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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sherlock Holmes with a Different Twist : An Interview with Ian Jarvis

Your novels are about a contemporary Sherlock Holmes character. Have you always been a Holmes Fan?
Yes, I’ve always had a love for Holmes. Before I read the Conan Doyle books, I grew up with the old movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. I’d say Jeremy Brett was the most accurate screen portrayal, but my heart will always belong to this earlier pair, although why the genius detective would have Bruce’s character assisting him is a bigger mystery than any of his cases. Bumbling and dafter than a brush, Bruce’s Watson would make a good friend, but he wouldn’t be your first choice as an ally when facing Moriarty.

What inspired you to create such a quirky detective and plot with unique crime twists with the supernatural?
I decided to try a new take on the character with Bernie Quist – a different and original approach and hopefully both urban fantasy readers and Holmes fans will enjoy the idea. I wanted to write a series of novels in a modern setting, but it had to be something totally different to the Sherlock television series. Quist, his assistant, and the other protagonists are likable and quirky, and the stories are humorous. This consultant detective’s eccentricities and deductive methods resemble Holmes and his assistant is named Watson, although this Watson is a black youth from a notorious housing estate and he’s definitely no doctor.

The mismatched duo take on bizarre cases that invariably lead to the realms of the supernatural, a shadowy world Quist is all too familiar with. Reclusive and a loner, he has a dark secret, which eventually comes to light in the first novel Cat Flap. I was intrigued by the numerous sightings of big cats in the British countryside – the pumas and black panthers – and the book title refers to the ‘flaps’ or minor panics surrounding these. The novel is humorous and I wanted titles that were equally quirky and surreal, the next being The Music of Sound

How long did it take to write your first book?
I spent three decades as an operational firefighter where I wrote stories and magazine articles, but it’s only recently that I’ve become serious about writing and swapped the fire hose for a laptop. This was partly due to my retirement, and the fact that a laptop is useless for extinguishing blazes. Cat Flap wasn’t my first book, but it’s the first in the Bernie Quist series and more relevant to the question.

In all, it took around eight months, including the planning. I work out what happens from start to finish and then write a skeleton upon which to build the story and flesh it out. I go over the finished manuscript again and again, tightening the narrative and correcting mistakes, and then leave it for a couple of weeks before reading again. Bizarrely, you still spot tiny mistakes. Modern word processors make all this much easier; you can dip into the story anywhere and make alterations small and large. 

I remember reading Dennis Wheatley’s autobiography where he describes his writing process. Beginning at page one, he wrote the entire novel in pencil on foolscap paper before giving it to his secretary to type up. I honestly don’t think I could do that. 

How did you go about finding an agent/publisher? Did you go to conferences? Send out queries? Introduced to someone in the business?
Ah, wouldn’t it be great to know someone who could introduce us? Any unknown new author who has tried to sign with a British agent knows it’s easier to become an astronaut. Endless well-planned letters are sent to the right people in all the agencies and each of your stamped envelopes return containing a sterile ‘no thanks’ card. 

A few will offer something along the lines of: ‘I enjoyed your work, but what with the current financial recession…’ It’s more economical these days, as many agencies now accept electronic submissions, which means you receive an electronic ‘no thanks’, but save on the postage and the cost of printing your sample chapters. As some sort of consolation, I have Felicity Blunt’s autograph (actress Emily Blunt’s agent sister, and wife of Stanley Tucci) albeit on one of those horrible rejection slips.

Eventually, however, I managed to find a London agent for my first novel, but she couldn’t place the book and after a few months, we parted. This and a further two novels were occult thrillers and were later published, without an agent, by an American company who very soon changed owners and ran into big problems. The Bernie Quist series is very different and was taken on board by MX Publishing, the world’s largest publisher of Sherlock Holmes stories and a pretty good outfit to be with.


What is the hardest part of writing for you? Starting? Creating a scene? Dialog? Tension, etc?
Once the story has been worked out, I find writing it fairly easy. For me, the hardest part is to make a situation funny whilst still being believable. With comedies, the characters can get up to the most ridiculous things, but these novels have to be funny and still fully grounded in reality.

I also wanted to include many nods to the Conan Doyle stories and bring them in without them feeling forced. Hardcore fans should enjoy spotting these. Watson, for example, lives on the infamous Grimpen housing estate – named after the Grimpen Mire in Hound of the Baskervilles and described there as one of the most awful places in Britain. As I mentioned earlier, because of the modern setting, another main task was to keep the stories very different from the popular Sherlock television series. With the humour, the supernatural slant, and other factors, I’ve managed that. 

What does your editor remind you to do most often?
A past editor, an American, continually remarked upon the English words I used. For example, a British character would say it was too dark and they needed to get a torch from the boot of the car. The editor claimed that readers in the USA wouldn’t understand this and I needed to change the terminology. I disagreed. I’ve read many American novels where people get a flashlight from their trunk and it hasn’t confused me in the slightest. I don’t believe my American cousins are stupid. Recent editors have warned me not to use too much authorial humour – funny phrases need to come from the characters, not the writer.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
Friends will read your stories and heap praise upon them, but wonderful and gratifying as this is, you need to keep a level head and not be swayed too much. It’s very different when strangers read the stories and enthuse over them. Reading an unbiased review from someone you don’t know is the best encouragement ever. Er, providing it’s a GOOD review.

We have all experienced rejection with our writing. Give me an example of one you’ve had, and how you learned to write past it.
A few years ago, after failing to find an agent, I sent my first book to several London publishers and one actually telephoned me after a week, something that just never happens. He was a well-known personality in the publishing world and he loved the story. He passed it to the paperback department and told me he’d be in touch presently with more news and an offer to sign a contract.

A month passed and, although I didn’t want to appear pushy, I contacted the company only to find he was gone - he’d been headhunted by another publisher. I asked about my book and they’d never heard of it. I then contacted the man himself and found his new company didn’t want the novel. It was great while it lasted, but how did I cope? With several beers and manic laughter.

What has surprised you the most in writing/publishing? What frustrated you the most?
It was both a surprise and a frustration to find that publishing is a cutthroat moneymaking business and not a way of producing good books, as their readers might assume. I suppose this is understandable and people would be naïve to think otherwise. If a book isn’t going to make lots of cash, it won’t be taken on by any of the main publishing houses, no matter how good it is. The big publishers never take chances. On the other hand, an awful book by a footballer’s wife will be snapped up for an obscene sum and vast amounts of cash will be spent on marketing it. It’s just the way it is.

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner?
I’ve found excellent resources on the internet for new writers, such as Predators and Editors, which weren’t around a decade ago. Absolute Write is an invaluable site, which I wish I’d known about when I started. Their ‘Water Cooler’ forum is the best place to read about the merits and failings of all the publishers and agents to whom you may be thinking about submitting your work.

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
It’s a real cliché, but keep writing and never be put off by the rejections. Unless you’re a proven author, or a television celebrity (preferably a reality star) you WILL be rejected many times. J.K. Rowling was famously turned down by pretty much everyone when she submitted her first Harry Potter novel. She persevered and, from what I hear, things didn’t work out too badly for her.

Are there any other points about writing that you would like to add?
You need to enjoy it and never look upon writing as a chore. If ever you’re feeling jaded, leave the book alone and don’t return to it until you’re refreshed and ready again. Yes, ultimately, you want to see your work in print, but you should really enjoy the entire process of creating it.

What is the next book that will be coming out? Can you give me a short
synopsis?
The next in the series is The Music of Sound. It’s just been released by MX Publishing this past week. The synopsis on the rear of the paperback reads… Rex Grant has vanished from a hotel without paying the bill, but the police seem more concerned with the murdered girl in his room. Investigating their friend’s disappearance, Quist and Watson are intrigued by his connection to the superstar singer Ligeia and the lethal mercenary soldiers who act as her management team. 


Irana Adler heads the squad – a female Colonel who doesn’t take kindly to intrusion – and Quist is amazed to discover that Laurel and Hardy are part of the singer’s entourage, something which is not only surprising, but pretty much impossible. A dark and very peculiar game is afoot, and Ligeia’s musical voice may not be as sweet as it sounds…

I’m currently working on the third novel with the same characters. This involves a right-wing political party with secret links to white supremacists, an evil criminal family who run the north of England’s illegal drugs, and a dark supernatural force that is worse than either of them. Let’s hope I can make this humorous.


That’s all for today’s interview. For more details on Ian’s writing, go to https://www.ianjarviswriter.com/ You’ll find information about his books and even a picture gallery of locations used in the stories.
For another side of his writing, go to https://www.facebook.com/ian.jarvis.165, where he writes mostly comical posts.