|Karen Wilson at BSI Weekend's Gaslight Gala; photo by Kristen Pedersen Prepolec|
Karen Wilson will talk about “Remarkable, but Eccentric: Sherlock Holmes, Violinist” at the Holmes, Doyle,& Friends conference in Dayton, OH, on March 28, with an opening reception on March 27. She is herself remarkable as you will learn from this interview.
How and when did you first meet Sherlock Holmes?
It was the summer after eighth grade – so, July of 1975 – and my 14-year-old self happened upon an intriguing display at the local Waldenbooks (remember them?). It was a whole table full of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, newly out in paperback and sporting the Best Tagline Ever: “Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud, together again for the first time!” Now, I’d have described myself as pretty well-read for a teenager, but the fact was that I hadn’t read any Holmes at all, and I was confused. How could Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud …? That is, wasn’t Freud a real person and Holmes a …? Curious, I dug into my babysitting money, acquired a copy, and got only two pages into Watson’s “Introductory” before realizing that I was reading a sequel of some sort. Clearly, I needed to get my hands on some of the books mentioned in Meyer’s footnotes – A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and so on – before attempting this “lost Watsonian manuscript.”
So I began to read the Canon, more avidly with each installment, and then came a happy coincidence. That same summer, 20th Century Fox’s 1939 The Hound of the Baskervilles, after decades in legal limbo over the rights, was making the rounds on the big screen. By the time the ad for the Rathbone-Bruce film showed up in the paper in my town (luridly alluding to the movie’s single line regarding Holmes’s drug usage), I was more than primed to see it. Rathbone’s interpretation helped lodge Sherlock Holmes even more firmly in my imagination, and, well, he’s still there.
How and when did you become a Sherlockian?
I really count that summer as the beginning of it. All the hoopla (did I just write “hoopla”?) surrounding the still-best-selling Seven-Per-Cent and that Hound roadshow meant that the Features sections of newspapers and magazines were full of articles not only about the Great Detective, but about the wider Sherlockian phenomenon, as well. Before I’d even finished my first read-through of the Canon, I’d learned about the Game and some of its most famous founding players, and also about the BSI and some of its scions. The impression I got, however, was that there was no point in aspiring to join one of those clubs if you had my combination of chromosomes, so I just resolved to do the thing on my own. There followed years of indiscriminately buying pastiches (remember when you thought you could collect them all?), staying up till all hours whenever a Holmes flick was scheduled on a local TV station, gleefully ordering esoterica from Magico (which I found via an ad in the back of some one-off “Sherlock Holmes” magazine), and always being on the lookout for classics by Baring-Gould, Starrett, and others in secondhand bookshops.
Fast-forward to the end of the millennium: with home Internet access came “The Hounds of the Internet” and my discovery that the Sherlockian world had moved on considerably since I first learned about it in the ‘70s. Maybe when my kids are older, I thought, I’ll find myself a group … and then, eight years ago, I decided it was time.
You are a church musician, a lovely singer, and a composer of extremely moving or extremely funny Sherlockian lyrics, as fits the occasion. How do music and Holmes come together for you?
And you, sir, are my new best friend! Seriously, thanks for your kind words. I come from a very musical family, and there’s really no context in which my siblings and I weren’t always making music. It has been my natural impulse in every setting I’ve been a part of: I was the person among my set of college friends who wrote the parody songs, and, later, the one at the office who composed the “Night Before Christmas” pastiche for the annual Christmas party. Music and Holmes come together for me because music and everything come together for me, so I count it a lucky thing that there was already a tradition of Sherlockian music-making that I could fit myself into.
What instruments do you play, and when?
I suppose my main instrument is piano, which I’ve played since third grade (at this point, I might as well say “all my life”). I didn’t pursue music as a primary profession, but between church and the various schools where I have taught philosophy over the decades, I have never lacked opportunities to accompany choirs, all types of soloists, and group singing. After a brief attempt at organ lessons in my thirties (when I was starting my family and could never find time to practice), I resumed in middle age and now feel confident enough to call myself an organist, as well. (Thankfully, the church that employs me agrees.)
But my favorite instrument is voice, and my favorite way to use it is in a chorus. Indeed, the majority of my most satisfying musical experiences have been as a tiny cog in a big old classical choir, singing some old warhorse of a composition with an orchestra sawing away in front of us. (Yes, that was three metaphors, but I’m not sure which ones to drop.)
What Sherlockian groups do you belong to?
Watson’s Tin Box of Ellicott City, MD is my original home scion, and I have served both as Gasogene (XXV) and Tantalus there. I’m also invested in ASH as “A Faithful Scotchwoman” and in the Sherlockians of Baltimore (SOBs) as “Rosa Ponselle.” In addition, I’m a charter member of the Diogenes Club of Washington, D.C., and, most recently, I’ve been named a Master Copper Beechsmith in the Sons of the Copper Beeches and Napoleon No. 270 in the Six Napoleons of Baltimore. That’s a lot of good times!
For the past few years you have been the coordinator of “A Scintillation of Scions” in Maryland, which was foundational to my own re-entrance into the Sherlockian community. What has that been like for you?
A Scintillation of Scions, for those who aren’t aware, is an annual symposium held near Baltimore, MD on the second Saturday of June. Now in its thirteenth year, SoS features a roster of speakers drawn from both the local and wider Sherlockian communities, who address a variety of topics related to Holmes and/or Doyle, Victoriana, media, and fandom. There’s humor, scholarship (both old-school and new), and plenty of camaraderie! We also feature vendors, a bag raffle, a Friday-night cocktail party, and, beginning last year, the Silver Blaze (Southern Division) race at Laurel Park on the Sunday after. If anyone reading this has never attended, I hope you’ll visit http://www.scintillation.org/ to learn more about the event, which will be held June 12-14, 2020.
Now, as to what it’s been like for me to be the co-ordinator, I’ll confess that it was a little intimidating to take over a successful event from its founder, but so far I’ve had a great time soliciting speakers and planning programs. This year will be my third at the helm, and if I’m honest, I still haven’t drifted far from Jacquelynn Morris’ template (if it ain’t broke …). That said, an increasing challenge is presented by the sheer number of other annual and bi-annual (etc.) symposia that exist nowadays, compared to when SoS began. We’re not in competition, of course (I’ll be attending some of those other conferences this year), but the existence of alternatives pushes all of us both to think hard about what our own gathering’s particular character and purpose ought to be, and to work to make it as great a time as possible.
What’s your favorite Sherlockian event other than A Scintillation of Scions?
I look forward to BSI Weekend all year. I’m one of those people who signs up for every “open to all” event on Scott Monty’s list, so it’s a busy, breathless time … but always such a treat!
What has it meant to you to be part of the far-flung Sherlockian community?
It’s meant a lot. I was actually navigating a difficult personal crisis when I first decided to dip a toe into the waters of Sherlockian groups, and I credit the hobby with helping me to get through that hard time. Almost immediately, I was welcomed and encouraged by an eclectic group of clever, talented people – many of whom I now call friends – who seemed genuinely to value my contribution to the fun. It would be churlish to ask much more of a leisure activity than that, and I’m duly grateful.
What question haven’t I asked you that I should?
Let’s see… how about, “Do you have any grandchildren you’d like to brag about?”
Why, yes, Dan; yes, I do! Milo, who’s nine months old as I type this answer, is the light of his old grandmother’s life. More perfect than any child has the right to be, he’ll be receiving his Sherlockian indoctrination as soon as he can say “Baskerville.”
You can still register here to take part in Holmes, Doyle, & Friends on March 28, with an opening reception on March 27.