Interview with Michael Dirda by Diane Prokop with Portland Book Review
Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Dirda, who is as fascinating and delightful as the author he writes about in his new book, On Conan Doyle: Or the Whole Art of Storytelling. In it Dirda writes about discovering Sherlock Holmes’ novels as a young man, and how he has continued to study Doyle and his complete oeuvre as an adult. So completely, in fact, that in 2002, Dirda was honored by being inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars.
PBR: Why did you write a book about Arthur Conan Doyle?
Dirda: I wasn’t going to write this book at all until Princeton University editors asked me if I was interested in contributing to their series Writers On Writers. What appealed to me about the series is that it was an essay rather than a biography. I could make it personal. If you’ve read my other things, you know that I like to make things, not autobiographical exactly, but find a way to put myself into the book. Here, I figured I could essentially tell the story of a reader’s life with the theme of a single author. At the same time, I could talk about Sherlock Holmes, discuss the Baker Street Irregulars – an important group in my life – and distill a lot of information about them into short form. And not least, make the book kind of an invitation to explore beyond the Sherlock Holmes stories – to look at the other things Conan Doyle had written. So all those things came together and I decided it would be fun to do. It has to be fun!
PBR: Tell me about the first Doyle book you read.
Dirda: I discovered the book by happenstance. I didn’t know who Sherlock Holmes was, when in fifth grade a Scholastic Book Club newsletter came to class and you could choose a number of paperbacks to order. My mother would only let me get four each month. I really did try and get more. I spent a lot of time picking the ones I would choose. The Hound of the Baskervilles was a no-brainer from the description of the book, the picture of the strange eerie creature on the moors, and the phrase – ‘What was it that emerged from the moors at night to spread terror and violent death?’
PBR: How did it impact you?
Dirda: In some ways, it’s the way we are as kids. Books are magical back then, and part of the magic has to do with the time you read them, so as we get older, we always want to recapture that magic. It’s never quite the same. We know too much once we’re adults. When we read them for the first time they introduce the world to you, they show you things, show you the life you might lead. It was a magical moment for me to read these stories with great characters’ thrilling adventures and then from there, I went to the library and got The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and there was no stopping me.
PBR: Why do you think you were such a voracious reader as a child since it doesn’t seem like your parents were big readers?
Dirda: No, my parents never read anything. My father read the newspaper. I’ve often thought about that and I suggested different answers. Some of it could be escape from being an unhappy and lonely child. I was a day-dreamy kid. I was picked on. I needed glasses. My mother didn’t want me to wear glasses, so I didn’t get any until I was well along in elementary school. Couldn’t see up till then. I was fat and bowlegged and my father would make fun of me. So I was sort of a unhappy kid, I guess, but reading was an escape. It gave you this image of the kind of person you would like to be. When you’re a boy reading adventure novels, of course, you want to be Sherlock Holmes, or Tarzan, or Tom Corbett’s Space Cadet. These are glimpses of possible future lives you might lead. Same with comic books. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think that some people really respond to print, to narrative, to storytelling more strongly than others. I have three sons and they were all introduced to books at an early age and they all read, but none of them have the same kind of passion for books that I have. For me, books were magical when I was young and as I got older I had a slightly different ambition. I wanted to know everything and books seemed to be the way you learned things. I wanted to know about the past and understand different cultures. I wanted to feel that I could move around the world and be at ease wherever I was, and not just be this dreamy kid living in Lorain, Ohio and never having any experience of the world beyond that. Books introduced you to the world. It’s a real tragedy of human life that we can only live one life. If I get married, I can’t be a Dominican monk, or I can’t be a Cassanova. You have to choose, but with books you can lead all those kinds of lives. I think a lot of people can go back to books of childhood because they offer paths not taken.
PBR: How do you think the books you read as a child formed you as an adult?
Dirda: Books helped shaped me in some ways, but I read a great variety of books. Once I passed out of adolescence, I really had an aspiration to be – this sounds corny – but cultured. I knew nothing about classical music, painting, the world’s literature, or history when I was growing up. Once I had an inkling of what these were like, that these were the greatest achievements of people over time, I wanted to experience them. It seemed to be foolish to be alive and to miss out on the greatest works that have ever been created.
PBR: Would you consider yourself a Renaissance man?
Dirda: I’ll never be a Renaissance man. I can’t draw very well. I can play the accordion, but I do have an interest in a lot of things. I’m glad I became a book reviewer because it’s made me keep reading books. I can understand how people might give up reading books as they get older. It takes too much effort or it’s easier to watch television. I don’t think that would have happened to me, but the life I’ve chosen allowed me to keep reading books all the time. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, except maybe I do miss not having been a college teacher which is why I’m doing some of it now.
PBR: I didn’t know much about Doyle except for his Sherlock Holmes novels, but I learned from your book that he wrote about a lot of different subjects. Was there anything you learned while writing this book?
Dirda: I read a lot of the contemporary novels, The Tragedy of the Kurosko, Beyond the City, I hadn’t read before. Some I reread, and others I explored more deeply. I was more of a Sherlock Holmes fan than a Conan Doyle expert. I had always been interested in him but this gave me the occasion to explore his life and his work more deeply. I did discover what a wide-ranging wonderful storyteller he was.
PBR: What was it like being invested into the Baker Street Irregulars? There’s only about 300 or so, right? Is must be a big honor?
Dirda: Well it is. There are a lot more Sherlockians. Every major city has a Sherlock Holmes society. They’re called scion societies and they have their own protocols, their own rules, their own practices. You get a name from the Wiggens.. He’s called the Wiggens because he’s the only identified member of the street urchins. He’s their leader and he has a name. The others are just boys. So Wiggens is the head of the Baker Street Irregulars. He will pick a name that harmonizes with your profession, your personality. Mine is Langdale Pike. Pike is a gossip columnist for London newspapers. All the rumors, all the innuendoes come to him and he appears in the Sherlock Homes story, The Adventure of the Three Gables. At one point, Holmes says, ‘Watson, this is a case for Langdale Pike, and I’m going to see him now.’ He’s kind of one of these mastermind figures in the canon just as Moriarity is the Napolean of Crime, Mycroft Holmes sometimes is the British government, and Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the great detective. So Langdale Pike is, in a way, this great clearing house of information about society. He knows everything that’s going on. I’m the only one alive with that name. There have been others before me with that name, but no one else will have that name until I die. You’re not sworn to secrecy exactly, but the banquet is restricted only to members and to a couple of dozen guests each year. The guests are usually people the Wiggens is considering investing into the Baker Street Irregulars, and they will sometimes have to come to the dinners two, three, or four times before they hear their name called. It was a surprise to me. It’s usually a surprise to everyone to some degree. You have a sense sometimes. It’s an interesting group with the highest ranking judge in New York state, a major cardiac surgeon, and the former chief technical officer for Apple. All these kinds of people are involved in the group, as well as, teachers and writers. I got Neil Gaiman involved.
PBR: What does Sherlock Holmes have to offer today’s young people?
Dirda: We’ve already offered them something unexpected, that is the BBC series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a very hot, young Sherlock Holmes. I’m told that he’s a major heart throb for teenage girls. The show brings him up-to-date, to the 21st century. It translates very well. Instead of Holmes sending telegrams, this guy sends text messages. Robert Downey’s movies as well, which are a kind of steampunk graphic novel approach. There is the Beacon Society which has contests for younger school children. They all read The Speckled Band and write something. There’s outreach going on, but it’s true that the Bakers Street Irregulars itself is very much a gray organization partly, because in some instances, it takes people awhile before they work their way up to be noticed as worthy of being invested. You might not discover the stories until you’re an adult, and then you’d spend a few years doing Sherlockian scholarship, but there’s been an effort of late to invest some younger people. A young woman novelist named Lindsay Faye was recently invested. She wrote a really good Sherlock Holmes novel called Dust and Shadow.
PBR: I read that the Baker Street Irregulars didn’t start taking women until 1991. Why is that?
Dirda: At this point I would say that about 10% of the Baker Street Irregulars is female. There’s an active interest in bringing women into the group, but it was an all male dining society for a long time, and there are those who really liked it that way. I’m not one of them. Now some of the most active Sherlockian’s are women.
PBR: Do you we have any modern day equivalent to Sherlock Holmes?
Dirda: We don’t, exactly, which is why we keep having all these pastiches written. People try to go back and add to the canon. Nicholas Meyer with The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where Sherlock Holmes meets Freud and recently, I reviewed The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. It’s a completely new Sherlock Holmes story. You have a lot of that going on because he’s such a unique character – certainly the most famous fictional character in the world, so you have figures that are reminiscent of him. But, I can’t think of a character who is really on his scale. I think if you are a strong enough artist, you are inimitable.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and longtime book columnist for the Washington Post. He is the author of four collections of essays, Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure, as well as the memoir An Open Book.