America, and while it’s not explicitly about her, I very much had a young, female, Sherlock Holmes in mind when I wrote that.
How do you form multi-faceted characters like Holmes, and what is that process like?
I like to start with conflict. I like to start with people who are very conflicted internally, and are in conflict—whether it’s friendly or unfriendly—with the people around them. And then I like to see what decisions they make and what they want to say to each other. Most of my character discovery comes through dialogue. I really like having one character take offense at something the other said, and then just seeing what happens. Even if a lot of that doesn’t actually make its way into the final novel, it’s really educational for me about my characters. And in terms of poetry, and in terms of writing fiction, it’s all about voice—what would they say, why would they say it, how would they say it, would they be silent, would they stare you down until they make you speak? Those are all interesting questions for me, and I think they can tell us a lot about a person. But I’m also hyper-verbal, and so it can just be I’m drawing from my own experience.
What would be your advice for aspiring, young writers?
Don’t specialize. Take as many different classes in as many different things as you can. Study each one of them deeply. Spend a semester just writing fiction, even if you think you’re a poet. Spend a semester writing poetry, even if you think you’re a fiction writer. If something interests you, and you can fit it in your schedule and you can check off some requirement with it, do it. I really always wished I could have taken an Anthropology class in undergrad, but didn’t. When I graduated, I realized, ‘oh, I guess I’m just…never going to take an anthropology class.’ All information is useful to have. And what I draw on when I’m writing, sometimes I bring up stuff from years and years and years ago. Keep your notebooks, keep your old class notebooks. I refer to notes I took in my university Shakespeare course all the time. Give yourself occasional permission to slack on something else if it means to get your writing done. One weekend, you can be a really bad friend, or a really bad student. You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes you’re going to have to make a decision, and occasionally your writing has to win…and that was a big issue for me in my twenties when I was teaching and I was taking classes and I was trying to hang out with people and trying to live my life. It was hard to find the time to write because it’s so solitary, and you never know if it’s going to be any good, but you have to prioritize it. I think one thing that is easy to forget when people are telling you that, is that something else has to lose for a little while. So something can lose for two hours on Sunday for you to write; something can lose for you to write on Monday morning; something can lose on Friday night. Not all the time, but you need to figure out a way to put the work in.
About the authors of this post: this interview was a collaboration between the entire Winter 2018 staff of 30 North.
Want to read a previous interview with Brittany Cavallaro? Click here.