Nancy Springer on The Enola Holmes Mysteries

Nancy Springer is the author of over forty novels for adults, young adults and children. Springer’s children’s books have won her two Edgar Allan Poe awards, a Carolyn W. Field award, various Children’s Choice honors and numerous ALA Best Book listings.

Byrt: Being a huge fan of Enola Holmes, I have to ask – have you been watching the Sherlock adaptation from the BBC/PBS?

Nancy : When I was preparing to write the series, I watched over and over all the Sherlock DVDs starring Jeremy Brett; I found them very useful for background detail. If that’s not the adaptation to which you refer, then no, I haven’t seen it.

Byrt: How and when did you first discover Sherlock Holmes?

Nancy: When I was a child and read my mother’s set of The Complete Works of Conan Doyle, I reread the Sherlock Holmes stories until I had all but memorized them, and was frustrated I could find no more.

Byrt: Was it at all intimidating, to expand on Doyle’s canon?

Nancy: Not at all, because while Doyle was a very good writer, he was also quite a misogynist. Occasionally and with difficulty he represents women positively, but much more often he has Holmes dismiss them as hopelessly vapid, hysterical and illogical. I exploited with glee Sherlock’s complete ignorance of the feminine sphere of Victorian society.

Byrt: One of my favorite parts of the Enola series is the mystery that is Enola’s relationship with her mother. Lady Eudoria Holmes is a fascinating character – was she based on a historical figure, or someone you know? And did you specifically want to create a character that shows us mothers are human and that their love can be expressed in unconventional, and sometimes painful, ways?

Nancy: Oh, she was a fascinating character all right — my mother, I mean. Enala’s mum is largely based on my mom, a professional artist who did indeed paint exquisite watercolor flowers, though she made her living doing pet portraits. By the time I was 14 (Enola’s age) my mother was 54 and rather absent-minded when it came to my needs. In retrospect, I understand she was going through menopause, but still… I am now myself a mother of grown children, and often wonder what they think of me. Yes, I did want to show that mothers are human and do not always bake cookies.

Byrt: I love all the cryptograms and codes and puzzles throughout your series – did you tie your brain in knots coming up with them all? How much research was involved?

Nancy: I depended very much on a slim children’s book, Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, by Martin Gardner, from Dover Publications. Wonderfully helpful. Even so, I often rued the day I put ciphers in the first Enola book, because then I had to provide something of the sort for each book thereafter! The only ones I invented myself were the one Sherlock could not break (fourth letter of innocence = daisy = s) and Florence Nightingale’s embroidered code (my life affects my writing in the oddest ways; I knew embroidery from decorating my jeans back when I was a hippie). And I suppose the one where I arranged the letters in the form of pansy petals was pretty original. Yes, the ciphers did macerate my mind, especially on top of everything else. Each book had to contain not only ciphers, but three plots: Enola and Mum, Enola and Sherlock, Enola finding a missing person. Also I needed to use Victorian vocabulary in a way accessible to modern reader. The Enola Holmes books were a joy to write, but they were hard!

Byrt: I also love how Enola takes the womanly arts and uses them cleverly to aid her in her rebellion and case solving – did you have fun subverting the fashionable accoutrements of the time?

Nancy: Yes, I had huge fun making use of everything that was silliest yet most distinctive about Victorian society. I wanted Enola to have a parasol that shot pepper spray, but never got to it. Also, some women had darling little pistols that they concealed in their muffs, and then there were sword-canes…. The year 1889, of which I wrote, was near the end of the Victorian era, everything was changing, Enola was not the only one rebelling, fashions were in flux (I loved dressing Enola up) and altogether I had a delightful time. Long before I wrote these books, my job description as a writer included subversion.

Byrt: There is such a freeing theme throughout this series, of women finding the courage to accept themselves for who they are – do you think that’s something easier to do today, in our modern world? Or are all the restrictions and expectations just as alive as they were in Enola’s day, only in different form?

Nancy: Good question. I think women have made steady gains in most civilized countries over the past two hundred years. Women can now own property, make their own decisions regarding medical treatment, take legal action, and vote. No longer are women shut out of educational institutions, professions, or government office. But we still have a ways to go before we will be truly on an equal footing psychologically with our male counterparts; while women are changing so much, the way men are raised has hardly changed at all. As for expectations, they now bombard us from mass media and popular music, mostly pandering to a sadly limited male fantasy of what women should be.

Byrt: What do you want your readers to take away from Enola Holmes?

Nancy: Even though I am quite opinionated and of course my feminism shapes my books, still, I don’t write to teach or preach. What I want for my readers is the enjoyment of reading an engrossing and well-crafted book. I guess you might say my first loyalty is to literacy.

Byrt: What’s coming up next for you? Can you tease a little bit about you’re working on now?

Nancy: Um, something from the point of view of a feral cat? An interesting challenge as regards vocabulary.

Byrt: And lastly – have you read any good books recently that you’d recommend?

Nancy: By Isabel Allende (pronounced I-yen-day), In the House of the Spirits blew me away.

Thanks again to Nancy Springer for stopping by the Bookyurt!

For more on Nancy, you can find her website here.

(And our glowing review of the Enola Holmes series is here)