Re-inventing Sherlock Holmes
Linda Bailey & Isabelle Follath
talk about introducing the iconic detective
to very young readers
Arthur Who Wrote Sherlock
Linda: At what moment when you were reading the manuscript did you know you wanted the job?
Isabelle: I knew I wanted to be part of this right away. I was thrilled to bits when Tara from Tundra asked whether I was interested in illustrating a picture book on Arthur Conan Doyle and that it was written by you! Your When Mary wrote Frankenstein is one of my favorite picture books and I’ve been a fan of all things “Sherlock” since my childhood. The focus on the power and magic of stories and the sensitive yet humorous way in which you lead the reader through Arthur’s life really spoke to me. It was a dream project.
Isabelle: You surely had your own imagination of how the scenes in the book would look? How did they differ from what I drew? I would imagine that it can be hard sometimes to part from the pictures you’re having in mind while writing?
Linda: Yes, I do see pictures in my head as I write. But the short answer is — they're generally vague. Nothing very specific in terms of characters’ faces, settings, etc. So when I see the first rough sketches and recognize that — hey, the illustrator and I are telling the same story — my own vague phantoms disappear. They’re replaced by the Real Thing, and I respond to all the new images that were not in my head. I was delighted, for example, with the details you provided in Arthur’s writing room — the portraits, souvenirs, etc. I knew about them but had never “pictured” them. I also had a big “wow!” reaction to the playfulness in your art. The humour is so droll and clever and witty, just like Arthur himself. I'm sure he would approve!
Linda: This book is a biography of a real human being (Arthur Conan Doyle) who lived in the Victorian era in Scotland and England. His life was long and very complicated. How did you feel about the challenges of representing the details of that life visually?
(P.S. You did a brilliant job!) Isabelle: I haven’t illustrated a biographical picture book before, so naturally I was quite nervous about drawing Arthur Conan Doyle with his larger than life presence and this twinkle in his eyes, as you described it so well. Luckily his life is well documented, there are a lot of photographs and even film snippets that I could use as a guide, and I had your fantastic notes too, which were so helpful. I had already amassed a lot of reference material of everyday life in the Victorian era while working on Marthe Jocelyn’s brilliant Aggie Morton middle grade series, so I was quite comfortable with drawing all the settings and objects. Drawing Sherlock, who’s been drawn a gazillion times, and making sure it wasn’t too similar to any well known illustrator’s representation, was probably the biggest challenge. But it was a rather joyful process and I absolutely love the research side of illustrating!
Isabelle: As you mentioned, Arthur’s life was long, rich and complicated. You had to fit all this into a 1000 words picture book! How did you choose the parts you wanted to tell?
Linda: Well, I couldn’t tell the whole story, of course. Picture book biographers, with so few words, have to look for the stories-within-the-story. Arthur Conan Doyle lived 71 years, and his life was a rich trove of experiences. I tried to find the experiences that would speak to a child. What would make a kid laugh or wonder or feel inspired? Arthur’s difficult childhood? His passion for books? His adventures at sea? All of those, I hoped, but the “big” story was definitely SHERLOCK. How did Arthur create a literary legend that we still know today? The answer was a classic tale of struggle, failure and then enormous success — followed by a dramatic twist when the overwhelmed author decided to kill off his hero. That was an amazing true-life story, and I knew it would appeal to kids!
Linda: Do you have a favourite image in this book? A particular illustration that brings a smile to your face whenever you look at it?
Isabelle: At this point I rather cringe than smile when I look at my illustrations. I’m always slightly disappointed with my work right after finishing a book, it takes time to reconcile with my illustrations. BUT I had the most fun drawing little Arthur writing his tiger story and Sherlock hiding in Tibet, so these might become my favorite images in the future.
Isabelle: Do YOU have a favorite spread?
Linda: I can’t mention just one. I love the spread of Arthur’s youthful travels, where you managed to show so many perils (sharks! fires! illness! icebergs!) so vividly and humorously on just two pages. I was also wowed to see Sherlock and Moriarty plummeting over the treacherous Reichenbach Falls together — and as they fall to certain death, they are STILL wrestling! And finally . . . the Hound of the Baskervilles. OMG, that dog is SO wonderfully scary, creeping out at the reader with those fiery eyes and the claws and teeth.
Linda: For me, as a writer, a book never starts out “right." I always have to go through a long process of multiple drafts, editorial feedback, reworking the text and so on. Do you have similar experiences as an illustrator? And if so, how do you feel about it?
Isabelle: I go through a similar, long process. I usually start with character sketches and very cryptic thumbnail drawings to map out all the spreads. I love this stage because everything is possible and I can let my ideas run free. I then send a neater version to the editor and art director and sometimes the author for feedback. There’s a lot of back and forth until the finals are done, where some pages change a lot while others stay very close to the first version. I enjoy this whole process very much, knowing that this joint effort can only make the illustrations better and I always learn a ton. I’m not precious about my illustrations, so it’s easy to change things according to feedback. Only feedback from the sales team can sometimes be a bit more difficult to swallow. Things that sell well are not always the things you are the most fond of.
Isabelle: You mentioned that your feelings about the feedback/editing process have changed over the years. How and why?
Linda: When I was first published (thirty years ago!), I was very sensitive about feedback. Maybe even defensive? I must have had the idea that my final draft was complete — no need to change anything! Over the years, though, as I (sometimes reluctantly) made changes, I began to like what happened as a result. I began to become more open. At this point, I usually feel eager for editorial feedback, knowing it can take the book far beyond my own limited perceptions. (Plus, I now understand that I always have a choice about how to respond.)
Isabelle: Do you have a ritual that gets you into “writing mood”? How do you get your creative juices flowing?
Linda: My creative juices usually start flowing when I'm doing something else — shopping, cooking, in the bath. Staring at a blank screen is almost never helpful, but a long walk alone can allow a space for those inner voices to start speaking. Yes, I’d say walking is the best!