Interview with Ann Margaret Lewis on Murder in the Vatican

In 2011, I originally interviews Ann Margaret Lewis for my blog, A Pius Man. Since then, the interview was broken up and reposted for Examiner.com, twice.

But now, as Ann Lewis will be my guest this Sunday on the Catholic Geekyou’ll get it in it’s original format.

You will notice that some of the questions are numbered differently.  These are questions that came with the press packet that I believed readers of this blog might be interested in.

The questions I came up with are plainly numbered, with no additional lettering … you’ll see what I mean.

So, if you just want to skip to those questions I asked, you can ….

Here we go.

ann

1. The description for Murder in the Vatican says that each story is taken from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Care to elaborate?

Ann: Holmes biographer and friend, Dr. Watson, will often throw out the titles of cases Holmes has solved in the past, but he never tells you those stories. In the world of Sherlockian scholarship, these are called “the untold tales.” I took three of these little untold case references and told the stories for them. In the book, I introduce each story with the story quote from which each title originated.

2. Your previous works include Star Wars: the New Essential Guide to Aliens Species, for Random House. How did you decide to go from Star Wars to Sherlock Holmes?

Ann: I have loved Holmes since high school, and when I was in college I wanted to write a Holmes story. Of course, I didn’t have the real ability to write like Doyle at the time. So I put the idea aside…for about twenty years. When my husband and I were moving from New York, I found my old notes and thought—I can do this now! Just goes to show, never throw away your ideas. You never know when you may want them.

So – the decision to change from one genre to another came to me and was always with me, I suppose. He is the “classic” fandom.

3. What was it like working with characters created by another author? Was there any pressure to get everything pitch perfect?

Ann: Absolutely. I have worked in licensed properties (you mentioned Star Wars above) and when ever you work with someone else’s characters it is one’s job to be true to them. In Star Wars case, if you get it wrong, Lucasfilm’s licensing department comes after you. With Holmes, who is now largely public domain in the US, his loyal fans come after you. And they are far more scholarly and wise than most fans you can image. If Watson’s voice didn’t ring true, I was going to hear it and the book would fall flat on its face. So imitating Doyle and being true to the characters he create—i.e. being “orthodox” as it were—was of vital importance.

4. Since you have a degree in English Literature, should we ask how many times you read the original Sherlock Holmes stories?

Ann: I’ve read them so much I cannot even say. Before I’d write, I’d call up a random Holmes story online and just read it so I could get the voice going in my head. I read no other pastiches while I wrote. Only Doyle, because his voice is the only voice that mattered.

Murder in the Vatican5. This blog is about a novel, A Pius Man, that focuses on Pope Pius XII during World War II. Since you are using the real life figure of Pope Leo XIII in your novel, how much historical research did you have to do before writing him as a character?

I love Pius XII. What a wonderful, saintly man – and so unjustly maligned.

Pope Leo gets the short end of the stick, too, I think in that he hasn’t been given recognition he deserves. I believe he should be on his way to canonization as well.

But to answer your question – with Leo, I did a lot of reading and research, both online and off. I did my best to read primary source material – his own writing, as well as writing of his contemporaries on him. I found the authorized biography – which was fantastic, and an article by the first journalist to interview a sitting pope (Leo, of course). The more I read, the more I loved this man. Leo was such a man of his time, and yet he had great vision of where the Church and world were going. Prophetic in so many ways, and prayerful. And very regal—he was the first pope not to rule the Papal States, and yet, he had been trained to do that. He was so fascinating I hungered to read more about him.

5a. Not only is Leo a character, he is also a narrator in Murder in the Vatican. What did you do to create a “voice” for someone who really existed?

A: You mean Holmes isn’t real? {Big cheesy grin} Seriously, though, Pope Leo was a writer himself, in fact one of the most prolific popes in history. So I read his writing—encyclicals mainly. He wrote about 85 of them. And I discovered that in the topics he covered, and how he addressed those topics, he was a man who was regal (he was nobility), extremely devoted to his faith (one would hope), and definitely loving and fatherly. This was confirmed when I discovered primary source material about him. I came across a great article by a contemporary journalist named James Creelman who personally met and interviewed Pope Leo—the first journalist to interview a pope. Creelman was an Agnostic/Protestant, but he was impressed by Leo’s brilliance as well his as soft-spoken, kindly nature. I also read a period biography that covered him quite well. Using works from that time helped me get a good picture of the type of man he was, and gave me good insight into his voice.

5b. How did you feel about fictionalizing Pope Leo XIII?

A: Popes are tricky guys to cover. Some people love them; some hate them simply because of who they are. I just wanted do him justice. He was a controversial figure in his own way, but a decent man who reigned at a transitional time for the Church. He was an important figure historically, and yet he is nearly forgotten. It mattered so much to me to get him right. And being Catholic I even asked him to pray for me. I made him, perhaps, a little more active than he really was. He was, after all, pretty old at the time the stories take place. But we’re not talking a Kung Fu action sequence or anything, so it’s all good.

5c. You write that Leo XIII had a reported “vision” of St. Michael battling Satan. Is that a true story?

A: It is something that was documented by those who knew him and who were present when it happened. It is, apparently, the origin for the Prayer of St. Michael that was, prior to Vatican II, said after every daily (low) Mass. This prayer is still said quite a bit, and I remember being told this very story when I was a child. I looked up references to it to make sure it wasn’t urban legend, but something documented. I was amazed to find that it was.

6. The last time that I noticed Sherlock Holmes coming anywhere near religion was in a novel called Night Watch, which had Holmes crossing paths with GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. Since you have Sherlock at the Vatican itself, how do you have him deal with religion?

Ann: Holmes is respectful of religion, if doubtful. He isn’t an atheist— more of an agnostic, non-practicing Anglican. He questions a lot. But he is very respectful of religious belief, and does not mock it, or those who hold to religious practice. He sees it more, I think, as a gift he does not have. And yet – he recognizes holiness when he sees it. While he and Watson questioning on occasion, both are models of genuine tolerance.

6a. So you’d say being Catholic helped you with writing this book?

A: Absolutely. It gave me a starting point—a perspective and a body of knowledge other people may not have. I still had to do research on the church of the time, of course. I began attending a diocesan-approved Mass in the Extraordinary Form (i.e. the Traditional Latin Mass) so I could learn about the Mass as Leo said it. I was eager to share the church as it truly was and is, as opposed to Dan Brown’s version of it.

6b. What other books do you have in the works?

A: I have written one more Holmes piece called The Watson Chronicles that is more about Watson’s life near the end of his partnership with Holmes. I’m editing that now. Then I hope to jump into a historical novel that tells the true story of a priest in 1840s southern Indiana who was falsely accused of assaulting a woman in a confessional. Hopefully I can tell you more about that another time. 🙂

7. What else is on your reading list, besides the complete Sherlock Holmes? Do you think it affects your writing in any way?

Ann: I have a “to read” stack a mile high. Other mysteries (of other periods), Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, too many books to count. And all of these simply enrich my body of knowledge to make me a better writer. With the mysteries, it keeps me focused in the genre, as I hope to write other types of mysteries other than Holmes.

8. Some writers outline. Some writers make stories up as they go along. Some even get bored when they figure out who the killer is. How does your writing process work?

Ann: Mine is a little of both. I write out a very basic outline, knowing where I want to go, with some clues for the sleuth. Then as I write my characters fill in the gaps. I don’t get bored with my killers, I try to do my best to make them leave a trail for the sleuths to find and that can be fun.

8a. Who else has tried this sort of story before?

A: “Pastiche” writing, or writing Holmes stories in imitation of Conan Doyle’s style, has been done by many authors. Nicholas Meyer, Isaac Asimov and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own son Adrian have given it a try. There are literally thousands of these kinds of stories published. (Curious folks and find an exhaustive database of Holmes-related fiction here: http://www.michael-procter.com/holmes/_index.html.) Many of these are takes on “untold tales” and all three of these very church mysteries have been tackled by other authors independently. But no one has written all three of the church mysteries mentioned in the original stories and collected them together in one volume.

8b. What is most difficult in writing a period piece like this?

A: Avoiding anachronism is definitely a biggie, but I think the hardest part for this project was imitating Conan Doyle’s voice. While I am familiar Doyle’s language, so is everyone else who has ever read Sherlock Holmes. I knew I’d have fans scrutinizing the text for mistakes. With Leo, I was imitating his voice as translated into English, so there was bound to be some leeway. In the Doyle’s case, you have his music or you don’t, and the pastiche will sink or swim depending on how well you sell it. It was an intimidating prospect.

8c. And this book has illustrations?

It sure does! That was one of the neat thing we managed to do to give it the flavor of the original stories. When the Holmes tales were first published, they were all illustrated by wonderful artists, Sydney Paget in particular. And it is one thing I think most pastiches are missing. Rikki Niehaus did a fabulous job with her drawings. She even used the right pen and ink technique. Her version of Holmes is just as I imagine him and her Pope Leo is spot on. She’s very talented and I can’t wait to see more work from her.

9. What, if anything, surprised you while working on Murder at the Vatican?

Ann: That one’s characters can take over and lead the story. Holmes started finding clues that I didn’t intend. He even found a dead body I hadn’t anticipated! Seriously, people think I’m schizophrenic when I describe how my characters can lead a story line and bring things to my attention that I hadn’t considered. But I have to say: if my characters aren’t real to me, they won’t be real to the readers. And with writing this book, Holmes and Leo both felt really quite real to me (Leo especially because he was and is a real person).

10. Do you have any advice to blog readers who are thinking about writing their own novels?

Ann: Whatever it is—finish it. You’ll get so much from just putting that last word on paper that’ll keep you going for more and more stories. That feeling of accomplishment is worth all of the hard work. And then…when it is done…you can actually try to sell it. So, get it done!

11. Your bio on the novel’s webpage says that you are a trained soprano … should we expect a tenor to at least be a suspect in the novel?

Ann: Nope—just a bunch of Italians—and none of them are Puccini.

12. Last chance: What do you think is the one thing we should remember about Murder in the Vatican?

Ann: That it is meant to be fun and lift your heart for a short time. I had a blast writing it, and I hope you have a blast reading it. That was my primary goal in creating it.

Thanks for having me on your blog! It’s been great meeting you.

I would like to thank Madam Lewis for her time.  Murder in the Vatican can purchased through the publisher, wessexpress.com. It is also carried on ignatius.com and Amazon.  If readers have more questions, Ann can be reached by email via her web site: http://www.annmargaretlewis.com/

About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, nominated for Best Horror in the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, an attempt to take Dan Brown to the woodshed in his own medium -- soon to be republished by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written "Codename: Winterborn," an SF espionage thriller, and it's follow-up, "Codename: Winterborn." And "It was Only on Stun!" and "Set To Kill" are murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.
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One Response to Interview with Ann Margaret Lewis on Murder in the Vatican

  1. Foxfier says:

    #6 is what has me looking for these– it’s HARD for modern authors to get a real agnostic, rather than antag-inostic,

    Like

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