Monday, September 3, 2018

Interesting Interview: Ashley Polasek

Oh boy, are you in for great interview this month!  Ashley Polasek, Ph.D., took time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer some questions about the interests we all share in Sherlockiana.  

Ashley has been published in a number of Sherlockian texts including The Baker Street Journal, "Dancing to Death," "About Sixty: Why Every Sherlock Holmes Story is the Best" and way too many to list here.  She was also co-editor of "Sherlock Holmes: Behind the Canonical Screen" and "A Plum Assignment: Discourses on P.G. Wodehouse and His World." A member of The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and The Baker Street Babes, hardly a day passes without Sherlockiana being a part of her life.  

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

I’m ecumenical when it comes to our beloved enthusiasm (or, as I like to call myself, Sherlocumenical), so the only Sherlockian I feel it’s my place to define is me. For me, being a Sherlockian means holding a deep affection for the Sherlock Holmes character, participating in and contributing to our community, and enjoying the fellowship of other Sherlockians. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who calls themselves “Sherlockian” is one, and is welcome to join me in that fellowship.

How did you become a Sherlockian?

Although I’d been reading the Canon and assiduously watching adaptations for some time, I feel like I became a Sherlockian when I found the community. That happened when I was 23 and found a web forum called I lived on that forum every day for upwards of a year. The atmosphere was welcoming, the denizens diverse, and the conversation utterly delightful. When I decided to pursue my PhD in England, I arranged a meet-up of members of the forum in London while I was over to have my interview with my prospective supervisor. Three months later, I attended my first BSI weekend, and I haven’t missed one since—I’ll be attending my tenth in January. Although the forum no longer exists, I have maintained treasured friendships made there. In fact, my husband and I have gone on long holidays the UK, US, and even Italy with a couple I met through the forum. I credit with teaching me how to be a Sherlockian.  

How did you become a professional Sherlockian?

Professional Sherlockian. Hardly seems possible, does it? It was a fortuitous confluence of events, really. Having done my BA in radio/tv/film and my MA in English with a focus on Victorian literature, I decided to write my MA thesis on adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I may have gone another route, but the point during my Master’s studies when it was time to decide on a subject for my thesis coincided with that delightful year I spent with the community, and the Sherlockian fever was running high. Additionally, my university had a faculty member who was part of the Association of Adaptation Studies and was interested in supervising the project. I found that while my classmates grew weary, even embittered with their theses the longer they worked, I kept shining a light into exciting, mysterious rooms I wanted to explore, but couldn’t within the boundaries of my project.

Ultimately, I decided that if I wanted to continue my research, I should do a PhD on adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, which would give me more time and a broader purview for my research and writing. Fast forward to today, and I’ve established an international reputation as a scholar writing about Holmes on screen. I’ve published quite widely and have delivered papers at conferences from LA to Istanbul, Oxford to Sweden, and always with the aim of deepening our understanding of what I consider to be one of popular culture’s most interesting and enlightening artifacts. Academia, especially in the humanities, is a tough career path—there’s a lot of pinching pennies and slogging to make a name for yourself—but I’ve finally reached the point where I not only get paid for teaching, but also for travelling to give lectures and publishing work on Sherlock Holmes: I’m living the dream!

What is your favorite canonical story?

It’s prone to change from day to day, but I’m especially fond of Hound, having lived inside it while working on my MA thesis. I also love “Abbey Grange,” which I think explores some dark themes in an especially socially progressive way. That’s why I selected “Miss Mary Fraser” as my Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes investiture.

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

Adaptations, for sure. I have approached Sherlock Holmes adaptations from so many different angles, and there seems to be no end to their capacity to surprise, delight, and educate me. Every time a new film or television show crops up, I am absolutely giddy with delight. I like to joke that I love even the dreadful adaptations because they’re all job security for me. But truly, my research depends on my ability to resist the idea that there is a “real” or “true” Sherlock Holmes that can be undermined or insulted by adaptations, so I can find something to enjoy in all of them. I especially love sharing adaptations with others and showing them new ways to view them.

What things do you like to research related to Sherlock Holmes?

I’m interested in the evolution of the Holmes character on screen. I like to look at what sort of “mutations” seem to have crept in over time, like the Holmes-as-caustic-antihero version that’s been popular for the last decade; what social pressures have exerted themselves on him at different times, altering, for instance, how he interacts with women in films made in different decades; and how the process of adaptation itself—everything from the practicalities of technologies to the creative control of fans—reshapes him. Think about it: we can actually trace the trajectory of a character becoming a myth. When hero tales were mostly passed down orally—King Arthur or Robin Hood for example—this process took centuries, population migrations, linguistic shifts, and cultural hybridization. It’s happened in the space of a few generations with Sherlock Holmes, and we have access to the primary history, artefacts, and, in some cases, individuals, to study. How cool is that?

You've done lots of writing, both individually and collaboratively. Which method do you prefer?

I write on my own, but I often lean on others during the brainstorming and revising phases. There are three Sherlockians on whom I call for that. M’Colleagues Lyndsay Faye and Tim Greer are brilliant with helping me brainstorm. Both are wildly creative, fiercely knowledgeable, and wickedly funny. I may start with the wee seed of an idea, but after an hour on a group text with them, my brain is buzzing and I’m ready to closet myself away in a café and get words on the page.

When I have a draft done, it goes to my dear friend Curtis Armstrong. Curtis and I have so much in common and think so similarly that he always seems to know what I meant rather than what I wrote and better still, is able to point it out, so in my final drafts, I write what I mean. He’s the only person who has read my full doctoral dissertation cover to cover who was not paid to do so—nobody knows my style better, and nobody is better at telling me when my tone gets to academic for a Sherlockian paper or talk. For a few years now, every Sherlockian talk I’ve given and every Sherlockian article I’ve published has benefited from Lyndsay, Tim, and Curtis.

One of your areas of expertise is Sherlockian adaptations. In your opinion, what makes a good adaptation?

Ah, that really depends on a word that’s basically impossible to define: “good”. For me, a good adaptation doesn’t need to be Canonical. It doesn’t need to have some weird, ill-defined though oft-referenced “spiritual” connection to Conan Doyle. (“True to the spirit”? What does that really mean, anyway?) What it needs is a capable team of creative people who care to produce something fun to watch. That means a clever script, adept actors embodying their roles with clear intention, and careful attention to a well-realized mise-en-scène. Maybe the result is Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, maybe it’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, or maybe it’s Granada’s “The Blue Carbuncle.” They’re all different, but they’re all great. We’re back to that Sherlocumenicalism!

What Sherlockian things do you like to read other than the Canon?

I primarily enjoy Sherlockian non-fiction for my reading material. The articles in the Baker Street Journal are always worth the time. I learn so much not just about Holmes, but about Sherlockiana and Victoriana as well. Shout out to Steven Rothman and the time and effort he puts into editing the BSJ. I also enjoy the blogs of several Sherlockians—this one among them. These folks offer wonderful reflections on the community and its happenings. Last, but most prominently, I am active in the Sherlockian Twitterverse. I love reading posts about what others are up to—what they’re reading, what they’re writing, what events they’re attending—and I love that I get to interact with so many wonderful people I’d never have had the pleasure to know otherwise. …Are you sensing a theme emerging here?

Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?

Alive and well in whatever new media spaces are charted between now and then. The institutions will remain, enriched by the ever-emerging crop of dedicated Sherlockians who serve as permanent anchors for the community. But wherever there are spaces for like-minded people to congregate, in person or virtually, Sherlockians will be there, sharing our joy with one another and the world.

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