The following conversation is part of our Beyond The Bio series, featuring conversations with authors we love. If you're a teen who'd like to interview an author, please click here to find out how we can connect you with your favorite YA authors. Today's guests include StoryTimeTeen creator James Tilton and Brittany Cavallaro, author of the bestselling Charlotte Holmes books. These questions were created in coordination with the Quarantine Book Club group on Facebook, which recently read the first book in the series, titled A Study In Charlotte.
James: The stories of Sherlock Holmes are deeply beloved and have been frequently adapted. Were you nervous as you began writing this series?
Brittany: Ha, I think it's always nerve-wracking to play in someone else's sandbox! But the first half of your question, I think, speaks to my mindset in approaching a retelling of the Holmes story. He's in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most-portrayed character on screen—something like 254 times, at least in 2012. It's certainly more than that now. Clearly, Holmes's character is both complex and flexible enough to be continually adapted, to reflect each new anxiety and obsession of the changing world. Famously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote to William Gillette, who was writing Holmes for the stage (and playing him, too), that he could "marry [Holmes], murder him, or do anything you like" in his adaptation. Doyle had a famously anguished relationship with Holmes's popularity, that's true. But he also understood that he had created a character who had a life outside his own authority. I felt like I was in good company when I started writing the Charlotte books.
James: Most iterations of Sherlock feature adults. What made you decide to cast Holmes as a teenage girl?
Brittany: We tend to give teenage girls the shortest possible shrift. We obsess over their bodies; we denounce their interests; we see them as inherently trivial. Any sign of bad behavior in a teenage girl raises the alarm for the adults who surround her (or who watch her from a distance). And God forbid she be smart, because if she is, it better be class president smart, good girl smart. When it comes to Sherlock Holmes, a lot of what we love about him are those moments of bad behavior—his refusal to entertain idiots, his flaws and vices, his at-times bracing assurance that he's the smartest person in the room. I wanted to know what happened when the smartest person in the room was the one who you already discounted. I wanted readers to consider what might happen to a girl who behaved the way that Holmes did, how the world might treat her, how she might have to change as a result. It's a very different kind of danger, being Charlotte Holmes. I wanted to imagine what that felt like. And then I wanted to give her a boy Watson who thought she hung the moon, and send the two of them off on adventures.
James: You brought the mysteries of Baker Street to the world of American prep schools. What prompted you to cross the Atlantic with your story?
Brittany: The first book definitely has firm footing in America, though later books do a bit of globe-trotting, ending in the fourth with our heroes at school in England. For me, when telling Jamie's story in A Study in Charlotte, I thought about the beginning of Doyle's first Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet, Watson back from Afghanistan looking for a place to live. In capturing that feeling of strangeness and disenfranchisement, it made sense to take an English boy and send him off to America, and since my Watson has a very teenage chip on his shoulder, I wanted to send him to a place where he might feel especially out of place in terms of class. That place in America for a teenager, at least as I see it, is at a New England prep school. I also went to boarding school (though a much different, much lovelier place than Sherringford, an art school in Michigan where I now teach creative writing), and it was a formative experience for me. I knew I could write that setting with some authority.
James: Both Charlotte and Jamie seem to have complicated relationships with their ancestors. There's a sense of legacy but also of resentment. Why do you think that is?
Brittany: When you're a teenager, you're in a constant struggle to figure out who you are, and one of the first places that you begin with: am I like my family? How am I different? What expectations are in place for me, and how am I going to pave my own way? The Watsons and the Holmeses (and the Moriartys) in my books have dealt with these questions in different ways. The Holmeses have treated their ancestry as a reason for intellectual isolation; the Watsons both romanticize and fear the expectations put on them. That's shaped Jamie and Charlotte to be who they are at the beginning of the first book.
It's funny, I like to think that a lot of the skills that Charlotte has that feel the most Holmesian are ones she learned as a result of her mistakes. I'm pretty sure she learned to play poker in teen rehab, and looking for someone's tells is a constitutive part of that game. Jamie, of course, imagines she learned it in some fancy English study from a tutor. But that's his problem.
James: There's been decades of speculation regarding Sherlock Holmes' sexuality. Charlotte plays into this speculation, especially with the scene where she says that she doesn't want to do anything more than kiss. Is she asexual? Is Sherlock, in your mind?
Brittany: I think that Charlotte is dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, and that sex and romantic gestures are off the table for her for the time being, at least in the first book. She's in recovery. It's a different situation than Doyle's Holmes. I think there's certainly evidence that he's asexual; Doyle talks on the page about how even Irene Adler (the love interest that gets trotted out so often in adaptations) is a fascination for him more than a romantic interest. For Charlotte, her feelings toward her sexuality are bound up in trauma, rather than being part of her nature, and it's something she works through throughout the series.
James: So much of this story is triggered by Charlotte's backstory with August. Was Charlotte's obsession with August a romantic crush, or was it more a meeting of the minds?
Brittany: Ah, that's a book two question, for sure! I think that The Last of August digs into that question quite a bit (as does A Question of Holmes), so I'll let that one be answered in the text.
James: August is pretty clearly still alive but he never got back in touch with his fiancée. In fact, she doesn't even seem to know that he's still alive. Do you think he knew that she was psychotic? Did that scare him away?
Brittany: It's very possible. My best friend has a term for when someone you've known for a long time suddenly reveals their true nature: he says that they've "unmasked themselves," which is such a delicious expression. I imagine that's what happened with August and [redacted]. In an odd way, August's fiancee is in a similar position to Jamie: they're both outsiders in this world of privilege, and neither is dealing with it well. Of course, [redacted] is also consumed with a lot of internalized, dangerous misogyny, which is very much something I imagined August seeing from her in the fallout of what happened between him and Charlotte.
James: Speaking of psychotic, there's that line where Watson says that he knows Charlotte didn't commit the crime she's accused of because, if she did, "there would be twenty witnesses who saw him put the gun to his own head." Charlotte is clearly capable of criminal genius. Do you think she'll ever cross that line?
Brittany: We like to flirt with that idea, I think, the white knight who goes bad. There's this idea that genius is something that trends intrinsically toward the criminal. I don't know if I believe that. (Although I will say, I do think that the people who created the social media platforms we use, especially Twitter, should have taken more humanities classes in college. Philosophy classes. Ethics classes. Just a thought.) Charlotte's ability think critically, to plan far ahead, to read people—we do see her using those skills against someone else, in what happened between her and August. And because she's someone who learns, she learns from that experience and doesn't care to repeat it.
As I wrote these books, I often found myself resisting the idea that a girl's intelligence needs to be, by nature, benevolent. Genius doesn't to help or hurt people; it doesn't have a nature. It's a tool, like anything else. It's all in the control. At the beginning of A Study in Charlotte, Charlotte is a fairly neutral person—which is, again, something that we're more comfortable seeing in women than men. Whether she's that way by nature or by nurture is something we discover throughout the novels.
But I should say that I think there's a difference between kind and good. I think you can be good without being kind.
James: You've written four books about Charlotte already. Is there still more to her story?
Brittany: It's possible! But I also think to tell a good story, you need to put your characters through the ringer, and Charlotte and Jamie have been through a very, very long ringer already. I find myself resisting the idea of doing that to them again. I think A Question of Holmes leaves them at a good stopping place for now—but of course, never say never. I have a new series coming out beginning in early 2021 called Muse, set in an alternate history America, about power and electricity and female agency, and I'm excited to keep working on that.
About The Author: Brittany Cavallaro is the author of the New York Times bestselling Charlotte Holmes series and the poetry collection Girl-King. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She lives in Michigan. Find her at her website, www.brittanycavallaro.com, or on Twitter @skippingstones.