It’s been a little while since my last interview, but I’ll see about increasing the rate of occurrence from now on. On this occasion, now that we can take a breath of relief that the Fall volume is going to the printers, I’ve spoken with our Editor-in-Chief of The Watsonian, as well as our other JHWS publications: James O’Leary “Pippin.”
Carla Buttons: Please tell us about yourself and how you became a Watsonian.
Pippin: As my personal biography is a bit less interesting than watching paint dry, I’ll concentrate on how I became a Watsonian. While Sherlock Holmes is, and has been, a cultural icon since first appearing in the Strand Magazine, and I do remember seeing Mr. Magoo’s Hound of the Baskervilles, Daffy Duck in Deduce, You Say on TV, and reading the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries—“America’s Sherlock Holmes in sneaker”—starting in the fourth grade, my first introduction to Holmes and Watson was reading Hound in the sixth grade—then still a part of elementary school. Some of the language was a bit over my head at the time. But in junior high the library had an old library-bound copy of The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
When I got to the coffee—or whatever—stained pages at the finish “The Final Problem”, I could believe that they were the tears of past generations of readers reacting to the death of Holmes. My high school library had a copy of the Baring-Gould Annotated and I discovered the complete Canon and Higher Criticism. I became something of a Sherlockian Fundamentalist. I refused to watch the Rathbone/Bruce movies because they were set in the 1940s, refused to see The Seven Per-Cent Solution because Watson was played by an American, refused to see Young Sherlock Holmes because the movie made them school chums, eschewed Granada series on PBS in the late 80’s after my first viewing because it was “The Greek Interpreter” and while the first half to the teleplay was very close to the story, the second half went very far afield, with action-hero Mycroft clapping a gun to a villain’s head and especially making Sophie Kratides a participant instead of a victim of Latimer and Kemp’s machinations. That was, I felt, such a violation of the character, all for the sake of a semi-Canonical crack from Brett about the untrustworthiness of woman, so that I stayed away from the show for years. I’ve mellowed since then and I now can watch and enjoy the cinematic Holmes and even find worth in some not-so-great offerings.
At the same time, high school coincided with the Great Boom of the ‘70s, so after finishing the Canon for the first time and hungering for more of Holmes’ adventures, I sought out pastiche and Higher Criticism. I read a lot of pastiche for about fifteen or so years and still very much enjoy August Derleth’s Solar Pons series, Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Holes parodies, Nicholas Meyer for capturing the Watson style so seemingly effortlessly, Richard Boyer’s The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Michael Hardwick’s Holmes and Watson “autobiographies” and a few others, but after a while the bad pastiches outnumbered the good and even Doyle on a bad day is better than 85 percent of the pastiches published.
Another factor that lead to a dramatic decrease in pastiche-reading for me is the fact that, no matter how well written or plotted or how fascinatingly they explore the personas of Holmes and Watson, they are not canon. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson exist in only 56 short stories and four novels and nowhere else. One may enjoy the Holmes and Watson of, say, BBC Sherlock or the Mary Russell series or the Granada series but they are simulacra. The Sherlockian world is a wide one and I would never deny anyone from the pleasures they find in any corner of it, and in fact you may see me in some obscure frontier from time to time, but a drawing of Benedict Cumberbatch is no more a picture of Sherlock Holmes that a drawing of William Gillette is, even if it is by Fredric Dorr Steele. There must be a definition of what is Sherlock Holmes and that can only be the 60 stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle.
My first subscription to a scholarly journal was the Baker Street Miscellanea, which in its 76 or so issues is, in my opinion, one of the greatest Sherlockian journals ever to be published. I also subscribed to the Sherlock Holmes Journal and the Baker Street Journal. Over the years, my subscription to the last two have lapsed at times due to financial fluctuations, but I’ve always maintained my interest in the Canon and Higher Criticism.
When I got on the internet in 2011, I encountered an area of Greater Sherlockiana I was only dimly aware of. As I explored and gradually participated in it, I came across a post in Brad Keefauver’s Sherlock Peoria about Don Libey and 221B Cellars and in exploring found out about the John H. Watson Society and decided to join. I only knew Don for a short time through emails but the mark he left on the Sherlockian world cannot be understated.
Earlier this year, you were invited to become our Editor-in-Chief. What were your thoughts at the time?
“My God, can they really be that desperate?”
(Carla Buttons: In response, my dear Pippin, I can only say, “The answer is obvious.”)
How do you feel about the position and its responsibilities now?
While it is work, I have such a great amount of help from such talented Sherlockians that I’m having a blast. I hope that comes through the Fall issue. At the same time the responsibilities are huge and I’m very aware of them and fortunately, I’m not alone. One of those responsibilities is to see the JHWS and The Watsonian survive and thrive after the passing of Buttons. The JHWS is a part of his legacy, but it is more. It is the spirit and camaraderie of diverse individuals coming together emulating the friendship of Holmes and Watson, and their many positive attributes, which are the best of what humanity has to offer, while acknowledging those flaws that make them human and three-dimensional.
What would you like to see in future John H Watson Society publications?
Before the tenth anniversary of the JHWS, I can see us putting out a hardcover volumes of scholarly works on John H. Watson that would rival anything put out by the BSI, SHSL or such past masters of editorship as Edgar W. Smith, Vincent Starrett or Michael Harrison and be of value to many generations of Sherlockians and Watsonians—the talent pool of the society is that great. But really, the immediate goal is to keep the JHWS going and goings strong and to make the Watsonian one of the top magazines of Sherlockiana out today. If the Fall 2015 issue gets even one lapsed Watsonian to renew their membership or one new Watsonian to join us, I would consider the issue a success. Please, we welcome input. It’s your society, let us know what you’d like to see.
What have you learned so far from putting together The Watsonian?
“Education, Gregson, education. Still seeking knowledge at the old university.” Sherlock Holmes has been my hobby for over thirty years and I still feel like a newbie. Not because I don’t know much, but that there is still so much more to learn. Sherlockiana encompasses the whole breathe of human knowledge and experience, science, medicine, history, politics, economics, music, the arts, psychology, forensics—things that are universal and still relevant today—and no matter how long someone been engaged in the hobby, they have something to teach us, something of value to impart, if only they would share it. I feel privileged working with everyone who helped with the magazine, no matter how small a part they think they played; it was in fact enormous.