Talking Sherlock Holmes with Bonnie MacBird
Roughly ten seconds into our Skype conversation, Bonnie MacBird asks if I’d like to see Baker Street. As a fellow Sherlock Holmes fanatic, I immediately assent.
She lifts her laptop and spirits my cyber-self over to the window of her London hotel room, where she is promoting her newly-released Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel, Art in the Blood. Through my computer screen, I gaze across the United States, the Atlantic Ocean and Baker Street, at the perennially mythologized flat labeled, 221B. The fictional residence of Sherlock Holmes exudes an inspirational allure for Sherlockians far and wide, and it is no coincidence that MacBird’s home away from home is adjacent to her literary hero.
Like the Great Detective, MacBird is a woman of many passions, all of which are reflected in her life’s work. The San Francisco native studied music at Stanford University, where she also earned her master’s degree in film in 1973. Since then, she has traversed nearly every artistic sphere. In Hollywood, she thumbed through thousands of scripts as the story editor for Universal Studios and eventually penned her own screenplay: the iconic 1982 Disney movie, TRON. MacBird is a classically trained actor, who earned her stripes at Oxford’s British American Drama Academy, at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and with a host of improv crews and private trainers. She is also a playwright, a three-time Emmy-winner and a screenwriting professor at UCLA Extension in the city where she lives, Los Angeles.
“I try to do a lot of different things,” MacBird explains, laughing lightly. “I get bored easily. And I like learning.”
For MacBird’s latest creation, Art in the Blood, she ventures into the literary landscape. Though the novel-writing terrain is new to MacBird, the characters of Holmes and Watson are old friends.
“I first got into Sherlock Holmes at age ten,” MacBird says. “I read one story, and then read all of them.”
MacBird was an avid reader as a child, frequenting the local library and lugging home as many books as the library allowed — which enabled her to “consume” the Arthur Conan Doyle canon consisting of 56 short stories and four novels while still in fourth grade. MacBird’s artist mother encouraged her to look up new words in the family dictionary on a stand, and this precociousness led to temporary alarm on the part of her fourth grade teacher after a particular short story submission.
“The teacher called the principal, and the principal called my mom and showed my story to her and said, ‘Where did your daughter learn this word?’ My mom started laughing and said, ‘She’ll show you tomorrow.’ The very next day I brought in [the first Sherlock Holmes story] ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and proved to the teacher that ‘ejaculate’ did not mean what she thought!”
MacBird describes herself as a lifelong “mad Sherlockian.” Last spring, she wrote a humorous piece for the journal, The Watsonian, about her identification with Holmes’ stalwart best friend, John Watson.
“Obviously I’m not a Victorian gentleman, and I don’t have an intentional mustache,” she quips, “but there are a lot of things that I do feel in common with Watson.” Namely, she told me, that she lives with a man “who many think is one of the smartest people in the world.” He is Alan Kay, world renowned computer scientist and MacBird’s husband of 32 years.
MacBird considered herself a “closet Sherlockian” until her recovery from a medical scare forced her to reevaluate life goals. “Moments like that can concentrate your thinking. I was suddenly faced with the gift of time that I wasn’t sure I was going to have. What do I want to do with it?” MacBird opted to write a novel.
“I thought, well who do I want to spend time with?” she says. “I have to spend at least a year with these characters. And it just immediately hit me: I want to be with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.”
On Christmas day, 2011, MacBird started the month-long process of composing her first draft, with a little help from the creative writing initiative, NaNoWriMo.The extensive editing and researching process included a dip into her own library of Victorian England, as well as a deep dive into the wider world of Sherlockiana.
“I’m not really a club-joiner,” MacBird laughs, “I didn’t ‘come out’ as a Sherlockian until [Sherlock Holmes authority and editor] Les Klinger booted me into the arena and said, ‘You need to come to these things! You’ll meet your best friends there.’”
MacBird became an immediate staple in the enthusiastic Sherlock Holmes community. She started going to Baker Street Irregular weekend events, joined the Society of London, the Curious Collectors of Baker Street, and the SoCal Sherlockians group. She founded the Sherlock Breakfast Club, and helps run the Sherlock Holmes play-reading series in Brentwood, CA, alongside Klinger.
For MacBird, stepping into Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary shoes was the most daunting aspect of the enterprise. “Conan Doyle was a genius writer, and trying to emulate him is a little bit of hubris because he’s just so, so good,” she says. “But on the other hand, that’s an artistic challenge that thrills me to attempt because it demands so much.”
MacBird was more than up to the challenge. Ever the polymath, she also illustrated her own novel, taking a page out of the book of original Holmes portrait artist, Sidney Paget.
“My family prized art, so I was always encouraged to be creative. I definitely have art in the blood!” In that sense, MacBird channels Holmes, as well as Watson. She says her novel explores “the gifts and curses of having an artistic nature.”
MacBird’s decision to delve into the world of these two giants of British culture is emblematic of her creative motto. “Typically, students are told, ‘Write what you know.’ But I think that’s rubbish,” she says, the Britishism betraying her affection for her home away from home. “I think what you should really do is write what you love.”
Her fervor permeates all of MacBird’s artistic enterprises, embodying the Holmesian ideal of the “professional enthusiast,” or (as she explains on her blog) one who is guided by a “crazy-ass energy, focus and intensity.”
“I believe in expressing your enthusiasm,” she smiles, stealing another glance at 221B Baker Street. “I believe in doing what you love and doing it full out.”
Originally published at www.ampersandla.com.