Of Earthquakes and Untold Tales ~ Conversation with Hugh Ashton – 8/31/2012

This is a new thing for us!  So new, in fact, that we’ve had to create a special category JUST for this!  What you are about to read, my friends, is our very first AUTHOR INTERVIEW!  Though, when I say ‘interview’ I really mean ‘delightfully meandering discussion’, which is to say don’t expect your classic ‘question – answer – question’ format.  You’ll never find it here.  It only took me ten whole days of squeezing this in late at night to get the full 2.5 hours of recorded dialog transcribed, smoothed out, and edited into a readable text.  That having been said, I’ve done my very best to reproduce the feel of the conversation for you.  I’ve naturally had to edit things out for the sake of length and flow (the full transcription was around ten single-spaced pages), but I’ve tried to leave what I thought were the most interesting bits in place.

Enjoy!

~ ~ ~

I recently had the great pleasure of spending a couple of hours late one Friday evening chatting with Sherlockian author Hugh Ashton about the writing and publication of his recent string of canonical pastiche.  Hugh, who was born in the UK, but has been living in Kamakura, Japan since 1988, has recently been putting out a lively collection of truly delightful short stories (and also one full-length novel) focusing on the plethora of ‘unpublished cases’ referenced in the canon.  Hugh has chosen to write from the perspective of a third-party editor, publishing the narratives posthumously on Watson’s behalf after having had the good doctor’s infamous tin deed box shipped to him from London.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading these stories and was very anxious to learn more about how Hugh has gone about writing them.

This was the first such interview I had ever tried to lead (sadly, HamishMD was not able to join me on that particular evening) and I was admittedly a little nervous over how it would go.  (Not to mention the awkward self-consciousness stirred up by the knowledge that I was recording my own voice and would soon have to slog my way through it again in order to write this post.)  But the conversation with Hugh started off marvelously with an intriguing discussion of the inner workings of Amazon, followed by a little detailing of life in earthquake-riddled Japan.  I have never actually lived in an area that gets earthquakes, and so I listened with rapt attention to Hugh’s description of how some buildings are built on top of a sort of “rubber foundation” made up of layers of rubber and steel designed to function like over-sized shock absorbers.  I, for one, had never stopped to consider that this was even possible.  It makes perfect sense, really, but my initial reaction was nonetheless to begin laughing out loud; mostly, I think, because I was visualizing a large building jiggling around like a freshly-set Jell-O pudding on a platter.  Not even remotely funny in reality, but hilarious in my head.  It was also very interesting for me to learn that it’s common in Japan for people to have an application on their phones to alert them of impending quakes (there’s even an app for that), which reminded me just a tiny bit of the radio broadcast-based ‘tracking method’ some Midwestern (US) towns use to follow tornadoes from house to house.  Equally fascinating (and charming) was the description of the clever in-home detection system Hugh and his wife employ – A set of nesting dolls set up in such a way that the relative ‘danger level’ of an earthquake can be determined by watching to see how many of the dolls fall over.  It’s funny how the simplest of solutions sometimes really are the most effective.

Having more or less pacified my excited cross-cultural curiosity, we shifted gears and got down to business.  I started off by commenting on just how much I’ve been enjoying reading Hugh’s stories, how deeply I appreciate his efforts to make his work feel canonical, and the manner in which he has chosen to weave all sorts of delicious canon references (both great and small) into his own pastiche.

“Oh good!” Hugh replied.  “Because I enjoy putting them there, and I know that not everyone is going to pick them up, but certainly the Holmes fans, the original Sherlockians, will definitely make references. …”

“I like that (the cross-referencing) very much.” I said.  “I feel that it makes your writing seem more plausible that way, in terms of ‘fitting in’ with the canon, since the canonical stories do it themselves quite a lot.  There’s a lot of repetition of theme and of some plot elements.  It can be difficult to keep them apart sometimes.”

Hugh agreed and we moved on into a brief comparison of our favorite examples of blatant thematic overlap, citing things like The Bruce-Partington Plans versus Naval Treaty (my choice), and Solitary Cyclist versus Copper Beeches (Hugh’s choice).

“And of course”, Hugh continued, “there are a couple of places where Conan Doyle slips completely and puts exactly the same incident in.  Holmes’ ‘mind-reading’ of Watson… ‘You are right, Watson, it really does seem a most preposterous way of settling a dispute’. … You know that bit, where he follows Watson’s train of thought by looking at the picture of the general, and thinking about the American Civil War, and the expressions on his face.  He actually repeats that twice, I can’t remember the exact adventures in which he does it, >(Resident Patient and Cardboard Box)< but he does it almost word-for-word twice within the canon.  But I try to tie my tales into the canon, and I also sometimes make reference to the fact that Watson has published the adventures in The Strand Magazine, so Holmes is known about by the characters with whom he comes in contact, because Watson has published the canon.”

Hugh went on to bring up a fine example of what he meant by this as pulled from his version of The Madness of Colonel Warburton (found in More Tales […]), in which the aforementioned Colonel is immediately angered and strongly suspicious when Holmes joins Watson as a guest in his home under the pretense of being an ‘insignificant acquaintance’.  Hugh took on a gruff, slightly affected voice in order to imitate the mannerisms of his own character.

“‘Ah!  A police spy!  I won’t have the man in my house!  What were you thinking of, inviting him here?!’”

We both chuckled a little as we remembered the humor of the interaction.  It’s an especially grand one.

I added my own two-cents to the subject by mentioning that I had found this particular moment within the narrative to be “a very interesting element…”  and that it’s “entirely plausible for someone to react the way the Colonel does.  He’s read this in the paper, and he knows roughly what’s happening and is responding accordingly.”  The Colonel is angry because he is already familiar with Holmes’ reputation, thanks to Watson’s publishing endeavors and thus (rightfully) distrusts Watson’s claim that Holmes’ presence is really an ‘innocent coincidence’.

“There’s a very strange bit of double-think you’ve got to do when you’re a Sherlockian” Hugh remarked, spring-boarding from my previous comment.  “You’ve got believe in Sherlock Holmes and Watson as real historical characters…in their milieu, in their society,… and they’re reacting in real, genuine ways.  But, at the same time, you know they’re fictional.  And you’ve got to do this double-think within your head.  It’s real Orwellian double-think.  So, I can make reference to real events, but at the same time I’ve got to be certain that they are actually fictional.  … For instance, again, in More Tales […] That’s got the Giant Rat of Sumatra in it … Mine doesn’t deal so much with the rat, but it deals very extensively with the British Navy of the time.  And you will find that the ships I describe, with the exception of the Matilda Briggs, which of course is the ship that Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned,…are all ships which actually existed in the form that I describe them. … There was a lot of incredible rivalry within the British Navy at that time.  If you look up Admiral John Fisher, and Admiral Charles Beresford. … these guys were at each other’s throats.  They were challenging each other to duels, and I took those as the sort of prototypes of the characters, of the naval officers, involved in that story even though I don’t name them.”

“What got you interested in writing this particular kind of fiction?” I asked, after we had continued to discuss some of the other historical details Hugh has worked into his pieces.  “What made you decide to write [Sherlockian] pastiche?  How did you get started with doing these stories?”

“Oh, that’s hilarious” Hugh said.

“Oh good!”  (I always get really excited when someone begins answering a question with sentences like ‘that’s hilarious’.)

“I’ve always been a Sherlock Holmes-lover.  I got my first of complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories when I was, I think, eleven or twelve as a Christmas present.  My grandmother gave me the complete paperback set of Sherlock Holmes stories including some by Adrian Conan Doyle.  Some of the ‘untolds’.  So I grew up with Sherlock Holmes, and so much of the language resonated in my head.  It’s a very distinctive style, obviously, and I’d written one or two pastiches as advertising copies for people.  I’d done ‘The Mystery of the Whatever Whatever’, and the solution was the product or the service that I was writing the advertising copy for. … They were reasonable, but they weren’t really Sherlock Holmes stories. …

“The day after New Years’ Day, I went round to a friend’s house for dinner and we ended up playing Cluedo. … We were playing this with his kids and we were making jokes about Sherlock Holmes and I said ‘you know, no one has ever written a story about Sherlock Holmes’ smarter younger sister.  We always hear of Mycroft, but what if Sherlock Holmes had a smarter younger sister?’  I said ‘hey, this is a pretty good idea!’  So on January the 3rd I sat down and wrote The Odessa Business, which is the first story in Tales from the Deed Box […].  … I wrote it in one day and I looked, and said ‘this is not bad’.  So I put sort of a ‘top and tail’ on it, you know, the editor’s notes – how I’d found the deed box.  [That] it’d been sent to me from the UK, and how I’d sort of rummaged through it and, hey!  I’d found The Odessa Business!  And I put it up on Smashwords.  …At that point I was talking to Inknbeans Press, my publisher in Los Angeles, about publishing my Japanese stories, but I pointed … the Boss Bean of Inknbeans Press to the Smashwords story and she said ‘hey, this is good!  I like this!  Have you got any more?’  And I said ‘yeah, probably.’  So I wrote the next one the next day.  And so I now had two stories out there.  And she said ‘if you can put a third one on there, we’ll put them in a book and publish it’.  So within the week I had the third story, and within the month we had the e-book and the print versions out there.  It was fast. …

“With the help of the editors, we came up with stories which I think actually work very, very nicely indeed and really are Holmesian.  They really are canonical in many ways. … A little contrived at times, but hell, Arthur Conan Doyle was contrived at times.  So that started that.  … I really had so much fun writing these and getting into Arthur Conan Doyle’s skin, and more than that, getting into Watson’s skin, that I wrote a second series. … We came out, I think it was about a month later, or a little more than a month later, with More From the Deed Box […], and then we published the Japanese stories in the meantime, and then I came out with Secrets […] and recently just published the Darlington Substitution

“I think the main attraction for me has been Watson.  Watson gets a very rough deal in the canon. … He’s not a fool.  He’s not Nigel Bruce.  He’s not constantly tripping over things and making mistakes.  He’s a valuable asset… If Holmes didn’t trust Watson he would never have sent him down to Baskerville Hall, to look after … Henry Baskerville for a week or two. … He [Holmes] respects Watson and there’s that wonderful scene in Three Garridebs where Watson is shot.  And Holmes says ‘By God if you had harmed Watson it would have gone ill for you.’ >(“Lord, it is as well for you.  If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.”)<  Holmes loves Watson.  Watson feeds his ego, to be sure, but it’s more than that.  Watson is valuable to him. … ‘You are not luminous yourself, Watson, but you are a conductor of light.’ >(Hound of the Baskervilles)<  He appreciates Watson.  All the time.  And he uses Watson, yes, as a sounding-board, and he uses him as muscle on occasion >(reference here to the burglarizing of Charles Augustus Milverton’s house)<, but … I’ve given him a bit of a short temper at times.  You know, he gets irritated at Holmes.  And who wouldn’t, living with this ‘high-functioning sociopath’ as Benedict Cumberbatch has it?”

We both heartily laughed at this.

“I think most of us would probably want to sock him within about five minutes” I quipped.

“I think so!” Hugh agreed.

From here we digressed a little into a brief, laughter-filled recounting of the scene in Hugh’s version of ‘Trained Cormorant’ (Found in Tales From […] as The Case of the Cormorant), where he has Holmes getting up at 5:00 in the morning to go shooting at glass bottles outside of the inn he and Watson are staying at.  From there it was a natural jump into Holmes’ habit of doing the same within their rooms on Baker Street.

“What would ever possess someone to start firing at the wall above the fireplace and make bullet-marks in the shape of ‘VR’?!” Hugh asked animatedly, setting off a new burst of laughter between us.

“I really love that bit in the canon, too” I said.  “Just because it’s so delightfully eccentric.  And then I imagine it being an interesting conversation piece.  If you think of what someone would think if they were, say, coming to consult, and they walked into this room and saw this on the wall.  I can almost see Watson, or maybe even Mrs. Hudson at some point hanging something over it.”

“Why did Mrs. Hudson put up with it?” queried Hugh hypothetically.

A very fair question indeed, and one that I’m quite certain just about everyone who’s ever read the canon has asked at some point.  We both agreed that we really like the way that particular subject has been answered for in the BBC series Sherlock, which then lead us into a discussion of some of the acting and dramatization found there.  We found that we both have a very favorable view of Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Watson and Hugh admitted that he thinks little bits of ‘Freeman’s Watson’ have potentially worked their way into his own imagining of the character.

“He [Watson] is given a little bit more emphasis [in your stories]” I commented, “but not in a way that seems garish. … It’s just a little bit of emphasis.  Enough to kind of even it out.”

“Right.  There’s a little more ‘ego’ in my tales, I think, than there is in the canon. … And maybe that’s the reason why he [Watson] didn’t publish them, because it would be immodest of him to parade his own abilities too strongly.”

“…I can, just in terms of my understanding of the psychology of the character, completely see that. … He is the ‘eternal gentleman’…and I can absolutely see him, as he’s going back through his notes and deciding which of these things to publish,…saying ‘you know, I don’t think I’m going to publish this one…It’s my friend who’s making these sell and I don’t want to detract from that.”

Did you see the interview that my Watson did with Dan O’Brien?” Hugh asked.  “He didn’t enjoy being interviewed.”

“I can kind of see that, too.  I imagine him to be a man who might be very much likely to become uncomfortable if put into the limelight.”

“That’s right.  That’s how I made him.  … I mean, one of the questions in this interview… He was asked ‘how do you fall in love?  At first sight?  Over a long period?’  Now, Watson’s answer, that I gave for him, is: ‘This is not a question that one gentleman would ask of another.  I have described my feelings adequately, I think, in The Sign of Four.’

“I think that’s great! … I can even see Martin Freeman’s Watson saying something to that effect.  I can see him getting a little flustered… ‘Why would you ask a question like that?  That isn’t any of your business.  I’m not answering that.’”

We both laughed heartily at this idea and continued comparing thoughts on the psychology of both characters, eventually getting into their respective brands of ‘humanness’ and morals.  We did this mostly by diving into a brief ‘close reading’ of Yellow Face, investigating the ways this particular story demonstrates, among other things, the manner in which Holmes seems to have “cut himself free of society’s prejudices” as Hugh put it.  Holmes has chosen to effectively separate himself from society and as such chooses to judge people not by the prejudices of Victorian [British] society, but rather by his own set of moral standards.  Where many of his fellow countrymen would likely have felt an enormous sense of outrage at the “mixed” nature of the family featured at the end of the tale, Holmes simply notes that there is nothing more for Watson and himself to do once the conundrum has been solved for and the people involved [re]united, leaving them to live in peace without questioning the ‘social appropriateness’.  We both agreed that this gives at least some of the original stories a ‘progressive’ edge and Hugh mentioned that this is something he has on occasion worked into some of his own stories as well. (Specifically: Enfield Rope, found in Secrets From […].)

“Do you have a favorite dramatization?” I asked, once we had satisfied our thoughts on expressions of morals and social norms within the canon (via an even more tangential conversation on tracking historical locations).

“Oh, the BBC Sherlock!” Hugh answered without even the slightest hint of hesitation.

Really?

I was surprised less by his choice than by the his definitive, confident reply.  It was clear to me that he is a great fan of Sherlock, but I had secretly pegged him as being more of a ‘Granada’ man when it really came down to it.  I REALLY shouldn’t have been so surprised though, given his glowing praise for Martin Freeman.

“Oh yes.  I think it’s so true to the original, character-wise.  I don’t think it can be improved on.  I think that they’ve got Sherlock and Watson down to a tee.  The fact that it’s in the 21st century is irrelevant.”

“I think I’m one to agree with you completely” I admitted.  “I really adore the show, and it’s a very, very nearly even tie for me between BBC and Granada, with Jeremy Brett.” (With regard to which of the two I prefer, that is.)

“Oh, Jeremy Brett is fun” Hugh added.  “I mean, he’s very good as well.  Let’s face it.”

“But it’s very different” I confirmed.  “I have to admit that for how I visualize the two characters, Sherlock gets it closer”

“Yes…without a doubt.  Now, if they had put Freeman and Cumberbatch into frock coats and hansom cabs instead of taxis, I think it would still work.”

“I think it would too.”

“And part of the appeal” Hugh went on, “is that the Conan Doyle dialog has been brought up to date, and doesn’t sound dated to us. … I could go on at length about Conan Doyle’s style in the Holmes books, but his reporting of speech, or rather Watson’s reporting of speech – let’s continue with this double-think –, is not accurate.  It’s literary.  He is not reporting the words that people say, he’s reporting, in his own words, their meanings.”

“Right.  Right.  It’s a narration, not a transcription” I added.

“…And he’s using very old-fashioned words and constructions in many cases. … His use of the subjunctive; ‘If I were to do this, Watson’ … He inverts sentences; ‘Amazing, said I.  Elementary, said he’.  He uses words which weren’t in common use in the 1890s.  They’re deliberately archaic.  Watson writes in a very archaic style, and he makes other people speak in a very archaic style. …”

Hugh mentioned that he has been intentionally avoiding other Sherlockian pastiches, not because he considers any of these works to be ‘bad’, but rather out of concern that something he reads may inadvertently work its way into his own writing.

“… I don’t want to be accused of stealing plots, or characterizations, or whatever from them, and if I don’t read them, then there’s no way I can be accused of it. …  If there is an influence in post-Doyle stuff” Hugh went on to admit, “it’s probably the Cumberbatch/Freeman [material].”

And so we found ourselves cycling back around to the BBC series.

“Yeah, I can kind of see that” I said.  “It’s easy to do.  One of the things that pleases me most about that particular dramatization is that it puts so much more emphasis on the psychology of the characters, and so I would see it very much as a good resource in an almost encyclopedic way.  If somebody were to come to me and say ‘I’ve suddenly gotten very interested in this genre, and I’m looking at dramatizations, and I’d like your opinion on which you think are most effective’ … I would say ‘if you want the period-authentic feel, … if you want to know … how these stories feel when I read them, then to me it’s Granada, but if you want to know how the characters appear to me in terms of personalization and characterization, then it’s gotta be, hands down, Sherlock.  Minding the fact that there’s some very substantial shifting for time[frame], like difference in language, and some differences in behavior based on changes in social norms, and these kinds of things. … Things can be gotten away with [in a modern setting] that would never have flown [in canon], even for someone as eccentric as Sherlock.”

“Right” Hugh agreed.  “You could never just put the Sherlock character, and the Watson (BBC) character into frock coats and expect them to get away with it.”  >(Note that we were referring earlier to putting Freeman and Cumberbatch into frock coats and hansom cabs, not ‘Sherlock’ and ‘John’.)< “Otherwise you’d just get Robert Downey.”

“Exactly!”

We both laughed hard at this.

“…Which is fun” Hugh conceded.  “It’s a Victorian steampunk romp, but it’s not Sherlock Holmes.”

“I very much feel the same way.  I deeply enjoy the [Guy Ritchie] films for the fact that I’m a sucker for ‘period’ >(I used the term very lightly, here)< films anyway, and an even larger sucker for adventure films.”

“They didn’t need to use the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ names.”

“No.  I think they could have probably created two other characters and it would have worked just as well.”

“Yes, I agree.” …

Our long conversation continued to wander and shift for a while beyond that, touching on subjects like Sherlockian societies in Japan (of which there are apparently a great many), Holmes’ avoidance of physical violence unless absolutely necessary (note that it’s usually Watson who produces the gun when needed), questions of whether or not Holmes might ever have carried a sword cane (we both agree he very well could have, even though it isn’t mentioned), and just how, exactly Holmes went about exposing himself to ‘Baritsu’ (commonly accepted as a reference to ‘Bartitsu‘ – a very real, if unusual, type of mixed martial art).  This last is a question Hugh finds an absolutely MARVELOUS answer for in his newest piece Trepoff Murder (*Spoilers!), and so our conversation drew to a close.

This was very much unlike anything I have ever done before and it was a genuinely thrilling experience.  It was a delightful thing for me to reach out from the opposite side of the globe and speak with Hugh, to hear him talk a bit about his writing, and to share thoughts and enthusiasm on our respective favorite Sherlockian bits and pieces.

I can therefore also highly recommend taking a look at Hugh’s stories!  They are, to date, as follows:

Tales From the Deed Box of John H. Watson, MD

More From the Deed Box of John H. Watson, MD

Secrets From the Deed Box of John H. Watson, MD

The Darlington Substitution

and The Trepoff Murders

~ Happy reading! ~

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4 comments on “Of Earthquakes and Untold Tales ~ Conversation with Hugh Ashton – 8/31/2012

  1. hamishmd says:

    Oh, this was delightful! I really wish I’d have been able to join you. Hugh’s works are on my “Must-Reads” after this week is up! I am so glad I get to be involved in future interviews.

    I really love the write up, it certainly feels like I’m right there with you in the conversation.

  2. Hugh Ashton says:

    I enjoyed the conversation a lot, and I think you both for this opportunity to talk about Sherlock and put my thoughts up here!

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