After the Talk Ended: An Interview with Hannah Lackoff (Part One)

M.H. Norris

It was my pleasure to sit down with one of 18thWall Productions’ favorite authors, the effortlessly amazing Hannah Lackoff. Hannah recently released her first collection After the World Ended and a gothic Sherlock Holmes novella, The Speckled Band.

This week, we released a free ebook collecting some of Hannah’s favorite and award-winning stories from After the World Ended as a teasing enticement of what wonders you’ll find in the full book.

1) Hello, Hannah! Could you tell us something about yourself, and your writing journey thus far?

Hello!  I’ve pretty much always been writing.  When I was a kid, before I could actually write, I would have my parents take down the words and then I would draw the pictures, staple the pages together, and have my own little book.  Later on I had an electric typewriter or would work on the family computer.  I wrote long fantasy adventure novels and never finished anything unless it was for school and I had to.  In high school and college I got really into short stories and playwriting and did manage to find some endings.  Since then I’ve kept plugging away, mostly writing short stories.  I started to publish in various literary magazines on line and in print about seven years ago, and when I few years later I realized I had written enough to make a whole book “After the World Ended” was born.

2) What is your writing process like?

I’m not one of those people who can write all day without stopping.  I can’t write if I don’t have an idea.  I’m not very disciplined–I take a lot of breaks.  I mostly write at home, on my couch, with my dog staring at me and wondering how on earth that computer screen could be more interesting than him.

When I get going on a project I tend to write a lot very quickly.  Then I have to wait until a few hours or days has passed to go back and read it and see if it’s any good.  My favorite part of writing is probably the editing; going back into the story and writing deeper and deeper, adding little (or big) bits here and there to tie everything together! rearranging paragraphs and storylines and whole chapters.  I spend a lot of time reading and rereading my own work.

3) I’d like to start talking to you about your recent Sherlock Holmes novella, The Speckled Band. In that story you tell the secret story behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” What drew you to that story?

One of the things I liked best about this story was the scope of it–and how much was left out.  The original story covers years and years of Julia and Helen’s life in a few paragraphs–a motive and background that obviously built slowly over time–and what I was left with are these fascinating red herrings that ultimately have very little to do with the way the story ends; a childhood spent in India, a gypsy encampment, pet baboons and cheetahs, a friend who already knows Sherlock Holmes.

I’m always very interested in what goes on in the background of the main story, or along the sidelines, and I think you can see that in all of my writing.  In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” I found Sherlock Holmes, and his involvement, to be the least interesting aspect of the story.  His presence was such a small part in Helen Stoner’s life.  I was more interested in what happened before he came on the scene; and there was clearly a lot.

Hannah Lackoff's The Speckled Band

4) You write a Sherlock Holmes mystery that had James Bojaciuk sing its praises. Congratulations on that, by the way. What steps did you take to keep the Master Detective’s world as accurate as possible? If you did research, were any books or documentaries especially useful?

I looked up a little bit of Indian history, a few maps and photos of India and England during this time period, but he most research I did for this story was on snake species.  Did you know there is actually no snake called a “Swamp Adder?”  If you google it, most of the results that come up directly relate to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”  There is a lot of discussion and some mild controversy about what type of snake was present in the original story, and it appears that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle combined the characteristics of several snakes and made up a few of his own.  For instance, snakes are deaf and therefore the swamp adder in the original story could not have heard the whistle Roylott used to summon it, nor is it likely it could have climbed a rope, or drunk from a saucer of milk.

This research informed much of the end of my version.  I toyed with the idea of multiple species of snakes present in the story, but in the end I picked the one that looked the most like my idea of a speckled band.  The idea that Sherlock Holmes appears not to know much about snakes, (Imagine!  Something neither he nor Dr. Watson knows!), and, in fact, really seems quite overconfident about, made it easy for Helen, with the help of her fiancé, who does know a lot about snakes, to take advantage of the situation and use Holmes’ legendary powers of observation to her advantage.  And I have to say, it was pretty fun to let someone pull a fast one on the great Sherlock Holmes.

5) One of the most striking themes in your stories is twins and doubles. This dominates The Speckled Band. If you know, what draws you to this theme?

Twins and doubles are such a great literary device, a great jumping off point.  What can’t you do with them?  I find them very hard to resist.

6) From one mystery writer to another, I have to ask. What was the hardest part of writing The Speckled Band?

I don’t consider mystery writer by any means! but I do love a good one.  I admire the genre greatly and love reading them, and watching them, and I’m pretty good at guessing the endings.   I have tried to write them on occasion, and it just doesn’t work very well for me, and I think it’s because when I write I start with a general idea but really figure out the bulk of the story as I go along.  This is a great strategy for me, but would not work so well in, say, in a murder mystery, if even the author doesn’t know who the killer is.

In the case of The Speckled Band, one of the hardest parts was not figuring out who did it, but why and how.  For example, I knew from my research on snakes that the solution as presented in the original story really isn’t possible due to a snake’s biology, so I had to figure out what really happened: how the snake(s) got there, what kind it was, why so many characters were so mistaken about it, etc etc.

I had to figure out the whys of a lot of other elements as well, and it was really interesting building my version from such a small sketch in the original story.  I made a rule for myself that I had to keep all of the timeline elements of the original story intact, which meant I spent a lot time trying to read between the lines of the story Helen tells to Holmes and Watson in the original.  There are so many pieces she lays out so quickly (why did they leave India, and then London?  How did Mrs. Fairintosh know Sherlock Holmes?  How did Julia and Helen meet their fiances?) that the puzzle became bigger and bigger the more I learned.

Hannah Lackoff's After the World Ended

7) James Bojaciuk is fond of calling your novella a “feminist gothic.” Did you plan on it coming out that way—either as a gothic or a feminist one—or did that happen to happen as you wrote?

I didn’t plan on writing a feminist story–I just wrote one with female characters.  I hadn’t read Sherlock Holmes stories since I was a kid, and so when James asked me to be a part of this project I did not have one in mind.  I had to go back and read through quite a few before I found one that jumped out at me in the way this story did.  And one thing you’ll notice when you binge on Sherlock Holmes is that the female characters, what few there are, are just kind of boring.  They are weak, or underdeveloped, or cliched, or just absent.  The Adventure of the Speckled Band actually has women as characters in their own right.  And even though these women mostly exist to get married and/or murdered, I saw a lot of potential for a story there.

I knew from the start I wanted the story to focus on Helen and Julia’s backstory, and I wanted them to be smart, particularly Helen, who sees herself as an outsider, but is also probably the smartest person in the room in any given situation.  Her journey, of which you see non in the original, is from helpless observer to criminal mastermind, in such a way that you sense she had it in her all along.

The women in my version; Honoria, Julia, Helen, and even their mother are unusual and independent for their time, trapped by class and circumstance more than any beliefs on their part.  All are smart and self serving and use whatever limited means are available to them to get what they want.  It was fun to flesh them out and show their strength and character in a way that would have been invisible to Holmes and Watson.  I didn’t see my version as a feminist piece until James mentioned it–I just saw it as a Sherlock Holmes story with female characters at the forefront.  I think there’s a danger of labeling stories about females as “feminist,” instead of just “stories,” although I suppose if my version had been published during the same time period as the original it would certainly have been considered a feminist narrative.

As for the gothic part–I think it would have been impossible to write this story the way I did and not have it turn out with a gothic feel.  The original story has so many gothic elements to begin with–a creepy old mansion falling apart, foggy nights, dangerous animals, suspicious characters–that I merely took what was already there and amped it up to an even higher degree.

8) We’ll be talking to you some more in the near future. One last question. Given how much readers have loved The Speckled Band, will this be the last time we see you tackle Sherlock Holmes?

In my interview with TVCU someone asked me the same question, and then went on to ask if I had ever considered writing a story about Irene Adler.  Up until that point I had not given it any thought–but who knows!  She’s a fascinating character, and some day I might like to take a closer look.

Be sure to come back on Thursday for part two, as we dive in-depth into Hannah’s collection, After the World Ended. If you’re impatient to start reading now, you can download the free preview, or buy the full collection.

You can find Hannah’s interview with the TVCU right here.