In line with the new release of his book SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE NINE DRAGON SIGIL, author Tim Symonds recently granted us an exclusive interview. We hope you enjoy reading the thoughts and insights of a great storyteller on perhaps the most famous detective of our time. Happy reading
First of all, congratulations on your new book. Please tell us something unique about you we can’t learn from your bio.
I spent adventurous years between leaving boarding school at Elizabeth College in the Channel Island of Guernsey and finding myself about 8 years later an undergraduate at UCLA. I set off age 16 for Kenya, sailing through the Suez Canal by night, spending 18 months in the Mt. Kenya Crown Forest, wandering for several months through Masai territory on the Serengeti Plains down to the Zambezi in Central Africa, via Mt. Kilimanjaro, past Lake Nyasa and the tiny village where David Livingstone died, then on a great ocean liner back to Europe and on another to the Rio de la Plata and Buenos Aires where I spent my 21st birthday out on the Pampas.
I emigrated to Canada and after two surprisingly quiet but very pleasant years in Toronto, I drove a speedy drive-away Pontiac automobile through Salt Lake City and San Francisco to Los Angeles. For about 3 years I tried to get a few weeks at a time together to try my hand at my first novel, a young chap (me) trying to make sense of a revolution in the Caribbean – CIA there, of course. I bought a car for about US$100 in Los Angeles and drove it via Tucson to a tiny coastal town in Mexico, San Blas.
Another year passed. I picked up again in Jamaica. Then San Tropez on the beautiful southern coast of France. Then seated each day in the famous gardens of the Palace of Versailles for three months. Somewhere along the line after that I must have left the typescript behind. How I became an undergrad at UCLA is a story for another time but as with many mysteries of our lives it started when a sweat-shirt came drifting on a long-shore tide to a small beach on Catalina Island…
What’s your favorite part of writing?
Without any doubt at all, the research, a period of perhaps four to six months and around 30 factual books on the characters and period I’m setting Holmes and Watson in. It’s the kind of historical immersion I wish I’d undertaken as a foreign student and later Teaching Assistant and grad student at UCLA. Often only echoes of the research run through the story but for me it’s like taking a wonderful course at college.
For example, when I wrote ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter’, I read extensively on his much-derided first wife Mileva who was treated very badly by Albert Einstein in real life. I got some revenge for her by implying in my story that she was the one who pointed the way to Einstein’s incredibly famous relativity equation E = mc 2, as I believe she did in real life. For ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman’ I learnt a very great deal about the pitiful end of the fabulously wealthy Ottoman Sultanate, and equally in ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Nine-Dragon Sigil’ I read dozens of books about the astounding Empress Dowager Cixi as she tried her best to hold the tottering Great Ch’ing Dynasty together, eventually without success.
You mentioned the terrifying Empress Dowager Cixi in your latest book. How did she come to mind?
That’s a really relevant question. Because I like my Sherlock Holmes novels to echo the characters’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, I found that just like Doyle I was not giving any major parts to women – readers of the original stories – the ‘canon’ – will recall that one woman defeated Holmes, namely the Opera singer Irene Adler, but she only appeared in one of the stories.
With ‘The Nine-Dragon Sigil’ it became clear to me very quickly that no novel set in Peking/the Forbidden City in our Edwardian era could leave out the phenomenal figure of the Empress Dowager Cixi. As I did the research over a period of four or five months she simply grew in size and became someone I believe the world has either denigrated or completely overlooked, yet must be one of the most extraordinary rulers in human history. I won’t give the plot away but I can certainly say Holmes and Watson were very lucky indeed to get away from Peking with their very lives.
What kind of research went into the writing of ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Nine-Dragon Sigil’?
My now-deceased uncle Elleston Trevor (‘Flight Of The Phoenix’ etc) taught me to ensure my facts are correct or readers might send letters of complaint (surely not!) so I go online and order the first of up to thirty books on the subject, in this case the completely astonishing period in China, the Middle Kingdom, when the Great Ch’ing Dynasty was about to totter and fall. Book in rucksack, notebook in pocket, I walk off into nearby woods all year round. When a BBC television crew came to interview me in one of my secret forest glades, the interviewer remarked wittily, pointing at the trees and some deer in the distance, ‘Yours must be the only truly organic Sherlock Holmes stories in the whole world’.
Also, as I acknowledge in the glossaries, it’s astounding how the world’s most knowledgeable people – historians, scientists, weapons specialists, university dons – respond warmly when I check detail with them. The great institutions too, such as Britain’s Victoria And Albert Museum, Kew Gardens (Watson is a keen arborealist), the British Museum, the British Library, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Museum of London, the eminent Sherlock Holmes Society of London.
Wow, that’s astounding. Your novels ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman’ and the new ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Nine-Dragon Sigil’ take place when a great Empire is tottering to its grisly end. Have you any other old Empire in bad shape in mind for a future Sherlock Holmes novel?’
Yes. If I write a sixth, I’m thinking it could be set in yet another collapsing Empire, this time the Romanov empire in 1917. I would once more have Britain’s foreign secretary consult Holmes, telling him the collapse of Russia in the War effort against the Kaiser would be ‘extremely inconvenient’ and would Holmes kindly go to St. Petersburg and do something about it. And of course there would be a sting in the tail… that’ll take quite a few more walks in the woods until it comes from who-know-where to the forefront of my mind.
Thank you for your time and we wish you much success on your books!
A new adventure awaits Holmes and Watson
It’s the year 1907.
Rumours abound that a deadly plot is hatching – not in the fog-ridden back-alleys of London’s Limehouse district or the sinister Devon moors of the Hound of the Baskervilles but in faraway Peking. Holmes’s task – discover whether such a plot exists and if so, foil it. But are the assassins targeting the young and progressive Ch’ing Emperor or his imperious aunt, the fearsome Empress Dowager Cixi? The murder of either could spark a civil war. The fate of China and the interests of Britain’s vast Empire in the Orient could be at stake.
Holmes and Watson take up the mission with their customary confidence – until they find they are no longer in the familiar landscapes of Edwardian England. Instead, they tumble into the Alice In Wonderland world of the Forbidden City.
About Tim Symonds
Tim Symonds was born in London, England, and grew up in Somerset, Dorset and the Channel Island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy. After spending his late teens farming in the Kenya Highlands and driving bulldozers along the Zambezi River, he moved to California and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA with an honours degree in Politics.
He lives in the ancient woodland known as the High Weald of Sussex, where the events recounted in Sherlock Holmes and The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle took place. His second novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Bulgarian Codex (MX Publishing 2012), took Holmes and Watson into the very depths of the Balkans in 1900. Holmes and Watson were back in the region – Serbia – in Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter (MX Publishing 2014), and not long afterwards in ‘Stamboul’ investigating a plot against the despotic Sultan, in Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman (MX Publishing 2015).
Official Tim Symonds website: http://tim-symonds.co.uk/
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