What can possibly be worse than a fictional character of your own creation getting far more fan mail than you do? In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s receiving three envelopes respectively containing a severed finger, a severed hand, and a lock of hair while you’re just trying to get away from it all for some R&R at a spa in Germany. To make matters worse, the celebrated author has been joined by the effusively chatty playwright, Oscar Wilde, who insists that they hop the very next train to Italy to answer an obvious cry for help.
Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders was my first introduction to the work of Gyles Brandreth but I knew by the time I turned the last page that I simply had to discover more about this wickedly witty and whimsical author.
And oh what a jolly discovery that quest turned out to be! From 6,000 miles away, this amazing gentleman graciously accepted my invitation to give readers a glimpse into his world and the passions that fuel his imagination.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: The remarkable volume and diversity of your published works suggests that you came into the world with your fingers aggressively fixed to a keyboard. What’s the real story behind your journey as such a savvy and prolific wordsmith and who were the mentors that helped shape your career choices?
A: You are about right. I certainly knew that I wanted to be a writer from about the age of eight. The poet TS Eliot went to the church where I was a boy server and he encouraged me! How’s that for a distinguished mentor? As a boy I lived in Baker Street (opposite 221B – truly) and I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories. I wrote my first play when I was 12. It was called “A Study in Sherlock”. My wife will tell you there’s not been much professional development with me over the past 50 years. What gripped me then grips me now. (My wife would also tell you that with me there’s not been much development of ANY kind over the past 50 years…)
Q: What authors were you reading at age 10? 20? 30? In retrospect, which ones would you say had the most influence on your own style of creative expression?
A: At 10, Arthur Conan Coyle and Agatha Christie. At 20, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy L. Sayers. At 30, Anthony Trollope and W.M. Thackeray. In any of my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, you will see how all of the above have influenced me.
Q: You’ve also worn the hats of an MP, a Whip and Lord Commissioner of Prime Minister John Major’s Treasury, a popular broadcaster, and a theatrical producer. Aside from the obvious question of, “When did you ever find the time to sleep?” which of your many venues exemplifies the tenets of your best-selling book, The 7 Secrets of Happiness?
A: One of the 7 secrets is to be “a leaf on a tree”. Every leaf is unique and a leaf that’s not attached to a tree feels free and floats about a bit, which is fun, but soon it falls to the ground and dies. Each of us needs to be a leaf on a tree – unique, yes – but also attached to an organism that is larger than we are and alive and growing. Sometimes a writer’s life can be lonely. I felt most like a leaf on a tree when I was a member of Parliament – attached both to the House of Commons (an amazing place) and to my constituency (the beautiful and historic city of Chester).
Q: What did you most want to be when you were a lad growing up?
A: So many things! That was the problem. I wanted to be an actor, a writer, a politician, a TV anchor, a woman. And, because I have been very lucky, I have had a go at all of them.
Q: If your philosophy of life were printed on a tee-shirt, what would it say?
A: “Be happy.” (See No. 7 of The 7 Secrets of Happiness for more details.)
Q: The two of us share a mutual love for the stage as fellow actors, directors and producers. (And kudos to you for wowing audiences with your musical theater portrayal of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.) What would you say are some of the best lessons that treading the boards have taught you about pennng snappy dialogue and compelling characters for your works of fiction?
A: Character is what counts. If the people in your play are real, your audience can believe in them. Character comes first. Then comes story. Then the lines will follow. If your characters are real, what they say will be in character and if the situations are dramatic, they will respond. The great Ibsen would spend a year thinking about his plays before he began to pen them. He would think through the characters first, then place them in their situation, then make them speak. With my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, I have had the advantage that so many of my “characters” are already there. The challenge is to portray them truthfully.
Q: So what was the inspiration for making the gifted playwright the cornerstone sleuth of your new mystery series?
A: Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were childhood heroes of mine. When I came across the fact that they had met – in 1889 – and had become friends (Conan Doyle describes the meeting in his autobiography), it occurred to me at once that here was an opportunity to create a series of Victorian mysteries with Wilde and Conan Doyle as my Holmes and Watson. I have always enjoyed a traditional murder mystery. As Oscar said, “There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.” (Or did I think of that line and give it to Oscar? That’s one of the problems with writing these books. I lose track of where fact ends and fiction begins.)
Q: I simply have to ask this. There’s a point in the book where Conan Doyle is contemplating giving hs fictional detective an older brother named Mycroft who would be patterned after his witty, intrepid and sartorially colorful colleague, Oscar. Is it more than coincidence that actor Stephen Fry not only portrayed Wilde in film but subsequently played Mycroft in the second Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey, Jr.?
A: I think it’s distinctly possible that Conan Doyle had Wilde in mind when he created Mycroft, Sherlock’s even more brilliant brother. (Stephen Fry, incidentally, was the first to bid for the TV rights to my Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries, not with a view to appearing in them but hoping to produce them.)
Q: Two of your acclaimed biographies are about members of the Royal Family (Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage and Charles and Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair). Given your enviable reputation as a skilled interviewer, who in history would you most like to have an extended chat with if time travel were possible?
A: William Shakespeare. It is strange that we know so little about him when he knows so much about us. Apart from the hygiene issues, I think I’d have felt very much at home in Elizabethan England. And I’d love to meet Shakespeare and to hear some of his theatre stories. And where was he during those “lost years”? In France and Italy, I reckon. And which of his plays is his favourite? And does he have another for us hidden in his bottom drawer?
Q: Rumor has it that you’ll need a bigger fireplace mantle and more wall space for all of the awards you’ve won. Which of these many honors gives you the highest sense of personal or professional accomplishment?
A: As European Monopoly Champion I came third in the World Monopoly Championships – and that pleased my parents who met over a Monopoly game in 1937 and eloped a few weeks later.
Q: Which do you feel is more challenging – to write a story for children or a plot geared to adults?
A: it is all story-telling. With kids’ stuff it tends to be shorter, but the need to capture, hold, intrigue and surprise the reader is the same. I have written six murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle as my detectives and the extra challenge there is to bring the period and the people to life as accurately as I can – while still (I hope!) spinning a compelling yarn.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you (besides behind a descendant of the last man beheaded in England for treason)?
A: That I was taught to play Scrabble by a friend of Oscar Wilde. He was 100 at the time and I was 15. He won all our games. I told him he cheated because he used obsolete words. He told me they’d been current when he first learnt them.
Q: Along with your daughter and grandson, you’ve authored a collection of family games called The Lost Art of Having Fun. Why is it, do you suppose, that we’ve misplaced the unapologetic joy of play and being silly? Is technology to blame or is it something more than that? Inquiring minds want to know.
A: Yes, our book is aimed at providing analog fun for the digital age. Research suggests that kids in the UK are now spending up to 7 hours a day in front of a screen. This is terrifying. It’s got to stop. We’ve got to start looking at one another again: we’ve got to start talking to one another again. Playing games is a good way to get cross-generational communication going. The idea of playing a game alarms a lot of people – until they give it a go. Fun is fun.
Q: Speaking of fun, you’ve got a delightful connection to teddy bears. Tell us about it.
A: My wife and I founded a Teddy Bear Museum about thirty years ago. Jim Henson gave us the original Fozzie Bear and he stills live at our museum. I was a friend of A A Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, so I have shaken the hand that held the paw of Winnie the Pooh!
Q: What’s your best advice to today’s aspiring writers?
A: Mark Twain said the secret of writing a book is application – “applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”. I can’t do better than that. My other rule is: don’t talk about it, do it. Just get to that desk and stay there until today’s quota (1,000 words) is done.
Q: What style works best for you when developing a new book – to do all of the requisite research before you ever start writing or do you prefer to look things up as you go along?
A: With non-fiction you need to do your research before you start. With a novel – like my Victorian Oscar Wilde murder mysteries – you need the essence of the plot, but as you proceed you will find that events overtake you and the characters can take you to places you didn’t expect to go … With my Oscar Wilde series I have been meticulous with research, so that all that you learn about Wilde and Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, for example, will be true. With a history-mystery the reader needs to feel that the history is correct. For me, it’s been a joy to spend the first ten years of the twenty-first century living in the last ten years of the nineteenth.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I am touring a show called “Looking for happiness”. It’s a two-hour stand-up comedy show that began life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Now there’s a book to go with it, The 7 Secrets of Happiness that’s being published in the US, Russia, China and elsewhere. I am going to assorted launches: Moscow in August, for example. Because it is raining non-stop in England right now, next January and February I want to be performing my “Looking for happiness” show in Florida in January and New Zealand in February. Can you fix that for me? (Gyles: You should add Pasadena, California to your tour list. Not only is it a beautiful city with much to commend it but I’ll throw in the added bonus of taking you to lunch as well.)
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: if you have time dip into my website, www.gylesbrandreth.net, and find out a bit more about me – and what else I do. The pictures of me as Lady Bracknell with Oscar Wilde’s grandson are fun. And if you want to see a video of me talking about happiness try the Open Road Media website. And if you fancy a short tour of Oscar Wilde’s London, take a look at www.oscarwildemurdermysteries.com