Interview by Tehani Wessely.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer of crime, horror, fantasy, romance, erotica and non-fiction. Her books include Fly By Night (nominated for a Ned Kelly Award for First Crime Novel), fantasies Witch Honour and Witch Faith (both short-listed for the George Turner Prize) and vampire book, The Opposite of Life, set in Melbourne.
In March 2012, her short story collection, Showtime, became the fifth of the 12 Planets series (released by World Fantasy Award winning Twelfth Planet Press). Walking Shadows, the sequel to The Opposite of Life, was released by Clan Destine Press in June 2012, and was nominated for the Chronos Awards for SF and fantasy, and shortlisted for the Davitt Awards for crime writing.
In 2013, Narrelle also began writing erotic romance with Encounters (Clan Destine Press) and Escape Publishing. Six short stories have been published to date. Her first full-length romance, The Adventure of the Colonial Boy – a Holmes/Watson crime/romance set in Australia in 1893 – was published by Improbable Press in 2016. A queer paranormal romance and more short stories are in the pipeline with Manifold Press, Clan Destine Press and Improbable Press. Find out more about Narrelle’s work at her blog, www.mortalwords.com.au.
I think your most recent publication is The Adventure of the Colonial Boy, a Sherlock Holmes adventure. I know you’re a fan of the Great Detective – what can you tell us about this book and its path to publication?
I’ve been a great fan of Holmes and Watson since the Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett led me back to the original stories. I still re-read them every year or so, and just last year read every single story all over again as prep before writing The Adventure of the Colonial Boy.
That book’s path is a bit convoluted, actually, but trying to break it down it goes something like: BBC Sherlock got me in its clutches and very involved with the fandom when the show went on its long hiatus between seasons. I played with fanfic for a bit because I was having awful writers block, but in writing without pressure discovered I still had my mojo, and started to get really productive. In the fandom, I met a writer online named Wendy C Fries, and found out more about general Holmes publishing. Wendy had a book published of 50 short stories of alternative first meetings of Holmes and Watson (both Victorian and modern era alternatives). She was talking to the publisher about queer readings of their relationship, the number of people interested in reading stories about it, and how in the 21st century there’s an obvious market for books like that. The publisher pretty much said, oh cool, there’s a market – write me something!
Wendy is now the director of Improbable Press. She invited me to pitch, as she knew both my writing and my interest in Holmes and Watson, and they accepted the idea for a Victorian era love story. I wanted to set it during the Great Hiatus when Holmes is meant to be dead, and in Australia. The whole is predicated on the idea that Watson is an unreliable narrator. (All anyone has to do is look at all the continuity errors – Doyle didn’t necessarily care that much about it! – for canon evidence that Watson might be making things up and covering up truths.)
Actually, I don’t have a hard-and-fast reading of Holmes and Watson. they can be epic besties, they can be epicly in love: all interpretations are valid interpretations. I think at the heart of it we see two people who mean a lot to each other who have adventures together. That’s how they’ve lasted for 128 years! How their care for each other is interpreted – and there are more than two ways to see it of course – their friendship + the mysteries are the core of it.
So i wrote a story about their friendship, a mystery, and how the friendship is revealed as something else, once they are stripped of their usual environment and usual way of relating to each other. The walls crack and new truths are revealed. Plus there are assassins at sea, horse chases, venomous snakes, and all kinds of adventures and shenanigans in the Australian bush. Plus (eventually) kissing! With a moustache! Of which Sherlock approves! (This is not a spoiler. It’s a romance adventure. Of course they’re getting together.)
I was terribly jealous to see you get along to San Diego Comic Con a few weeks ago – could you share some of your favourite highlights and tell us some of the weirder things about attending this massive event?
I had a great time, but the convention is huge and can be a bit overwhelming. I’m still pretty damn tired! I kept joking that it was a Festival of Queuing, and the only thing that would make it more appealing to the Brits would be to have a cup of tea at the end of every queue.
On thing that was sort of odd but very nice was how good natured everyone was. 130,000 people go – that’s a city the size of Darwin packed into a convention centre – but the volunteers and staff manage to control the crowds safely, on the whole remain polite and positive, the attendees do too, and everyone is very patient in the longer lines for special events. I was pretty impressed with how that worked, and with what seemed to be very good accessibility for people with mobility issues. So yeah, the temperament of the whole thing was impressive.
The costumes are great too. The people who’ve gone to so much effort to wear a costume just for hanging about in panels and the hallways, let alone those who’ve built something awesome for the masquerade. I loved seeing whole families done up in thematic outfits. One family had come as an Alice in Wonderland team, and later I kept bumping into them (in their civvies) in other hallways. We’d had a lovely chat. They were really lovely people.
So there’s this hugeness to the whole event, these overwhelming numbers, and at the same time there’s this real family feeling, and strangers happily chatting with strangers, and this pervasive good mood, despite how hot and tiring it all could be as well.
Particular highlights for me: the Buckaroo Banzai panel, with four of the supporting cast from the 1984 film, ahead of Kevin Smith prepping to make it into a TV series. A whole room of very excited people doing call-and-response of lines from the film! That was hugely fun. And John Barrowman doing his one-man panel, being saucy and cheeky and giggling his head off and showing off his legs and basically being adorable and ribald and charming and hilarious. I haven’t seen him in person before, and even though I was near the back of the room, I finally get why everyone raves about his personal appearances. His was my last panel of the con and it made the whole thing end on a happy buzz.
I don’t know about weird things. I was among my people! But serendipitous things, like recoiing from the hugely long queues in the Exhibitor’s Hall only to find this smaller operation doing T-shirts from What We Do in the Shadows and about Nicola Tesla and vampires and things. I bought two shirts from them and had a lovely chat with them. And after giving my place in the Hasbro queue one night, for the Kylo Ren figure I really wanted (the guy was only attending the one day and wanted a My Little Pony figure for his daughter – and I was the last person they let into the queue. So I swapped with him) I did manage to get into the line the next day, just when I’d given up on being able to get the figure. So that was nice. Karma gave me a kiss on the cheek. And partly that happened because I’d been chatting to the crowd control staff on and off over the four days, and they saw me just when room in the line opened up again and made sure I joined it.
That was really fantastic. It could so easily have been, as well as exhausting, mean spirited and cranky and unpleasant, but for all the waiting around and how tiring it was for everyone, people were generally just lovely.
What are you working on at the moment that we might expect to see in the next year or so?
SO MANY THINGS! A few short stories are due to be published later this year, including an epic-besties reading of Holmes and Watson in The Christmas Card Mystery for a Christmas anthology for MX Publishing; Know Your Own Happiness, a story riffing off Persuasion for A Certain Persuasion from Manifold Press (an anthology that is queering Jane Austen); my story Virgin Soil in the Clan Destine anthology And Then… ; and I also have a two stories in Improbable Press’s upcoming A Murmuring of Bees anthology, one of which is a sequel to The Adventure of the Colonial Boy set in their retirement years in Sussex, with Sherlock away on war work for the government and Watson at home tending both the bees and two soldiers mustered out with permanent injury. That’s The Beekeepers’ Children and the other is a modern version of them in a story called Nectar.
Works in progress: I’m cowriting a modern-era Holmes/Watson romance for Improbable Press (our take on how that might look) called God Save the Queen. I have a number of short Holmes-and-Watson stories to write for MX and an Australian publisher. I’m working on a romance set in a world where people have wings (except my two characters have disabilities and can’t fly) called Grounded. I have a queer paranormal romance called Ravenfall
with a publisher that they like and say they want, though no contract has yet been signed. With Clan Destine, I’ve got the heteromance spy stories being reissued with new covers and a brand new story, Wilderness
. My queermance series, Talbott and Burns Mysteries, will have a third short out soon: Informed Consent
I have another novel with another publisher for consideration too, and plans and notes for a second book in that series.
Seriously. My problem is not in getting ideas. It’s in getting the time to write all the ideas I have.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I recently went on a Tansy Rayner Roberts jag, finishing Reign of Beasts, the third of the Creature Court trilogy, and all of her Cafe La Femme crime stories written under the name Livia Day. She’s such a good writer and always pulls out something surprising. I also read Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, which built a very vivid world and used a futuristic slang and patois that was really effective. In non-fiction I loved Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster! about Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab – besides writing about the history of both book and author, she draws parallels with Conan Doyle and with developments in the detective genre, so it’s a brilliant read both on its own account and as a snapshot of genre history. Finally, there was Magda Szubanski’s Memoir, which made me cry a lot: it speaks subtly yet clearly and very movingly about human nature, secrets and trauma that gets handed down. It’s very compassionate and deeply moving.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
I’m tempted to say Arthur Conan Doyle, but I think he’d rather fly into a mountain than spend another second talking about Sherlock Holmes. Thinking about my bookshelves, I think I’d enjoy talking with William Shakespeare about how his works still resonate today and different ways they’re interpreted for modern audience and different cultures.
I also think Foz Meadows and I could get to know each other better and have long and entertaining talks about writing, fanfic, culture, relationships, how screwed up Supernatural is, and the woes and wonders of making up stories for a living.