On Saturday, June 27th, in the Booklist booth at ALA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco, Terry Tazioli, co-host of TVW’s Well Read, spoke with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse about their forthcoming novel, Mycroft Holmes.
Terry Tazioli: It’s my privilege to be here today at the American Library Association’s annual conference, at the Booklist booth, and I’m talking to a couple authors, believe it or not. On my left, is Anna Waterhouse. Anna you’re a writer.
Anna Waterhouse: I am.
Tazioli: Screenwriter and producer, right?
Terry: And people have seen your writing in things like Power Play, The Secret Garden, and the documentary the two of you did together, On the Shoulders of Giants. And then, this guy over here, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He’s a writer, too. He’s written several books, nonfiction and children’s books. This is your first novel, am I right? And he also played basketball, in case you all don’t know that. Did you meet each other when the documentary, On the Shoulders of Giants, was in the works?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: We met well before that, and talked about projects and ideas for a number of years before we decided to collaborate.
Waterhouse: I met his manager and partner first, and she introduced me to Kareem. We found that we had a lot of interests in common. That’s how that started.
Tazioli: I want to hear a little bit more about the collaboration but we’ll talk about the book first—Mycroft Holmes. Kareem, you have a long-term interest in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. Is that right?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yes, I first was aware of Arthur Conan Doyle because when I was a kid I used to watch Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone, the series from England. I always saw Sherlock as a hero. My dad was a police officer, so that all seemed to fit together. When I was early in my basketball career, my rookie year, someone gave me a complete Arthur Conan Doyle anthology, of Sherlock Holmes stories, and I took it with me on my very first long road trip. That kind of got me hooked on crime fiction of all sorts. I branched out from there to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and others like that. I had already started reading John le Carré. In high school we read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I always had an interest in crime and war fiction. This more or less just fell in place with all of that.
Tazioli: Anna, literature’s a big deal for you. This is an understatement, but it’s been part of your life for a long time. The kind of writing that you do, though, isn’t necessarily books?
Waterhouse: No, it’s interesting because I have my master’s degree in creative writing, but I’ve done almost nothing but film. When this opportunity came along it was my first opportunity to write something that I’m actually passionate about, which is fiction. So it was a wonderful connection and a fabulous opportunity.
Tazioli: I think I read somewhere that you [Kareem] are all about the story and you [Anna] all about dialogue. Would you categorize it that way?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yes, I think those are our strengths. I think my strength is story. I didn’t have any practical experience writing dialogue, but I’ve had to tell a lot of stories in my life, so that was one thing and Anna is the exact opposite—she has worked with some amazing people and has been a craftsman of dialogue, so we hoped that it was a good match and looks like it was.
Tazioli: I want to know about collaboration. How did you collaborate? Give me a typical story.
For me, my fear had to do with being able to
tell a story using dialogue. I’d never done that.
Waterhouse: Well, for example, Kareem really wanted this novel to begin with Oxford and Cambridge, the Oxford/Cambridge race in 1870—I didn’t know a thing about that. So of course I had to do some research and he coached me through most of it. We started at the race and then he wanted to send those poor guys off to Trinidad, so we had to figure out how to do that—a 10-day boat trip, and make that exciting, but it turned out to be exactly that. It was really, really fun. And we batted it back and forth until both of us were satisfied. Sometimes Kareem wanted more action, sometimes I wanted less dialogue. Whatever it was, we just went back and forth until both of us said, “Okay, that chapter’s done. Let’s move on.”
Abdul-Jabbar: I think we each have a different feel for different aspects, so any time where her touch was the right touch we went that way. When my touch seemed to work better, we went that way. We played it by ear and just looked forward to trying to keep the story alive and interesting.
Waterhouse: Kareem would come up with something that was so wonderful and wild and I would have no idea how we’d get there, but sooner or later we always got there. That was really, really the best thing. He would know things about 1870 that I couldn’t even imagine and we‘d figure out how to make it work in the story.
Tazioli: How do you know things about the 1870s?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I read a lot about just the nineteenth century, what travel was all about and why the nineteenth century was such a crucial predecessor to the world that we have now in the twenty-first century. Travel and the things that were crucial—the inventions, or discoveries, that facilitated that. And England was at the center of all that. As a world power for at least two centuries, England was at the center especially of the Industrial Revolution. So all these things just seemed to fall into place and I knew where to go to look for the right kind of detail, the right type of historical detail that gave our story some interest and would pique the interest of the readers. Being a mystery reader, I know the things that interest me—arcane little things that enable you to see the time and the period in better focus.
Tazioli: And Anna, I think you alluded to this a little bit at the beginning—this is a first for you, with fiction? Was there any nail biting or nervousness at the beginning between the two of you?
Waterhouse: I don’t think so, I think we went into it both feeling like, “Sure, we can do this.” After a while we thought, “Wow, this is not as easy as we thought.” But, at the very beginning at least, I think we went into it thinking, “Yeah, why not? Sure, fiction. You know, why not?” Also I knew that Kareem was centered on Conan Doyle, so I felt a lot more comfortable getting into this because of that.
Abdul-Jabbar: For me, my fear had to do with being able to tell a story using dialogue. I’d never done that. Being a historian, I deal with facts—get the facts right, get the sequence right, the story tells itself. But fortunately, Anna’s skill is in dialogue and she knows how to tell a story using dialogue and I had enough facts and story machinations to keep her challenged with fresh ideas and fresh circumstances. After a while she started coming up with ideas that I could never have thought of. She set things up that will allow us to do a sequel. I wanted to unload everything and she held the right things back. It was, again, very fortuitous that she had an eye for those types of things.
Basketball wasn’t a bad career, but writing was something
that had some potential for me the whole time.
Tazioli: A lot of authors come to writing in different ways—what about the two of you? Did it start when you were kids or later in life?
Abdul-Jabbar: For me, it started when I was a kid, just trying to do my history papers. My term papers and book reports. That really started me on this road. I got to college and was challenged to take it a few steps further. I took a course UCLA where the teacher had us write something creative. I didn’t know what to do, but gave it my best shot. The instructor felt it was the best paper he received that term. That was what gave me the idea that maybe I could do this for a living. Fortunately, I had basketball to deal with. That wasn’t a bad career, but writing was something that had some potential for me the whole time, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to further act on it.
Tazioli: I love that Sherlock has Dr. Holmes, and Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother, has a sidekick too, right? Talk a little bit about this guy—I love that notion.
Abdul-Jabbar: Well I felt that Mr. Holmes would be the type of person who, even though he’s so intellectual and so mental, has to have a practical life, and you don’t see that in the stories. In the original stories by Doyle, you don’t see how he is similar to every man. You only see how he’s special. So, I figured that telling this story would give us the opportunity to see that he is more balanced than he appears. Anyone that spends their whole life going between three locations has to have some type of origin that spurred all of this. So, the transition and what formed him and what caused him to make a transition, I think, is what makes his life interesting. It’s always a mystery for people who read the stories. How is he like this? How is he able to be like this? The opportunity had been there for over a century. And we got the chance to tell it. I feel very fortunate in that sense.
Waterhouse: And the thing about Cyrus Douglas is he’s the first black character that really resonates with the whole Sherlock Holmes “kingdom,” I guess you could say. And he really came alive for us. Cyrus Douglas came alive in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen. He just was fully formed from the gate, we knew who he was, we knew what kind of a person he was, we knew he had to be the ethical person because sometimes Mycroft wasn’t. And he had to stand his ground with somebody who was a brilliant intellect like Mycroft Holmes. So, Cyrus is a fascinating character. I think he’s more than a sidekick—I think he’s a partner in every way.
Tazioli: One last wrap-up question for you. I’m assuming you still like each other after this process. And I’m wondering if either, in your computers or in your brains there might be a Mycroft and Cyrus strike again? Is there a sequel?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, the publisher has already spoken to us about a sequel. And the book isn’t even out. So they must like it. That’s why we’ve been smiling for the past month or so. We got that news and it was great news for us. We’ve got more work to do but we loved doing this and the second one’s going to be even more fun.
Waterhouse: In the car on the way here he was talking to me about his ideas for the sequel. So. . . we definitely have one in mind. At least he’s got one in mind. I’m going to wait and see what it is that he really wants to do and then we’ll do it.
Tazioli: So, that means that once it’s out we come back here, the three of us, and do this again. Okay? Thank you both very much. Anna Whitehouse and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Thank you both, so much!