17 November, 2022

#Interview with J.Lawrence Matthews, Author of The Case of the Disappearing Beaune - #ShortReads #Mystery #Thriller

J. Lawrence Matthews has contributed fiction to the New York Times and NPR and is the author of three non-fiction books as Jeff Matthews. “One Must Tell the Bees” is his first novel. Written at a time when American history is being scrutinized and recast in the light of 21st Century mores, this fast-paced account of Sherlock Holmes’s visit to America during the final year of the Civil War illuminates the profound impact of Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation on slavery, the war and America itself. Matthews is now researching the sequel, which takes place a bit further afield—in Florence, Mecca and Tibet.

Interview with J.Lawrence Matthews

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?

High School, probably. I remember watching my father laugh reading a James Thurber story one day—and being fascinated with the idea that a written story could elicit that kind of reaction. I wanted to do it, too.

What inspires you to write?

First, it’s the ideas that come from years of study and thought about a subject that fascinates me—e.g., the importance of Abraham Lincoln. Second, it’s the scenes that begin to pop into my head (e.g., Sherlock Holmes meeting Abraham Lincoln for the first time) as I think about how to impart those ideas to readers. That’s how my first novel, One Must Tell the Bees, came about.

How did you come up with the idea for your current story?

I was asked to write a story for a Christmas anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories, and without giving away the twist in the plot, I thought it would be fun to show the great detective being ‘pranked’ in a kind, sweet way.

Are there some stories tucked away in some drawer that was written before and never saw the light of the day?

Yes. Three books, in fact. They were my early attempts at writing thrillers, and they all failed because the central character was such a dull version of myself that I eventually got bored with the story! When I began using Sherlock Holmes as my protagonist, the stories were no longer boring.

Tell us about your writing process.

I write every morning, before I can make excuses about why I can’t write anything that day. Then I take a break, get exercise, clear my head, and write in the afternoon. Long drives and bike rides are for figuring out problems. And I never outline. I like to write the scenes bubbling in my head, then put the story together.

What is your favorite scene in the book? Why?

The Case of the Disappearing Beaune is a very short book involving a bottle of wine from the Beaune region of France that gets drained of its wine and filled with sand while Sherlock Holmes is asleep. This leads Holmes and Watson on an adventure through London to solve the mystery of the disappearing wine. My favorite scene takes place when they are dashing to the train station in a carriage and Holmes realizes there must be something in the wine bottle besides the sand, so he decides then and there to shake all the sand out into poor Watson’s cap. It’s an impulsive move on Holmes’s part, entirely in character with his single-minded pursuit of the solution to the mystery, and I love that scene because it’s deeply true to both men’s characters.

Did any of your characters inherit some of your own quirks?

I wouldn’t dream of giving Sherlock Holmes any of my quirks—he has enough of his own!

What is your most interesting writing quirk?

I almost never write at home. I prefer to write in a busy coffee shop, as I am doing right now. I can get work done in a crowd because I don’t waste time in front of other people. At home, I can find a lot of things to do to waste time...

Do you read? Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style?

I’m more of a re-reader. If I find a great book, I stick with it because I want to understand how the author did it. James Joyce’s Dubliners is the best short story collection I know—Counterparts may be the best story of all—and I both read it and listen to an audiobook version every year. Even if I’m writing Sherlock Holmes, I’m trying to write with an economy and tone that brings the characters to life like Joyce does. Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August remains my favourite book of history, because her voice is so distinctive and the history is character-driven, not just names/dates/battles. I also re-read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby every summer because the tone is so distinctive: if you lift any line from any page in that book, you know exactly what book you’re reading—the narrator is unmistakable. Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises and several of his short stories, especially Snows of Kilimanjaro, knock me out with the economical writing style and, again, tone. More recently, Danny Gardner’s books about Elliott Caprice (A Negro and an Ofay and Ace Boon Coon) give us a great new voice in detective noir literature—I find old classics like Raymond Chandler unsatisfyingly wooden. And, of course, many of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are as good as any high-brow literature I know. Doyle writes like he sat down by the fireplace, lit a pipe and began telling a ripping good yarn. That’s what I’m trying to do every day.

What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, till date?

“Who, what, where, when, why and how?” is what I learned in the only journalism class I ever took, and it’s stuck with me always: that’s what the reader wants to know and it sits in the back of my mind every time I write a scene.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?

Write every day, even if it’s just one sentence. Don’t pressure yourself to write 1,000 words or 2,000 words or 500 words. Just write one sentence a day, and it will get you into the groove of writing every day. When you get into that habit, you’ll find that your mind will always be working on the book—solving problems for you while you go about your daily life—and that’s when you really make progress as a writer.

What would be the Dream Cast for you book if it was to be turned into a movie?

I don’t watch a lot of movies so I’m a lousy judge of this. But if One Must Tell the Bees and The Disappearing Beaune are made into movies I look forward to seeing what a creative team does with them. I love working with Robert Hunt, who illustrates my books, because I never try to tell him what to do, I just sit back and wait to see what he comes up with. He’s a genius, and it’s fun to watch.

How do you spend your free time? Do you have a favorite place to go and unwind?

Writing is my hobby, and when I have free time, I write. To unwind, it’s England every time.

Can you share with us something off your bucket list?

Be a best-selling author, for one.

Tell us three fun facts about yourself.

I think Alex Turner is this generation’s John Lennon; I’m prone to optimism; and I view this life as just the start.

What do you have in store next for your readers?

Sherlock Holmes meets the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1890. It happened!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?

Yes. I’d like to say, “Thank you.” One Must Tell the Bees is a long book at 550 pages, but it has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon with well over 300 reviews.  That wouldn’t happen without a great many committed readers. The Case of the Disappearing Beaune is my gift to those readers—it’s a short, sweet holiday story—while I continue working on the sequel to Bees. I hope they enjoy it!

Christmas morning, 1901: Sherlock Holmes discovers that the wine in a bottle of French Beaune (intended as a gift for Dr. Watson) has been switched with sand, and he suspects it means threat to the newly crowned King of England. Or does it? With Dr. Watson's help, he soon finds out...

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