Emma Jane Holloway: "Such Satisfying Villains."

Emma Jane Holloway: "Such Satisfying Villains."

A Study in Ashes book coverEmma Jane Holloway, author of the steampunk Sherlock Holmes-inspired A Study in Ashes, shares her thoughts on the famous detective, the tale of her first supernatural experience, and why she loves writing about Victorian England.


Zola: Evelina Cooper, the protagonist of The Baskerville Affair series, is the niece of Sherlock Holmes. Were you always a Sherlock Holmes fan?

Emma Jane Holloway: I’ve been a fan of the Holmes stories since I was very young. I’ve read the tales many times over the years, but I think I was introduced first to the old Basil Rathbone radio serials. My parents would have the radio on at dinnertime and one summer the station ran classic episodes. I was hooked!

Zola: Do you have a favorite Sherlock mystery?

EJH: I think it must be ‘The Speckled Band.’ It’s a locked-room mystery and has always caught my imagination. It really shows Conan Doyle’s mastery of invoking a sense of unknown danger.

Zola: What do you think it is about Sherlock Holmes that keeps him so relevant in pop culture after over 100 years?

EJH: We love Sherlock because he’s flawed and mysterious and powerful. He restores order and logic, and yet is himself elusive. We know just enough about him to intrigue us, but not one whit more than that. He fits our modern-day cult of the rogue and brooding individual perfectly.

Zola: Do you have a favorite adaptation?

EJH: Probably the Jeremy Brett version from BBC, because he captures the classic Holmes in a way no other actor has. Of the current crop, the Benedict Cumberbatch version is the best written and acted, although I like them all.

Zola: The Baskerville Affair series exists in a version of Industrial Revolution England where the power of the monarchy has been stripped and an industrial group runs the country as opposed to Queen Victoria. How did you decide which parts of history to keep and which to change?

EJH: Writing alternate history is, I’m sure, different for each author, but I approached this from two angles.

One, I look for the tension points in history. Ownership of natural resources and the evolution of new sources of industrial power were—and still are—huge issues. I invented an organized council of industrial magnates who hold the government hostage because they have all the monopolies on utilities. However, I’m not introducing an idea that wasn’t around at the time. Queen Victoria represented the old aristocracy. Industrialists were the new world order. They just got a stranglehold on society a bit sooner in my version of events.

The other angle is, of course, entertainment value. The antics of the steam barons are the essence of my steampunk universe and they make such satisfying villains.

Zola: Evelina has the power to control machines through magic. If you lived in this universe, what power would you want?

EJH: In my universe, magic powers get you burned at the stake, so one should choose wisely. Nevertheless, I had great fun writing the pirates. I think I’d like an air deva and my own flying ship!

Zola: Do you have interest in writing about other historical eras or do you feel there is more to explore in the Victorian era?

EJH: The Victorian era has unlimited potential, but I have written in earlier periods as well. The French Revolution fascinates me, as do medieval times.

Zola: Will be seeing more of Evelina and The Baskerville Affair universe?

EJH: I hope so! I’ve certainly got some fun ideas.

Zola: You have a job in finance. That seems worlds away from your fantasy writing. Do you feel the two jobs intersect at all?

EJH: Writing is a business, so understanding a bit about contracts and accounting is helpful. The flip side of it is that if I get bored in a meeting, I can imagine this or that person as an orc or dark sorcerer. There is no shortage of evil minion potential once I’ve been locked in a stuffy room for over an hour.

Zola: Ghosts are mentioned in the bio section of your website. Have you had much experience with them?

EJH: There are stories on both sides of my family of ghost sightings and phenomena like moving objects. My favorite experience (if it could be called that!) happened when I was working in an old nineteenth-century hotel that had been converted to offices. All the records were stored in this ancient basement that half the staff refused to enter. Being young and invincible, one day I agreed to go dig out some old files. To put it nicely, it was pretty atmospheric down there. The space led away into these old access tunnels under the streets that were gated off and reported to house rats.

Anyway, there I was rummaging in boxes when I felt that prickly feeling of being watched. My first thought was of the rats, but it kept getting worse. I worked faster. It got worse. I looked over my shoulder and thought I saw something in the tunnels, but decided I was winding myself up because I hadn’t heard anyone moving but me. And then whatever it was went right behind me and down another tunnel. It was fast and freaking, freezing cold. And that was it—no slime, no messages from the beyond. Just cold and shadows. Nevertheless, I left, um, hastily.

When I look back, I think I was just in its way. I’ve never actually felt threatened by the supernatural, but that time I was badly startled.

Zola: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?

EJH: I live on Vancouver Island, which has some amazing independent bookstores—both new and antiquarian. In Victoria, where I live, there are several worthy candidates, but my personal favorite is Munro’s Books. They’ve always been hugely supportive of my writing career and have an absolutely fabulous SF/F department. Best of all, they have staff who remember what I like and can give me recommendations I trust. Many of my ‘must read’ authors were introduced to me there.

The bookstore is worth visiting just for the location—they’re near the inner harbor in a restored 1909 landmark building that was once a bank. The interior is beautiful and they also have a ghost!

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.