‘I couldn’t quite justify taking liberties with the character without first making sure I had done my homework correctly’ – An interview with Mitch Cullin, author of A Slight Trick of the Mind
To date, Mitch Cullin is probably most famous for the book Tideland, which was turned into a movie by Terry Gilliam. That may be about to change, however, with the long overdue UK release of A Slight Trick of the Mind, a novel that revisits Sherlock Holmes as a 93 year old man, as his memory is failing – a novel that is being adapted into a movie starring Sir Ian McKellan, as we speak. We spoke with Mitch about the novel, about Japan, about what Holmes fans – including Michael Chabon – made of the book and various other bits and pieces.
Peter Wild (PW): A Slight Trick of the Mind was first published in the US a few years back. How does it feel to have a UK release?
Mitch Cullin (MC): It feels wonderful to me after ten years. I’m very excited to have it finally coming out in your neck of the woods.
For the longest time many other countries were interested in the foreign translation and publication rights for the novel—like France, Russia, Spain, Taiwan, Korea—while the two countries where the book took place, Japan and England, wouldn’t touch it. But things often happen for the right reasons, and now I can’t imagine a better match for me and the book in the U.K. than with the good people at Canongate. They’ve been very kind, and they seem to consider me a serious writer rather than as just some guy out in Los Angeles who wrote a Sherlock book. I guess the Publishing Gods were waiting for the best moment to bring all the right people together. Japan, too, has since picked up the novel for a translation publication later this year.
PW: As far as Sherlock Holmes is concerned, you have what a certain character from a Coen Brothers film would call ‘bona fides’ – so it’s safe to say you know what you’re talking about. Can you remember when you first got bit by the Holmes bug?
MC: The Holmes bug hit me hardcore at around the age of 11 or 12, when I was a boy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It started with a Sunday afternoon TV program called something like “Sherlock on Sunday,” in which re-runs of the old Universal films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were shown.
This was before the age of video recorders, so I would tape the audio off the television with a cassette recorder and then listen to it in bed at night while re-watching the scenes in my head. I also did the same thing for Godzilla movies, by the way. I was an odd kid. But, man, I loved those films, as that fictional world of foggy, murderous London seemed about as far removed from my high desert childhood as anything could be. Then around that same time I found cassette tapes for sale at a local grocery store of BBC Sherlock Holmes radio shows, the ones from the 1950s with John Gielgud as Sherlock and Ralph Richardson as Watson, and gradually bought them all with my weekly allowance. Those radio shows were my first real introduction to Conan Doyle’s stories, and they led me to start reading the Holmes canon with somber intent.
One afternoon when I was about 12, my father came home from work and showed me a newspaper article about the Sherlockian scholar John Bennett Shaw, who was not only an American representative for the Conan Doyle estate but who also had the largest Sherlock Holmes collection in the world. And, as fate would have it, John and his massive collection existed in Santa Fe, less than a mile from my home in an adobe house on a dirt road. I was able to then find his number in the phone book and nervously called to introduce myself. John couldn’t have been nicer, and he invited me to come over on a weekend to meet him in person and to explore his library. And that was the beginning of a very satisfying friendship that lasted several years.
In time, I would watch over John’s library during the summer while he and his wife were on vacation, and he would pay me in rare books, like editions of The Strand Magazine with the original Conan Doyle stories in them and Paget’s illustrations, things like that. To say his library—which is now housed at The John Bennett Shaw Library of Sherlock Holmes at the University of Minnesota—was something to behold doesn’t even do justice to what the man had accumulated. John had everything from the Czar’s personal bound copy of Hound of the Baskervilles to vintage Sherlock Holmes pornography, and a million other things Holmes related. Through John I became the youngest member of The Brothers Three of Moriarty, a scion group of The Baker Street Irregulars, and at one point USA Today did a cover story about me & John, highlighting the old and new generations of Holmes scholars. But once puberty kicked in with a vengeance, my interest in Holmes waned as my interest in sex, punk music, and postmodern literature took off. Since then, I’ve considered myself a lapsed Sherlockian.
As for John, he passed away in 1994. It was his death that started me ruminating on the idea of writing a Sherlock novel someday, something about the twilight of the detective’s life. A few years later, as my father began struggling with what seemed to be dementia and my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I began work on A Slight Trick of the Mind as a way to explore themes of aging and memory and how the past can ebb away from us in unexpected ways. Ultimately, those are the things that this particular novel is about, and the character of Sherlock is used as a personal metaphor for me that is wrapped up in both the loss of my father figures and my childhood. It should be no surprise then that the quest for missing or lost father figures very much into the storyline. Anyway, I dedicated the book to John, and I also dedicated it to my mother who had died shortly before its publication in 2005.
But let me say this here. While I still consider myself a lapsed Sherlockian, I did a tremendous amount of research in order to get the facts right. When Leslie Klinger, a foremost Holmes authority who edited The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, wrote a rave review of the novel for The Los Angeles Times Book Review I knew I had done my job well enough.
PW: Are there subtle Easter Eggs for the true Holmes fan dotted throughout the book? Is there anything in the book likely to inflame the ire of Holmes enthusiasts?
MC: I’m positive that there are many Easter Eggs throughout the book, but I’m no longer in any position to say what those Easter Eggs are or where they can be found. I’m not being coy here, but I haven’t read the novel in many years. In fact, I’ve written three other novels since then, so my mental hard-drive was been wiped where the details of A Slight Trick of the Mind are concerned. But I’ll be re-reading it very soon, I promise.
I’ll mention, though, that I did get some interesting mail from people that I call “casual, earnest Sherlock Holmes fans” who took great issue with me having Holmes assert that he never called Watson just Watson but, rather, he referred to his companion as John, always John; for some reason that liberty on my part really annoyed some people to no end, much to my own amusement. But most of the mail I got was positive. Where the genuine Holmes scholar was concerned I had much more intelligent exchanges, and I was often heartened to find that they appreciated the research and work I had done. I suppose, in hindsight, I couldn’t quite justify taking liberties with the character without first making sure I had done my homework correctly. And that’s just what it was at the time: homework.
PW: A Slight Trick of the Mind also finds Holmes holidaying in Japan, where I believe you lived for a number of years. There is a real frisson as Holmes, a Victorian character, comes face to face with the modern world. Did you feel that frisson as you wrote?
MC: I think I must have felt that emotional state in order to have written about it. When I visited the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, which sits rather unremarkably beside a river and doesn’t impose on those walking nearby it, I had that kind of overwhelming sensation of standing at the epicenter of the modern age, where the past world order was suddenly paradigm-shifted into something else altogether. Of course, I was born into that new age so I never had that experience of understanding it the way that Holmes would have done. Still, it isn’t so hard to imagine how he might feel. Plus, I was traveling alone in Japan at the time, terribly depressed, and completely overwhelmed by culture shock, so maybe I was able to get close to that frisson you speak of. One thing about Japan is that they tend to mix antiquity with tacky modernity better than any other place I’ve ever been, with beautiful old temples sitting right beside baseball stadiums and the two somehow co-existing nicely. However, my Holmes never got to see that Japan, just the wasteland version leftover from the war.
PW: There is also, of course, a lot of meta-textual trickery in that Holmes is aware of all of the literature written about him – but of course it’s written by John Watson rather than Conan Doyle – and he enjoys celebrity (interrupted, at one point, mid case, by a well-wisher). Pushing the metatextuality to its limits, what do you think Conan Doyle (or John Watson for that matter) would make of your book?
MC: With Conan Doyle’s increased interest in occultism, the spirit world, and mysticism toward the end of his life, I suspect he wouldn’t much like the underlying themes of the novel, especially as A Slight Trick of the Mind tends to quietly rail against those sort of otherworldly preoccupations that Sir Arthur often entertained. Perhaps, though, he might like some of the writing, some of the more poetic passages of the book, and how I had done my research in order to stay true to his body of work. Who knows for sure. I’ll hold a séance and see if he wants to share his opinion. John Watson, on the other hand, has contacted me personally to let me know how much he loves the book: “Good job! Well done, sir!” he wrote on a postcard back in 2005. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
PW: A Slight Trick of the Mind offers an elegiac full stop in many ways to Conan Doyle’s world (there is a section of the book that reads like Time Regained, the last volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, with various famous characters put to bed) – did you ever ask yourself ‘Can I do that?’ as you wrote?
MC: No, I never had that moment, otherwise I could never have written the book in the first place. If I was operating under the self-imposed rule that Sherlock Holmes existed, and that he had grown into an elderly man in the actual world, then I had to follow the logical outcomes—one of which would be that he would likely outlive many of his contemporaries. Had those characters still been present in Holmes’ life it would have made his sense of loss—and that of the reader’s—less potent, less realistic. Plus, I was determined to write my own Sherlock novel, something that dealt with issues and themes that interested me, and something that was more literary than pastiche.
PW: In the last few years there have been a number of pulpy additional Sherlock Holmes books. Are you aware of any of them? Do they have you shuddering in distaste?
MC: I don’t keep up with that world anymore, so I can’t comment about the newer Holmes books. I suspect there must be some good ones, right? Still, I have no distaste for those sort of efforts, but I’m just not interested in reading them. I don’t tend to enjoy genre fiction much, and mostly I stick with non-fiction, photobooks, and postwar Japanese literature. When I was a kid I loved the pulpy pastiches, and I collected them all. If young Mitch were still around he’d be able to answer this at great length.
PW: Have you read Michael Chabon’s book about an ageing Sherlock Holmes, The Final Solution? What did you think of it?
MC: I did read it, actually, and I enjoyed it a lot. It came out almost simultaneously as A Slight Trick of the Mind in the States, so did Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary for that matter. Yet I remember feeling terribly unlucky at the time, downright cursed, simply because I’d worked so hard on my Sherlock novel for several years, from 2000 to 2002, only for it to be eclipsed upon publication in 2005 by Michael Chabon’s novella which, while also being quite good, covered a lot of the same ground as my book. It did feel really unfair. But of the three American writers whose last name began with the letter C, the critics tended to favour my book, even if the sales did not.
Then out of the blue I received a lovely, generous message from Michael Chabon, in which he confessed, “Well, I finally got up the nerve to read A Slight Trick of the Mind. I was fully prepared, and indeed in my darkest heart hoping, to disdain it or at least dismiss it. But it’s wonderful, damn it, and I’m loving it. Congratulations. You have done Sir Arthur, and Holmes, a great honor.” What a class act.
PW: The film of A Slight Trick of the Mind is already underway – with Ian McKellen as Mr Holmes. How excited are you to see the finished product?
MC: The film version is a dream come true, and I don’t think I can accurately express how excited and happy I am about it. Keep in mind that the producer Anne Carey has almost singlehandedly, and with amazing vision and determination, attempted to get a film version of the novel going since before the book was ever published. She has maintained an option on it since 2003 or 2004, and I think for all of us involved there was always the hope Ian would eventually take the part. Once Bill Condon came aboard to direct, and Ian committed to star in it, I knew the project was in the right hands. It’s going to be a wonderful film, and I suppose the fact that one of my books will contribute to the extensive body of Sherlockian cinema brings the whole thing full circle for me: the boy captivated by Sherlock Holmes movies in New Mexico, and now that boy as a man having used the art of fiction to say goodbye to his childhood by using Sherlock Holmes as a creative metaphor which will soon grace the big screen. The manner in which a person’s life can bend back on itself in such unpredictable and often beautiful ways is incredible sometimes.
PW: Can we ask what is next for Mitch Cullin?
MC: There’s a lot on my plate at the moment, and much of it should begin materializing in fairly quick succession starting near the end of this year and then continuing throughout 2015 and beyond. My partner Peter I. Chang and I are collaborating on our third feature-length documentary—our first since 2008’s Tokyo is Dreaming—which is built around Super 8mm films and videos that I shot during the 1980s. Peter and I will also be publishing our collaborative novel Everything Beautiful is Far Away at some point soon. Then there’s a photobook of my West Texas photographs, with an accompanying essay, that I’ll be pulling together for a limited edition printing. I’m very excited about that project, especially since photography is my first love, something I’ve always been rather private about and, as a result, I haven’t shared too much of with others until recently. There are also a couple of novels of fiction that I need to get done, one is already underway and the other is outlined, and a non-fiction book about the year I was born.
Finally, the team of Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold, who have made some great films such as The Sexual Chronicles of a French Family and Too Much Flesh, are at work on bringing my novel UnderSurface to the screen. And, of course, there’s the A Slight Trick of the Mind movie to contend with, and a whole bunch of new foreign editions of the book that will be launched into various parts of the world during this year and the following one. After being pretty dormant the last few years, it’s been fantastic for me to be so busy again. But before anything else, I plan on doing some travel with Peter. We’ve been holed up among the weirdness of the Los Angeles area for way too long, so a proper airing out is needed before we dive back into more work.
A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is published by Canongate priced £14.99
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- May 28, 2014 / 5:50 am