Laurie R. King was coming to the end of her Fifteen Weeks of Bees tour when she appeared at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. There have been all kinds of promotions online, from her website to Mary Russell, King's character, blogging and on Twitter. King noticed that the first book in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, was fifteen years old, and the new book in the series, The Language of Bees, also had bees in the title. Sherlock Holmes was a beekeeper who wrote Practical Handbook of Bee Culture. Quoting directly from King's website, "However, Holmes’ Handbook then disappeared for decades, until The Language of Bees, volume nine of the Mary Russell memoirs, offered enticing glimpses of its contents.
"Now, in celebration of the honeybee and in support of Heifer International’s efforts to provide poor communities with assistance in their agricultural (if not philosophical) endeavors, this exclusive facsimile booklet of Holmes’ Practical Handbook excerpts is available.
"Just donate two hives ($60) to the Team LRK page of Heifer International by May 20, 2009, and you not only get the Holmes beekeeping booklet, but a pot of Heifer community honey, and a chance at having a character in the next Holmes and Russell novel named after you."
King quickly said, that's "a chance" to have a character named after you because every name isn't appropriate for 1920s England.
In her interview, Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, asked Laurie King why the character's name is Mary Russell. She said she had just finished her M.A. thesis, and had all kinds of books on her shelf about women and theological issues. She was playing with names, knowing that the young woman was going to meet Sherlock Holmes. While looking at the shelves, she noticed a book with an author whose first name was Rosemary. She said Rosemary wouldn't do, but Mary would work. And, then, from another book, she took the last name of Russell. Two years ago, an African theologian wrote to her from a friend's house, talking about books and asking if she was related to Noel King, who is her husband. Laurie said that the friend, Letty Russell, was the author whose book gave Mary Russell her last name.
In The Language of Bees, Holmes and Russell are heading back to Sussex. They had left England in the beginning of 1924, and now it's August. But, Mrs. Hudson was probably not taking care of the bees. And, at the beginning of this book, Holmes learns that one of his hives has gone mad.
When asked about the beekeeping, since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Holmes retire to keep bees, King said beekeeping was a refuge for philosophers at one time. They studied bees as an example of divine will, and observed the communities.
In planning a series, King said it's like a trunk that you put everything in, not knowing what you'll need to take out. But, she also had Doyle's trunk to deal with. She said she took his material out, and repacked it. But, Doyle's Holmes was Victorian England, and there are few traces of him after the Great War. King said she explores her own character, Holmes, and what would such a man be confronted with by a largely different society after the War. She thinks Holmes would be mentally flexible enough to make his own niche. In Doyle's stories, a lot of exotic people went to Holmes in London, and he didn't have to travel. King sends him around the world.
Doyle did say in the three years of The Great Hiatus, Holmes went to Mecca and met the Dalai Lama in Tibet. King doesn't like to read other authors' pastiches because she doesn't want their ideas as to what Holmes was doing in those years. He could have been doing anything in those three years. Laurie said she's comfortable with those years because her husband was born in India, and she has met the Dalai Lama. She feels she's not only introduced people to the Holmes stories in her books, but also to Rudyard Kipling's Kim.
In the opening pages of The Language of Bees, Mary Russell and Holmes are returning to Sussex, and they've been told there is a puzzle. One of Holmes' hives has gone insane. The theme of the book is the hive of bees as a way of looking at communities. Holmes' life ties into that theme of community. He has a wider family than people knew. He has his brother, Mycroft, and a long lost son. That was set up in the second Russell/Holmes book, with a reference to his lovely, lost son.
Since that second book, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, readers have asked King about the son. She just responded that it was in one of the Russell memoirs she had yet to decipher because Mary's handwriting was so bad. But, it's not a new idea that Irene Adler was the mother of Holmes' son.
In The Language of Bees, Holmes' son has a missing wife, and he brings the case to his father. Peters asked if he would have come to his father if that wouldn't have happened, and King replied that he would have. Damian had arrived in England just as Holmes and Russell were leaving at the beginning of the year. He's older than his stepmother, but Mary Russell is completely devoted to Holmes, who was 57 when she met him at 15.
King said she doesn't know the entire story when she starts it. She writes around the basic plot. She knows that, writes the first draft, and then goes back and looks at subplots to see what story elements interest her.
When Laurie and Barbara talked about publishing, King said when an editor wants to bully you, they blame "Sales". "Sales" doesn't like the title. "Sales" seems to have some authority.
Peters said Laurie's books are totally unpredictable. She writes the Kate Martinelli mysteries. And, she asked if Folly, a standalone, was her most successful book, because it's consistently the steadiest seller for Poisoned Pen. King wasn't sure. It is a standalone, but it's also part of her San Juan cycle, set in the San Juan Islands of Washington. Those books are Folly and Keeping Watch. King said she'd like to do a third, featuring a tattooed philosopher boatman who delivers things.
Folly, a Macavity winner for Best Novel, is another book that talks about community. A woman moves there to be alone, but finds a community she didn't expect.
Barbara Peters asked King what she was working on now. King said it's called The Green Man. The Language of Bees actually ends with those three dreaded words, "To Be Continued". And, she did that because she was annoyed at reviewers who reviewed The Game. Three of them mentioned a balcony that fell, and said King was slipping because she hadn't tied up all the minor matters, including the balcony. Locked Rooms, the next book, did tie up the details, and King planned it that way. So, this time, she wrote "To Be Continued", so the reviewers would know that the loose ends would be tied up in the next book, and the plot finished.
Laurie King said she's been doing two Russells in a row. She said there's a new character she's in love with in the next book, The Green Man. She's energized by writing other characters.
Peters asked her why authors like trilogies. King said she likes a limited series of three or four books. A long novel with three or four segments becomes multiple books. She planned the Russell series as early as the first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, because it only makes sense as part of a series. The first book was setting up the rest of the series. But, when she wrote the first Martinelli, A Grave Talent, she thought of it as a standalone, and not even a crime novel. She didn't think of it as a category book.
Laurie R. King ended with the advice she gives first time writers who say I have a book, and now I have to sell it, and then I have to promote it. She said they should be writing their second and third book right then because if their book gets accepted, the first thing they will be asked is, and what else do you have. She said, "If you want to be a writer, you have to continue to write."
Laurie R. King's website is www.laurierking.com
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The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King. Bantam Books, ©2009. ISBN 9780553804546 (hardcover), 432p.