Laurie R. King Virtual Book Club discussion

Island of the Mad (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #15)
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Archived: Author Q&A > Island of the Mad Q&A with Laurie

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Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
Laurie has graciously agreed to do a Q&A to close out our (quite lively!) discussion of her latest book, Island of the Mad! Are you dying to know about her research in Venice and Bedlam for the latest book? Questions about Russell and Holmes? Here is your opportunity to ask!

Please post all your questions for Laurie here by July 31st and Laurie will be popping in to answer them soon after.


Marjorie (laideemarjorie) | 38 comments Thanks, Erin! Question for Laurie: How much research did you do on Cole and Linda Porter as well as Elsa Maxwell? When you are writing about such well-known real people do you feel a need to portray them in a way that is the truth (as far as anyone knows it)? Or do you just use whatever artistic license you need to make the story fit your ideas better? (For example, the movie bio of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant is about as far from the truth as one can imagine!) Thanks.


message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 25, 2018 11:44AM) (new)

What was your process for writing Island of the Mad. For example did you visit Venice and complete all your research first and start writing or did you start writing and fact check later? Or none of the above.... (I am curious to know how long all the historical and geographical prep takes).


Erin (tangential1) | 1638 comments Mod
My question for Laurie: did the location drive the narrative, or did the plot lead you to the location? Maybe some mix?


Cynthia (indigogirl17) | 16 comments Just this: I LOVED Island of the Mad and the insights into mental illness and views of women at this time. As an out lesbian, I appreciate your open discussion and acceptance over the years in both of your series.


Elisabeth | 113 comments I'm very curious about your research into Bedlam and Russell's experience vs. the reputation of the place. Were you surprised to learn of its (relative) progressiveness? What sources did you find most enlightening? Thank you!


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Charles Mark | 1 comments I'm only half way through Island of the Mad so this question may be moot but.... the references to fascism seem to me to reflect the current political climate in the US and Britain. (I'm in Canada).
Am I reading too much into this?
Thank you for answering and thank you for your writing.


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Laura Stratton | 240 comments We've had lots of discussion this month about the lack of obvious "romantic affection/marital relations" between Russell and Holmes. Could you explain your thinking on this subject? Is it because Russell was originally considered to be a YA series?
PS. I am ok with the quiet references to s.e.x. I love a good "bodice ripper", but I don't think this series needs it.


message 9: by Cathy (new)

Cathy | 176 comments Russell seems more negative about men (including her husband) in this book than in previous books. Is her remark about some men not getting over the handicap of not being women supposed to be taken as sexist?


message 10: by Cathy (new)

Cathy | 176 comments To build on Laura’s prior comment that the series doesn’t need to consist of bodice rippers, that quiet references to sex are okay: I don’t think anyone is looking for bodice rippers. The question is why the quiet references to sex have become few and far between (by contrast to earlier books).


Antoinette | 186 comments Cathy wrote: "Russell seems more negative about men (including her husband) in this book than in previous books. Is her remark about some men not getting over the handicap of not being women supposed to be taken..."

I don't think it's sexist. Just an observation. The same can be true of women. Several I know have never gotten over the handicap of not being men, especially if their family really wanted a boy.


message 12: by Tara (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tara | 54 comments An accidental two part-er.

This book highlighted some of the differences between Russell and Holmes' character, and even starts with Holmes' asking her if she ever wished she'd chosen a different lifestyle. If Russell had never run into Holmes, what path do you imagine she would've taken? I can hardly picture her being content only studying theology, considering her passions and talents. Furthermore, since she tends to be the smartest person in the room, was she always destined to be an outsider looking into the rest of society? The only time she seems to 'let loose' is when on a case and her role allows for it.


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Laurie | 92 comments Question for Laurie: How much research did you do on Cole and Linda Porter as well as Elsa Maxwell? When you are writing about such well-known real people do you feel a need to portray them in a way that is the truth (as far as anyone knows it)? Or do you just use whatever artistic license you need to make the story fit your ideas better? (For example, the movie bio of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant is about as far from the truth as one can imagine!) Thanks.


Hi all! Sorry for the delay here, I've been in England for the past week and a bit which has somewhat eaten into my computer time....

However, happy to do a Q&A with you VBCers!

Research is addictive, for those of us who are--as my daughter puts it--recovering academics. The temptation is to get so immersed in the research that I could footnote every minor reference and conversation. Indeed, when a book is still fresh in my mind, I probably could cite reference and page for pretty much everything.

However, rigidly sticking to the information from books, newspapers, collected letters and the like doesn't always make for a more lively character. Instead, I strive for a balance between actual research and encouraging the facts to take on a life of their own.

For example, Cole Porter. Without a doubt, there's a lot of mythologizing done around the man. (The film is great fun, and Kevin Klein--not Cary Grant?--is appealing, but I'm not sure many people would recognize Klein's Porter walking down the street...) And there's no doubt that much of that mythologizing was done by Porter himself, who like many gay men presented a face that was comfortable to his public. His complexity was what appealed to me, the way he could both be happy and miserable, simple and convoluted.

When I come across something that is either disputed or that feels dubious to me, but that I really want to make use of, I'll generally note that it's disputed. For example, one of Porter's biographers claims that the song "I Get a Kick Out of You" was written after Porter was beaten up by a truck driver he had made a pass at. It's a perfect truth about how Porter used light-hearted song lyrics to speak about dark matters; on the other hand, it's hard to picture this fastidious and extremely wealthy American aristocrat hanging around a truck stop...

Basically, I research until I feel relatively secure in the kinds of words and actions I can inflict on a historical figure. No, they didn't say it--but they could have, given the circumstances I set up.


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Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM PAM: What was your process for writing Island of the Mad? For example, did you visit Venice and complete all your research first and start writing or did you start writing and fact check later? Or none of the above.... (I am curious to know how long all the historical and geographical prep takes).

I’ve talked before about the process of writing this book, abut how I’d intended to write a book set in the Tower of London, but took a side-track into Venice.
I had been to Venice, but not for years, and not when I was studying the city with the eyes of a writer. From the time I decided to set my next book there, which would have been in early 2017, I started reading up on the city. It is the kind of place where you have to understand its long-term history to make sense of modern times, or even what was going on there in the Twenties. In addition to an early Baedeker guide to Italy, I read through books and travelogues by John Julius Norwich, John Berendt, Mary McCarthy, John Ruskin, Gary Wills, Judith Martin, Peter Ackroyd, and of course, the inimitable Jan Morris.
Along the way, I compiled a growing list of the Great Names who were likely to be in Venice during the 20s, and found biographies of them. Elsa Maxwell, Duff Cooper, the Marchesa Casati, Cole Porter, and more—including, obviously, Benito Mussolini.
And then there was the city: the house that Porter hired that summer, Ca’ Rezonnico, which has an excellent virtual tour online. (Duff Cooper, in his collected letters, has Porter in a different house…) The magnificent hotel favored by rich visitors out on the Lido. The islands of the mad—San Servolo, which has a museum and online images; San Clemente, which has passing referneces in various books; and Poveglia, richly wreathed in mystery, but at the same time commonly visited by fishing folk and locals.
And then I went to Venice. I find it difficult to write realistically about a place I haven’t hung around in for at least a few days. How do I know what the air feels like, what the streets sound like, what the local does to get around?
The goal of all that research is to be invisible. A throwaway mention of slippery stones or the smell of a canal, the rhythm of dodging through narrow streets, need to feel natural: not from a guidebook, but from walking those streets and nearly falling into that canal on the stones.
I try to do a certain amount of research beforehand, but invariably there are dozens of things I don’t know when I come to write the book itself.
And that’s when I lie.


message 15: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM ERIN: My question for Laurie: did the location drive the narrative, or did the plot lead you to the location? Maybe some mix?

In this case the place came first. I wanted to write a book that took place partly in Venice, and since there needed to be a reason for them to go there, I set it up to link with England—specifically, Bedlam.
However, there are always unanticipated paths that come up in the writing of a book that make it obvious that some part of the back of my mind knew very well what it was doing. And in this case, my pleasure in anticipating the frivolity of Venice in a summer in the Twenties lasted maybe five minutes before it occurred to me that this was also the time when some very dark happenings were starting up in Italy.
As soon as I realized that Mr. Mussolini would enter my story, even at a distance, it opened all kinds of possibilities. Especially when it came to the villains of the piece…


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Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM CYNTHIA: Just this: I LOVED Island of the Mad and the insights into mental illness and views of women at this time. As an out lesbian, I appreciate your open discussion and acceptance over the years in both of your series.

Yes, not really a question here, but I should still note that I always assume a certain percentage of characters in a book—be it mine or someone else’s—is going to be gay. Their orientation may never enter into the story, but there are always things we don’t know about characters. Sometimes we are clearly told that this one is hetero or right-handed or wears glasses or is a person of color, but just because those of a hundred other characteristics aren’t mentioned on the page doesn’t mean that I as a reader can’t see them. All fiction requires the interaction of the reader. All good fiction leaves more doors open than it shuts in our face.


Lenore | 1081 comments Laurie wrote: "...All good fiction leaves more doors open than it shuts in our face. "

Ooh, what a great line! I expect to quote it a lot!


message 18: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM ELISABETH: I’m very curious about your research into Bedlam and Russell's experience vs. the reputation of the place. Were you surprised to learn of its (relative) progressiveness? What sources did you find most enlightening? Thank you!
I was surprised, yes, since I’d expected to find that the treatment of the insane during the Victorian era was little different from the Hogarthian imagery of chained mad and silken-gowned and top-hatted gapers. There are several books about Bedlam, such as those by Catharine Arnold and Paul Chambers, and one or two novels or parts of novels set in the Southwark building (which moved to the south of London in 1930)—especially Beyond the Glass by one-time inmate Antonia White. Also most helpful was the material kept at the Bethlem Royal Hospital itself. The hospital has made much of its written and photographic archives available online (http://archives.museumofthemind.org.u... ) but also has many of the hospital publications, including descriptions of the parties and social events of the previous months.


message 19: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM CHARLES: I'm only half way through Island of the Mad so this question may be moot but.... the references to fascism seem to me to reflect the current political climate in the US and Britain. (I'm in Canada).
Am I reading too much into this?
Thank you for answering and thank you for your writing.
Honestly, do you think it’s likely that you’re reading too much into the parallels? That Laurie King—that ANY American woman writer—could write a book set in 1925 Fascist Italy with a blithe disregard of parallels?
Especially when you get to the end of the story?
Yes, this is a tale of the Twenties, but to my mind, the entire reason for historical fiction is to hold up a mirror to our own times.


message 20: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM LAURA: We've had lots of discussion this month about the lack of obvious "romantic affection/marital relations" between Russell and Holmes. Could you explain your thinking on this subject? Is it because Russell was originally considered to be a YA series?
PS. I am ok with the quiet references to s.e.x. I love a good "bodice ripper", but I don't think this series needs it.
From the beginning, Russell’s voice has been that of an older, highly educated, dedicatedly private individual who does not suffer fools lightly. She also trusts the intelligence of her reader, and does not find it necessary to over-explain the clues leading to a solution—or, to an understanding of the subtle interrelationships of the humans involved.
Just because Miss Russell doesn’t talk about sex in her memoirs doesn’t mean she and her husband don’t have it.


message 21: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Laurie wrote: "QUESTION FROM LAURA: We've had lots of discussion this month about the lack of obvious "romantic affection/marital relations" between Russell and Holmes. Could you explain your thinking on this sub..."

YES YES YES YES YES!!!!


message 22: by Laurie (new)

Laurie | 92 comments QUESTION FROM CATHY: Russell seems more negative about men (including her husband) in this book than in previous books. Is her remark about some men not getting over the handicap of not being women supposed to be taken as sexist?

Hmm. I’m not sure that she’s more negative about men, either in general or in specific (unless you’re talking about her brother in law…) So I wouldn't say that she’s being particularly sexist. She likes and respects men who are intelligent and competent.

However, it could be that as she matures, she’s become less willing to put up with the incompetent just because they are males.


Marjorie (laideemarjorie) | 38 comments Laurie wrote: "Question for Laurie: How much research did you do on Cole and Linda Porter as well as Elsa Maxwell? When you are writing about such well-known real people do you feel a need to portray them in a wa..."

Thanks for your answers, Laurie! Much appreciated.

But I am surprised that you don't know the Cole Porter (played by Cary Grant) biopic from 1946. You should really watch it some day for the fun of it. Link to info:
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038776/...

It really whitewashes Cole's life (although Monty Woolley is in the movie as Cole's good friend) and the more recent film starring Kevin Klein as Cole was attempting to be more accurate.


message 24: by Merrily (new)

Merrily | 1791 comments Mod
Marjorie wrote: "Laurie wrote: "Question for Laurie: How much research did you do on Cole and Linda Porter as well as Elsa Maxwell? When you are writing about such well-known real people do you feel a need to portr..."

That is a wonderful movie, probably what first got me interested in Cole Porter (wildly inaccurate though it was). And of course, a fabulous soundtrack.


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