Today I’m sitting down with my friend Melody Clark to talk about her new book, Shamus Bead and the Cure for What Kills You. I read Melody’s first book, Shamus Bead and the Clockwork Resurrection Man and thoroughly enjoyed it. She was kind enough to let me get a sneak peek at the new book, and it’s just as good. The first book is available now (click on the book image below) and you can preorder the new book, which will be released on November 14.
First off, can you give us a quick description of the Shamus books?
They are Victorian steampunk mysteries set in the London of Sherlock Holmes, with numerous knowing winks and nods to that subgenre. The two main characters, Professor Shamus Bead and medical Doctor Jeptha Lawton, are gay men in a relationship, which they must obviously keep hidden. They would be seen as deeply subversive people by the culture of the times, and yet they are the only ones who are ideally suited to face the plagues of those times, both literally and figuratively. Professor Bead is chief epidemiologist for the Royal Epidemiological Society. Doctor Lawton is his supervising partner. Their Moriarty is death and disease, which were rampant in Victorian England, due to pollution and many other factors.
At one point in my new novel, Shamus is asked what their number one enemy is and he says “ignorance.” In some ways, I don’t think the US has ever fully escaped the Victorian period. We’re a big country where ignorance can slip into small places and fester. Even though Shamus is based in the UK, we’re still fighting the same kind of nemeses here in our country now. We all repress parts of culture that are vital for us to thrive and survive. We never know where the cure for cancer will crop up. We need as many minds from as many different perspectives as possible. That’s also what Shamus addresses in theme and content.
You’ve created a very caring relationship between these two men, something uncommon now but even more so back in their time. What was it that inspired you to write so fully about these two very different men?
The central relationship is everything in novels. The characters have to care about each other in order for the reader to care about them and invest in their further adventures. Many fictional characters are clothed on the page – I mean, they exist as a kind of proper form of who those characters are. I wanted an honest depiction of their relationship. As Shamus emerged as a more graceful and delicate persona, Jeptha became even more of a strong and soldierly fellow in my mind. He had a protected young adulthood, in terms of growing up in English boarding schools, but he was still as preyed upon as Shamus was living in the streets. I wanted Jeptha to be a full partner, too. I didn’t want any Nigel Bruce dotty Watson interpretations being made. Shamus needs Jeptha as much, if not more, than Jeptha relies on Shamus.
How did you ever get the idea for this cross between Johnny Depp and Sherlock Holmes?
I wanted to write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche as I have had a deep love of the original stories since I was a child. The legal waters are murky for a Sherlock pastiche, so I set about creating my own character to honor that same tradition. Shamus Bead the name even suggests Sherlock Holmes. The name Jeptha Lawton is similar to John Watson. Shamus and Jeptha live on Orchard Street, which is the name of the street that Baker Street turns into. There are a few other touches that wink at the reader. But they are very different and unique characters.
As I’ve written him, Shamus has evolved into a much more fragile fellow than Holmes ever was. He is even more of an outcast in his own way. The more I wrote him, the more he became Johnny Depp-like in my mind in terms of the characters Depp plays – that same kind of deeply sensitive outsider with a poetic grace who must deal with the real world while speaking his own language. Bless them, characters have a life of their own. They will be what they will be, regardless of our wishes. They’re like children in that way.
I can vouch for the truth of that. Does Shamus or Jeptha ever surprise you?
All the time. One incident in the first novel involved a line where Shamus is chided by Jeptha for not bringing the right gun to a gunfight – as if Shamus would have any knowledge of guns. Shamus says something to the effect that next time he’ll bring his really big gun. Anyway, as I wrote the ending, I realized Shamus really did have a bigger gun – and I don’t mean that in a phallic sense – and he takes it out to use it. When Jeptha acts surprised at Shamus wielding the big gun, Shamus says to him, but I told you I had one. Jeptha replies, yes, but I thought you were joking. Well, so did I when I wrote the first scene, but Shamus surprised even me.
The books have a very authentic feel to them, both in the writing and in the descriptions of the areas of London. I particularly enjoyed the dialog, as well. What kind of research do you have to do for the period?
I’m a stickler for realism so I research tiny details. It’s important to me that the language be precise. Too many Holmes pastiches and novels in that tradition are written in a 21st century North American idiom. I also want to be accurate to the place and time. For the new novel, The Cure for What Kills You, I had to do a lot of research about the Victorian London Zoo for what amounts to one brief scene. I now know more than I ever wanted to know about the Bank of England too. :) But the mystery fans are very, very canny readers. They know if you have chops or not.
Do you have more adventures planned for Shamus?
At least three more. The next one will bring Shamus and Jeptha to the World’s Fair – the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – or the White City, as it was called. The original idea was to link infamous Chicago serial killer H. H. Holmes to the Ripper, even though that had been done before, but the DNA test proving Jack the Ripper’s identity put the kibosh on that. My husband was born and raised in Chicago, in the area H. H. Holmes lived and worked in, so it was his suggestion. Now I’m having to regroup the idea around the propaganda war between Edison and Tesla, and the irrational nonsense Edison was bandying about to frighten people away from Tesla’s more visionary ideas. It’s a rich tapestry from which to draw.
Sounds like great fun and full of promise. I'll look forward to that! Tesla is actually very timely these days, so that will make for an interesting story.
You write across several genres and do both fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a favorite genre, style, or subject?
My father was a racist, I’m ashamed to say, so my siblings and I were sent to private schools to evade his noon day devil, namely busing. Due to this fact, I learned to read from McGuffey Readers, which are these 19th and 20th century primers created for elementary school learners. They consist of very serious English language literature – Milton, Byron, and the like. Partly because of that, I think, I evolved a sort of formal voice in a lot of my work, which has especially served me with Shamus, though I have radiated away from that in later stuff. I write what haunts me. I’ll become involved in a group of characters or a theme.
What’s your editing process?
My problem is I overedit. Pace in plotline is everything for me. I have written eight page scenes that I cut out to hasten the pace of the plot. My novels are quick reads because of it. I have learned to relax a little with my hacking and slashing of verbiage. This Shamus is a more robust novel than the first one. I then have a couple of beta readers whose work I greatly respect go over it for me. Beta readers keep writers from looking like silly putzes. Anyone who doesn’t use a beta reader is putting herself at a disadvantage.
I can heartily agree with that. Beta-readers save us from ourselves many times. I find that interesting that you would sacrifice so much for the pacing, but I also understand. Without pacing, even the best writing can flounder.
Do you design your own book covers or do you contract with a designer?
I select the images used, but I have a wonderful designer.
You publish under your own imprint. How did that develop?
I have published professionally in non-fiction and romance genres. I had two novels with an agent that couldn’t be placed for the same reason most aren’t placed these days – there is simply no market unless you have an established name. I had always written romance under pseudonyms. One friend with an established name had no trouble selling her work, but my friend Wendy Rathbone, a very fine writer, couldn’t place her manuscripts either. That kind of thing.
Anyway, I researched and became very wary of a lot of small electronic publishers. Many of the supposed companies are author mills that churn out product the way that some people list merchandise on Ebay. Post 100 listings, sell a certain percentage, turn a profit. When one of my editors at one of these small epublishers didn’t know a fairly obvious literary reference I used, I became even more concerned. Of course there are genuine epublishers with great reputations, but there are too many more that are nothing but scams preying on young authors. What I made on one of my epublished novels in a year amounted to what I have made self-publishing my very first title. Thus, Melody Clark Books was born. I named it that because I have a bad memory. :)
What kinds of books do you like to read?
I love mysteries, true crime, science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. I’m a fairly eclectic reader. My Kindle TBR pile is legendary.
We all know how helpful reviews are, especially for indie writers. Do you reviews influence your own reading choices?
It all depends upon the reviewer. If I read a book a reviewer has recommended and don’t like it, I will seriously kick the tires on any other titles she or he praises. I’m very wary of the big review places. Too much covert marketing goes on there – people propping up their friends and knocking competitors. I generally advise friends to place little stock in reviews of that kind. I rarely believe any Amazon reviews on non-fiction, for instance. I’ll listen to the recommendations of my friends before any review.
What’s next for Melody Clark?
I’m starting work on a series I’m calling CARREFOURS, which may be a YA series. It’s about a system of villages that are self-sustaining, that generate their own power, food and other resources, that then become the target for big corporations trying to turn them back into consumers. My main female hero is a strong and resilient young woman named Shaysan. My hero, Abraham, is from a Kabalist settlement nearby. Fun ensues. :)
I’m also finishing up my sequel to A Room in the House of the Ancestors, which is about being an American in a post-American Exceptionalism era. It was inspired by my own genealogical research. I went in expecting the typical Heniz 57 conglomeration most Americans expect their history to entail. Aside from my Cherokee ancestry, I found something very different. Nearly all my non-NA lines led back to Great Britain. Of course, the melting pot of cultures that comprise Great Britain and Ireland goes without saying, but I had hoped for a recent Russian nobleman or a runaway slave or something exotic. All I saw was a genealogy filled with English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh people –– stereotypically American. My cousins include John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for instance. If there’s such a thing as an Uber-Yank, it’s me.
So I began to think about what that means to be a British-American – and many, many of us are. We don’t even have cultural language for it. Brits don’t recognize us. Even Irish-Americans are later-period immigrant descendants. My Irish family came over here as early immigrants or Scots-Irish slaves. This is something that will become more and more an issue for us as the future unfolds. The ending of the first “A Room in the House of the Ancestors” completely changed on me – the main character, Eddie, was supposed to kill himself, as a kind of tragic commentary of learning the truth inside the lie. His family absolutely refused to let me dispatch him though. I kept coming up with dialogue – other writers will know how it is – where they made the case for Eddie’s survival. So the result has been a somewhat more sentimental universe than I had intended, but I’m having fun with it. Eddie Lives.
What would you like your readers to know about you?
That I write the best book of which I’m capable of at any time. A good book is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone will like the same writers. But I do what I can with what I have.
Where can we find out more about you?
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Melody-Clark/e/B001HPYRB0