Q&A with Laurie R. King

On Mary Russell and the joy of libraries

July 3, 2014

Laurie R. King is the bestselling author of 23 books, known for her detective/mystery fiction, including the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes and Kate Martinelli mysteries. She spoke Monday at the United for Libraries Gala Author Tea during the 2014 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition.

American Libraries: What kind of books did you enjoy reading when you were younger?

Laurie R. King: If there was a genre, it would have been science fiction. When I was very young, I of course did the whole girl thing of horse books and Walter Farley was my great fantasy. But as soon as I settled into a genre, I became very fond of science fiction. If you told me 30 years ago that I would be a writer, I would’ve assumed that it was going to be science fiction, but as it turned out, no.

AL: What sparked your interest in religion and theology?

King: I’m a child of the 60s. Enough said? [Laughs.] I started in on it when I was at the University of California–Santa Cruz, which is a very interdisciplinary school, and was interested in what the Hindus call "the thread that runs through the world’s religions"—the common themes you look at in various world traditions. So I did my bachelor’s degree in comparative religion, and then I wanted to more closely focus on my own tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, so I did my master’s in Old Testament theology at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, looking at mostly the Old Testament and specifically the role of women and the feminine in God. It’s quite interesting how Mary Russell the character has interests that are similar to mine. It’s extraordinary how our tastes are close. [Laughs.]

AL: Tell us a bit about introducing Mary Russell to another fictional character like Sherlock Holmes versus a historical figure.

King: I tend to do one or the other in books. A couple of the books have real-life characters. Some have fictional characters like Kipling’s Kim. But then you get down to Sherlock Holmes, and you say, “Are we dealing with a fictional character here?” [Laughs.] I was interested in how the mind is a kind of engine that can be used to power a number of different motors, machines. If you take that engine of the mind, a habit of thought, the interaction of the senses and analysis, and you put it into an upper-middle-class Victorian male, it’s going to look like one thing. If you take that identical motor and put it into a woman of the modern era, it’s going to look very different. That was what really interested me in the books at first; how the two of them can be so very similar and yet come out so very different. I think that’s something I keep exploring, that the two of them see the world in such a similar way.

AL: You mentioned during the tea that PBS was responsible in part for your inspiration of incorporating Sherlock Holmes.

King: I can’t remember what series was playing on TV; this was 1987, and I couldn’t tell you what programs were then being broadcast, because they worked their way through the [Sherlock Holmes] stories fairly quickly. But I’m relatively certain that it was going on at the time because it put Holmes into my mind in a way that it wouldn’t have been otherwise. Because I didn’t read Holmes, I didn’t watch a lot of old film; obviously everyone is aware of Sherlock Holmes and what he looks like, what he does. But the immediacy of the character would not have been there in my mind for ready use if it hadn’t been for the Granada Film Television series that happened to be playing. I think it was a happenstance of a series of events that happened to come together. And if it would’ve been someone else, I might’ve written Mary Russell meeting someone entirely different.

AL: How are you interacting with libraries today?

King: If it comes for just pleasure reading, modern stuff, I tend to buy it. I tend to support my books because I think it’s my responsibility as a writer. And I also love books, and a lot of them, if they’re not books I want to keep permanently (because at a certain point you run out of shelves) I donate them usually to the Friends of the library and they can either use them or sell them. But I do use research libraries a lot, because there’s an awful lot of the stuff that I do that isn’t available. Theoretically, there’s a lot of stuff available that’s been scanned in the Google Project. In practice it’s sometimes really tough to get at it, and it’s not a really friendly way of using them. You can’t just flip through an e-manuscript. So I depend very heavily on the availability of a lot of books from my time period—I’m writing two series now set in the 1920s. So I need books that are reflective of that time, not looking back or an analysis of what was happening. Sometimes those are helpful, but for the most part, I need something that gives me what’s going on then and there. And that’s libraries.

AL: How has your writing process changed over the years after 23 books?

King: I think that really between 20 years ago and now, the basic difference is I’m now writing on a computer. I used to write with a fountain pen, and as soon as you could actually sit with laptops on your lap, I shifted over to them and I began to actually compose on a screen. Always before, I’d write something out and then transpose it. I think, too, having 20 books makes me aware that I always go through certain phases in books. I always get to about page 200 and I feel that the book only has another 20 pages to it. That’s not a novel, that’s at best a novella. And I get in a panic. Well, every book has been that way. So after awhile, you begin to say, “Yeah, never mind. That’s okay.” So to just not panic is very helpful, and to know that everybody has their own writing style. Mine happens to be what to an outsider looks very disorganized. I don’t outline. Often I don’t know exactly where the book is going. I know where it starts, but because I don’t do a formal outline, it looks to somebody who does outline as though I’m just winging it. But I think for those of us who don’t outline, there is the machinery of the outline process, but it’s in the back of our heads. I know that somewhere back in my brain I know very clearly where this book is going, because if I start to push it elsewhere, the brakes are screeched on. If I am writing and I discover that I so hate what I’m doing that I’d rather go clean the oven, that kind of writer’s block is usually a sign that there is something about to go wrong in the manuscript. And it tells me I need to go back and check to see where I’ve started to paint myself into a corner. That tells me that there is an organizing principle back there, it’s just not in the front of my head, and it’s not on paper on my wall. But it seems to be fairly efficient.

AL: Do you have a quota or page count for how much you’d like to write in a single day?

King: When I have a first draft going, I usually have a rough word count that I aim at. Any kind of self-employed job is hard enough without being a bad employer on top of it. So you have to give yourself a break, take days off. There are certain times when you need to go care for grandchildren or need to fly somewhere so honestly you just can’t write today. But I do try to do however number I’ve set myself. It partly depends on how close I am to deadline. If I’ve got a very generous length of time, I will aim for 1,000 and usually hit 1,500 words a day. If I’m really pushing it, I’ll aim at 2,500 and not always get there, but that’s where I’m aiming. And I think it helps keep the pace at a certain production. I’m fortunate in that I’m a fairly rapid writer, so it doesn’t take me 10 hours to do 2,500 words.

AL: Do you have any specific library stories that you’d like to share?

King: My mother was actually a librarian—not trained. But we lived in a small community outside Tacoma, Washington, called Dash Point. And Dash Point was not an incorporated town; it had two little markets and a community hall where basically everything the community did happened in this multipurpose room. They had a kitchen for potlucks, chairs, and a stage, and one of the rooms had doors along three sides of it that folded together and locked with padlocks. And when you opened the doors, there was your library. And my mother was the librarian three afternoons and one evening a week. So I got to go and get my hands on all the new books, because it was part of the Tacoma library system so they would send out new books. It was a treat because I’d be there helping Mom stamp the cards and I could get my hands on the books first. That was my introduction to the joys of libraries.