Monday, September 7, 2020

Interesting Interview: Maria Fleischhack

Dr. Maria Fleischhack burst on to the Sherlockian scene a few years ago, changing our hobby for the better.  Most people know her as one of the Baker Street Babes, but Maria is also a Sherlockian educator, member of a German Sherlock Holmes Society, and author of the The World of Sherlock Holmes (it's in her native German, so don't feel bad for not having read it).  

Away from her Sherlockian bona fides, Maria is a world traveler, Egyptologist, president of Germany's Inklings society, and an all-around fascinating person.  (Our pre-interview emails back and forth made me want to just grab a cup of coffee and listen to her whole life story!)  Someday, we may be blessed with her autobiography, but for now let's just focus on one of her many multitudes: Sherlock Holmes.

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

A Sherlockian to me is someone who loves Sherlock Holmes and (creatively) engages with the character and the stories in the broadest sense. I am not of the opinion that someone must have read every single story, though of course it is always encouraged to read and re-read them, because this way lies joy.

The creative engagement, for me, ranges from reading and then talking to others about the stories or adaptations, writing about them, academically or in terms of the Great Game or less seriously, but also creating art or music or any other form of transmedial storytelling. One aspect that is important to me in that sense is also love and a welcoming attitude towards others, who may or may not be like minded, but who also share the love for Sherlock Holmes. Therefore, not everyone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes is a Sherlockian, but if there is love and engagement beyond merely “consuming” the stories, I think the term Sherlockian as an identifier is fair use. 

How did you become a Sherlockian?

Connecting my own experience to what I said above: I immensely enjoyed the first Ritchie Holmes film and while I had read most of the stories while at uni, I kept my love for them and Doyle limited to a few analytical student papers I wrote and I enjoyed talking about the film with my flatmate. I became a Sherlockian when I joined the Baker Street Babes, because at that point, I had watched and re-watched season 1 of BBC Sherlock and started re-reading the stories again. I remember vividly sitting in a café and reading A Study in Scarlet and just giggling to myself at all the brilliant whimsical references to the story that I now recalled in their slightly adapted way in Sherlock.

I think that was the point when I knew I wanted to engage further. I was using several online platforms to connect with other fans and through the Babes I got to know a whole lot more people, like Roger Johnson and Jean Upton, whom I met during the Great Sherlock Holmes Debate in London, organised by Steve Emecz. It was amazing to see how many lovely people welcomed us “youngsters” with open arms, though I must admit there was quite a bit of gatekeeping going on as well. Lots of shaming of especially young women who entered the Sherlockian world via the BBC series and who were definitely looked down on by many – an experience that wasn’t limited to any one country. Some of that has gotten better, but there’s still a certain elitism attached in some circles which worries me.

In the end, we’re all here because we love a Victorian detective – in whichever shape or form. Nobody should be shamed or excluded for their particular way of loving and engaging with Sherlock Holmes. And to claim that there is only one true Sherlock Holmes – the canonical one – sort of ignores the fact that we all read that particular Holmes tinged with our own experience anyway, so my Holmes isn’t your Holmes anyway, even if we speak about the exact same description in the same line of a story. 

What is your favorite canonical story?

Always a hard question to answer. I adore A Study in Scarlet simply for the introduction, the first bumps on the road of that wonderful friendship that we already know will grow from this story. I also really enjoy “The Devil’s Foot”, because Holmes is insufferable and fallible and yet brilliant and Watson proves, once again, how incredibly patient he is with Holmes, even if he’s a bit snarky about it, too. 

Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?

Ha, I know you have already interviewed quite a lot of people, but I think Ashley Polasek has one of the most interesting approaches to researching Sherlock Holmes, on top of being an incredible academic, teacher, swords-woman, editor, costume maker and one of the smartest and funniest Sherlockians I know. 

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I love seeing creative interpretations of Sherlock Holmes and his world. Whether it be drawings or paintings, cross stitched portraits, miniature houses, wax figurines, wooden sculpture or food art, jewelry or carved out walnut shell Baker Street living rooms. I adore seeing how creative and talented Sherlockians are!

And, something that’s a little different: The social aspect of it. I have found such extraordinarily wonderful friends in the Sherlockian community. The way I was welcomed with open arms during my first BSI weekend – the way so many wonderful people who became my close friends offered me a seat at their table, introduced me to others, listened to what I had to say. I count myself very lucky to have found truly wonderful friends whom I met through a mutual interest in Sherlock Holmes, but who are also thoroughly decent and wonderful people way beyond that. 

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

I’m very interested in historiography. I love researching the stories in their historical context. I love seeing how Doyle and his writer friends inspired each other, how they shares common notions and ideas, and how they sometimes clashed. To me, the Sherlock Holmes stories are first and foremost windows into the cultural sphere of middle-class late-Victorian life. We can learn so much – not necessarily in the way things are realistically depicted, but also in the way that some things are not mentioned at all, or how a certain way of looking at them influenced their descriptions. Social norms, intertextual references, behaviourisms. It’s absolutely fascinating to me. 

What does Sherlockiana look like in Germany?

I own a magazine from 1984 that is, let’s say, a GDR version of Playboy, and it includes the German translation of “The Yellow Face”. I’m always amazed to see how early the canon was translated into German and that stories were published in the strangest outlets, but of course we also have the proper book series. I have some major issues with the translation of the stories into German, but we are currently getting a new translation via the publishing house Fischer. While Sherlock Holmes isn’t as popular in Germany as in the English speaking world, his name is fairly well known here as well. It’s John Watson who doesn’t ring a bell. I own a messenger bag that I had custom made as a reference to something Martin Freeman once wrote on Facebook. It reads: “Every day is John Watson day.” It’s a great conversation starter, because the name rings a bell, and people ask about who that is. It’s only in London where people compliment me on the bag because they immediately know who is meant.

In terms of organised Sherlockiana, there’s the German Sherlock Holmes Society that merged from two different societies a while ago, and they encourage regional meetups as well. I have a lovely small group of wonderful people who gets together on a regular basis (though not this year due to Corona) and we always spend lovely afternoons together, sharing food, drinking good rum and talking Sherlock Holmes. Though, I must admit that I spend more time with US Sherlockians than German ones, for the simple reason that most of my Sherlockian friends are in the UK, the US and Canada. 

I have had the opportunity to give three different children’s university lectures to primary school age kids in different parts of Germany and I always had a blast. The kids are usually very smart and ask great questions. Many of them are certain that they want to become detectives when they grow up. 

How has being a part of The Baker Street Babes influenced your life as a Sherlockian?

Oh, absolutely. On the one hand side, it has been an absolutely wonderful opportunity to delve more deeply into the subject matter. We’ve interviewed incredible people – from actors to producers to writers to musicians to fans. We’ve hosted events and have managed to carve a space for ourselves into a predominantly white male space and, looking back, we see that we managed to contribute in a change in the landscape, and that change is largely positive.

On the other hand side, I (and the other Babes, to varying degrees) have had to push against walls and borders and gates a lot. We put a lot of hard work into not only our podcast, but also our web-presences, our events, our outreach, but in the end we were often treated as young women who are only into Benedict Cumberbatch’s curls or whatever (that is not to say that we don’t appreciate his curls). It’s been a sobering experience in many ways, and almost ten years after becoming a Sherlockian, I know the road is still long and winding, but I wouldn’t want to miss the experiences we’ve had. I mean, we had our own Cake Boss episode! And the New York Times reported on our Daintiest Thing Charity Ball, too!

Those last ten years have definitely changed my life and I gained many skills, met so many incredible people, had the chance to write for wonderful editors, share my love for Sherlock Holmes with people from different continents and, on top of it all, incorporate aspects of it into my work. And the Babes are my sisters, who make my life better every day. So, it’s not just my experience of being a Sherlockian that has been heavily influenced by being a member of this group, but also the rest of my life. 

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye. I read the pastiche before I knew her and before she became a Babe and one of my best friends. It’s an incredible book and I am absolutely in awe of how close she got to catching Watson’s voice and spirit.

I also really enjoyed Mattias Boström’s From Holmes to Sherlock. Mattias has a wonderful way of writing about his own experience and the subject matter and linking the two together. It feels like you are just listening to him tell you his story, even if it’s really the history of Sherlock Holmes and the people who wrote about him. Looking at my answer now, I guess there are very few Sherlockians who haven’t read either of those. 

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

Well, one – maybe obvious – answer comes with the Sherlock Holmes stories falling into the public domain in their entirety. So, I see more pastiches and more adaptations and more creative freedom that will hopefully spark even more versions of Sherlock Holmes once the Casebook is in the public domain in the US.

I also hope that maybe, due to Covid and the related restrictions, more Sherlockian meetings will be held online and become more inclusive and international. I really, really want more diverse voices to have the opportunity to chime in. I want more books like Mycroft Holmes and it’s sequels by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. I know that the anchor point will always be two white upper middle class men in late Victorian London, but I am excited to see what will happen to them in the hands of people who want themselves to be represented, too.

Right now, there’s a bit of fatigue in my generation of Sherlockians. But even so, there will be further adaptations and pastiches/fanfiction and there will always be people out there who want to engage with other Sherlockians in creative and compassionate ways. That’s not going to stop. And, considering that new editions of the canon are published on a regular basis, I firmly believe that the stories will be read by the next generation as well. I’m doing my bit by teaching Sherlock Holmes this winter term and encouraging my nephews to read the stories. I know other educators are starting with even younger kids – like Shannon Carlisle. In any case, I am excited to see what the future brings.