Before the Mystery Began: A Conversation with New York Times Bestselling YA author and Interlochen Arts Academy alum and faculty member Brittany Cavallaro about who gets to tell the story and preserving aspects of the original Sherlock Holmes’ novels in her own adaptation.
Brittany Cavallaro is the author of the New York Times bestselling Charlotte Holmes trilogy, as well as Girl-King, a collection of poetry. The hotly anticipated third book in her trilogy, The Case for Jamie, was released in March, 2018. Brittany teaches poetry and novel-writing at Interlochen Arts Academy.
On March 15th, 2018, Interlochen Arts Academy faculty member and bestselling YA novelist Brittany Cavallaro joined YA novelists Emily Henry and Jeffrey Zentner for a YA Novelist Master Class and Panel with Interlochen Creative Writing students. Interlochen Review editor Margaret Blackburn sat down with Brittany for a conversation about her Charlotte Holmes series.
Margaret Blackburn: How did you decide to change the Point of View over the course of the Charlotte Holmes series? Why did you add Charlotte as a narrator in the series, a serious departure from the source material? Especially in The Case for Jamie, where the two alternate chapters, how do you make sure to keep each voice distinct from each other?
Brittany Cavallaro: One of the most important questions to me in approaching the Charlotte Holmes series was, who gets to tell your story? In the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories and novels, Watson is almost always the narrator––the reason being, if the genius detective were telling the story, there would be no room for the grand reveal at the end. Holmes intrinsically observes and deduces too much for us to spend any meaningful time in his head if we want the mystery to unfold as it should.
Because of that, we only really get to see and understand Holmes from Watson’s perspective, even though the detective is inarguably the main character. But of course, no one person knows another completely. Some of the pleasure in the Holmes stories is, I think, seeing such an eccentric, difficult person from a distance––albeit still through the eyes of someone who admires them, who considers them a dear friend. And still, Watson doesn’t know what’s going on in Holmes’s head. We get all of this through the ‘stories’ we’re told Watson is writing, these written accounts of their adventures. We’re not following along in real time. So there’s an additional layer of distance there, more opportunity for revision and reimagination.
There’s a lot of tension in these scenarios. And there’s even more tension, I think, when your Holmes is a teenage girl, and the Watson is her boy best friend, as is the case in the Charlotte Holmes books. We have a long history of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ in TV, film, and literature, where the quirky girl arrives to upend the bored boy protagonist’s life, without really wanting anything for herself. I wanted to do what I could to subvert that. Part of the mystery for Watson in A Study in Charlotte is who this girl is, and where she’s come from, and he draws quite a few conclusions that turn out to be wrong. His fundamental misunderstanding of Charlotte leads to some of the disasters that befall them in the second book, The Last of August, and in The Case for Jamie, they’re mopping up the damage. It seemed like a good place for Charlotte to step out from behind the curtain, as it were, and correct the record. One more mystery solved.
In terms of voice, I think Jamie and Charlotte view the world in fundamentally different ways, and a lot of that comes down to the different kinds of things they notice, and how they put names to what they see. For both of them, I tend to hear the rhythm and cadence of a sentence as I’m writing it, before I’ve even finished the thought, and those sonic demands oftentimes affect what the two of them say. Charlotte is a lot more matter of fact, and she thinks quite a bit faster than Jamie, in repeated phrases that change as she cycles through them. She’s quite distant from her emotions, whereas Jamie is often frustrated or bemused, and he’s a lot more likely to describe a setting or someone’s facial expression than Charlotte is.
MB: Having already published a book of poetry, Girl-King, before publishing fiction, how would you say the two processes compare to each other? How do your techniques for writing poetry crossover with your techniques for writing YA novels?
BC: Voice is definitely the carry-over for me, between genres. YA fiction is so much about voice, as so many novels in this category are written in first-person, and it’s definitely been the most exciting draw for me, developing the voices for Jamie and Charlotte as the series has continued on.
When I’m writing poetry, I often write in persona or in dramatic monologue, and I love having the flexibility of inhabiting someone else’s voice, of learning what things would come naturally in that voice that wouldn’t come naturally in mine.
In terms of switching between genres –– I can’t comfortably work on a novel and on a series of poems simultaneously, though I wish I could. My primary focus these past few years has been fiction. It’s a practical thing; if I have writing time, I need to prioritize the project that is due in to my editor. That said, in the past few months especially, I’ve been sneaking in some time to work on poems. I’m chalking it up to being inspired by all the amazing student poets here at IAA.
MB: One of the accusations leveled at your fiction is that Charlotte is an “unlikeable female character.” What were your goals when writing Charlotte, independent of how readers have perceived her, and how have those goals changed or come to fruition as the series has progressed?
BC: A really important goal for me, in writing the Charlotte Holmes novels, was to take all of the flaws and vices of the original Sherlock Holmes––the drug dependency, the overbearing archness, the claim to ‘not have feelings’––and to see what happened when we mapped them onto a teenage girl. Would they still be likable then? Fun? Would we want to take her seriously, or would we take care of her, or would we get out of her way and let her do what had to be done? And, ultimately––would she make us angry, where the original Sherlock Holmes made us fall in love?
I think different readers have a lot of different reactions to Charlotte, and that’s fine, of course. But I do want those readers to interrogate their responses. We’re seeing her from the point of view of Jamie, who adores her––like Dr. Watson, he’s Holmes’s human credential––and who also despairs over her. She makes mistakes––real ones. Big ones. Life-changing ones. Then she does her best to clean them up. As she says in The Last of August: “I thought he considered me to be the problem, and then I worried he thought that I was the solution. I’m neither. I’m a teenage girl.”
Ultimately, my goal in writing this series is to move entirely over to Charlotte’s perspective. We begin in Jamie’s head, in the first book, and by the third we’re in dual POV. In book four, we get to see the world entirely from Charlotte’s eyes. I have a lot of reasons for that shift, but one main one is for readers to track how they react differently to Charlotte as a character when you’re hearing her story in her own words.
MB: As a kind of modern Sherlock adaptation, what pieces of the original stories did you want to preserve and which did you choose to abandon? Why?
BC: My favorite parts of any Sherlock Holmes story were always the moments at the beginning, before the mystery began, when Holmes and Watson were sitting in their flat in Baker Street, arguing about their breakfast. I’ve always been attracted to banter and repartee in fiction, and I wanted to preserve that feeling in the Charlotte Holmes books. And, of course, the friendship between Watson and Holmes, two very different people with very different relationships to the world. That was always the main draw of Doyle’s stories for me, and in writing my own take on Holmes and Watson, it’s where I’ve felt most intrigued, as a writer.
MB: Currently, you both teach here at Interlochen and write your own work. How does this experience compare to writing full-time, and how has your return to Interlochen influenced your writing? How does living and working full-time with teenagers affect how you write for and about teens and/or young adults?
BC: I was a terrible full-time writer. I always hesitate to admit to this, because it was something I had wanted for myself for years. But I had gone straight into my MFA from undergrad, and from my MFA into my PhD. Ultimately, I spent every year of my adult life balancing my creative work with my teaching and my academic interests. When I stepped away from that to work on the Charlotte novels full-time, I found myself at a bit of a loss. My only job was to write, and so, if I had a bad writing day––if the words were difficult or the words were coming out wrong or we had a small domestic emergency that meant there wouldn’t be any words at all––I had a bad day, full stop. And also, you can begin to feel very, very “Yellow Wallpaper” if you’re sitting alone in your room all day, staring at a blank screen. Or at least you can, if you’re me.
I mention this because I think it can be jarring to get the thing you’ve always thought you wanted and then to not want it anymore. Becoming a full-time writer is a benchmark for a lot of people, and for good reason––it can be amazing to dedicate yourself entirely to your writing. But it made me place a lot of undue pressure and expectation on something I loved, and that, in turn, transformed the thing I love into an obligation.
I spent all academic year looking forward to the summer, when I would be back in the classroom, teaching advanced creative writing courses to gifted teen writers, and that told me something about what I should be doing. The opportunity to come back to Interlochen, to spend all year working with passionate, talented young writers––it was a dream come true.
I’m not sure just yet how this experience will change my writing for young adults. The cornerstone of my pedagogy––how I think about my teaching––and my YA writing has always been to take teenagers seriously. In what they say about themselves, in what they say about the world. I respect them as artists and as writers. And I’ve recommitted to that idea being here at Interlochen. It’s a privilege.