Sunday, May 28, 2023

Interesting Interview: Bonnie MacBird

If we were to judge one another in this hobby on our output, you can bet that Bonnie MacBird would be getting some very high marks.  Since 2016, she has put out five Sherlock Holmes novels, and we aren't talking about short stories here!  You definitely get your money's worth with books from Bonnie MacBird.  But Bonnie's creative output doesn't end with her novels.  She is also an actor, playwright, producer, and screenwriter.  See?  I told you she was prolific!

But Bonnie is also a wonderful person and Sherlockian.  Her energy and love for this hobby is contagious and she is known around the globe.  Originally from California and now residing in London, you never know where she'll show up.  Whether it's an event in London, book signing in New York, or random Zoom meeting, you know right away that you are in the presence of an extremely intelligent woman and passionate Sherlockian!

How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

It’s all about the internal world we share.  On the silly end, it’s the shared delight with other Sherlockians finding seventeen steps up to something, or a hotel room numbered 221, or a dog named Toby.  And in our strange new world of splintered attention, anti-intellectualism, and triggered everything, it’s finding that  fellow Sherlockian as a welcome port in a storm, that person whose shared passion for Holmes means that they also treasure intelligence, scientific reasoning, friendship, humour and a passion for a tale well told.  Sherlockians find points of connection both trivial and cosmic, silly and profound, and have fun doing so.  And they are all readers. 

How did you become a Sherlockian?

I read the canon at age ten, began watching the black and white movies on TV and basically inhaled the character and he has never left me.  As for joining in the greater organization, that was all Les Klinger’s doing.  He said I “must come to the BSI weekend” and that I’d make my best friends among Sherlockians.  I hesitated, shy, he insisted; he was right.

What is your profession and does that affect how you enjoy being a Sherlockian?

For the last eleven years I have focused on writing traditional Sherlock Holmes novels in the style of the originals for HarperCollins.  But before that, I spent thirty years in the entertainment business as a studio exec, a  story editor of feature films, a screenwriter (TRON) a producer (three local Emmys) and an actor.   I’m all about story.  I recognize Conan Doyle as a master storyteller, and Holmes and Watson among the best fictional creations ever. During my time as a story editor I locked into good structure and pacing, and a sense of audience. Who is watching?  Who is reading?  How can we give them the very best ride… and while doing so, add something of beauty or value to the world.  As an actor I went further into the heart of character, finding in every exchange of dialogue  the subtext, the turns, the clues to previous life, mood, intent.

What is your favorite canonical story?

Three of them:  "The Second Stain."  "The Naval Treaty."  "Scandal in Bohemia."

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

Peggy MacFarlane.  If Peggy has already been featured, then Peter Cannon, recently retired editor at Publisher’s Weekly.  

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

I’m particularly fascinated with the world of the late nineteenth century.  It was, like the late twentieth century, a time when change itself changed.  In medicine, for example, the germ theory finally gained traction, anesthesia was developed, it was the birth of psychiatry.  Technology such as the steam engine, industrialization, trains, telegraphs, and newspapers and later telephones shrank distance between people, and suddenly everyone shared the same news… instantly.  Socially there was unrest, unionization, terrorists, the rise of the women’s movement, the growth of social organisations attempting to help the disadvantaged.  The policing system changed.  In our own time…starting in the 1960’s, the computer revolution, political protests, civil rights, space travel, and advancements in science and medicine marked the late twentieth century as a similar time of rapid and deeply influential change.   Both eras featured a kind of optimism, mixed with a rawness, an electricity, a bloom of invention, technology, imagination and growth – all amidst turmoil.  Two wildly transformational eras and exciting times to be alive.

In "His Final Bow," Holmes foresees a dark time, but with light following. I believe we are facing a similar time right now, just a little over a hundred years later. The bittersweet moments of Holmes’ final case gave into what we now call WWI, followed by a frenetic but brief “roaring” twenties, then the Depression and WWII.  A great many dark years. But that vital human spirit emerged later for another intense phase of invention and growth and art in the fifties, sixties and going forward to the end of the last century. This vibrancy and optimism coupled with turmoil have a lot in common with Holmes’s time. 

I believe we are once again standing on the precipice of a dark time. Like Holmes, I believe our beacon of light must come through education.  Our heroes on the page will provide us comfort, if only in books, for now.  Perhaps they’ll provide lessons that the next generation of heroes can use. Literacy is key.

Your pastiches are tours de force!  What is your writing process?

As Holmes would say, my blushes!   Thank you!   I write every day.  Seven days a week.  The very famous “butt on chair” technique.   My current process is to write to word count, not to time.  Sometimes my wordcount goal takes me an hour, sometimes six.  I’ve just written through three very challenging years, locked down,  6,000 miles from friends and pets, isolated and unable to leave a flat where our neighbors decided to undergo noisy construction for a solid two years of this.  Meanwhile my beloved husband developed stage four cancer.  Using my relentless, butt-on-chair-no-matter-what I finished two novels despite this.  Or maybe they saved me, I don’t know.  I might have gone mad without the work.

About my process, I start with a title, the major crime, villain and the reason they did it.  I then write a theme around this.  I then pick a year and season.  And imagine an action scene that features all of the above. Then I just start writing.  I’m a pantser, after I’ve figured out the above. I don’t know how Holmes is going to figure it out when I start.  But he leads me there.  Research is key to my process and I use libraries, the internet, museums and when there is no pandemic to stop me, I quite literally location scout.  For example, the ice house scene in Unquiet Spirits and the near drowning on the Thames foreshore in The Devil's Due came directly from on-site visits to those very places.  

I put a lot of this research into annotations viewable on my website.

As a Sherlockian/Holmesian who has had the opportunity to live in both America and England, what are some differences you notice between how we celebrate Holmes?

In both places, people of all walks of life and all professions are Sherlockians, and share intelligence, arcane side interests, an interest in Victorian culture and inventions… and almost always a delightful sense of humour. I suppose in Britain there is a certain sense of ownership, a “Holmes is one of us” and a real pride in the literary tradition that Conan Doyle came from … as well as the writers his work spawned.  Americans are equally literary, but more likely to be collectors of “stuff” than are the Brits. Americans are  less hesitant to show off acquisitions and accomplishments, whereas the Brits are a little more understated and you need to unpeel the reserve a little more slowly.  They surprise you.  Both are accomplished men and women and both share deep enthusiasm and a certain silliness which is a delight. 

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

Well, if you want the definitive copy of the canon, of course Les Klinger’s volumes can’t be beat.  I love the Sherlock Holmes Miscellany by Roger Johnson and Jean Upton.  If you might consider pastiche and haven’t read my series, I would hope you might give them a try. There are five to date and the last was illustrated by Frank Cho.  The Doyle biographies by Daniel Stashower and Alistair Duncan are excellent.   

If you just want a brilliant non-Sherlockian piece of period fiction (set a little later but redolent of Fin de Siècle malaise and wicked humor) then read AGentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  If you want an antidote to depression read Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday which is not a the “fix me” book that it sounds, but a comfort read, particularly in these times.  I have endless more recommendations.  

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

There will likely be some new good film, television and theatre to delight us and incite comparisons, gossip and many panels where earnest Sherlockians will attack and defend the latest portrayals.  I hope to keep writing my pastiches as long as I can and I hope Sherlockians will still seek them out.  Maybe a welcome wash of sanity will blanket the earth, and everyone will become a Sherlockian. Ha!  If only.  But I remain hopeful for a new screen incarnation of Holmes  - thirty-something, brilliant, hawklike, with sad eyes, tousled hair,  and a disarming smile -- and a handsome, brave Watson alongside .That’s how I see them as I write…

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